What Constitutes “Derivative”? Part 2


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I find this “what constitutes derivative” topic interesting because the accusation that a work is derivative seems to be leveled at fantasy more than at stories in other genres. When was the last time, for instance, that you heard someone criticize a romance for being derivative? Never mind that category romances, for years, followed a strict structure that was taught as necessary for the success of a novel.

I suppose, rather than “derivative” these works are considered formulaic, but didn’t they derive from one original work that contained the elements that have since become requisite to romance?

Still, I find it odd that fantasy similarly can’t fall into an easy formula and be acceptable, despite Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. Rather, fantasy that cuts too close to an established work is labeled derivative, and this accusation is the kiss of death. It’s a wonder that Lord of the Rings became so successful once the derivative accusation began to swirl around Tolkien.

What exactly was it that brought the criticism, since it wasn’t setting, imaginative creatures, plot points, people groups, poetry, names, prose or style?

I suggest, in the case of Lord of the Rings, critics saw similarities with the central premise in Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen:

The plot revolves around a magic ring that grants the power to rule the world
Wikipedia

Add to this that the ring was cursed, enslaving whoever would possess it, and you have strikingly similar central plot points. Discussion swirls around the idea that the similarities exist because Tolkien and Wagner drew from the same influences. Yet some scholars cling to the belief that Tolkien knowingly “borrowed” Wagner’s core concept.

Interestingly, some fantasy is intentionally derivative. I think of Bryan Davis’s Raising Dragons and Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven Trilogy. Both derive intentionally from the legend of King Arthur. However, both, in unique ways, twist the familiar story in such a way that it becomes unique.

The accusation of “derivative” is not used in such instances. Instead, it seems to be reserved for works that either model themselves after another work (which is what Christopher Paolini seems to be accused of) or those that utilize someone else’s unique development (science fiction that employs Star Trek technology and lingo, for instance).

In some cases, it seems as if critics are simply weary of stories with tropes such as good versus evil, at least ones that represent good as good and evil as evil. Normally bad vampires, as good seem to be all the rage, but then the Twilight books are hardly high fantasy.

I guess my point is this: the accusation of “derivative” has been around since Tolkien first made fantasy literature a thing of its own. Does the mere suggestion that a story is similar to some other source mean it does not have merit? I think millions of Lord of the Ring readers would say otherwise.

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