Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Stone Table (unauthorized Narnia)

So, thanks to Gregory R. and Richard W. for the news about a new, unauthorized, unpublished, and perhaps unpublishable Narnia book: THE STONE TABLE. Written by Francis Spufford, whose work I don't know but is apparently well thought of by those who do, it's set between the events of THE MAGICIAN'S NEPHEW and THE LION, THE WITCH, & THE WARDROBE.

Spufford claims to have written it without regard to publishability, then self-published an edition of seventy-five copies, which he gave away to friends, and also allowed friends to post the first two chapters online (which I have not seen). This seems to be flirting with the line between fanfiction and under-the-radar semi-publication, a kind of side-stepping presumably intended to prevent the hammer that smiteth coming down from the Lewis Estate.

For those who have been around a while, this is reminiscent of how the great Lindskoog-Hooper feud began: a nun wrote an eighth Narnia book and asked Lindskoog's help in getting permission to publish from the Lewis estate. The estate, predictably, said no. Whereupon Lindskoog started an investigation that evolved into a vendetta against Hooper, the man acting as the estate's literary advisor, who'd said no. Let's hope things don't get so badly out of hand this time around.

Here's how Spufford justifies the project:

“If you’re going to play with someone else’s toys, then you need to be very clear that they are someone else’s toys. You need to be clear that you’re not profiting by it, that it’s a homage that doesn’t tread on the toes of the real books.”

For more of a discussion of the issues involved, see

My own position is that

(a) Using another author's setting and characters puts the writer doing so in an equivocal position. The results can be interesting and occasionally amusing, but it's not in itself a praiseworthy act or even a neutral one. When kept to the level of fanfic, that self-limiter obviates most of these objections. It's not surprising that the best such efforts have a strong degree of parody in them.

(b) Eight Narnia books is about seven too many.*

--John R.
current reading: THURBER ON CRIME --not as good as WODEHOUSE ON CRIME but amusing.

*for those concerned that an eighth book wd break the pattern some believe is encoded within the seven-book cycle, this is not in itself a problem for those of us unconvinced that any such pattern exists.


David Bratman said...

There's two issues in regard to copyright. One is the length of copyright term, which is the main issue that Adam Roberts is discussing in the second Guardian article, and I'd agree that it's gotten too long.

But the second issue is the degree of protection that copyright affords to works while they're still under it, and that may be too weak. The rule on fan fiction (relating to works still under copyright) is supposed to be: you can do anything you want privately for your own amusement, but - unless it's explicitly a parody - you can't publish it without permission of the owner of the original rights.

Unfortunately, putting work on the public web is publishing it. But people don't seem to realize that.

Clive Shergold said...

Tolkien (Letters 131 To Milton Waldman, estimated date late 1951) once had an ambition of creating a 'body of more or less connected legend... I would draw some of the great tales in fullness, and leave many only placed in the scheme, and sketched. The cycles should be linked to a majestic whole, and yet leave scope for other minds and hands, wielding paint and music and drama. Absurd.'
This would explicitly permit others - Alan Lee, Donald Swann and Peter Jackson for example - to elaborate in other forms of art the tales that Tolkien started. It implicitly allows writers to fill in and extend the scheme with further stories.
Would such a commitment put the people, places and plots of the Legendarium (though not Tolkien's own writings) into the public domain?
I note that Tolkien does not make a concrete commitment, and indeed labels the ambition 'absurd'. Possibly his involvement with publishers has made him better aware of the sticky depths of copyright law, even though the episode with Ace was a decade in the future.

David Bratman said...

Any writer is free to allow fan-fiction to proceed unmolested if that's what they want to do, and some authors do take that position. It's their choice.

Whether it was Tolkien's, however, is more doubtful. Please note several things about that statement in the Waldman letter:

1) This shared universe was Tolkien's former ambition. He now considers it "absurd".

2) He specifies that the other creators would wield "paint and music and drama," that is the non-literary arts. (On Fairy-stories makes clear that Tolkien considers drama a separate art from literature.) He is not expecting new stories in literary form.

3) This letter was written before Tolkien had a knock on the head from reality in the form of the first proposals for dramatization of The Lord of the Rings (the first BBC version, and the Zimmerman script). After that he really realized what opening up his work to dramatists would actually mean, and took a far more protective view of his rights as an author; see, for instance, the 2nd edition preface to the book.