As an extra feature of the Limited Edition of The Pearliad, I was asked to write an essay explaining some of the influences and sources of the Arca Trilogy.
Read below for a slightly abridged version of that essay. Citations have been removed because of the web format -
The ‘Anxiety of Influence’
an essay by Rosie Pugh
There are pressures on the author of the twenty first century. In a digital age in which a plethora of texts can be accessed so easily by so many, and in a ‘lawsuit’ culture so strict on copywriting, it is intimidating to put your works out into the wider world for scrutiny. In his 1973 essay ‘The Anxiety of Influence’, Harold Bloom put forward the aggressive notion that each new author is in violent opposition with the authors of the past, who are obligated to "wrestle with their strong precursors, even to the death". He says that: "every major aesthetic consciousness seems peculiarly more gifted at denying obligation as the hungry generations go on treading each other down". At one stage in the writing of my novel, The Pearliad, I started to feel this ‘anxiety of influence’; at every turn I was faced with the realisation that I was not being original. These ideas, these motifs, this plot line, this characterisation could be shaved off and found in numerous other texts.
However, our culture’s idea of originality is relatively new in terms of literary history; the novel as a genre – the word ‘novel’ itself emphasising that the story is ‘new’, ‘innovative’ – did not develop until the eighteenth century. Before that, especially in the Middle Ages, authors were happy to find inspiration from their predecessors without any sense of shame or plagiarism. They translated, adapted, parodied, extended and put their own spin on stories that had come before them, and there was no shame in that. It was, more often than not, an indicator that they had enjoyed, appreciated and been inspired by that text as a reader. I am not suggesting that we should go back to a time in which authors were allowed to plagiarise each other’s texts, but I appreciate the way in which stories were evaluated not predominantly on their originality, but also on the author’s treatment of their sources and the effect this has on the narrative. It saddens me that writers such as J. K. Rowling and Suzanne Collins are immediately denied the title of ‘real author’ because their ideas are not ‘original’ enough; they have ‘stolen’ ideas from classical mythology, folk tales and even other contemporary novels. A brief google search of the unoriginality of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games will turn up dozens of supposed sources of and analogues to these novels. I have come to the same conclusion as countless people before me: nothing is ever truly original. As Roland Barthes said, "the text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture"; he labels the author as a ‘scriptor’, a vessel for the writings of those who have come before them.
After some thought about my own ‘anxiety of influence’, I formulated a personal opinion on the matter. Being an author is not about having an original idea; it is about blending together the essence of things that excite you, moments in literature or in real life, and re-
Saturday, 21st of August, 2010. Seventeen year old me is at work, manning the till of an independent book shop in Malvern, Worcestershire. It is very quiet; I am allowed to bring my own book to read when there are no customers, and I am currently making my way through Ovid’s Metamorphoses. No one has bought a book for a good hour and a half – I have noticed a worrying decline in customers and sales since I started working there a year and a half before. (The year after I left to go to University and the bookshop didn’t rehire for my position. A few months later it closed down, and now there is a fireplace showroom where it used to be. But that is a different issue.) I have reached the story of Meleäger and the Caledonian Boar in book 8, and one passage stands out for me:
“At the time when Althaea was giving birth to her son Meleäger,
a fragment of wood had been cast in the fire on the hearth by the Three Fates.
Spinning with finger and thumb at destiny's threads, the Sisters
uttered these words: "We assign the same life-
log as we do this new-
and the goddesses made their departure. At once the mother extracted
the burning branch from the flames and doused it in running water.
For years that log had been hidden away in the depths of an inner
His mother now brought it out. She ordered her servants to lay
some pinewood and kindling, and then she applied the fatal taper.
[later in the story] ... with trembling hand she tossed the death brand into the blaze.
The log itself gave a moan of pain, or so it appeared,
when the fire reluctantly caught at the wood and it burst into flames.
Meleäger, away from the house, knew nothing of this, but the flames
began to burn at him too, he could feel his vitals scorching
with hidden fire.”
I get the feeling I experience when I know that the cogs are whirring in my head, and that I will be writing soon; a mixture of excitement, adrenaline, and an overwhelming need for a pen and a piece of paper.
If, in the myth, one man’s life could be entirely dependent on the safekeeping of a wooden log, could I create a world in which every person’s life is tied to an object, prescribed by the Fates? What kind of problems would that throw up? Someone could accidently destroy another person’s object unthinkingly, or protect their own object, as Althaea did for her son, in order to prevent their death. What ethical problems could arise from this? In the story, Althaea soliloquises for over twenty lines about whether she can bring herself to destroy Meleäger; she withdraws her hand four times from the flames, agonising over her allegiance to her brothers but also to her son: “A conflict raged between mother and sister; the two names pulled at a single heart in a tug of war”. Would it be easier to kill someone if you did not have to physically harm their body, just their object? Would this make people more ruthless, more capable of terrible things? Or would a deeply engrained societal rule, preventing the holding and destruction of another person’s object, make murder less frequent than in our world? There can be no crimes of passion if you have to specifically seek out a person’s unknown object before you can kill them. And there can be no war as we know it when it is impossible for people to die from bodily wounds on the battlefield.
This was a world that excited me, a world with infinite possibilities. When I got home from work, I hashed out a rough outline of the rules of my arcae, and something became immediately apparent: this was a whole parallel universe I was constructing. The names of the books came easily to me – they would be a modern equivalent of an epic adventure, a contemporary Aeneid. The Pearliad, like the Iliad, is the story of a pearl; The Buttonica, akin to the Telemachia, is the story of a button; and The Ribbonid, like the Aeneid, is the story of a ribbon. I chose to start each book with an invocation to the Muse; not only does this allow the reader a brief glimpse of a viewpoint other than Effie’s, but it pays homage to the great classical epics of Homer and Virgil that have had such a profound influence on me. In this world I was creating, Latin would be the predominant language on the planet, and the names of the terms I invented are all from Latin. For example, ‘arca’ has a number of meanings, ranging from the positive ‘chest’ and ‘strongbox’ to the negative ‘cage’ and ‘coffin’. ‘Agitatrex’ is the male form of ‘agitatrix’, or ‘that causes movement (of soul)’. And ‘Arcupitor’ means the seeker (‘cupitor’) of arcae.
The Roman creation myth, found in book 1 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, became a basis for the origins of my world, and it seemed a logical conclusion to me that the Roman Empire would not have fallen in the fifth century AD. The existence of arcae meant that if a person possesses their own arca and prevents it from ever being destroyed, they hold supreme power in a way that a human could never achieve in our world. If Trajan had possessed his arca during the peak of the empire at the turn of the second century, would the cracks in the regime have ever shown through? Could this established and venerated civilisation have gone on to conquer most of the rest of the planet? With the undoubted existence of arcae, would Christianity have gained the popularity it has in our world, or would paganism have remained?
I knew instinctively what I was going to write about: a teenage girl, looking in from a perspective outside the Roman Empire, who is drawn against her will into the ethical and political problems caused by the existence of arcae. I wanted her to be from the UK, or Britannia, as I would call it, but from an isolated rural community. Imagine my disbelief when I did some research and discovered that the place in my imagination actually existed: St Kilda, ‘the remotest part of the British Isles, [which] lies 41 miles (66 kilometres) west of Benbecula in Scotland's Outer Hebrides’. The history of the island is fascinating; it had been sparsely populated since prehistoric times, but a small community of around 180 people were recorded there in 1697. Many of the details of the Indigo Isles – including the layout of the village, the weekly Gathering, the marriage ritual – are based on this historical community. They lived a secluded life from the rest of the world until the mid-
Other aspects of the book seemed to just fall into place with historical fact in the same way, which made writing it an absolute dream. I had come up with the idea for Petronians, descendants of the first race of arca-
Therefore, I am no longer worried that I have borrowed from myth, from history, from generic plot lines; I am someone who has blended together the essence of things that excite me, moments in literature and in real life, and re-