On Shoulders

On a positive note, I got to spend a considerable portion of last month filling in some geek knowledge gaps. I’ve finally tried some games that used to be cool back in my uni and school days. More specifically, the hours I’ve logged in Hearthstone this May are ungodly. And I’ve just started Skyrim.

Playing Skyrim after having played The Witcher 3* feels kinda weird, in a good way. I could get mad at Skyrim for its shortcomings, like the wayyy less intuitive inventory, or at The Witcher, for so obviously ‘stealing’ so many concepts I have been lead to wrongfully attribute to it. Down to the freaking Standing Stones!

Or I could choose to admire and enjoy them both in context. Which I do. In fact, seeing the evolution of certain features and ideas lends a whole other layer to the experience of playing Skyrim. I love when I recognize a concept. I think there’s beauty in understanding where things come from, how one cultural artifact builds on another.

And I don’t see that as ‘stealing’ either; I see it as carrying on the torch. Taking inspiration. Making sure your heroes leave a legacy in the form of your work.

Which is a fairly common perspective, I’d assume? I’ve never really seen anyone get mad at a great and successful video game for borrowing from a previous, also great and successful video game. Then again, I’m by no means an expert on video game culture.

Know what else I’m not an expert on? Fantasy novels. But when it comes to those, I’ve heard way more people talking negatively about writers being influenced by past works. I’ve even been part of these conversations. Like, actual, real-life people that I personally know have sat in actual, real-life parks and expressed their opinions on this to me. It’s a thing, believe me.

The thing is, I don’t get why it’s a thing. No, that’s a lie; I do have some suspicion as to why. I don’t think it should be a thing. Is more like it.

Look. As a young writer,** when I’m told that Rothfuss’s magic in the Kingkiller Chronicles may be somewhat similar to something from LeGuin’s Earthsea, or when I read about the excellent swordsman Drizzt Do’Urden talking in Drow sign language while donning a fey mantle, shortly after learning about the Adem, I’m not mad. I’m relieved.

Cause with most stuff I read, I’m like, alright, I could compete with that. But the really good stuff seems… out of reach. And I’m not talking style here so much as ideas, concepts, rich worldbuilding. Some of these inventions seem impossibly creative – until you see what inspired them, and you begin to understand where the ideas came from.

And I don’t think that cheapens them. Yes, I’ve seen Paprika. I still love Inception. If anything, I love it more, for recognizing an existing potential, taking the best parts of it, and – as opposed to heartlessly copying or brainlessly remixing them – carefully growing them into something new. Alongside a hundred parts from a hundred other sources, and a thousand new ideas, and then executing all of it expertly.

Because in truth, originality is just a matter of perspective. That sounds good. Let’s make that a new principle:

Originality is a matter of perspective.

Think about it: Would an avid reader that had read all the material that inspired Rothfuss*** growing up and growing as a writer have found his work as original as, say, someone who’s barely read any fantasy before? Again, I’m not talking about being impressed by technique. I’m talking about being struck by ideas. Like, “Whoa, how could any one person ever come up with that much shit?!?”

And now think about this; is the person who’s not a fantasy buff wrong about how original Patrick Rothfuss’s shit is? Was 16-year-old me wrong for losing my feces at seeing my first Tarantino movie, amazed that something so different from anything I’d ever seen on TV could exist, not knowing that man was the king of references?

You may argue that I’m confusing originality with novelty here. To which I say, yeah, maybe, whatever. Originality is the same as novelty to those to whom the origin is novel.

God, I’m quotable today. The thing is, there’s timeless works, and there’s the stuff in between. Time erodes all the small pebbles and leaves us with but the waystones. Like this metaphor, which isn’t half as memorable as my previous bonmots or the sick slogans I’m about to drop, parts of our way are washed away and forgotten.****

That’s why we say that someone’s “standing on the shoulders of giants”, when really, they’re standing on tons of tiny shoulders. It’s shoulders all the way down, man.

Which leads me to my suspicion as to why we might sometimes be so quick to be turned off by the unveiling of said small shoulders (or, as I’ll call it from now on, the “scapular scare”). We just love ’em big and unattainable. Religion over evolution, talent over practice. It’s so comfortable to rest our heads on those giant shoulders, making excuses that us tiny humans could never shoulder quite as much.

Well, here’s a bonus thought; you know that avid reader I talked about before, that has read everything Rothfuss has ever read? He’s not purely hypothetical. We know there’s at least one actual, real-life specimen, and his name is Patrick. And I bet he’s not super impressed. I bet he doesn’t feel like a giant. I’d almost go so far as to bet money on him being a human, who feels like shit some days, and, hopefully, fucking great on others.

This post is not about Patrick Rothfuss, I swear. I’m honestly just trying to make a point about inspiration and originality, and I can’t for the life of me think of another name. Point is, don’t tell me George R. R. Martin is lame because J. R. R. Tolkien and Dungeons & Dragons had wights before. There you go. More names. Bram Stoker’s Dracula wasn’t the first vampire story. And that’s okay. Everything’s okay! Calm down!


* Probably about half of it, twice. My sis accidentally overwrote my savegame when I was around Level 30. I’m almost there again, but the loss will forever weigh on my soul.

** I’m 25 for one more day. I am a young writer. The last contest I entered says I still qualify. Date of the postage stamp. I will not let this be taken from me!

*** Sorry, Pat. I can’t think of another example right now, and the post is more than halfway through anyway. You’re it now.

**** Or like songs that get covered but then a few decades later everyone thinks the cover is the original. Or like the fact that “Bella Ciao” was not originally a fucking dance hit. Partisan, party song, whatever, right?

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