By Kaitlyn Grube
It’s such a shame that bards are extinct.
I first had that thought sitting in my British Literature class while studying Beowulf of all things. It sparked a thread of sorrow in my chest that hasn’t gone away. I’m sure my friends are tired of me going on this same rant every time I see them, so I’m going to bombard you–and all our other lovely readers–instead.
What do I mean by the “bardic profession” exactly? Perhaps the easiest archetype to recognize is the Dungeons and Dragons class. Word-weaving, swashbuckling, charisma-oozing bards. Most recognized by their primary spell, Vicious Mockery, where the player has free reign to bombard their poor DM (Dungeon Master) with “yo mamma” jokes on an endless loop. Or seduce their way out of situations with pickup lines that would make Tinder executives delete their profile as a mercy. Oh, and they play music sometimes.
That’s not the kind of bard I’m talking about.
Another popular example is Dandelion from The Witcher. He mainly follows around Geralt: a monster hunter and the main protagonist. Dandelion writes songs about his adventures, tagging along on hunts, and inserting a light-hearted, vaguely homoerotic subplot into a story that otherwise delves into the darkest pits of humanity.
As funny as it would be to have every cop in the world followed around by a theater grad student playing the kazoo, that’s also not the kind of bard I’m talking about.
By bard I mean, very simply, someone who goes around telling or singing stories for public consumption. Losing bards has meant forsaking a communal form of art. There’s such novelty to the idea of sitting in a bar in a college town and listening to someone belt out a rendition of “Ragnar the Red.” Atmosphere aside, the most important parts of the bardic tradition that we have lost have to do with the one thing all our oldest stories have in common: oral storytelling.
One of the cornerstones of my childhood was listening to the old epics as bedtime stories. The Odyssey, for example. Hearing those legends over and over cultivated a love of heroism, magic, and the cleverness to escape a tough situation when the scales are tipped to your disadvantage.
And chickens, oddly enough. Somehow extraneous chickens always managed to worm their way into the old Greek tales.
But my love of the myths was undercut by a feeling of loss. I viewed oral storytelling like the world’s worst game of Telephone; people, generation after generation, tried to tell the same story, but pieces were lost like flakes of clay chipping off a statue during a storm. Even as a child, I mourned for all the lovingly-crafted intricacies of the original story that were lost so long ago.
It wasn’t until I studied Beowulf that it finally clicked for me.
The translation that we were reading was written by someone who clearly had no regard for the old Norse beliefs held by certain characters in the story. Several of the warriors prayed to some unnamed “heathen” god and the author either glossed over or insulted it repeatedly. I was really bummed out—I’ve always had a fascination with the Norse gods and wished the author had taken the time to respect the culture they were writing about. In contrast, the translator had this weird hyper-fixation on how the protagonist fought. The first battle scene of the text involved a fight between the human protagonist, Beowulf (shocker), and a monster named Grendel. Grendel, the massive wretched beastie that he was, had no need for conventional weapons. The translator made a big deal out of the fact that Beowulf opted to toss his weapons aside and fight the monster bare-handed in order to keep things fair.
But Translator, you might be yelling at the behemoth block of text, that’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. And from a logic standpoint, I would agree with you. But from a storytelling perspective, it makes Beowulf a much more compelling character. It means that he has a steadfast commitment to fairness, even to his own detriment. The narrator’s insistent focus on this trait means that they almost certainly valued that trait as well. Bada-bing bada-boom. We’ve glimpsed an undeniable sliver of humanity in someone who lived hundreds of years ago.
That is what I finally realized about oral storytelling. Details are lost with each rendition, true, but new things are added, as well. The parts that stay—character traits, setting descriptions, plot points—are the things that had the biggest impact on the listeners. It’s what they remembered in those fleeting moments where those stories were relayed. Then the narrators fill in the blanks with things that are important to them.
One author might have had Beowulf brutally slaughtered because of his decision. You’ve just learned something about how that author views the unjust nature of the world. Another might have described both Beowulf and Grendel as human as a commentary about how monstrosity can lie unobserved in each of us. You’ve just learned something about that author, too. Still another might have written Beowulf and Grendel running a coffee shop in modern New York together. You get the idea.
At the core of each rendition is the same source material. That clay heart is molded by generations of hands until each new set of fingerprints creates an entirely new topography. Whenever we tell those stories, brushing our fingertips against those ancient markings, we are adding to something thousands of years in the making. We can find the indents of the people that came before us if we look.
That is what being a bard meant. That is what was lost.
Wait a minute; that’s not true. Fanfiction does the same thing.
That thought entered my head with all the grace of being picked up by my ankles and swung face-first into a brick wall. But I stopped to consider it.
Fanfiction has all the same bones as the skeleton of oral storytelling. Some stories are so close to the original material that they are almost indistinguishable save for the author’s voice seeping in from time to time. Others transplant the characters into other universes entirely. The author salvages what made an impact on them from the story they read and spins it in a way that adds a piece of themselves. Without editors or a publishing house looking over their shoulder, there is a raw, sharp-around-the-edges quality to fanfiction. Kind of like the hit-or-miss stand-up comedy at an open mic night. It reaches past traditional literary niceties and punches you straight in the chest.
Don’t get me wrong. I love the publishing industry and the process of curating the works people gift us with. I consider it a massive privilege to be offered that kind of vulnerability, as well as the responsibility to cultivate the love of creation with the writers I interact with. I wouldn’t be working for a literary journal if that wasn’t the case.
I just think that fanfiction offers an uncensored view on storytelling that has merit of its own. It takes a different form than the archetypical bard, but fanfiction continues that tradition in a world that would be lesser without its contributions. It keeps that hope alive that grew in the hearts of so many generations before us. Fanfiction expands on any number of topics in a given work: love, brutality, sex, nihilism, belonging, and everything in between. I’ve read fics that explored trauma in ways that had me sobbing into my cat’s fur at 2 a.m. and altered my outlook on the world and myself for the better. Others had no real plot—just the characters in love, happy, living in a cottage on the countryside—and they became a cozy little burrow to keep warm in when my real life was far less forgiving.
Some stories made no attempt to be understood. They were written for the author alone, and that’s perfectly okay too.
They all had that central tie to characters and stories I already knew and loved. Stepping into each one felt as comfortable as hearing another of Odysseus’ adventures as a child. I recognized the older fingerprints in the clay and grew fond of the new sets that shaped it. Seeing those tiny glimpses into the souls of strangers–the remnants of what it meant to be a bard in the silly little stories I read in my down time–fostered a new appreciation of writing in ways I had never imagined.
Maybe you can see pieces of me here. If you can, hello. I’m sorry I felt the need to inflict my caffeine-induced epiphany on you. But I must ask you something.
Remember the bards when you next sit at your computer and open a blank page.
Remember the clay when you put your fingers on the keys.