Everything is Connected and Everything is Fanfiction: The Cauldron of Story Theory


Canon has been slow roasted at 225 and carved for juicy bits

Now-famous tags on an AO3 work

Once upon a time in his essay On Fairy Tales, fantasy’s grandpa J.R.R. Tolkien laid out the idea of the Cauldron of Story. The Cauldron of Story (or the less epic name Tolkien also gives it, the Pot of Soup) is the idea that the collective imagination is bubbling away in a hypothetical pot full of every major story that’s ever been told. If something captures people enough—be it a particular character, a historical event, a tale or an archetype–it is added to the Pot to be stirred around, taking on the flavours already in the Pot and adding its own new taste as well. When you ladle out a new bowl of soup to tell a new story, you’re scooping up elements, ingredients and flavours of things long-since added to the big Cauldron—whether you intend to or not.

For example, King Arthur: Tolkien says “It seems fairly plain that Arthur, once historical (but perhaps as such not of great importance), was also put into the Pot. There he was boiled for a long time, together with many other older figures and devices, of mythology and Faerie, and even some other stray bones of history […] until he emerged as King of Faerie.” And then of course, that version of King Arthur went back into the pot and stewed for even longer until he was an almost inescapable facet of fantasy and pop culture, so well-integrated into the Soup that he keeps being scooped out in new forms whether the cooks expect to find him or not. Fate, obviously, has very deliberately scooped Arthur out and reimagined him into a tiny powerful girl, but less obviously a lot of high fantasy ends up ladling up at least some Arthurian motifs and archetypes, just because that story is such a strong part of the popular imagination.

I think this is a really interesting and apt metaphor you can apply to a lot of creative work: generations of trashy giant monster movies got poured into the Pot, as did works about giant robots a la Neon Genesis Evangelion, and Guillermo del Toro deliberately picked around in the Soup to ladle both of these up, combine them in a saucepan, and add his own colour and spice to bring us Pacific Rim. Any modern series that deals with magic, girls, or magical girls can’t avoid bringing at least one scoop of Sailor Moon to their brew, since it was poured into the collective cultural and personal creative Cauldrons of a lot of fans who have now grown up to make their own stuff.


Mmm, narrative theory

Jane Eyre and Pride and Prejudice have been marinating in the romance genre Cauldron for so long that their original characters have bubbled away to become tropes and types that new writers scoop out and use daily, even if they (for example, Fifty Shades of Grey) are missing the point of the original thing added to the Soup (at some point ‘brooding rich male lead’ got switched for ‘evil and abusive rich male lead’, but the glamour around him didn’t change). Such is the way—what goes into the Soup is not always what comes out, owing to the other things added in with it and how the nature of something changes when its left to boil away for so long. Ironically enough, Tolkien’s work got tipped so heavily into the fantasy Cauldron that the vast majority of high fantasy to come out even these days tastes like The Lord of the Rings. And of course Sherlock Holmes, much to its original author’s distress, was added to the Cauldron of mystery and has been popping up non-stop in remakes and borrowed archetypes ever since.

The new Soup you make from the bits you scoop up from the Cauldron of Story is still your soup, the theory just acknowledges that it’s impossible to make an entirely new soup with no familiar ingredients, since no one exists in a cultural vacuum. Every piece of creative work derives in some way from a previous creative work, be it ancient mythology that’s been flavouring the Soup since forever, or a cool book you read last month that has really stirred your brain up. There’s the cultural Cauldron, which is what Tolkien’s discussing, but I enjoy the idea that each of us has our own personal creative Pot of Soup where all our childhood heroes, influential TV shows, and books with cool concepts go to mix around.

An interesting place to apply the theory of the Cauldron of Story to is, of course, fandom. I’ve already talked about how fandom applies the Death of the Author theory, where the original writer’s intentions can be progressed from or actively disregarded if that suits the reader, so this feels like a neat follow-on. All fanworks—fanfiction, fan art, meta essays, crossovers, late night conversations about bizarre alternate universes that will never get written—derive from one Cauldron, the Cauldron of canon. There’s one school of thought, and from my limited knowledge of the history of fan communities, a dying school of thought, that the Cauldron of Canon is sacred and cannot be tipped, messed with, or added to. The Soup is already fine, because the Soup that’s bubbling in front of us was brewed by the original chef and they surely knew what they were doing with their own work!

tumblr_ojzscsz8i81t1kolao4_250Another school of thought—again, tying daintily in with Death of the Author—is that the Soup isn’t perfect just because we all like the general taste of it. Maybe the Soup needs some improvement, in whatever terms that is (diversity, plot holes, treatment of women, bad epilogues etc.), but the original Soup can’t be added to since it’s already complete and has a hypothetical lid over it. So these new authors and thinkers take ladlefuls of the Soup and remix it in their own personal pot, coming up with derivative works that take the new author’s favourite parts or the parts they find the most interesting, and has added and re-flavoured until they’ve made something entirely new.

(Again, Harry Potter is a really good example of the Not So Sacred Cauldron of Canon idea, in that a lot of its fandom… actively ignores and denies the contents of the Soup. Many people consider Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them a side-dish with no place in the Main Cauldron, and actively swat away facts canonised on places like Pottermore as people in power attempt to add them to the Soup. Heck, some fans don’t even consider the epilogue ‘canon’, so J.K. Rowling provides yet another great example of how her readership simultaneously loves the Soup she’s made but also wants to pick it up and carry it far away from her)

Unless, of course, you can add to the Soup, like, say, Ed Brubaker who was so distraught at Bucky Barnes’ untimely and hilarious death that he wrote the now famous and groundbreaking Winter Soldier plotline. Or J.J. Abrams, who loves Star Wars a lot and somehow this was considered reason enough to give him free reign over a Star Wars movie. In this era of reboots and remakes and Avengers initiatives, the Cauldron theory is more relevant than ever—everyone’s scooping madly from the Soup, taking long spoonfuls of things that have been brewing in there for a long time because if they’re in there (be they successful franchises or successful ideas, like the Hero’s Journey formula) they know that they work.

I think the Cauldron idea is an interesting and validating one—it says “look, everything is derived from something else, there is nothing new under the sun. So don’t be afraid to stir and scoop away to make your own stuff, because that’s what everyone has been doing for thousands of years, and that’s how the kinds of stories that humanity deems important stay alive.” We’re all cooks and Soup-sniffers, so we may as well embrace that. Like with Death of the Author, once something goes into the Cauldron its original intention and context can bubble away and be lost, especially if it’s in there for a long time, so perhaps the best thing we can do as modern creators is ladle it up and try to mix it into a new dish as effectively as possible, continuing the Soup Cycle and trying to make something tasty from tried-and-true ingredients.

[I came across this theory in From Homer to Harry Potter by Matthew Dickerson and David O’Hara, who are evidently a pair of Tolkien fanboys (which is good, in this case, because I’m not, and wouldn’t have found the Cauldron of Story otherwise). It’s an alright little textbook where the authors discuss myths, legends and fairy tales, suggest how these inform modern fantasy, and use their academic platform and slight but overt Christian bias to complain loudly about how bad Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy is]

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Filed under Archetypes and Genre

8 responses to “Everything is Connected and Everything is Fanfiction: The Cauldron of Story Theory

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  7. Mary

    This was excellent. Thank you! Makes me feel a bit better about dipping my toe into writing!

  8. Pingback: Headcanons, Queer Readings, and the Art of “Reading Too Much Into Things” | The Afictionado

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