GABBLER RECOMMENDS: ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where to Return Them’ by Margaret Day Elsner

Harry and company don’t steal Fluffy from Hogwarts, nor did they bring him there. Hagrid did, after he bought him from a “Greek chappie” under less-than-legal circumstances (*cough* animal trafficking *cough*). This is a far cry from the violent episode you’re probably imaging with Heracles literally dragging Cerberus out of the Underworld. But Timothy Gantz points out in his 1993 book Early Greek Myththat the iconography of this episode, and its development, depicts a shift in attitude about Heracles’ involvement in this labor. Early vases show him violently storming the Underworld to steal Cerberus; later ones show a more gentle encounter with Persephone allowing Heracles to borrow Cerberus. So while Heracles doesn’t necessarily steal Cerberus every time this episode is recounted, he does participate in the movement of an exotic animal across borders — with no real intention of returning him.

But we shouldn’t pillory Heracles as a proto-animal trafficker. Animal trafficking as we know it, the illicit trade for everything from bushmeat to elephant tusks to illegal house pets, just didn’t exist in the ancient world. What did exist in Antiquity was animal hunting, specifically exotic animal hunting. Think crocodiles from Egypt, panthers from Greece, and elephants from north Africa. Big game from conquered locales played a huge role in the Roman Empire, marching alongside war captives during the imperial triumph. Our earliest account of foreign animals’ participation in processions comes from Josephus’s description of Vespasian’s and Titus’ triumph where “beasts of many species were led along, all decked out with the appropriate adornments” (7.136). Exotic animals, dressed up and subjugated like their human counterparts, were paraded through the streets as prisoners, then later slaughtered in the amphitheater during the ludi, or games. The more fantastic the beast, the better.

So while these fantastic beasts weren’t trafficked, they were displayed as symbols of Rome’s power. And that’s what Cerberus/Fluffy does for his conqueror. Like the emperors Titus and Vespasian, in capturing and later displaying Cerberus to Eurystheus, Heracles didn’t display the might and prowess of the hellhound but his own. Similarly Rowling displays her own literary and cultural prowess when she places Fluffy at the trapdoor leading to the Sorcerer’s Stone. Here, she takes a prominent, seminal image from Western literature and adapts it for her own purposes. And she does so in a pretty clever way by placing Fluffy at the beginning of Harry’s katabasis (a descent into the Underworld) and associating him with heroes like Orpheus, Heracles, and Aeneas.

But who owns Fluffy? The ancient Greeks are no longer alive, and their stories no longer hold any real religious weight. You could point fingers at Rome, but Rome “appropriated” Greek culture long ago (part of a larger drive in Roman society to assimilate conquered cultures). Greek mythology now resides in the foundations of Western literature and art: you can plagiarize its particular iterations but not its general ideas. This is why Greece can argue for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles but not, say, the dismantling of Washington, D.C. And yes, on Cerberus you could argue that Vergil cribbed Homer, and Dante Vergil, but whoever came up with Cerberus first is long gone — and he’s ripe for the taking.


GABBLER RECOMMENDS: The Promise and Potential of Fan Fiction By Stephen Burt

“The interesting question at this point is not whether fan fiction can be good, by familiar literary standards. (Of course it can; cf. Virgil.) Rather, it’s this: What is fan fiction especially, or uniquely, good at, or good for? Early defenses presented the practice as a way station, or an incubator. Writers who started out with fanfic and then found the proper mix of critique and encouragement could go on to publish “real” (and remunerated) work. Other defenses, [focused] on slash, described it as a kind of safety valve: a substitute for desires that could not be articulated, much less acted out, in our real world. If women want to imagine sex between people who are both empowered, and equal, the argument ran, we may have to imagine two men. In space.

It’s true that a lot of fanfic is sexy, and that much of the sex is kinky, or taboo, or queer. But lots of fanfic has no more sex than the latest “Spider-Man” film (which is to say none at all, more or less). Moreover, as that shy proto-fan T. S. Eliot once put it, “nothing in this world or the next is a substitute for anything else.” It’s a mistake to see fanfic only as faute de mieux, a second choice, a replacement. Fanfic can, of course, pay homage to source texts, and let us imagine more life in their worlds; it can be like going back to a restaurant you loved, or like learning to cook that restaurant’s food. It can also be a way to critique sources, as when race-bending writers show what might change if Agent Scully were black. (Coppa has compared the writing of fanfic to the restaging of Shakespeare’s plays.)

Moreover, fanfic requires neither cultural capital nor much actual capital to make. You don’t have to take a class, or move to the city, or find an angel, or find an agent; most of your readers may never know your offline name. For all these reasons, fanfic can give its creators a powerful sense of participatory equality. In this respect, what Coppa calls its “defiantly amateur” scene is a far cry from the world of trade publishers and prestige novelists, and a bit more like the avant-garde-poetry world in the nineteen-seventies, where the slogan was “Work your ass off to change the language & never get famous,” or else like American indie rock before Nirvana, except that—and it’s a notable difference—the fanfic world is largely female.”




No narcissism here. Nope.

Vatican Digitizes a 1,600-Year-Old Illuminated Manuscript of the ‘Aeneid’

‘In Rome, around the year 400, a scribe and three painters created an illuminated manuscript of Virgil’s Aeneid, illustrating the ancient hero Aeneas’ journey from Troy to Italy. 1,600 years later, the Vatican has digitized the surviving fragments of this manuscript. Known as the Vergilius Vaticanus, it’s one of the world’s oldest versions of the Latin epic poem, and you can browse it for free online.

The digitization project is part of a years-long effort by Digita Vaticana, a nonprofit organization affiliated with the Vatican Library, to convert the library’s manuscripts into digital format. Founded in 1451, the library is home to some 80,000 manuscripts and texts, including drawings and notes by the likes of Michelangelo and Galileo. Digita Vaticana’s goal is to convert these “40 million pages into 45 quadrillion bytes,” according to its website.’