Mapping the Quest: the Channels of Literary Evolution

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Story of Evolution, Evolution of Stories
Bryn Mawr College, Spring 2004
Third Web Paper
On Serendip

Mapping the Quest: the Channels of Literary Evolution

Lindsay Updegrove

Literature changes. One story creates a niche for another story to come into existence, or be written. What is a literary niche and how exactly does an evolutionary text fill it? Who gets to decide?

This question is easiest to answer by first establishing what a text cannot do: it does not fill in all the missing gaps. Moby Dick created a niche for another book to come into being: Ahab's Wife. In examining the relationship between the two books, one might say that Ahab's Wife functions in filling in all the missing pieces that Moby Dick left. For example, take the opening lines of the two books:

In Moby Dick, "Call me Ishmael." (18)

In Ahab's Wife, "Ahab was neither my first husband, nor my last." (1)

The first sets up a premise; the second could be seen as offering, in response, another story to pick up where the other leaves off.

However, upon closer analysis it becomes clear that trying to fill in all the places where Moby Dick leaves off would be impossible; such a feat could not be imagined in one text. This is because Moby Dick opens up so many niches to be filled, not only responses to its specific text or story such as Ahab's Wife but also places in the succession of literary tradition. For example, it was evolutionary in assigning heroic qualities to characters traditionally seen as renegades. The picture becomes clearer if one regards Moby Dick not as the premise but coming from an evolutionary line itself, responding to the treatment of characters in texts such as the Bible and Shakespearean plays.

When one thinks of how Ahab's Wife works in relation to this line, it is difficult to say whether it actually is an evolutionary text. It does not seem to evolve from Moby Dick at all; it is simply the same story. The reader may not realize this until near the very end of the book, when Una addresses Ishmael:

Do you mind we write the same book? (663)

To come to any conclusions about what kinds of niches a text might fill it helps to look at other lines through which texts have evolved. John Gardner, a modern academic novelist, wrote a book, Grendel, which complicates the monstrous villain from Beowulf. In discussing evolutionary literature, Beowulf is interesting because it is the first known recorded work in English. It is, in a sense, a sort of literary Homo erectus. But Beowulf itself had to evolve long before it could ever have taken on the alternative title of Grendel. Scholars believe that the text was written in Old English around the year 1000 AD. However, Beowulf in its time would traditionally been sung or recited by a scop, or bard, at the courts of royalty. In this way, the story would have changed with every telling before it was even recorded on paper. At some point, it must have been translated into modern English, to be printed and read by high school seniors everywhere—long before Grendel was even written.

So it is evident that there are many different kinds of niches, or relationships of one text to another. There is the one kind of niche filled by the "other," as in Ahab's Wife to Moby Dick, or the evil Grendel as opposed to the heroic Beowulf:

Ah Grendel! You improve them, my boy! Can't you see that yourself? You stimulate them! You make them think and scheme. You drive them to poetry, science, religion, all that makes them what they are for as long as they last. (Gardner 72)

In some sense, these texts depend on each other for the definition of their existence as the dark defines the light. These types of texts mirror one another but essentially tell the same story. They take place in the same world.

Other texts might evolve around the axis of time. In each modern setting, there exists a niche for an adaptation of an old text. For example, West Side Story is a modern version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet: the two tell the same story. Unlike Ahab's Wife and Moby Dick, the two do not exist in the same world of the same characters, but differ in time and setting. In addition, there is a linear dependency from one story to the other; the Shakespeare stands alone but West Side Story could not have been created without it. Likewise, Romeo and Juliet could not have come into being without its predecessor, the Greek myth of Pyramus and Thisbe. In these three stories, there is a line of descent. It is a different kind of relationship from the dependent one of Moby Dick and Ahab's Wife.

Whichever way a series of texts relate to one another, one can suppose that

In learning, one thing always has something else in it, or leads to something new (Naslund 408).

Lines can be drawn connecting literary works in an infinite number of ways. Their relationships to one another are never static or stationary. There is no system defining their lines of descent. The niches they occupy are not arbitrarily determined for us. We choose.

Works Cited

Gardner, John. Grendel. New York: Vintage Books, 1971.
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick. New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 2002.
Naslund, Sena Jeter. Ahab's Wife. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1999.

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