Gilt, Alloy, Catalysis


by Poetry Editor

Despite the title, what concerns us is only a matter of engineering in the loosest sense. We are interested in how authors synthesize a primary work and a secondary τόπος. Thinking of this creative process will help us differentiate brand-new myths, fairy tales or at least new iterations thereof and the use of fairy-tale, mythology as a structuring principle with what I am calling the inauratum, their creative barnacle. As it is unfamiliar, I will speak of the last first before proceeding to Traditional works and, at last, to metanarrative.

Inauratum, (pronounced een-ow-RAW-tum) to bring a good word to bear for a bad thing, is, literally, a gilt thing i.e. it is when a writer/artist applies a thin veneer of one τόπος over an otherwise unrelated story-type. The definition is vague and can certainly be applied beyond the purview of mythological works, but I think some examples will clarify the matter and have, by and large, marshaled popular works for clarity. For example, the recent film Hansel & Gretel or the 2005 The Brothers Grimm (and it pains me to write this, as I like Terry Gilliam’s work) has all the marks of it—a thin veneer of fairy-tale electroplated on a more traditional fantasy.

Mind you, I intend the term inauratum to refer to the artistic process. Consequently, a tie to another work could render it inauratum. The Starship Troopers film was, as is quite well-documented, retrofitted to resemble the Robert Heinlein story. Readers of a certain age and inclination may suspect the same of the purported Chrono Trigger sequel, Chrono Cross. These too are inauratum. So too, are all the sorts of science fiction that C. S. Lewis decries as “tasteless” for “leaping a thousand years to find plots and passions which they could have found at home” (Lewis “On Science-Fiction” 57-8). Lewis, of course, is speaking only of science fiction, and this term a process, perhaps only a brief one, in a work’s creation.Aerial House, by Albert Robida

A key feature in identifying a work as inauratum is detachability. The thin veneer should be able to be easily removed without damaging the larger integrity of the work. Consider Star Trek: The Next Generation as an example of the subspecies Lewis mentioned above. Very little about the story would require alteration if we shifted it into Steampunk/Gas-lamp fantasy. Picard and his crew, including steam-automaton Data, boldly explore isolated cities and towns on a vast zeppelin with bronzed ray guns… I’m pretty sure this idea could make me fabulously wealthy. The point being that the core action and appeal are hardly damaged by the change—a fact that the Holodeck episodes within the series itself highlights. The Big Bang Theory would lose little, if any, appeal, if its scientists were exchanged for humanities profs and the physics jokes for Shakespeare gags. That wouldn’t change the fundamentally Friends nature of the work. Aside from an increase in beards and leather-elbow-patched cardigans, I’m pretty sure most of the viewers would not likely notice and certainly not care.

And why should we? Who cares if a work is created by inauratum? The answer is that inauratum, in contradistinction to the Traditional story or metanarrative, is counterfeit creativity. It’s inspiration by mad-lib and Brownian motion—of the sort that South Park parodied by describing the Family Guy writing staff as a group of manatees who pushed beach balls with words on them, and they made their next gag out of whatever combination produced. Inauratum is facile engagement with the secondary τόπος; in innocence or by design, it pretends to be something it isn’t. Both of which, as critics, we should deplore. This isn’t to say that we can’t enjoy such works, but we should not be fooled. These are not new fairy tales, new works of mythology, new works of science fiction… or even sequels. They are, at best, gilt frames on old pictures—we might like the look, but let us not think them gold.


Now, unlike the above, a Traditional Tale is a genuine expression of a myth, a new fairy tale, even if an old type. I am here meaning Traditional with the technical precision that T. S. Eliot gives the word in “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Mind you, a Traditional work will have novel features and expressions but done with what Eliot calls “a historical sense;” the creator knows the past and is interacting with it intentionally. In this instance, it means that, even despite surface appearances, the Tradition employed should be integral to the action, structure—remember that fairy tales, particularly, but also myths are classified by their morphology. An artist can change a lot of details but it must have the same shape. A good example is the relation between Brigadoon and Gerstäcker’s “Germelshausen.” The story was moved from the 19th century to the 20th, and from Germany to Scotland, and was given a deus ex machina happy ending… as well from a short story to a musical.

Yet, Brigadoon is a Traditional retelling of “Germelshausen.” It maintains the essential structure of a traveler (or two) coming upon a village that rises for a single day once in a century; the traveler falls in love with a girl there but must escape before the village is lost again. The shape is the same, even with new elements. In short, a Traditional work is an alloy. New and old are mixed and not dissociated easily without losing the integrity of the work. This applies to retellings as well. Troy, for all its other faults, is a valid retelling of Homer; Disney’s tales are this way as well.

Both retellings and new tales are Traditional, with all that Eliot intends, in his seminal essay. As he states:

What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.

So it is with new fairy tales and retellings. They change our understanding of the original, in some way. Disney irrevocably colors our understanding of Perrault and Grimm. This, however, is not something that is true of the inauratum. Additionally, as Eliot notes, the “historical sense” to properly create a new tale is to be obtained by “great labor.” It is why we see it so rarely. The inauratum applies the τόπος superficially whereas the Traditional work may resemble the earlier works less obviously but the interaction runs more deeply. This goes one step farther in our third case.

This leads us to the final species for consideration, metanarrative. For a definition, let us turn to Eliot’s “Ulysses, Myth, and Order,” an essay which has an excellent definition of metanarrative, despite being frequently, woeful misapplied to The Waste Land. Eliot states, of Joyce’s Ulysses, “in using myth, in manipulating a continuous parallel between contemporaneity and antiquity, Mr. Joyce is pursuing a method which others must pursue after him. […] It is simply a way of controlling, of ordering, of giving a shape and significance” (Eliot “Ulysses, Myth, and Order” 177).

This is the crux: in metanarrative, the secondary τόπος is used to structure the primary work. Metanarrative is a kind of catalysis. It doesn’t necessarily alter our perception of the original as such, anymore than Joyce changes our perception of Homer or She’s the Man, thank God, alters our reading of Shakespeare. Yet, metanarrative done right is creativity of the highest order, a tour-de-force in the technical sense, as it demonstrates a kind mastery beyond apprehension. Thus, the distinction between metanarrative, where the additional τόπος is seemingly ancillary (maybe even barely there) but used to structure the work foundationally, and the inauratum where the additional τόπος, though often highly visible is morphologically irrelevant, is crucial, for judicious criticism, especially for those interested in fairy-tales, mythology, and folklore.

The above three possibilities, I think, broadly represent the way that a writer can amalgamate a primary and secondary work. With inauratum, the relation between the primary work and the secondary applied τόπος, though often omnipresent is ultimately superficial; it does not penetrate into the work’s structure. With the Traditional work, the primary work is similar in structure to the secondary τόπος but may have some very different elements. Metanarrative posits a fundamental similarity between two stories, though often with little visible resemblance.

In terms of our judgment, these three offer different possibilities. Obviously, bad art will always be so no matter the intention, but the ceiling of achievement on these types is very different. The inauratum can, at best, be a happy accident, a creator unaware that what they are doing is not fairy tale or mythology, or perhaps, the creator is making the best of a bad job, perhaps forced by external circumstances. The amount of knowledge required to create a Traditional tale passes beyond mere surface aesthetics and, if done well, can allow for a work of real consequence and permanence. Metanarrative requires such an intuitive grasp of the nature of stories and such forethought that when done well, it is an achievement of the first water. Thus, knowing the difference between them lets us be better partakers and critics of the Tradition we enjoy so much.

Works Cited:

Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London: Faber and Faber, 1997. 39-49.

—. “Ulysses, Myth, and Order.” Selected Prose of T. S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975. 175-78.

Lewis, C. S. “On Science Fiction.” On Stories, and Other Essays on Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982. 55-68.

May 6, 2013


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Unsettling Wonder

We craft and tell stories because we’ve stood on the uncertain edge between the waking world and our imagination, between enchantment and fear. And we remember other stories that help us build our own stories, scraps of lumber and fragments of narrative we gather together to make stories for ourselves.


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Artwork by Laura Rae