A heritage in words

It’s fairly clear by now that I like writing. And those who read my posts about Halloween, ghosts, and the connections between heritage and fiction will probably have realised that I am also a bookworm. I believe that heritage cannot be divided into the tangible and intangible; that the stories we hear about a place or a thing – whether factual or fictional – create a sense of meaning and connection between us and it. What I want to put forward today, following from last week’s post about superstition, is the idea that stories are their own heritage. They do not have to have begun with or focused on a particular physical heritage asset to be a powerful and community-building social legacy.

As a child, my father read ‘The Hobbit’ to me and my sister, one chapter a night, on a family holiday. I loved it then – in fact, when the holiday ended before the story did, I took the copy and finished reading myself because I could not bear to wait to find out more. I still love it, and the Lord of the Rings, now.

As a teenager, my school friends and I were voracious readers, exchanging old copies of classic series like the Chalet School and Anne of Green Gables and new copies of Tamora Pierce novels acquired by sympathetic family members the USA before their UK release date.

“A book is a magical thing that lets you travel to far-away places without ever leaving your chair”
― Katrina Mayer

As an adult, reading is still one of my favourite pastimes. It is an escape from the real world, a chance to disappear into another country, another time, even another world, and live through impossible adventures. This is a luxury, but it can also be useful. I have a bizarre mental repository of facts about everything from medieval weaponry to Madame Mao’s Dance Academy, from the politics of the First World War to the difference between a naiad and a dryad. This, though frequently useless, can provide context to new situations or information, and, more importantly, very occasionally comes in useful in pub quizzes.

So much about this clutter of random scraps of knowledge you could have guessed from my own admission that I love reading. This is, in fact, a predictable effect of spending time in other’s people’s worlds, via the gateway provided by their art. And this is the key to understanding why I believe that fictional worlds are, in themselves, heritage. They change you. A story enters your brain, and in turn your brain enters the world, experiencing and learning new things which, however subtly, can affect your thoughts and feelings thereafter.

My visit to the Terry Pratchett exhibition at the Salisbury Museum, showing artefacts related to the author’s popular fictional creations, reinforced my sense of a community of Discworld fanship and my own emotional attachment to the series.

This is fundamentally an intangible experience. Somewhere there is a book, script, hard drive or roll of film which contains the form of the medium by which this fictional world was transmitted from its creators to its audiences. And indeed, these physical forms may come to be valued themselves, as a particular copy of a book or a special edition of a DVD can come to be a part of the experience of its contents. Nevertheless, the physical form is not the vital part of immersion in a different world. Instead, what is experienced is a process of co-creation, between the author of an idea and the audience, who use their own emotions and experience to transport themselves into the world as participants in the experience. As such, a work of fiction which did important work for the construction of an individual’s own sense of self or their wider interests can be a focus of emotional attachments far stronger than it might appear to merit when judged through ‘objective’ artistic criteria.

This shared creative process can then manifest itself in physical objects. External signals of fan membership in a particular fictional club can range from the subtle, like a pin or a printed quote on an item of clothing, to the all-out enthusiasm that creates costumes for conventions. The proliferation of Harry Potter shops as the Hogwarts generation grow up and acquire spending power is an obvious example.

The Shop That Must Not Be Named
The Shop That Must Not Be Named, one of a number of shops on the Shambles in York which sell Harry Potter related memorabilia. (Photo by the author)

These artefacts do identity work, and are therefore a kind of heritage in themselves. But, crucially, they are objects born of a mental affiliation, rather than the source of an affiliation. The intangible creates the desire for the tangible, but exists independently of it.

These physical manifestations work as external signals of the mental landscape which has been created by a work of fiction. By doing so, they offer the possibility of creating connections with others who have also ‘visited’ the same landscape. The shared community of fanship has increased exponentially as the internet permits the creation of communities of interest regardless of geographical distance. For these communities, shared works of fiction function as the intangible heritage which created and connected the members. They share an emotional link to characters, places or events which they have simultaneously all experienced, yet have never physically visited.

As such, stories of fiction do the same work for fan communities as histories – or loosely-historical myths – do for the creation of nationalities, by centering a narrative as an origin point for a group of people, who are then able to use this narrative and membership of the community as a part of their own identity construction. Of course, just as with any other imagined community (to borrow Benedict Anderson’s famous phrase), fiction-followers erect boundaries to signal their own inclusion by policing the inclusion of others. Anything from preferring audiobooks to written words or book versions over film adaptations* can be the markers of exclusion, of a failure to truly appreciate what others have experienced in what they perceive to be a superior fashion.

Our minds are shaped by our families, local communities, and wider cultures. Now more than ever, as popular cultural forms are disseminated globally online, communities can be created by shared experience of unreality, just as they can be created through geo-political location or genetic make-up. These fiction-centered bonds could, arguably, be more meaningful than the more widely recognised cultural heritages of nationality or region, since they are formed by choice and emotional attachment, rather than by chance. Ultimately, the intangible cultural heritage that is a shared alternative reality is a valuable resource that offers its participants friendship, inclusion and the chance to celebrate their own identities by celebrating the art forms which have helped to shape them.

*An offence of which I am extremely guilty. I promise to try and change.

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