From folklore to franchise

Once, we had folklore. Now, we have the franchise. What changed?


Back in 2012 — to give one example — Spencer Kornhaber wrote on The Atlantic website that whatever Disney did to the Star Wars universe, its integrity would survive. This, he argued, was because “the franchise is modern folklore: destined to live forever by enraging old fans and minting new ones.”

This, he argued, was because “the franchise is modern folklore: destined to live forever by enraging old fans and minting new ones.”

I’ve thought many times about exactly this idea; that in our modern world of media giants, trademarks, and intellectual property, the franchise has replaced the folk story.

Indeed, my earliest explorations into the topic of shared culture — the first grasping towards a form of folklore — came with reading competing narratives in different print runs of X-Men and Spiderman comics. Later, this morphed into ideas on modernist literature, oral culture, or musical sampling: but it started with Marvel franchises.

So says Kornhaber, mentioning Marvel along the way. In summarising the commercialization of folklore in the form of the franchise, he writes:

… modern folk tales are paradoxes. “Folklore” by typical definition refers to a story that belongs to everyone and no one; seemingly authorless, it’s passed from person to person until it suffuses a culture’s very fabric. When adults screen Return of the Jedi in their living room for their nieces and nephews who then doodle Ewoks on their homework, that’s the old idea of folk transmission at work.

But Disney has made its fortune in large part from actually owning folk culture, from the kind it created in-house—Mickey and Minnie—to the kind its acquired through purchase, like the Marvel superheroes. The other big part of its business has come from profiting off folklore it doesn’t actually own, like the Grimms’ tales, by updating it for modern times and marketing it in modern ways.

Hm. I wonder: how much of my own belief in what I would call open culture and the world of folk is inherently tied to money making?  Kornhaber again:

Star Wars would still exist in some form without Lucas’s cash grabs since 1983. It wouldn’t exist like it does, though. Without the dozens of paperback spinoff novels licensed in the ’80s and ’90s, many of my friends and I—the kids of the first Star Warsgeneration—wouldn’t have gotten as deep into the universe as we did.

Without the prequels, the Clone Wars series, and the The Old Republic videogame, you wouldn’t have had so many children today bringing Boba Fett lunch boxes to school the same way their parents did in the ’80s.

It seems to me that we have a cultural cognitive dissonance on our hands: on the one side there is the hangover of what Kornhaber calls ‘the old idea of folk transmission’, and on the other there is the cultural (and legal) power of powerful rights holders to enforce what might be considered part of that folklore.

Which, of course, means it can’t be folklore at all. Every folklore has a canon but it is chosen, largely, on merit: in the franchise, the canon is defined by what is and isn’t licensed.

Folk’s gatekeepers

In ‘Franchises, imaginary worlds, authorship and fandom‘, David Lindsay nicely summarises just how important the licenser is to the licensee.

It is important to appreciate the continued cultural significance of the distinction between canonical and non-canonical versions of an entertainment franchise. Owners of such a franchise naturally have a strong interest in being a source … of canonical meaning, and in being perceived by a fan community as the responsible (and potentially responsive) guardians … of canonical meaning.

In other words, there must necessarily be some core, or ‘authentic’ meaning against which iterations of the universe can be played out. TRhis is, among other things, a consequence of the need for a sense of permanence and continuity in an imaginary world, which is essential if a community is to identify with it. in order properly to capitalize on the meaning invested in an imaginary universe, the core canonical meaning must be strongly associated with the franchise owner.

And this gets me thinking again about Tolkien’s reimagining of the word ‘mythopoeia’, to mean the conscious creation of a mythology. Without the tightening of intellectual property law and the franchising that has inevitably followed from it, would anybody contrive to create a mythology or would it happen on its own?

It seems to me that mythopoeia – which has an author at its route, whether Tolkien or George Lucas – is a modern solution to an older problem. A mythology with a creator at its heart is not a mythology at all: but, under current conditions, it’s the only one we can have.


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