Is there any subject out there more divisive than fanfiction? Yes, but writing fanfiction is still pretty polarizing. On one side, you've got people who enjoy writing and reading about characters they know and love in inventive new scenarios. And on the other side, you've got people who are slightly nauseated at the idea of exploring Draco Malfoy's sex life. But whichever way you swing, there's no denying that many classic works of literature qualify as fanfiction.
I have to be honest here, and admit that I don't personally read fanfiction online. I've never felt that intoxicating pull to read a story about the members of One Direction kissing each other. And yet, even without being a member of the fanfiction community, I somehow know exactly what the phrase "crossover coffee shop AU slashfic" means. And even though it's not my cup of tea, I have to respect fanfiction writers and readers for putting in all that time and effort.
We all know that a certain book about a millionaire who's into spanking started out as a fanfiction about a certain sparkly vampire who's into celibacy. But really, so-called "fanfiction" has been going on for hundreds or even thousands of years. As long as humans have been coming up with stories, other humans have been asking, "OK fine, but what if these two characters totally boned?" So here are some prime examples of undercover fanfiction in classic books:
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton
OK, so there have been a lot of stories based on the Bible. But there's no denying that Milton took a famous published work and wrote his own version of the story using the same characters. Long before any fic writers were valiantly trying to defend Snape's honor, Milton was turning Satan himself into tragic hero. Like any good fic, Paradise Lost creates a wholly new perspective on an existing story (and we can blame Milton for all those people who think Kilgrave from Jessica Jones is just tragically misunderstood).
2. Inferno by Dante
Yes, Dante's Inferno (along with the rest of his Divine Comedy) is another Bible fic. But it's also a crossover fic and an author-insert fic, because Inferno is all about Dante himself going on a tour through Hell, and his tour guide is the Roman poet Virgil. Inferno's Hell has a lot in common with the Hell that Virgil describes in The Aeneid, so really, Dante's mashing up The Aeneid, Greek Mythology, and the Bible into one brilliant piece of lengthy writing starring himself. And if that's not the spirit of fanfiction, I don't know what is.
3. The Aeneid by Virgil
You know how parts of Dante's Inferno are based on The Aeneid? Well, The Aeneid is complete fanfiction for both The Odyssey and The Iliad. We sometimes lump all three together when we talk about the Ancient World, but really, by the time Virgil was writing in Rome, Homer's famous epics were already huge classics. The Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar wanted his own awesome tale of adventure to prove that Rome was just as happening as Greece (not the first time that Romans straight up stole Greek myths). So he commissioned (i.e. forced) Virgil to write a whole new epic based on Aeneas, a minor character from The Iliad.
4. Ulysses by James Joyce
Look, you can argue that adaption is different from fanfiction as much as you want, but don't try to tell me that Joyce's Ulysses is anything other than a very complicated AU fic of The Odyssey set in Dublin. Yes, it's a brilliantly constructed piece of literature. But, in the tradition of E. L. James, Joyce totally just took a story he loved, changed the location and the character names, and added a bunch of dirty sex.
5. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
Honestly, Shakespeare came up with very few original plots. For the most part, he either wrote his own version of history or just "borrowed" the plot of an existing piece of writing. For R&J, he based his story on a poem: The Tragicall Historye of Romeus and Juliet. Yeah... he barely even changed their names. But he did insert his own OCs, like Mercutio and Paris; he did completely changed the style of writing; and he did make everyone's sexuality a lot more ambiguous, like any good fanfic writer would do.
6. Othello by William Shakespeare
Just one more Shakespeare, because Othello is another story with obvious source material. Shakespeare based his play on an Italian tale called "The Moorish Captain." There's still a Desdemona in that one, but her husband is only ever referred to as "The Moor," and the story is widely interpreted as a racist warning against interracial marriage. Shakespeare took those characters and that plot, gave poor Othello a real name, and rewrote it into a complicated story about love, jealousy, and prejudice, making it a tragedy instead of a cautionary tale.
7. The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Legends of King Arthur and Camelot have been around for a long, long time. In 1485, Sir Thomas Malory adapted these many tales into Le Morte d'Arthur. And then in the 1950s, T. H. White came along and said, "Sure, but what if Lancelot was gay?" And thus, The Once and Future King was born. I mean yes, it's a fantasy novel based on Arthurian legend, and the gay themes aren't completely overt. But on the other hand... Lancelot is super into King Arthur and it's a beautiful slash fic.
8. A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain
Before T. H. White even picked up a pen, Mark Twain was writing all kinds of ridiculous King Arthur fic. Again, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur became the jumping off point, but this time for a comedy about time travel (I believe the modern parlance for this would be a crackfic?). Some parts quote directly from Le Morte d'Arthur. Other parts involve Mark Twain's OC, Hank, chilling with the knights of the round table (there is also a baby named Hello-Central).
9. The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
The titular musketeers from The Three Musketeers are actually characters from another book—a book that Alexandre Dumas checked out of the Marseille Public Library and then never returned. Dumas may not have been the ideal library patron, but he did write a preface to his novel explaining that these characters were originally from a book called Mémoires de Monsieur d'Artagnan, and that he wanted to know what other adventures they might get up to. Because he was a responsible fic writer who always took time with his author notes.
10. The Call of the Wild by Jack London
When you think of famous authors who wrote about dogs in the Yukon in the early 1900s, the name Egerton R. Young usually doesn't spring to mind. But Jack London was accused of plagiarizing much of The Call of the Wild from Young's My Dogs in the Northlands. What makes it fanfic instead of out-and-out stealing? Well, when accused of copying the other book, Jack London agreed that he did steal a lot—and he also changed and added a lot, because all fiction steals to some degree (it's a bit of a shady argument, but you get the idea). If only Jack London had lived long enough to go on a Twitter rant about why fanfiction is legit.
11. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
You could argue that Lord of the Flies is not so much fanfiction as parody, but there's no question that William Golding used the book The Coral Island as a starting point for Lord of the Flies. The Coral Island is a jolly children's book about three English boys marooned on an island, who have a wonderful time and defeat the evil natives with their superior Christian values. Golding disagreed with that simplistic, colonialist angle. He lifted several of the characters and wrote Lord of the Flies as a counterpoint: what if the evil the children encountered was not external, but internal?