The Science of Saintly Mashups

The Science of Saintly Mashups July 17, 2012

Something frivolous. A mashup, according to Wiki, is “a work of fiction which combines a pre-existing text, often a classic work of fiction, with a certain popular genre.” If you translate the catchphrase from those old Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups commercials into cultural terms — “You got your schlock in my classic!” “No, you got your classic in my schlock!” — you’ve got the idea.

Mashups are goofy and gimmicky, but, like fanfic, they can emerge from a true-blue geeklike affection for a particular work of literature. If you’ve given over 1,000 precious hours of your life to reading and re-reading Pride and Prejudice, why not throw in some zombies before you become one yourself? Lately, the mashup genre has expanded to include historical figures, which also suits me fine. Why shouldn’t Abraham Lincoln have hunted vampires? The man split rails, didn’t he? Some biographers believe he wrote a poem called “The Suicide’s Soliloquy” when he was in the dregs of depression. The Great Emancipator might well have been goth enough to appreciate this new image of himself.

At least one series of mashup antecedents gained the very heights of genre fiction. In The Flashman Papers, which fills 12 novels and a book of short stories, George MacDonald Fraser plucks Flashman, villain of Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s School Days, and tosses him into the currents of history. Since Hughes had written the character as a bully and a coward who’s expelled from Rugby School for becoming “beastly drunk,” Fraser has him rebound by — you guessed it — buying a commission in the Victorian British army. Wearing his country’s colors, Flashman takes part — unwillingly — in nearly every campaign that built the empire, and manages, through cunning and dumb luck, to emerge intact, with undeserved acclaim for heroism.

The series purports to be a memoir, found in an English country house during an estate sale. Writing the text in Flashman’s own voice, Fraser adds end notes from an “editor,” who sometimes questions the narrator’s objectivity. He brings his antihero into contact with so many historical figures, and presents them with such intimate, accurate detail, that a number of reviewers mistook the stories for real. But even as an invention — or rather, a re-invention — Flashman the character has become a cultural icon. In the town of Q, the setting for his novel Shame, Salman Rushdie plants a club called Flashman’s to represent the bad old days of the Raj.

This mixing and matching of narratives is characteristically post-modern, and so is the blending of high culture and pop culture. Lately, it’s begun to occur to me that the lives of the saints form a big part of the Church’s own pop culture. Packed with miracles, mortifications, visions, characters that are flat, yet larger than life, and sometimes the slaying of actual monsters, they’re regular penny dreadfuls. And I mean that as a compliment.

That being the case, it should come as no surprise that non-Catholic writers have found it impossible to keep their hands off our saints. The Song of Bernadette, by the Jewish Franz Werfel, is a very straight re-telling of the events at Masabielle and their aftermath, but others have given their imaginations longer leads. In 1919, former ambassador to the Netherlands Henry van Dyke published a story called “The Broken Soldier and the Maid of France,” where Joan of Arc talks a shell-shocked Verdun veteran out of desertion. It’s lurid, it’s jingoistic. In having Joan absolve the soldier of his sins while warning he must do penance before her absolution can take effect, van Dyke gives himself away as a Protestant. On the other hand, his description of PTSD symptoms sounds eerily accurate.

Joan seems to lend herself to this kind of thing. Never mind Shaw or Twain — she’s a character in at least two video games. To a third, Nippon Ichi Software gave her nickname, La Pucelle. In the context of the game, “La Pucelle” refers not to a person but to “a team of trained demon hunters.” But since the hunters guard something called the Church of the Holy Maiden and are led by a 16-year-old girl named Prier, it’s safe to assume designers didn’t pick the title out of a hat.

So why not run with this? Inculturation is as Catholic as hot cross buns. Throw the saints into all sorts of genres and see where they stick. Though I find it criminal that nobody’s thought to introduce Francis of Assisi to Robin Hood (or for that matter, written Flashman and the Wardrobe), I’ll start with Joan, our own blue-chip stock. And I’ll make it a real mashup, by imposing her on the highest culture we’ve got.

Take this scene from the Mila Jovovich film. She’s riding in the French vanguard, bellowing warnings toward the English lines. Then: jump cut! Some guy with leopards and lilies quartered on his livery is holding court before his troops. From the glum looks on their faces, it’s obvious Joan’s gotten in their heads. But not their leader. With a boyish brag, he reminds them:

If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.

Yes, it’s Harry, the king, and his band of brothers — Bedford and Exeter, Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester, and the yeomen-bowmen. They may be out of period by a decade or so, but after Harry promises them enduring memory in a grateful nation’s flowing cups, they’re definitely back in the game.

And then…

And then what? Beats me. I couldn’t bear to take Joan out like St. Sebastian (even if it might be kinder than letting her go out like Joan of Arc). At the same time, I’m too infected by all that special relationship stuff to suffer England to lose, except at Yorktown. Would it be too predictable to make the armies join forces and whomp the living tar out of the Holy Roman Emperor? Some projects are worth getting a 500-year jump on.

"Saint Joseph of Cupertino.'Nuff said."

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