Feature Interlink

I’ve been too busy for note taking this last week so I thought I’d take a moment to mention a topic that’s been on my mind from the beginning but that I haven’t found a way to work into a regular recap.

Feature Interlink, as defined by Michael D. C. Drout in his lecture series ‘Singers and Tales: Oral Tradition and the Roots of Literature‘, means a linkage between the form of a work and it’s content. He uses it for an explanation as to why some works of traditional storytelling haven’t survived the years with the same popularity as the Odyssey or the Finnish Kalevala. His theory is the more a work is altered from it’s original form, translated both out of its original language and from verse to prose for example, the more of its interlinks are broken and the less memorable it becomes.

This phrase delighted me. It perfectly encapsulated an idea I, and many others, have been discussing for years but haven’t had specific words for. Namely, an academic explanation for “Adaption Decay” (that link goes to TV Tropes, beware). We all know that different forms of media lend themselves better to different kinds of narrative, but explaining why this is becomes tricky. I was so taken with it that I emailed Professor Drout to ask him about the origins of the idea and he replied: “Feature Interlink” is apparently a term I invented in Tradition and Influence in Anglo-Saxon Literature: An Evolutionary, Cognitivist Approach, which was published by Palgrave in 2013.

His reply included a PDF of an excerpt from that book where he uses the term to explain elements of medieval poetry. His example of a feature interlink is the use of harsh sounding words and a non-typical meter to communicate the horror of worms devouring the body after death in a wisdom poem. The idea is that it’s not simply the words themselves that communicate meaning but their sound and the way they are presented. This more subtle means of transmission is lost in a strict dictionary definition translation of the work. Furthermore, the variations on standard meter and story patterning are lost on modern readers who are not members of the wisdom poetry tradition.

I started reading and listening to Drout’s work through his Tolkien scholarship, but his main research is in tradition, how it works, how it’s transferred and how participants interact with it. We’re all members of a living tradition that we nowadays refer to as pop culture. One look at TVtropes.com shows how we all have access to this vast array of shared knowledge and reference that we’ve osmosed through lifetimes spent consuming media. Someday, perhaps, I’ll write about Homestuck‘s relationship to our broader tradition, but right now I want to keep the focus on the small details that embody a work.

Homestuck has been called the first great work of hypertext fiction.  Hypertext fiction being a genre of electronic literature, characterized by the use of  hypertext links which provide a new context for non-linearity in literature and reader interaction. This is interesting because Homestuck is not a choose your own adventure story. The path the reader follows through the narrative is more or less straight. The hypertext links are a defining feature of the comic but that’s because they’re being used as another form of communication. There are many branching forks in the narrative but we don’t choose between them, sometimes a page will be covered in nodes from different paths as in Doc Scratch storyline or through the changing panels on this page. One of the major motifs of the story is the idea of fate and the question as to whether or not the characters have any free will or control over their choices and actions. This idea is communicated to us through a format that implies the possibility of choice but in the end steers us inexorably back to the main path, the alpha timeline.

On another level, Homestuck is a story about what it’s like to be friends on the internet. We watch characters who are in constant communication with each other while being isolated by vast stretches of time and space. We see an embodiment of this strange combination of alienation and intimacy as the kids share their thoughts and feelings via text while pursuing their own goals and objectives, for the most part, independently. These individual quests are all meant to be contributing towards a poorly defined but deeply important shared outcome. Each character ends up literally living on their own separate planet and at the same time they are being brought together by Skaia, a great force of creativity and inspiration. The whole setup works very well as a metaphor for the internet. The ideas explored in Homestuck are built into the very foundation of its presentation.

All this is just to say that throughout this reread I’ve been paying special attention to all the ways Homestuck uses it’s unique format as a means of communicating additional layers meaning. I’ve been thinking about all the elements that might have been lost if the comic had been a book, or an animated cartoon, or a movie. I always aware of the feature interlinks but once I start paying specific attention to them I realized they were everywhere. Making note of them has been fun, though it has also brought out my tendency towards wordiness.

I do hope at least some of this post made sense. I’d like to give special thanks to Michael Drout for answering my email and being such an excellent lecturer that even a non-academic such as myself can understand him. Next time, I’ll hopefully be able to resume the recap with one of the most meta characters in the whole comic.