I Understood That Reference

The other day, I received a comment about a story I posted online a while ago. The reader seemed rather put out that I had made such a blatant Game of Thrones reference. Now, I realize that the comment was text only, and that I could be misreading the tone completely, but it seemed to me that the reader was reacting like I’d brought cheeseburgers to a vegan party.

So I read through the offending chapter (I wrote it over a year ago, so I didn’t remember everything about it), and I think I found the phrase the reader was talking about: ‘”With fire and with blood,” the melodramatic fantasy character said’ (paraphrased, obviously, because I’m not bothering to go all the way back and find the exact line).

I’m aware of house Targaeryan’s motto. It’s “Fire and Blood”. And I see how the phrase I wrote could be taken as a reference to George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire. But it wasn’t. Not on purpose, anyway.

You see, when I see the phrase, “with fire and with blood”, the first thing I think about is not Game of Thrones, but Ridley Scott’s film, Legend. During a climactic scene toward the end, Princess Lili says, “May my offering be made of flesh and blood,” and I always misremember the line as “fire and blood”.

I sent a note back to the reader to explain this, and that was the end of that. But it got me thinking. In a world where the internet is ubiquitous and we have to ability to pick apart and examine every last bit of every film/television show/book/web series/whatever, no matter how old or how obscure, is it even possible not to make a reference to something else? Or to write a stock kind of line like “with fire and with blood” and not have a reader email you to say, “OMG. I can’t even believe you just referenced Whatever Movie or TV show in this story. How gauche.”

When does every mention of the word, “Rosebud”, conjure up Citizen Kane, or every utterance of the phrase I Volunteer”bring to mind The Hunger Games? In our media-soaked culture, can we even try to avoid referring to something else? And is it even a problem?

I don’t think it is. If you consume enough culture, you’re going to remember certain tropes and commonly used phrases. Human memory is associative. One thing leads to another. If I recall the moment in The Avengers when Tony Stark mentions the flying monkeys, I’ll think of the creatures from The Wizard of Oz, which makes me think of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, which reminds me of the 1948 film, The Red Shoes, which reminds me of Jean Cocteau’s Beauty and The Beast (even though Cocteau had nothing to do with The Red Shoes), which reminds me of Disney’s animated film and the live action film in production, which reminds me of Emma Watson (who is playing Belle), which reminds me of Harry Potter, and on and on and on. The references never stop.

So what’s a girl to do when one reference leads to another ad infinitum? I’ll either roll my eyes if it’s obvious or poorly done, or I’ll think, “I wonder if they meant to do that?” if it’s subtle.

And then I keep reading.


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