“…and stained in the blood of a whole generation.”

In Icelandic sagas, it’s not an uncommon motif: Clinging to old ways, warriors flail as the heroic code that defines their lives gives way to something new and strange. Perhaps that’s how lifelong soap fans feel this week, as All My Children succumbs to cancellation after nearly 42 years, while its doomed elder sister, One Life to Live, glares anxiously into its grave.

Baby swaps, preposterous wealth, evil twins, travels through time—soaps are easy to mock, but their sheer continuity is remarkable. (Making All My Children and One Life to Live look like pikers, Guiding Light began on radio in 1937 and wasn’t snuffed out until 2009.) Most of us, medievalists especially, can point to the survival and adaptation of stories across decades and centuries and cultures—Arthurian legends, Icelandic sagas, the Song of Roland—but except for comic strips, I’m hard pressed to think of another example of continuous storylines unfolding five days a week for more than 40 years, sometimes pleasing their audience, sometimes not, rolling with the culture while aspiring, sometimes, to universality:

It starts on a quiet note with a group of people, neither particularly good nor particularly bad, who, because they are the way they are, clash with each other; not violently, but sufficiently hard to cause ill-feeling. This casual ill-feeling is transmitted to kinsmen and descendants, to friends and to allies. More and more people become involved, with fatal results…The early actors of the drama fade out, but the troubles they have started now seem to have a life of their own, until the action is galloping headlong, with brief tantalizing pauses where control seems to have been momentarily asserted, from minor mishap to major tragedy, until finally its inevitable impulse is exhausted in the last elegiac chapter.

That’s from Magnus Magnusson’s introduction to the 1959 Penguin Classics edition of Njal’s Saga, and it’s as fine a summary of the arc of a family saga, medieval or modern, as any you’re likely to find.

Even if the Cortlandts and the Chandlers never shed blood at the Law Rock, and although Erika Kane (who once faced down a grizzly bear) might quail before the ornery, resilient Hallgerd, there’s no harm in hearing outlandish medieval echoes in the death cries of a genre. The soaps’ own echoes carry on; they showed prime-time TV producers the potential of serialized rather than episodic storytelling, and early on, they crowdsourced plot twists to indefatigable fans.

Of course, the medieval/soap-opera connection has been common knowledge since 2009, when a courtly-love subplot on General Hospital showed that at least one of its writers has taken a medieval lit class. As such, we can only wish the citizens of Pine Valley a safe journey into the television afterlife, and hope that there, unlike in medieval Iceland, “face-lift” means something entirely kind.

3 thoughts on ““…and stained in the blood of a whole generation.”

  1. One always has to wonder which of the genres we find ourselves in the middle of will, in the future, be studied by scholars. I wonder if the writers and actors of morality plays, for instance, ever thought they would end up in somthing like the Norton anthologies. I can see the chapter now: “Soap Operas of the Late Twentieth and Early Twenty-first Centuries.” God knows, Shakespeare just wanted to put butts in seats but, as Peter S. Beagle once wrote to me in a letter (that I keep framed on an altar with candles and Beagle icons around it): Shakespeare couldn’t help being Shakespeare, even though he was a hack.

    In the end, what conclusion can scholars of the future draw but that soap operas were an important literary genre? Longevity has to mean something. True, most of us feel soap-operas are poorly-written, but there is a lot of stuff in Norton that stinks on ice, in a literary sense — it’s just that it is so old.

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