Before copyright law, fan fiction was a literary tradition. It was rare for anyone to create an original story when there were already so many fun and exciting characters and legends and plots available to play with. And some of those stories went on to become some of the most beloved pieces of literature in the Western canon.
  1. The Aeneid, Virgil
    The Aeneid, which tells the story of the Trojan hero Aeneas, draws from a number of different sources, but its most prominent is The Iliad. In Homer’s account of the Trojan War, Aeneas is a minor character who is repeatedly spared by the gods because of his great destiny. Virgil picks up where Homer leaves off, at the fall of Troy, and follows Aeneas — now a great hero — from Troy to Italy, where he conquers the Latins. In fanfic terms, The Aeneid is Marty Stu post-epilogue Homerfic.
  2. The Divine Comedy, Dante
    The Divine Comedy manages the hat trick of qualifying as Biblefic, Homerfic, and Virgilfic. It's a self-insert fic in which Dante, fanboy extraordinaire, gets to write about himself meeting Virgil and Homer and all his other faves and have them all tell him how much they like him. This is the 14th-century Italian equivalent of writing yourself onto Star Trek's Enterprise and having Gene Roddenberry high-five you and tell you he loves your work.
  3. Le Morte D’Artur, Sir Thomas Mallory
    Mallory’s version of the King Arthur story combines French romances with Middle English sources into a single coherent saga, creating a framework in which the most popular elements of Arthurian legend — the sword in the stone, the quest for the holy grail, the love story of Lancelot and Guinevere, and Arthur’s defeat by his son Mordred — could coexist in one narrative. Mallory conceived of almost none of the story himself, but he integrated all of its parts together in compelling way.
  4. Hamlet, William Shakespeare
    Shakespeare wrote very few original plots. For most of his plays, he drew on existing narratives and developed them as he saw fit. Hamlet, no exception, is based on a Norse legend composed in the early 13th century, about a prince named Amleth who feigns madness to escape the wrath of his murderous, usurping uncle. Shakespeare seems to have based his Hamlet most heavily on a play by Thomas Kyd that's now known as the Ur-Hamlet.
  5. Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
    A postcolonialist prequel to and critique of Jane Eyre, written from the point of view of Mr. Rochester’s first wife — called Bertha in Jane Eyre and Antoinette in Wide Sargasso Sea — the book turns Charlotte Brontë’s gothic madwoman in the attic into a tragic heroine. Where Eyre’s Bertha is "savage," "devilish," and unspeaking, Antoinette is intelligent and perceptive, driven slowly to madness both by her husband’s cruelty and by a society that considers her to be her husband’s property.