Archetypes and Archetypal Criticism
The popular saying “when they made you, they threw away the mold” hints
that literally the statue or figuratively the person is singular,
exceptional, unique. With no mold or pattern to follow, a
duplicate is impossible. An archetype, however, is the mold that
has not been discarded. The archetypal mold, flexible and
long-lasting, provides many close copies of the original.
Consider possibly the most popular archetype of all—the Hero.
John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn and Harrison Ford as Indiana Jones are
strikingly different actors, but as heroes who overcome the obstacles
in their respective paths, they are undoubtedly from the same mold, an
obviously flexible one given the girth of Wayne. The hero
archetype appears in every culture; it’s a favorite mold of humanity.
An archetype then is a pattern or prototype of character types, images,
descriptive details, and plot patterns that find their way from our
minds to our myths to our literature to our lives (Holman 34).
The psychologist Carl Jung, a colleague of Sigmund Freud, first
popularized the use of the term archetype (pronounced ark-uh-type) when
he postulated the theory that, similar to the instincts of animals,
humans are born with a “collective unconscious,” a level below the
conscious and subconscious, wherein the source of the archetypes or the
molds exist. He believed it was this collective unconscious that
gave humans certain predispositions to specific stimuli. In other
words, we all respond to archetypes in the same way because our minds
are made the same way and “preprogrammed” by thousands of years of
human experience. Some texts refer to this idea as a “racial
memory,” as in human race. A fair analogy might be the mind
reacts to an archetype in the same way that the body reacts when a
doctor taps the knee with a hammer—reflexively and predictably.
As a product of our collective unconscious, archetypes naturally found
their way into our subconscious and our dreams. Jung believed he
could analyze his patients by focusing on the archetypal elements of
their dreams. From dreams archetypes migrated to myths, the
stories we told to explain our world before science arrived to help,
the stories that reveal our “deepest instinctual life,” the stories
that reveal to us our inner selves (Guerin 159). Joseph Campbell,
author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, believed that there was
really just one universal hero story. Anthropologists like James Frazer
have reinforced the universality of archetypes by finding that peoples
who could never have encountered each other have the same archetypes in
their myths and rituals. From mythology archetypes made the short
hop into literature. From our minds to our myths to our
literature is a natural progression that shows us that the study of
literature is the study of ourselves, archetypes included.
So what the heck does one do with archetypes? Take note of them
and use them to explain the story and its appeal to the reader.
Patterns that frequent literature and have universal appeal bear
watching because they help explain both story and humanity. Use
the archetypal hammer to tap your brain’s knee and watch the
results. They should help you see what the author intended on
many levels. You may have never noticed these before on a conscious
level, but by viewing this table you’ll see just how familiar they
are. Archetypal literary criticism can also augment other types
of literary criticism.
sources were compiled for these tables:
www.fccps.k12.va.us/gm/faculty/archcrit.htm, and the source below.
The protagonist on a literal or figurative journey often from childhood to adulthood, innocence to experience.
The antagonist or character blocking the hero’s path.
The hero’s inner evil, the dark side of his psyche that makes success difficult or impossible unless accepted.
Mother and Father
Yup, the parental units are near and dear to our hearts and especially our minds because of their nurturing or lack thereof.
The Wise Old Man
A mentor, a teacher, a counselor
The Friendly Beast
This shows that nature is pro-hero.
The bad, bad person who tempts the hero
A person (or animal) whose death relieves others of a sin or wrong
A character banished because of his wrong doing; often a wanderer
The Earth Mother
A female character, naturally, who offers spiritual and emotional comfort
The Temptress or Terrible Mother
female who tempts the hero and tries to bring about his end.
Synonyms include femme fatale, witch, sorceress, and siren because
these suggest the magical powers of a seductive woman.
The Platonic or Perfect Woman
The hero has primarily an intellectual love for this woman who inspires his best.
The Unfaithful Wife
The Damsel in Distress
Help me! Help me, please!
Lovers fated to suffer a tragic end.
character has a negative nature, a character that might be a fraud, a
prankster, a con man, a joker, etc. However, they might be helpful to
the hero at some point.
And Many More…
This list is by no means an exhaustive one.
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Plot Patterns/Elements ArchetypesThe Quest
search for someone or something that will restore rightness to the
hero’s world that involves hardships, monsters, or riddles (literal or
figurative in nature like all of these) Vogler's Version of the Quest Archetype
The hero must perform a deed beyond the norm.
The Initiation or Transformation
hero undergoes a hazing to pass from ignorance and immaturity to social
and spiritual adulthood. It usually occurs in three stage: separation,
transformation, and return and thusly may include the fall and
search of information, the hero passes into a real or figurative hell
from which he may emerge after he discovers the blackest truths of
hero falls to a lower level from a comparative heaven after a loss of
innocence and happiness because of a transgression, a wrong.
Death and Rebirth
Usually a metaphorical death, a spiritual or emotional death and reviving of the spirit and emotions
Nature vs. the Mechanical World
Nature good, machines bad.
The Unhealable Wound
A physical or psychological wound that indicates a loss of innocence
Weddings, baptisms, coronations—real or figurative—that mark a rite of passage to another state or level
The Magic Weapon
The Hero’s weapon that no one else can use to its full potential if at all.
Paradise, innocence, unspoiled beauty, fertility
Life of the cosmos, immortality
Spiritual aridity, death, nihilism, hopelessness
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images are often just labeled as examples of symbolism, but they are
able to symbolize because of their archetypal origin. The only source
for this table of archetypes is A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature (Guerin 161-166).
has archetypal possibilities in every form it takes. It can
represent purification, redemption, birth-death-resurrection, sadness,
mother of all life, spiritual mystery and infinity, death and rebirth,
timelessness, eternity, and often the unconscious mind
Death/rebirth, the flowing of time, the life cycle, gods
energy, natural law, the conscious mind, the father principle; the
rising sun is birth, creation, and enlightenment while the setting sun
Red: blood, sacrifice, violent passion: disorder
Green: growth, sensation, hope, fertility or negatively death/decay
Blue: truth, religious feeling security, purity
Black: chaos, mystery, the unknown, death, evil, melancholy (sadness), primal wisdom
White: light, purity, innocence, timelessness or death, terror, the supernatural or blinding truth
A mandala, figure that represents the desire for spiritual unity and integration
The mystery of life
That funky Chinese symbol for a union of opposites: male-female, light-dark, activity-passivity, conscious-unconscious
Symbol of energy, pure force, evil, corruption, sensuality, destruction, mystery, wisdom, the unconscious
Three: light, spiritual awareness, and unity, the male principle
Four: associated with the circle, the life cycle (seasons) earth, nature (four elements)
Seven: the sum of three and four, the completion of a cycle, perfect order
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Four Archetypal Narrative PatternsThese
survive, according to Frye, “because they are fundamental structures of
the human imagination, perennially useful ways of perceiving the world
A world where goals are achieved and dreams fulfilled.
Goals are thwarted and nightmares become reality
Moving from a desirable state to an undesirable one
From an undesirable state to a desirable one
uses all these archetypes, but usually in camouflaged ways. No
literal magic weapon or damsel in a tower waiting for aid or garden
appears in most stories, but figuratively they do. A magic weapon
can simply be a character’s education or skills; the damsel can be a
woman with a flat tire on the roadside; the garden can be any peaceful,
natural place like a park or a character’s dream world. A journey
can be a spiritual journey. When the archetypes are used literally, the
stories can become more mythological and dated but no less
enjoyable. Consider The Lord of the Rings and the Star Wars trilogies.