By Letitia Coyne
Posted March 29, 2012
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Ever notice that when individuals have a problem to resolve, they tend to tell the same story over and over? It might be about their health or their heartbreak, it might be about their job and career choice, or it might be about their childhood or their latest love. Whatever it is, chances are you can say the words with them after a while because if they aren’t telling you again, they are telling your friends when you sit down to a meal together.
You might even recognize yourself, here. Ever get hung up in a loop, going over the same thing endlessly? One of the reasons, a primary reason, I believe, that we go through this rehashing, is in an attempt to make sense of things that we cannot get our head around. Mentally, we retrace our steps again and again, searching for the divine light or a universal insight: a reason for what has happened in our lives. We like to feel we have some control, and we will look for parallels in the experiences of friends, and ask for advice even if we intend to ignore it.
And this process of rehashing is by no means new.
This desire to keep studying cause and effect in the world around us powers the driving need we feel to share stories and the experiences of others. Of course, our personal dramas are a great deal more consuming than fiction, after all, we need to fine tune our standing within relationships, groups, companies, cities, societies etc. We need to make decisions and take actions. But a substantial source of understanding of these groups and societies is found in fiction.
Individuals have dealt with the same issues, in this same way, in every culture since we first built a fire to sit around at night. And every society, no matter the separation of time or distance, peopled their stories with the same characters. When he developed his theory of collective consciousness, KG Jung decided there were shared concepts, archetypes, from which archetypal figures were drawn to represent humanity in every situation. Archetypes themselves are not characters. They are elementals, parts of the personality which are universal.
Very briefly they are:
The self – that is, the identity itself, you as you really are.
The shadow – your deeper side, the parts of your mind which you do not always recognize, but which affect and direct thought and action.
The persona – the mask we wear – the face we put forward as acceptable in public.
The anima – femininity including female in the male personality.
The animus – masculinity including male in the female personality.
These universal concepts are illustrated by groups of archetypal figures, again theoretically recognizable to all societies. They number into their thousands as they appear in response to problems or events, but again, there are some basics:
The father: Authority figure, stern, powerful, the king.
The hero: Champion, defender, rescuer.
The youth: The arrogant, the beautiful, the angsty and overconfident.
The child: Longing for innocence, rebirth, salvation.
The mother: Nurturing, comforting, queen.
The maiden: Innocence, desire, purity.
The helper [sage/hag]: Guidance, knowledge, wisdom.
The whore: Manipulator of weakness in strong men.
The trickster: Deceiver, liar, trouble-maker.
The twin: Duality, the double, the paradox of good and evil in one.
The underdog: Beset by tribulations, succeeds to learn life lessons.
The poet: Artistic expression, creativity.
When these archetypal figures are placed into a story world of archetypal themes and events – birth, death, marriage, conflict, creation, destruction, separation, initiation, etc, experiences recognized by all people – their potential to express and explain the human experience becomes limitless.
Before the advent of novels, mythology and folklore were our source of entertainment and education. The ancient pantheons are excellent illustrators of the principles of universal archetypes. All over the world people told and retold stories about the exploits of their gods, each god a complex mixture of archetypal figures moving through epic adventures and magical landscapes. In very different cultures the same gods with different names were having the same adventures and learning the same lessons. When morals were introduced, stories became fables and parables to guide and correct the masses. These ‘fictions’ helped make sense of the world.
Long after their respective twilights, these old gods delivered their burden of human experience to new audiences as they were Christianized, and on into schools and universities where the classics were studied and their life lessons examined. Their tales were drawn upon and modified by Shakespeare and Chaucer and alike, their character traits and their exploits retold in play and poem, with new names and updated circumstances.
They remain popular today.
Their stories describe fundamental truths that are not eroded by time or scientific advancement. For all we have learned, deep in our hearts and minds we are not so far from the cave’s fire pit; we remember the village hearth; we still carry the mythology and superstitious awe of what lies over the horizon.
With the advent of the novel, a change did take place in the telling of stories. Those archetypal characters still moved through landscapes, but their primary function was no longer to educate. All that was necessary from a novel, right from their earliest days, was to entertain.
Heroes and villains in novels moved steadily closer to normality. Everyday people took lead roles away from gods and kings; the adventures they shared became far more mundane. Supernatural abilities became less likely to be the solution to the ills of society. They still carried those archetypal characteristics which are and were recognized universally, but they demonstrated a more natural blend of traits and their actions began to more closely resemble the everyday.
That is when, I think, stories moved from the examination of archetypes, in all their godly full expression, toward ectypes or stereotypes. Stereotypes fulfill the same role, providing instant recognition of a host of unstated characteristics, but they are toned down. They can be just as difficult to believe, but we know them, and accept them, and will often allow them to fill our pages because we are so familiar with them.
So next week, I will have a chat about stereotypes. Whenever we have a favorite genre, you can rest assured there is a set of stereotypes we enjoy following. I wonder; if they are so frowned upon in literature, why do they remain so popular?
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