In our ongoing series about Myth, we’ve already covered a lot of ground. But you might feel as though you’re climbing a few mountains before we reach the next plateau.
Starting from Northrop Frye’s division of literature into the modes of myth, romance (by which he meant mediaeval-style epic stories), high mimetic (grand stories about kings and leaders), low mimetic (more ‘ordinary’ stories about more ‘ordinary’ people) and ironic (stories about the less-than-human), we have looked at how seeing these modes as a progression of storytelling through time, while interesting, channelled us away from another powerful point - and that is that there might be another kind of progression, from the deep and mysterious truths of myth, moving outward by concentric circles to the more recognisable truths of everyday existence. This fundamental progression echoes the creative process itself, making a story (or any kind of artefact) from nothing.
We also examined the difficulty that modern readers often face when they try to look at all of this freshly: the mental and spiritual frame of reference has changed so much in the last hundred years that it becomes a struggle to appreciate the way in which earlier stories reflected the world of their creators. Prior to the Reformation and the so-called scientific revolution, we have argued, the relationship between people and their environments was different: there was a primal engagement with and participation in the universe back then which we have more or less succeeded in splitting up into ‘rational’ and ‘psychological’ halves. Our education leads us to look for ‘reasonable’ and ‘verifiable’ evidence for things, while categorising emotional and spiritual experiences as ‘merely’ mental phenomena.
This leads us to to make everything allegorical.
For the earlier storytellers, no such division existed or could have been imagined: the world was perceived as a cohesive whole. Our destinies were truly written in the stars. Allegory wasn't the connecting together of two things: it was perceiving the unity that was already in both.
(About the only vestige we have of this world view today, by the way, is the daily horoscope in the newspaper - a set of ‘star signs’ which have been trivialised and used to manipulate the superstitious. We sneer scornfully at them, treating them as a joke or a ‘bit of fun’ - but they are all that is left of a grand and honourable philosophy in which human beings were part of a linked cosmos, guided by universal principles: the same laws applied to the stars as applied to moral behaviour on earth; the whole of existence was connected, participating in an infinite dance around a central and loving Truth.)
Central universal principles are glimpsed in myth, that mode of storytelling in which truth is most raw and unrecognisable: dark abysses, immense, inhuman giants, strange, deep and unfathomable shapes move ‘over the waters’ in these stories, as we saw in our brief inspection of Norse and Christian mythologies. If we are right, though, and if another layer of truth emerges from these formless beginnings as we move outward from them, we should be able to glimpse the first seeds of universal story archetypes, if we look carefully.
These archetypes appear throughout fiction, from myth all the way to modern detective thrillers, from ancient plays through to contemporary movies, from mediaeval ballads through to today’s mass-produced novels. They’ve been discussed many times in this blog, but here’s a summary:
In most stories with which we are familiar, protagonists are almost identical:
• Frodo the halfling protagonist in The Lord of the Rings, is an orphan who is stabbed, stung and loses a finger in the course of his journey
•Paul Atreides in the science-fiction classic Dune, by Frank Herbert, loses his father and is later struck blind in his adventures
• Will, the child protagonist, loses his mother and then his fingers in the second of the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
• Jem, one of the child protagonists of To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, having already lost his mother, has his arm broken as part of his journey.
Jane, the eponymous heroine of Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Brontë, Heathcliff, the wayward protagonist of Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë, Pip, the child hero of Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens, Anne in Anne Of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery, and Harry in Harry Potter And The Philosopher's Stone, by J.K. Rowling are all orphans and are all wounded either physically or emotionally on their journeys. Harry receives his scar while still a baby.
In the film world, examples are again too numerous to mention: George Bailey in Frank Capra’s classic It's a Wonderful Life, loses his father and is afflicted with deafness in one ear; Luke Skywalker thinks that he is an orphan and even loses the relatives who were raising him in Star Wars: A New Hope.
Fiction is quite a brutal world.
That heroes of tales are often orphans is nothing new, strange though it may seem to look at rawly like this. But the question that few seem to ask is 'Why are so many of these protagonists orphans? Why are so many of them savagely wounded in some way in their stories?'
One obvious answer is 'to gain sympathy from the reader.' Orphans are immediately sympathetic figures for most readers. Wounds and scars increase that sense of sympathy and wanting to help, increasing the identification with the star of the story.
But as we have seen in my book How Stories Really Work, it is actually even simpler than that.
For our present purposes, let’s simply recognise that there is an archetype called The Protagonist. He or she is the channel through which we, the reader or listener or viewer, participate in the fiction as a whole.
What about the other six archetypes? Tune in tomorrow.