Myth and the 'Now' Part Six: Archetypes


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:

Protagonists

In most stories with which we are familiar, protagonists are almost identical: