The Role of Archetypes in Literature

Christopher Vogler's work on archetypes helps us understand literature

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Carl Jung called archetypes the ancient patterns of personality that are the shared heritage of the human race. Archetypes are amazingly constant throughout all times and cultures in the collective unconscious, and you'll find them in all of the most satisfying literature. An understanding of these forces is one of the most powerful elements in the storyteller’s toolbox.

Understanding these ancient patterns can help you better understand literature and become a better writer yourself. You'll also be able to identify archetypes in your life experience and bring that wealth to your work. 

When you grasp the function of the archetype a character expresses, you will know his or her purpose in the story.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure, writes about how every good story reflects the total human story. In other words, the hero's journey represents the universal human condition of being born into this world, growing, learning, struggling to become an individual, and dying. The next time you watch a movie, TV program, even a commercial, identify the following archetypes. I guarantee you'll see some or all of them.

The Hero's Journey

The word "hero" comes from a Greek root that means to protect and serve. The hero is connected with self-sacrifice. He or she is the person who transcends ego, but at first, the hero is all ego.

The hero’s job is to incorporate all the separate parts of himself to become a true Self, which he then recognizes as part of the whole, Vogler says. The reader is usually invited to identify with the hero. You admire the hero's qualities and want to be like him or her, but the hero also has flaws. Weaknesses, quirks, and vices make a hero more appealing. The hero also has one or more inner conflicts. For example, he or she may struggle over the conflicts of love versus duty, trust versus suspicion, or hope versus despair.

In The Wizard of Oz Dorothy is the story's hero, a girl trying to find her place in the world.

The Job of the Herald

Heralds issue challenges and announce the coming of significant change. Something changes the hero’s situation, and nothing is the same ever again.

The herald often delivers the Call to Adventure, sometimes in the form of a letter, a phone call, an accident.

Heralds provide the important psychological function of announcing the need for change, Vogler says.

Miss Gulch, at the beginning of the film version of The Wizard of Oz, makes a visit to Dorothy's house to complain that Toto is trouble. Toto is taken away, and the adventure begins.

The Purpose of the Mentor

Mentors provide heroes with motivation, inspiration, guidance, training, and gifts for the journey. Their gifts often come in the form of information or gadgets that come in handy later. Mentors seem inspired by divine wisdom; they are the voice of a god. They stand for the hero’s highest aspirations, Vogler says.

The gift or help given by the mentor should be earned by learning, sacrifice, or commitment.

Yoda is a classic mentor. So is Q from the James Bond series. Glinda, the Good Witch, is Dorothy's mentor in The Wizard of Oz.

Overcoming the Threshold Guardian

At each gateway on the journey, there are powerful guardians placed to keep the unworthy from entering. If properly understood, these guardians can be overcome, bypassed, or turned into allies. These characters are not the journey's main villain but are often lieutenants of the villain. They are the naysayers, doorkeepers, bouncers, bodyguards, and gunslingers, according to Vogler.

On a deeper psychological level, threshold guardians represent our internal demons. Their function is not necessarily to stop the hero but to test if he or she is really determined to accept the challenge of change.

Heroes learn to recognize resistance as a source of strength. Threshold Guardians are not to be defeated but incorporated into the self. The message: those who are put off by outward appearances cannot enter the Special World, but those who can see past surface impressions to the inner reality are welcome, according to Vogler.

The Doorman at the Emerald City, who attempts to stop Dorothy and her friends from seeing the wizard, is one threshold guardian. Another is the group of flying monkeys who attack the group. Finally, the Winkie Guards are literal threshold guardians who are enslaved by the Wicked Witch.

Meeting Ourselves in Shapeshifters

Shapeshifters express the energy of the animus (the male element in the female consciousness) and anima (the female element in the male consciousness). Vogler says we often recognize a resemblance of our own anima or animus in a person, project the full image onto him or her, enter a relationship with this ideal fantasy, and commence trying to force the partner to match our projection.

The shapeshifter is a catalyst for change, a symbol of the psychological urge to transform. The role serves the dramatic function of bringing doubt and suspense into a story. It is a mask that may be worn by any character in the story, and is often expressed by a character whose loyalty and true nature are always in question, Vogler says.

Think Scarecrow, Tin Man, Lion.

Confronting the Shadow

The shadow represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed, unrealized, or rejected aspects of something. The negative face of the shadow is the villain, antagonist, or enemy. It may also be an ally who is after the same goal but who disagrees with the hero’s tactics.

Vogler says the function of the shadow is to challenge the hero and give her a worthy opponent in the struggle. Femmes Fatale are lovers who shift shapes to such a degree they become the shadow. The best shadows have some admirable quality that humanizes them. Most shadows do not see themselves as villains, but merely as heroes of their own myths.

Internal shadows may be deeply repressed parts of the hero, according to Vogler. External shadows must be destroyed by the hero or redeemed and turned into a positive force. Shadows may also represent unexplored potentials, such as affection, creativity, or psychic ability that goes unexpressed.

The Wicked Witch is the obvious shadow in the Wizard of Oz.

Changes Brought About By the Trickster

The trickster embodies the energies of mischief and the desire for change. He cuts big egos down to size and brings heroes and readers down to earth, Vogler says. He brings change by drawing attention to the imbalance or absurdity of a stagnant situation and often provokes laughter. Tricksters are catalyst characters who affect the lives of others but are unchanged themselves.

The Wizard himself is both a shapeshifter and a trickster.

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Peterson, Deb. "The Role of Archetypes in Literature." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Peterson, Deb. (2023, April 5). The Role of Archetypes in Literature. Retrieved from Peterson, Deb. "The Role of Archetypes in Literature." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).