My major content objective for this section is to help students discover that archetypes are the basic building blocks of literary structure. The discussion in this section is of a general theoretical nature and is offered as mainly background for teachers. Whatever material might be useful for class activity and discussion I will leave to your judgment; but whatever you use can be easily woven into the unit at any time. You might want to discuss archetypes in connection with the quest myth, since it is the archetypal plot.
To fully explore the matter of Archetypes would involve the thorough study of the modern mythographers: Sir James Frazer, Carl Jung, and Joseph Campbell. Such a study is neither within the scope of this paper nor the reach of my knowledge. However, some attempt will be made to connect their ideas on archetypes.
Frazer observed in
The Golden Bough
, his study of myth, magic, and ritual in primitive society, that there was an unexplainable similarity that existed in certain tribal rituals in tribes so separate, no contact had ever taken place. He saw in these ritual patterns man’s common imaginative connection to the universe he inhabits.
It is these common recurring patterns that Jung saw as manifestations of what he called “the collective unconscious.” Located in our psyche, it is the repository of a shared racial memory, an inheritance from our common ancestors. By linking the psyche within the evolutionary cycle, Jung concluded that our patterns of experiencing and responding to experience are the same for us today as they were for primitive man. Jung labeled our genetic-biological linkage with the past “archetypal.” Archetypes, for Jung, were forms of intuition, perception, and apprehension inborn and located in the unconscious. Most commonly, he observed, these archetypes took the form of images, usually in our dreams, and occurred in connection with transitional stages of life, such as those involving birth and death. Jung saw in the appearance of these images—such as the Earth-mother symbol, the tree of life—in myth stories, factors so basic to human experience that they had to be recorded. Hence, our earliest myth stories are the first public expression of these private experiences.
Joseph Campbell, in his
The Hero with a Thousand Faces
, sees in the ancient hero-myths the eternal human struggle for identity (the hero-quest myth as “monomyth”). Campbell believes that since myths and religions have always followed the same archetypes, they can not be the exclusive right of any particular race, religion, or region. He also contends that in the modern world the ancient heritage of myth is in full decay. That meaning which the great coordinating mythologies provided to the group has been lost; all meaning is now in the individual. Today, because of science and technology, communication between consciousness and the unconscious is cut. He sees the modern “hero-deed” as that of questing to bring light again to, “the lost Atlantis of the coordinated souls.”
The common thread that ties the work of Frazer, Jung, and Campbell together is the idea that we all share recurring patterns of behavior. It is with Northrop Frye, in his book on myth and archetypes,
The Anatomy of Criticism
(1957), that a systematic study of these recurring patterns and their relationship to literature brought the scientific findings of the mythographers to bear on literary criticism. It seems to me that Frye completes the cycle of thought begun with Frazer’s observations of basic recurring patterns of ritual behavior. Jung’s notion that mythology arose from the impulse to express these common experiences, possessed by all men in the “collective unconscious, is completed by Frye, who saw in the recurring patterns of imagery in mythology the basis of all literature. It is precisely at the point that Jung’s unconscious archetypal images become consciously expressed in myth that Frye begins to evaluate the importance of these images in literature. For Frye, archetypes are the recurring patterns of imagery (wastelands or gardens), character types (scapegoat or hero), events (rites of passage), stories (monster-slaying), or themes (good versus evil) that provide the structural principles that give literature its unity.
Archetypes, therefore, are those images that recur often enough in literature to become recognizable as elements of one’s own imaginative experience. Consider, for example, the snake. For us, the snake is something evil or sinister needs no introduction. Classical and Biblical allusions abound. Serpents and (by analogy) dragons are constant villains. There is the serpent in the Garden of Eden. Perseus slays both a dragon and the Medusa, whose permament hairdo is of writhing snakes. A serpent guards the Golden Fleece. St. George saves his people from the dragon. In chapter three of the book of Genesis, God ordains an eternal enmity between reptiles and humans. Carl Sagan in his study on the evolution of human intelligence,
The Dragons of Eden
, speculates about the implacable hostility between man and reptile. He wonders whether it is just accident that the common human sounds used to demand silence or attract attention sound like imitations of hissing snakes. Could it be also that dragons posed a real danger to our protohuman ancestors a few million years ago, and this terror was lodged in what Sagan calls the Repetilian-complex core of our brain, at a point in our development where we shared a common experience with reptiles? In the poems “The Snake,” by Emily Dickinson, “Filling Station,” by A.M. Klein, and “Snake,” by D.H. Lawrence we can see that the power of the archetype is still as compelling as ever. In the first two poems, each poet retains the traditional associations of snakes as evil. On the other hand, Lawrence chooses to reverse the archetypal meanings. He sees the snake as good, and blames the prejudice against them on “the voice of his education”—that is, on the archetype.
Lawrence’s poem raises a moral issue that you might pose to your students. How can confusion between the symbol and the real thing result in harmful consequences? The narrator in Lawrence’s poem dramatizes this conflict forcefully, when he nearly kills the snake because of its archatypal history. A distinction must be pointed out between the literary symbol and the literal thing. As a literary symbol, snakes can be portrayad as evil; but in real life to kill a snake because of its archetypal associations is an act of moral abnegation. But absurdities of this type occur over and over again in modern life. The archetype of the snake has shaped our moral categories; the real snake stands outside of them.