Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Archetypal Tales

Melody brought up a really good point yesterday in the comments about Eragon, and how the setup was such a close copy of Star Wars. Think farm boy (Luke vs. Eragon), lives with relatives who are soon killed, so he is taken under the wing of an old hermit (Ben Kenobi vs. Brom) who soon helps him discover that he has special powers (The Force vs. Magic/The Ancient Language). She's right of course, the beginning of these two tails is painfully similar. The thing is this story is even older than that. Think Frodo, Gandalf/Argorn, and The One Ring. The Ring is more of a burden, of course, but it does have powers.

The point is that this story is what is known as an archetypal tale. Nathan wrote a great post about this a few months ago and I won't be able to articulate this any better than him, so make sure to go here, before or after you read my contribution, either way is fine.

Nathan points out that David and Goliath could fall into this category, and I think he's right, but there are also Greek Myths such as Perseus, or even Homer's Odyssey, which are similar, and there is no question that Siegfried in Wagner's Ring Cycle (akin to Sigurd in Norse Mythology) goes through a similar transformation, having several mentors such as Mime, Alberich and even Odin, at times. There are probably older tales than these that fall into this category but do not spring to mind immediately.

The psychologist Carl Jung even went so far as to outline several major archetypal characters. He wasn't necessarily talking about literature, but they do apply. He named the Wise Old Man or Sage (think Obi-Wan, Gandalf or Brom), the Hero (Luke, Frodo, Eragon), and the Trickster (Loki, R2-D2 - sort of, Murtagh, Gollum/Smeagol) among others.

I for one don't think there is anything wrong with writing novels that fall into these archetypes, after all - all the stories have already been told, but just make sure you change something so that you tell the story in your own way. Melody made a really good point when comparing Eragon to Star Wars yesterday (some of our discussion was by email, so it may not be in the comments) but I for one still enjoyed Eragon, because it evolved into something of its own.

I had planned on discussing this topic further today, but I've been slammed at work and it has now taken me until 11:15 AM just to get this far so I am cutting it short.

Readers - thoughts?


Sarah Ahiers said...

as a writer i'm not a fan of archetypes. I find them no fun.
however i don't mind, and often enjoy, them as a reader/movie watcher

Melody said...

Wow, my name! That was weird. And cool. :)

While I like an author's originality to spice up every story, I really do like the concept of archetypes. I like seeing how the Big Story is represented, sometimes unintentionally, through our stories. It's so cool!

Rachele Alpine said...

I agree with your comment to make sure that you make the story your own. I've found that my pieces have similar elements to stories and I used to stress about it, until I changed my way of thinking and knew that if I wrote my own story, it would become different and be unique.

Also, for some reason your blog doesn't show up in my google feed. I'm subscribed, so I don't get what is happening. Blah!

Vicki Rocho said...

Archetypes make me think of phonemes. Archetype = x number of stories to be told. Phoneme = x number of sounds in language. That's neither here nor there, just thinking out loud.

I would have to look up the generally accepted archetypes to see if I could come up with something that didn't fit the mold. I'm not sure how much variation a story has to have in order to be classified as new.

Candyland said...

Um, this is over my head and I'm sleepy. But I wanted to give your blog a little love. So here I am. *love*

Anonymous said...

I agree that there are only a limited number of truly original stories out there and that it's the writer's job to put a new and different spin on an archetype, to make it fresh and modern (if that makes any sense at all).

The topic of archetypes is an interesting one. Thanks for bringing it up :)

Lenny Lee said...

hi mr matthew! that picture is soooo cool! i think it doesnt matter if you got those same kind of people in your book. you just gotta make it a different place or time and change up how stuff goes down. seems like those kind of people are real popular and people like them in movies and in books too
...smiles from lenny

Roland D. Yeomans said...

Eragon (think Aragon from Lord of the Rings) made me want to rend my clothes like the old Hebrew teachers.

It virtually took STAR WARS as a blueprint. Archetypes are fine to tap into. But twist them in a different, unique way.

You have another excellent post, Matt. I've been so overwhelmed work and personal-wise, it seems I get to my friends' sites all too seldom.

I have tried an experiment of my own in the mold of 24HOURS. Could you come check it out to see if I've lost my mind completely?

Provided as a courtesty only :


"To all of life there is a shadow. The shadow of sadness, doubt, despair. Still it is but an echo of a heart moving forward."

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

There's so few new ideas - it's all how each of us puts together the story.

Tracy said...

I think archetypes are only a problem when all the facets are so similar that it leads you to think it's a blueprint from another story.

I've never read or seen Eragon so I can't comment on that particularly. But as a non-avid Sci-Fi/Fantasy reader (I'm more paranormal) I would never have really linked Star Wars and Lord of the Rings as having the same archetype unless it was pointed out to me by someone ;o)

DEZMOND said...

there is also an archetype of an American hero, which appears not only in books and novels but also in movies and it is the favourite hero type among Americans: it is usually a lonesome rebel who fights for his causes, has a sidekick (usually a strange person like Chingachgook to Natty Bumppo, Chubacca to Han Solo...), doesn't really fit into the society but still fights for justice, has a strange and sometime cold relationship with women...... Imagine most of the male heroes from books, action heroes from movies, and you will see this archetype.

Old Kitty said...

Well remember the author of the Adventures of Willy the Wizard sueing Bloomsbury publishers over the Harry Potter books citing plagiarism??

I don't even know the outcome but I had a feeling the whole essence of Harry Potter - boy wizard discovers he is the only one able to defeat evil is one of those archetypical stories - except that JK Rowliing managed to do so more successfully.

Or even Romeo and Juliet - love across the divide - that's been done to death.

I think it's all in the telling - in the tweaking of a standard - it's up to the writer to elevate a timeless premise to something their own.

Take care

Janet Johnson said...

You know, I hadn't thought of that. But Melody is right. Personally, I really enjoyed Eragon, so I'm okay with it.

I think most stories have been done before when you get down to the crux of the story.

vic caswell said...

i like what you said! archetype characters work well as long as they have their own twists.
they instantly make connections with their readers. as a reader it's as if you're meeting up with a long, lost friend. :)

Theresa Milstein said...

We're all building on/borrowing from the old stories. I heard Rick Riordan interviewed. He said his stories have been compared to ideas from Harry Potter. He found this a compliment. He also cited several instances of J.K. Rowling borrowing from a myriad of myths and such.

Jemi Fraser said...

As long as the tale & the voice are engaging, the characters are fresh, I'm absolutely okay with archetypes. :)

Unknown said...

Interesting and now I'm wondering if I have archtypes in mine. For sure I have the hero. Hmmm...

Faith E. Hough said...

It was c. s. lewis who said, "No one who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it." I think it all comes down to writing something meaningful. And then writing it well. I think when someone puts that work and thought into a ms, it will just...sing.
Without that truth and meaning, I think the danger is that although you may have an entertaining story, everyone will be thinking about who's already done it.

Erin Kane Spock said...

It's hard to avoid archetypes 100%. You just have to get your chosen one who defeats the great evil beyond the archetype. Maybe he'll wear glasses or have really hairy feet.

My husband and I read out loud to each other, and when we went through the Eragon series, he would refer to Brom as Obi Wan all the time. And the mysterious last elven dragon rider was Yoda. Let's not talk about Eragon's father.

An entertaining story for young readers.

I write romance. Hot hero boy meets hot heroine girl, they are attracted, there is conflict, but eventually love conquers all. She has a slutty friend. He has a less attractive, funny friend. Basic archetypes in an archetypal story formula. I like to think that I take the basics and turn it into my own story, and something deeper than the formula. I love romance novels and still read avidly in spite of knowing how the story will turn out because many authors go beyond in spite of genre constraints.

Eric W. Trant said...

Absolutely NO such thing as a new story.


Saying, "Archetypal Tale" is redundant. Just say, "Tale."

Because it's all been said.

It's all been done.

If you think otherwise, my friend, take your meds, because you are hallucinating.

Your concept is in no way original. Sorry.

The only thing that is yours is this: VOICE.

Just like a singer can't sing a new love song, you can't write a new love story.

But you can sing it in a different voice.

- Eric