The Question of Archetypes

I’ve heard literary scholars claim that Gandalf, the mighty wizard of Lord of the Rings, is merely a reinvention of Merlin, who in turn evolved out of wise old figures in the epics. When this sort of discussion comes up at SF and F conventions,whether or not people agree about his origins, they will go on to agree that the Gandalf figure dwindled to a stereotype in far too many novels of the seventies and eighties, in which his every action became so predictable that he was little more than a talking (and sometimes ambulatory) signpost, there to explain data to the heroes (amid heartening advice couched in New Age aphorisms) and sometimes to shove the plot from coupon to coupon.

When I first read Lord of the Rings at age fourteen, Gandalf was interesting as a person. I believed he enjoyed ordering meals at Butterburr’s inn, and smoking a pipe and shooting the breeze with Bilbo before setting off magical fireworks to please hobbit kids. Tolkien gave him frivolous business as well as important business, gave him personal motivations, such as his struggle with Saruman; it was those very human and understandable elements that made his apotheosis so tremendously effective for me.

It surprised me when the first versions of bearded old wizards bearing magical staffs showed up in fantasies during the seventies. Surprised, and pleased for a time, because I thought that the familiar elements would extend my deep pleasure in Middle Earth. But as years and books went by, I discovered a sense of disappointment if a story seemed to have a Gandalf-analog, a Frodo-analogue, hobbit-analogues, orcs and dwarves and Nazgul-like critters on the evil team; I knew this story already, and I liked Tolkien’s version better, especially when the Gandalf figure never seemed to change, except maybe to get more powers as reward for his going along. That awe-inspiring apotheosis had become another plot coupon.

But that was my reaction. In later years I discovered that those analogues worked for a lot of readers, including readers who later went back after being exhorted to read LOTR, and found Gandalf boring and predictable. They preferred the white-bearded magical-staff-wielding guy in their favorite quest fantasy.

That caused me to wonder how much of my own Gandalfian resonance related back to him being utterly new, both in presence and actions, when I first read LOTR; though I’d read T.H. White’s Once and Future King at age twelve, Gandalf did not seem like Merlin except that they were both mages. Yet another reread of LOTR furnished a renewed appreciation for the profoundly effective insights Tolkien had to offer through characters such as Gandalf, insights I did not find in the analog stories whose authors apparently were influenced enough by LOTR to regard its basic structure as the ur-story, the only one that could be told.

Gandalf as inspiration functioned for these other writers and readers. Cliché! scoffs someone, and someone else points out that even clichés have meaning, or they wouldn’t stay in use. They function as shorthand, even if they aren’t as inspirational as the prototype that became the cliché.

So my next question was, does that mean that archetypes are actually prototypes? Figures like Gandalf, and Merlin, fulfill such a powerful story function that they form the imaginary landscape in a young writer’s mind, so he or she cannot imagine a quest story without such a figure. This is how those Gandalf figures became a stereotype. They move the story briskly along in anticipated directions—and we should never underestimate the power of anticipation in reading. As established previously in the discussion of spoilers, some readers really, really like knowing where the story is going, because we sure can’t know what tomorrow will bring, in real life.

So where do these figures, whether archetype, prototype, or stereotype, get their power? As usual in any exploration of human ideas, theories begin to fork along paradigm boundaries. On one hand we’ve got Joseph Campbell, who neatly reduces all human myth to a male monomyth (women being, as he said, ‘too busy’ to tell stories), and behavioral and humanistic psychology, which tidily boils down art and endeavor to animal instinct or brain chemistry.

The other branch is often said to begin with Carl Jung, though the Jungian psychoanalyist Clarissa Pinkola Estés maintains that that insights into archetypes and the psyche were preserved and handed down by indigenous people worldwide, they being the original archetypal theorists. Which is one of the reasons why pursuit of this particular branch can appear to be as messy as the Campbellian approach is tidy, as it pokes its tendrils into various cultures and disciplines, including some that are not always acknowledged as disciplines.

But Jung wrote about archetypes for the western worldview, so it’s easy to start with him if one has a western educational background. Redefined in English, Jung’s archetypes can be called innate universal psychic dispositions that form the substrate from which the basic themes of human life emerge. Their purpose? Jung thought that archetypes heavily influenced the human life cycle, propelling a neurologically hard-wired sequence which he called the “stages of life.” Each stage is mediated through a new set of archetypal imperatives which seek fulfillment in action; in youth one seeks one’s identity, to make a place in the world—which historically gave us a lot of angry young men out seeking to achieve or to destroy, the first half of Campbell’s monomyth—and (if he survives that first stage enough to age) in later life the urge to separate oneself from humanity reverses, and one seeks meaning in community, whether that’s limited to family or open to universality or spirituality.

From there it’s a short arc to transpersonal psychology and archaeology . . . for some. Let’s not get into woo, many will say with rational and civilized calm. We humans are just organisms that put on clothes and make markings for each other; we eat, fight, mate, and die. End of story. Maybe, but when I first stood before petroglyphs painted on rock in Utah some 200,000 years ago, and saw those symbols above and around the human figures—and the figures that were not quite human, but distinct from the animal figures—I thought, maybe that is not the end of story, because here we are in this skeptical 21st century, and our fiction is just as full of magic and mythological elements as those ‘primitive’ rock paintings. Would Gandalf be nearly as memorable if he didn’t have that staff to crack upon the ground, and cause the heavens to shake?

Sherwood Smith



The Question of Archetypes — 29 Comments

  1. Archetypes can lend resonance to a work of art to be sure, but the artist needs to add in that “something” especially literary artists to make the archetype a character.
    Reading about archetypes moving around a stage bores me. Some folks need their copies of Masks of God slapped out of their hands.

  2. Gandalf never reminded me of Merlin, but he did and still does remind me of Odin as he appears in the Eddas: there is an edge of the sinister, the unknowable, to Gandalf, which Merlin lacks in any of the treatments more recent than the early Welsh poems (whose date is much debated, but which do seem to pre-date Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was the great populariser of Merlin and Arthur from the mid-12th century). Of course, Tolkein was greatly attracted by early Scandinavian myths, which perhaps accounts for the mix of the mundane and the dangerous in Gandalf (stories about encounters between ordinary men and Thor or Odin).

  3. great post.

    i love thinking about archetypes. in editing it’s a problem-slash-interest, too. with crime fiction, what do you do when you encounter another hard-drinking detective with a troubled childhood and conflicted relationship with his boss (yes, “his”–the female archetype detective is a slightly different model)? is that a cliche, because there have been 8,000 such detectives before, or is it appropriate for the story as long as the author feels and believes the character through to his natural conclusion? how much do you let fly? how much variation do readers actually want? etc.

  4. Love this post.

    One of the most important influences on my writing was an article in Muse magazine (science for kids) about Joseph Campbell. It had this diagram which plotted out 5 or 6 stories by their common elements (Perseus, LOTR, Star Wars, King Arthur, maybe more), and I spent a lot of time thinking about it, writing stories that had McGuffins, Wise and Helpful Guides, various sets of challenges for the hero to overcome, discoveries of parents, until I realized that all i was writing was parody.

    When I finally read Campbell, then Levi-Strauss, and Folkloristics, I had started to strongly doubt the universalist idea of folkloric archetypes (as a Linguist, I’m really glad I did, since universalism is the number one most pervasive fallacy in linguistics.) And then I was reading Plato’s Republic, when he describes how to test a potential king. And suddenly it made sense. Most of those stories are king-making stories, but to prove that a man will be a good king he has to resist temptation, and be strong against challenges, and undeniably faithful to the greater good. And it seems very possible that many of these stories are just the result of people thinking about what makes a good ruler and dramatizing that.

    The question is, is that still an interesting and relevant story to tell? Or do we need to do something different with it to make it reflect the new ways we think about our different kind of world? Or, alternatively, is it still just as important as it always was, and one of the tragedies of modernity is that our ‘rulers’ would never be able to complete a quest like that, that we must accept that they can rarely resist temptation, fear, and lies, and that there is none worthy to be crowned king?

  5. Kari: Now, that makes sense, and as Pilgrimsoul points out, Tolkien himself copped to the Odinic influence. (I just now was trying to find the passage in the Letters, but gave up.)

    Whaddayamean: I think these characters, or archetypes, work for us or writers wouldn’t be moved to write about them and readers to read them. What the writer has to do is imbue that type with a semblance of individual life and spirit, I think.

    Cara M.: Since we can’t seem to eradicate the fascination with hierarchy and power from our collective personality as humans, then I think it not only relevant but fundamental to tell stories about those who attain power and transcend the typical limitations. If we are not inspired to look beyond ourselves, how can we avoid miring ourselves in the same mistakes? But I know many feel we are doomed to make the same mistakes until we are finally extinct.

  6. “But I know many feel we are doomed to make the same mistakes until we are finally extinct.”

    And Odin’s world relentlessly, inevitably charges to Ragnarok. Then, the world is reborn.

    I’ve found two forms of archtypical figures useful in comprehending a variety of interpersonal interactions: the Tarot, and the orisha pantheon of the Yoruba divination system of Ifá. They have come out of very different cultural – spiritual – political systems, but they have in common that the figures are not best comprehended as stand-alones (though they can be, but it’s never complete), but in various companies of the system. And each system progresses through its interlocking cycles to create the Great Cycle.

    Love, C.

  7. It makes sense that Tolkien would think of Gandalf in Odinic terms. He was much more in tune with the Northern Thing” than the Romance tradition of southern Europe. And the first thing Gandalf does in The Hobbit is test Bilbo’s hospitality, just like Odin-in-disguise.

    Archetypal roots may give a character power, but they’re different from creating an actual particular character. That’s what Tolkien knew and what many of his imitators didn’t, or so it seems to me.

  8. I think there are several factors at work in the presence of Gandalf-clone wizards.

    First off: Gandalf is a Mentor figure, and the need for such remains universal, whether it is ancient literature or modern.
    Secondly: Gandalf takes the form of the Wise Old Man, an acceptible (even expected) repository of Wisdom. As humans, we expect that older people will have more experience and will have gained wisdom from those experiences.

    Those two aspects are prehaps the key reason why we get the white-bearded wizards who are kindly and attentive to the heroes of post-Tolkien stories. But there’s more going on than that.

    You rightly point out that Gandalf is a fully rounded character. He is also not a comfortable character, even for a Mentor. He does not, in fact, make things easy for either Bilbo or Frodo – he makes things harder, because the lays out the true stakes, points out that the difficult task is the one that has to be done, and very rarely “shelters” the hero. Unlike Dumbledore, who at the end of Book 5 admits to Harry that he has tried very hard to shelter Harry from the realities of the coming conflict, because he loves Harry. Gandalf loves his charges just as much, but he very rarely shelters them from the hard stuff. That lack of sheltering may be why those who first meet a Wizard Mentor in other works do not respond as strongly to Gandalf when they meet him afterwards: he is not a comfortable companion.

    About archetypes in general: no, I don’t think we’ve lost the need for them nor outgrown the need. The problem we have in the modern age is that our daily life is so distanly removed from primal survival activities that we have less experience of the primal rhythms personally. We don’t experience the group hunting experience and the interactions of leader and follower — our committee work just doesn’t reach the primal level, so we wrestle with our place in “the hunt.”

    But just because we are sheltered from the actual activities on a survival level, that has not really changed our nature and response to primal archetypes. We do find meaning in them, we just don’t understand why. If someone unfolds them and explains, we go “Oh! Of course! Now I see it!” But they are not easy to see through the modern clutter.

    As an aside, mulling over your comment about the prevalence of “white-bearded older wizards”, I was running through my head my own characters, and realized that my Mentor-figure is NOT such: in fact, he actually looks like a young man (though he is a thousand years old at the time of the story). 😀

  9. Re: Odinic

    107, From a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, 7 December 1946

    [On the subject of a German edition of The Hobbit.]

    “I continue to receive letters from a poor Horus Engels about a German translation. He does not seem necessarily to propose himself as a translator. He has sent me some illustrations (of the Trolls and Gollum) which despite certain merits, such as one would expect of a German, are I fear too ‘Disnified’ for my taste: Bilbo with a dribbling nose, and Galdalf as a figure of vulgar fun rather than the Odinic wanderer that I think of . . .”

    I love the index in my copy of Letters

  10. Thank you, Miriam!

    Interesting thoughts, Sarah, though I think I disagree about modern life and leader archetypes. We humans are very bound up in our archetypes, our leaders and power figures; I do think that we try different ones on, for though the old war leaders still have charisma, as our media show, those aren’t the only leaders whose stories we follow. Perhaps we are slowly redefining our heroic figures, but the need for them has not abated a whit.

  11. As messy and convoluted as Jung sometimes gets, he and his followers seem to me closer to the currents of the psyche than most others. Mostly, I suppose, because it’s an integrative approach with a built-in flexibility of personal meaning that other systems don’t always have.

    And I suppose that’s what makes some archetypes in literature more successful than others: if the writer brings that personal flexibility to the page, the individual-as-universal. Those human and personal elements, rather than convenient walking Godhead, are what make Gandalf resonate more for some of us than many of his clones.

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  13. I never thought of Gandalf as a merlin figure, and knew of the Norse connection from studying Norse mythology in 9th grade.

    I’ve thought a lot about LOTR in relation to World War II. Has anyone thought about how Gandalf could parallel Churchill?

    Also, just a plug for Muse. Great magazine. I’ve been reading it almost every month for about two years.

  14. It’s ridiculous to talk about archetypes and claim they’re bad. Archetypes have always existed, will always exist, and are a great tool. The fact is, nearly anything you write is some sort of archetype, or a subversion of it, which then becomes its’ own archetype. For example, check out TV Tropes, which tries to list all the tropes, both original, inverted, subverted and averted found in all media – from TV to Books to Comics to Real Life (a warning – it’s rather addicting). Look at the tropes just for lord of the rings, and see if you can avoid even half of them. Even if you invert/subvert them, people will say you did so because of the original, not because it was your idea.
    I think it’s a fact of life, and should be accepted and used. This is what people talk about in the diffusion of innovation – most of mankind wasn’t smart enough to invent the wheel, but they were smart enough to realize its’ advantages and spread them. Does this make use of the wheel less legitimate, because we ourselves (or our ancestors) did not invent it? Of course not! If it betters humanity, it is indeed our duty to spread it far and wide. I believe this applies to all human innovation and ideas, which were spread as diffusion rather than being invented by different people in different places. Perhaps the only thing not to spread in this way was societal structure. And I believe this applies to archetypes (or tropes, as I call them) as well.
    The key is not overusing it or applying it where it does not belong. My main criticism of Paolini’s Eragon is that his elves and dwarves were practically taken right out of Lord of the Rings, with far too many similarities (even to the language) for my liking. Moreover, even the plot of the first book felt to me like an amalgamation of the two first books of Lord of the Rings.
    As for applying it where it does not belong – though the wheel is a wondrous thing, nobody think those who live in the cold parts of the world for using sleds with runners rather than wheels. The same for certain tropes. If you have a war-torn land where everybody’s been fighting for thousands of years with no respite, it would be hard to accept peaceful elves who live for very long and exist in their own havens. Thus, you subvert the idea of elves – yours become a warrior race, or a scattered society of hunters who hide in the woods.
    Those are my thought, at least. As for Gandalf – I’ll simply say that far too many readers don’t see the true complexity of him.

  15. Koby: interesting thoughts! It seems to me that you are regarding tropes and archetypes as interchangeable. Some would maintain that they are not, but I suspect that the meaning of trope has been altering over the past few years.

  16. I loved this, it gave me so much to think about. It reminded me of reading The Bell Jar, which I hated. Partially, I think, because I had read so many books like The Bell Jar. It didn’t matter to me that The Bell Jar was the first of the genre and novel for it’s time, I’d read variations of the theme and I liked the variations better. Perhaps because the variations could more fully develop what already existed in The Bell Jar.

    I get all tied up into knots when I try to write fantasy, and I worry about research. Say I want to write about a werewolf. Is the werewolf still a werewolf if it turns into a wolf every time it sniffs tulips? How much can I stretch the archetype? How much can I make up?

    I suspect one of the reasons why my fantasy is unoriginal is because I’ve read so much fantasy that all of those stories color my mind. (The other day I googled one of my fantasy story ideas and came up with so many hits I got depressed.) It’s easier for me to write nonfiction because I’ve never encountered someone with my background in a book. All of it is new.

    Also yeah—I remember trying to read Naomi Novik’s dragon series and feeling like the dragons came straight from Pern. It ruined the books for me, I couldn’t shake Pern, but I couldn’t convince myself this was fanfiction.

  17. Sherwood: I define trope as it is used in TV Tropes: “Above all, a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it. Tropes are not inherently disruptive to a story; however, when the trope itself becomes intrusive, distracting the viewer rather than serving as shorthand, it has become a cliché.” –
    I assume the definition of Archetype is generally: “A universally understood symbol or pattern of behavior, a prototype upon which others are copied, patterned, or emulated. In psychology, an archetype is a model of a person, personality, or behavior. ”
    In which case, I believe they are quite similar.

  18. Koby: definitely some overlap, but I think many don’t think them interchangeable. (Though I surmise that some do, these days. Like I said, the definition of ‘trope’ has changed over the past decade or so.)

  19. Indeed. They’re not identical – I wrote myself that the ya re only ‘very similar’ – but I do believe there is considerable overlap. If I had to find the difference I would say that an Archetype is more general, and possibly is considered to be used more.

  20. Is it too late to make a comment on this one? I needed some time to think about the discussion of tropes and archetypes. My understanding about tropes is that they are forms or figures to convey meaning and as we come to understand what trope the author is using, we come to understand the depth of the discussion in that which we are reading. As I understand trope, there are 4 kinds of tropes used in literature. These are metaphor, synecdoche, metonymy, and irony. Archetypes fit under the category of metonymy as do stereotypes. Shakespeare and the renaissance generation are masters of using these literary devices. A book that is forthcoming, discusses figurative language and forms and may be of interest to you. The title is FIGURING STYLE, by Dr. Nancy Christiansen. You’ll have to keep your eyes pealed for it once it reaches bookstore shelves.

  21. Greta: it is never too late to comment, thanks! But because this format doesn’t let people know further comments have appeared, it’s problematical whether anyone but me checks back to see if someone else has posted a comment. (Usually when I check back, it’s to weed out spam! :-))
    Sounds like an interesting book, and it does divide tropes and archetypes the way I was taught. However, in recent decades, it seems to me that the way people use the term ‘trope’ means a spectrum of things: I also think that people are avoiding the term ‘archetype’ for whatever reason.