Images in the Tapestry: An Archetypal Approach to Literature

One of the tasks I face as a high school English teacher is helping my students learn to read a text both critically and analytically.  There are numerous ways to do this, of course, but a method that I have found to be particularly effective is approaching stories from an archetypal perspective.  An archetype is image, symbol, character type, plot pattern, or descriptive detail that occurs frequently in various myths, religions, literature, or folklore.  Some common archetypal motifs include:

The journey


The exiled child

The battle for good over evil


God and the devil

The seasons

The tree of life

The fall from grace

The snake

For example, the characters of Jesus and the Phoenix show the pattern of death and rebirth.  Moses and Odysseus depict the pattern of the journey.  Perseus and Beowulf demonstrate the pattern of good versus evil.  The list could go on and on.  (My purpose here is not simply to repeat ideas that other writers have expressed far more insightfully than I could.  For a thorough treatment on the topic of archetypes, I recommend reading Christopher Vogler’s excellent book, The Writer’s Journey.  Or if you prefer a more scholarly approach, pick up Joseph Campbell’s classic text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces.)  As I teach, I make a point of drawing attention to some of the archetypal conventions as they emerge in the stories we are studying.  What is even more fun, however, is pointing out examples of how modern writers and film makers take these stock themes and twist them in ways that breathe fresh life into old storytelling devices.     

One motif that students readily identify is the teacher/student archetype.  You don’t have to look far to find examples of this.  For instance, in ancient Hebrew literature, there is the character Joshua who serves under Moses before becoming the leader of the Israelites.  In the stories from ancient Greece and Rome we find Chiron, a wise old centaur who trains the great heroes of Classical mythology, such as Hercules, Achilles, Aeneas, and Jason, among others.  King Arthur is trained by Merlin the wizard.  Virgil teaches Dante.  Gandalf guides Frodo.  Mr. Miyagi and Rocky’s crusty old coach, Mickey, train their weak apprentices to be powerful fighters.  Morpheus and the Oracle help Neo realize that, inside the Matrix, “There is no spoon.”  Professor Higgins teaches Eliza Doolittle to be a lady.  Likewise, Clarisse Renaldi trains Mia Thermopolis to be proper princess in The Princess Dairies.  In the Star Wars saga, Yoda trains Qui-Gon Jinn, who later instructs Obi-Wan Kenobi, who then, in turn, trains Anakin and Luke Skywalker before Luke returns to Yoda for further training…etc, etc.

So far, the examples have been primarily positive, but what about the recent trend of depicting mentors whose motives are not always in their students’ best interest?  For example, in the film Training Day, Jake (Ethan Hawke’s character) is led along a dangerous odyssey through L.A.’s gang-ridden streets by Alonzo (portrayed by Danzel Washington) so that Alonzo can set him as a fall-guy for his own drug-dealing and extortion.  In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne is trained in the martial arts by Henri Ducard, who then betrays his student.  In the film Wanted, Wesley Gibson (portrayed by James McAvoy) is at first rescued from a life of oppressive boredom by Sloan (Morgan Freeman) and Fox (Angelina Jolie), only to be double-crossed by his so-called teachers.  The story Fight Club portrays a particularly twisted rendition of the mentor/mentee relationship in which the teacher and the student are one and the same.  To me these are fascinating examples of how writers take an often-used archetype and bend it in surprising and innovative ways.  And when students begin to think about stories in this way, it gives them a framework on which they can develop their own analytical skills more effectively.  Of course, one question worth asking is this:  What do all these negative portrayals of mentors say about our own society?

About Scott Shields

Years ago, I left the Midwest for the deserts of Arizona. Since then, I have worked in the grocery business and as a high school English teacher. Literature and writing are my passions, and I try to share my love of the written word with my students each day.