Archetypes infuse fantasy writing, as well as all other genres, with life and meaning. Many famous fantasy stories include them. Carl Gustav Jung, a psychoanalyst who learned from Sigmund Freud and then branched off to form his own theories, claimed that all human beings share a “collective unconscious”, a kind of inherited pool of psychological experiences that influence us without our consciously being aware of them. Within the collective unconscious are important “archetypes” that have risen out of our common human experience.
One such archetype is “mother”. All human beings have mothers and the “mother” archetype affects us emotionally. Furthermore, “mother” can be subdivided into “good mother” and “bad mother”. According to analytical psychology, very young children are unable to integrate images of their mothers behaving in ways that feel “good” (e.g. feeding them and taking care of them) with images of their mothers that feel “bad” (e.g. punishing or abusing them). According to analytical psychology, all human beings retain unconscious memories of their childhood perceptions.
Many successful works of literature include a “mother” archetype, and many include images of both “good mother” and “bad mother”. In Lord of the Rings, Galadriel appears as a warm, loving, wise mother. In The Wizard of Oz, Glinda is the Good Witch, presented in stark contrast to her nemesis The Wicked Witch of the West. Archetypal theory applied to literature and film tells us that these characters stir up unconscious feelings in the reader or viewer, deepening the emotional experience of the fictional stories.
Two other important archetypes are “father” and “wise old man”. In Lord of the Rings, Elrond is a loving father figure. Gandalf is a wise old man and guide, while Saruman is a dark and evil old man. Bilbo Baggins is an eccentric father figure, sometimes good, sometimes taken over by evil when in possession of the Ring.
In the Harry Potter novels, J.K. Rowling presents a vast array of different types of parents, parent figures, and wise old men and women- -some good, some evil, some in between.
The “child” is another important archetype. All adult human beings know what it was like to be a child, and childhood carries many memories. The “child” archetype can be represented by either children or childlike characters. In Lord of the Rings, all the hobbits are childlike characters in many ways, especially when they act like children.
Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature and was selected by Oprah Winfrey for her Book Club. This is a powerful novel presenting two main characters who are never given names: a father and his son traveling through post-apocalyptic country. The tenderness of the father toward his son and the love between these two strongly archetypal characters delivers a powerful message, placed against the terrible backdrop of the setting and the violent actions of some fellow travelers on the road.
“Family” is another Jungian archetype, one that plays out in many different ways in fictional stories. Broken families form the core of many characters’ quests for wholeness, as in the Harry Potter series. All human beings know what it means to belong to a family and to be the descendant of particular ancestors. Intricate family trees often fill important roles in epic fantasy. In the Harry Potter series, J.K. Rowling explored in great detail how family histories affected particular characters. In fact, the Black Family Tree is shown in great detail in both the “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” book and movie. J.K. Rowling developed many different ways in which individual characters reacted to painful family histories, with Voldemort and Harry Potter at two opposite extremes of the good vs. evil continuum.
Another important archetype is the “hero”. Literature and movies have given us many famous heroes, the archetype with which most people easily identify as they read the story or watch the movie. Some heroes that come easily to mind are: Luke Skywalker in Star Wars, Harry Potter in the Harry Potter series, and all the comic book superheroes.
The “maiden” is a female archetype representing purity and innocence, often rescued in traditional literature by the “hero”. Arwen Evenstar in Lord of the Rings, Princess Leia in Star Wars, and Cinderella in the fairy tale are examples of the “maiden” archetype.
The “animal” archetype is frequently an important element in fantasy stories. Gandalf’s horse in Lord of the Rings is one example. In the Harry Potter series, Voldemort’s snake, the students’ animals, and all the animals cared for by Hagrid fulfill our human connection to animals.
The “shadow” archetype represents the dark, animal side of human nature. The pure “shadow” archetype is considered neither “good” nor “evil”, but definitely animalistic in nature. These abound in fantasy literature in the form of snakes, vampires, and werewolves to name just a few.
The “persona” represents the public image that humans show to each other, sometimes represented as the mask. Often developed to hide the deeper parts of ourselves, the “persona” is somewhat removed from the collective unconscious.
In using archetypes in fantasy writing, it’s important that they arise naturally out of the story itself, not simply be dropped into it. When a writer finds him- or herself deeply involved with the story they’re writing, to the point where the words and ideas seem to be arising from the unconscious almost as though arriving through mist, archetypes will often be a part of the unfolding story.
Examples of Archetypes in My Own Novels
My trilogy of children’s fantasy adventure novels- -The Fisherman’s Son, The City of the Golden Sun, and Return of the Golden Age- -are filled with archetypes. Here’s a passage of The Fisherman’s Son in which Lucinda, a fairy godmother type character and “mother” archetype, first appears to Wiley, both a “child” and “hero” archetype:
From Chapter 5, The Fisherman’s Son by Marilyn Peake
Copyright 2004 Marilyn Peake
Wiley blinked. On the path through the forest, directly in front of him, was a magnificent woman. She was standing there quietly, looking at him. She had golden hair that fell to her waist and crystal green eyes the color of emeralds. She was small, not quite five feet tall, and slender. She wore a pure white dress as clean as white cotton clouds, tied at the waist with deep blue ribbons. Her lips were small, dainty and painted a light shade of pink. Her cheeks held the slightest blush of red.
Wiley noticed that the woman held a golden staff or wand. It was about four feet long, almost as tall as the woman, and embedded with a variety of gems. Light danced off emeralds, opals, diamonds, and other stones Wiley didn’t recognize. The woman raised the wand and floated a few inches off the ground. Wiley noticed that she was wearing golden slippers decorated with the same gemstones.
“Wiley, why do you sleep?”
Wiley rubbed the sleep from his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I couldn’t help it. I was just so tired.”
“I thought so. You take my question as an accusation. It wasn’t, you know.”
Wiley just stared at the woman, mesmerized by her radiance.
“I want to know. How heavy is your burden?”
Wiley looked at his knapsack.
The woman laughed, a warm, gentle, spontaneous laugh. “No, not that burden. Your overall burden. Can you carry it without help?”
“I don’t know. I have to make it through the forest by morning, to find a priest. My mother has died.”
Wiley released a tear from his right eye. His heart opened and released a torrent of tears. The woman seemed to see directly into his heart. “I’m sorry.”
“I have to do this, but I can’t stay awake.”
The woman smiled gently at Wiley. “I can help. My name is Lucinda.”
The woman waved her wand over Wiley’s feet, then over his head. The pain and fatigue disappeared.
“Come with me.” Lucinda turned away from Wiley and headed forward down the forest path. She beckoned gently with a wave of her hand for Wiley to follow her.
No longer tired, feeling free and captured by curiosity, Wiley followed Lucinda. In the dark night air, the forest seemed alive. Wiley could smell the pungent aroma of dirt and pine needles. He could hear an orchestra of sounds: birds, scampering animals along the forest floor, the distant howl of wolves. The cold night air nipped at his cheeks, although it wasn’t too cold or unpleasant.
Suddenly, Lucinda stopped. Wiley looked ahead. It was as though they had walked into a separate room in nature’s greenery. It was beautiful. Like a cathedral in the forest, there was an opening in the canopy. The sky formed an inky black ceiling littered with stars. There was a full moon hanging next to a brilliantly incandescent planet. Straight ahead, on the ground, there was a clearing in which the prominent feature was a large, oval lake surrounded by grass and trees. The moon, reflected like a round china plate, spilled the brilliance of diamonds across the water. A fish broke through the stillness of the water and sent ripples outward in a circular pattern.
Lucinda turned to look at Wiley. “Follow me.”
Lucinda led Wiley down to the edge of the water. Once there, she gestured with a gentle sweeping motion of her hand toward the lake. “You need this more than anything else.”
Water. Wiley realized that his mouth was dry and his body ached for a drink.
Lucinda reached into a pocket in the skirt of her long, white robe. She pulled out a goblet made of the same gold as her wand. It was decorated with the same brilliant gemstones. As they sparkled in the moonlight, Wiley noticed words etched into the goblet. He wondered what they said.
Lucinda extended the cup toward Wiley. “Here. Go down to the lake and drink. The water is clear and pure. It will satisfy your thirst.”
Wiley took the cup and read the inscription. There was a tiny picture of a dolphin at either end of the line of words. It read simply: “Drink deeply by land or sea. Earth comes only once.”
Wiley looked at Lucinda in puzzlement.
Lucinda waved him on. “All in good time. Go now, drink. Your only job for this night is to get through the forest.”
About Marilyn Peake
A contributing columnist to Michael Geffner’s newsletter on writing, Marilyn Peake is also the author of both adult and children’s literature. Her short stories have appeared in four anthologies published by Double Dragon Publishing: “Illuminated Manuscripts”, “Twisted Tails: An Anthology to Surprise and Delight”, “Twisted Tails II- -Volume 1: Time on our Hands”, and “Twisted Tails II- -Volume 2: Out of Time”. “Coyote Crossing” and “Cannon Fodder: Operation Horse Whisperer”, Marilyn’s short stories published by DDP with their own book covers, are listed among the “Fictionwise Recommendations” at Fictionwise.com.
Marilyn’s trilogy of children’s fantasy adventure novels- -“The Fisherman’s Son”, “The City of the Golden Sun”, and “Return of the Golden Age”- -have received glowing reviews. “The Fisherman’s Son” Audio Book- -produced by a professional audio production company, read by the voice actor, Andrew Dollar- -was named a Finalist in the 2006 ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year Awards.
“Twisted Tails: An Anthology to Surprise and Delight” is a Winner of the 2006 Dream Realm Awards. “Twisted Tails: An Anthology to Surprise and Delight” and “Coyote Crossing” were voted TOP TEN Finishers in the 2006 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll. Marilyn’s article entitled “Tips for Writers: How Did Twisted Tails Become a Best-seller within Days of Publication?” was voted a TOP TEN Finisher in the "Nonfiction Articles" Category of the 2006 Preditors & Editors Readers Poll.
In addition, Marilyn is the Editor of the book entitled “From Hollywood Experts and Published Authors: Words of Wisdom for Starving Artists”- -a collection of articles from her newsletter, “The Golden Goblet”. The Midwest Book Review includes this book on its Writer’s Bookshelf and states in their review: “Useful, practical, and an easy read, ‘From Hollywood Experts And Published Authors’ is strongly recommended for anyone aspiring to a career as a professional writer regardless of genre or media.”
Marilyn holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology and a Master of Arts degree in Clinical Psychology. Before becoming a writer, she worked as both a Social Worker and Staff Psychologist. Her Masters Thesis research was presented at an annual meeting of the Eastern Psychological Association.
More Author Resources:
- Marilyn Peake’s Website: marilynpeake.com
- Marilyn’s FREE Newsletter, “The Golden Goblet”
- Marilyn’s YouTube Channel