Archetypal Criticism: Theory and Practice



Francis Bacon once wrote that "some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested; that is, some book are to be read only in parts, others to be read, but not curiously; and some few to be read wholly, and with diligence." If we apply this gastronomic metaphor to imaginative literature, we might say that some works, like a frothy, whipped-cream dessert, provide little nourishment but great pleasure, for they allow us to enjoy ourselves and escape from our everyday concerns. Other works, like steak and potatoes and a green salad, provide greater sustenance, for they help us to better understand ourselves and the world about us deepening and broadening and sharpening our awareness of life. These more nourishing works invite reflection and study.

But what exactly is involved in "studying" a work of literature? Most of us are probably not analyzing it in order to learn how to duplicate its form, to learn to write, for example, a sonnet or short story. Instead we are usually attempting to interpret the text and make it more comprehensible. We ask questions about such matters as plot, characterization, theme, and technique and try to answer them. We are engaging in literary criticism, the study of interpreting literature. And to do this effectively requires certain tools of criticism. When we study literature, we are really practicing or learning a system of criticism, whether we consciously know it or not.

There are four major critical systems or perspectives: social, formalist, psychological, and archetypal. Critics writing from the social perspective mainly concentrate on the historical context of a literary work. Their basic premise is that literature in many significant ways mirrors its society and therefore the literary work is a historical document, a lifeless fossil that needs to be vitalized by illuminating the environment that produced it. Social critics thus focus on the meditating influences that helped create the artifact: the writer’s personal biography, the social and economic conditions, the philosophic and religious currents, the literary tradition behind the work, the audience for which the work was intended, and so on. In short, social critics try to provide the cultural context, believing that no literature is written in a vacuum.

In general formalist critics ignore practically everything that concerns social critics and instead concentrate on the literary work as if it were written in a vacuum. They argue that matters of history, biography, audience, or literary tradition are important scholarly activities but essentially irrelevant to literary criticism. Their main premise is that literature is a self-contained verbal act in which form and content cannot be separated. So they focus on the problems of unity, the extent to which the literary work is a self-sufficient, coherent whole. To do this, they explore the use of language in the literary work, preferring language that is richly connotative, suggestive, and evocative. They also look for devices that tie the work together. In short, for them each part of the work should be functional and relevant; if it is not, then the work is blemished.

Psychological critics use concepts from the field of psychology to gain insight into the literary text. They rely heavily on the Freudian school of psychology. They might show how a text reveals a neurosis of its author or how it manifests such Freudian ideas as the personal unconscious, the symbolic nature of dreams, the conflict between id, ego, and superego, the sexual nature of much of our childhood behavior, or the impact of traumatic experiences. They are mainly concerned with character analysis, especially hidden motivation, for their main premise is that Freudian psychoanalysis can provide fruitful commentary on literature and the writers who create it.

Finally, archetypal critics (about whom you will be learning a great deal more as the course progresses) believe that all literature contains "archetypes," an archetype being an original pattern or prototype from which copies are made. They search for character, situations, images, symbols, or themes found not only in literature but also in dreams, folk-tales, mythology, ritual, and everyday life. They use the resources of anthropology and Jungian psychology (as we’ll discover the Swiss psychologist Carl Jung contributed significantly to our understanding of archetypes). Their main premise is that an understanding of these recurrent archetypal patterns (in a sense "key concepts") will help illuminate the individual text by connecting it to more universal patterns that often transcend literature itself.

All these four perspectives are legitimate ways of approaching literature, each having certain strengths and pitfalls. Though some formalist critics might disagree, social-criticism has an important descriptive function which must precede interpretation and normative evaluation of a literary work. We have to know what we’re evaluating before we can evaluate it, and this involves putting the work in some sort of cultural context. Formalism helps us in that evaluation by focusing on the intrinsic aspects of the text itself. Psychological criticism can be especially useful in interpreting human behavior, but sometimes it gets so caught up in psychoanalysis that it ignores or distorts the distinctly literary qualities of a text. Its approach can become so totally extrinsic that literature seems like merely case studies of neurotic behavior. A similar charge of extraneousness can be leveled against archetypal criticism if it ignores the intrinsic aspects of a text and focuses exclusively on such matters as dreams, rituals, or mythology. But perhaps the worst kind of critical abuse comes from those critics who tenaciously cling to their own critical life-boat and don’t allow other critics aboard. They refuse to admit the validity of a variety of critical approaches to help us understand a text. Such narrow-mindedness should have no place in any humanistic endeavor. Critics (and students who are learning criticism) should strive for a kind of bifocal vision, examining the text close-up, intrinsically from a formalist perspective and examining it from more extrinsic long-range perspectives, whether they be social or psychological or archetypal.

If these perspectives are all valid and helpful, why have I chosen archetypal criticism in both theory and practice for this course? First of all, it is an essentially 20th century movement and therefore hopefully more accessible to you. Also, it is interdisciplinary in emphasis, relating literature to other areas of intellectual activity. Furthermore, it deals with such "key concepts" in literature as romance, irony, tragedy, and comedy - concepts that really define the totality of literary activity. Finally, intelligent archetypal criticism encompasses both social and formalist criticism and offers a means of mediating between these often hostile critical camps. In essence, archetypal criticism is the synthesizing perspective, valuable for its synoptic view of literature and its integrative approach towards life.


In order to explore archetypal criticism more fully, let’s begin by analyzing a poem in an archetypal manner. ("Kemp Owyne" means Champion Owain, one of King Arthur’s knights).

Her mother died when she was young,
Which gave her cause to make great moan;
Her father married the warst woman
That ever lived in Christendom.
She served her with foot and hand, 5
In every thing that she could dee,
Till once, in an unlucky time,
She threw her in ower Craigy’s sea.
Says, "Lie you there, dove Isabel,
And all my sorrows lie with thee; 10
Till Kemp Owyne come ower the sea,
And borrow you with kisses three,
Let all the warld do what they will,
Oh borrowed shall you never be!"
Her breath grew strang, her hair grew lang, 15
And twisted thrice about the tree,
And all the people, far and near,
Thought that a savage beast was she.
These news did come to Kemp Owyne,
Where he lived, far beyond the sea; 20
He hasted him to Craigy’s sea,
And on the savage beast looked he.
Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted was about the tree,
And with a swing she came about: 25
"Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me.
"Here is a royal belt," she cried,
"That I have found in the green sea;
And while your body it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be; 30
But if you touch, tail or fin,
I vow my belt your death shall be."
He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
The royal belt he brought him wi’;
Her breath was strang, her hair was lang, 35
And twisted twice about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
"Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me."
"Here is a royal ring," she said,
"That I have found in the green sea; 40
And while you finger it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be;
But if you touch me, tail or fin,
I swear my ring your death shall be."
He stepped in, gave her a kiss, 45
The royal ring he brought him wi’;
Her breath was strang, her hair was lang,
And twisted ance about the tree,
And with a swing she came about:
"Come to Craigy’s sea, and kiss with me." 50
"Here is a royal brand," she said,
"That I have found in the green sea;
And while your body it is on,
Drawn shall your blood never be,
But if you touch me, tail or fin, 55
I swear my brand your death shall be."
He stepped in, gave her a kiss,
The royal brand he brought him wi’;
Her breath was sweet, her hair grew short,
And twisted nane about the tree, 60
And smilingly she came about,
As fair a woman as fair could be.

As you read this ballad, did any parts of its plot seem especially familiar to you? Did you perhaps think of the cruel step-mother in "Cinderella"? In our poem, we are not given very much indication of motivation for the step-mother’s behavior. We might infer jealousy, a rivalry between the two women for the affection of the husband/father. If the step-mother were the "warst woman" in the land, one wonders why the father would marry her. Maybe it would be better not to speculate on these matters, but to say simply that in this kind of literature step-mothers are expected to behave cruelly.

As you read the ballad, perhaps you also thought of another fairly tale, "The Frog Prince." As you will recall, in this story a princess must befriend a creature personally repulsive to her because it had retrieved her golden ball from down a well located in a deep wood. In some versions, the frog, who has been enchanted by a wicked witch, is transformed into a handsome prince when the maid finally has enough courage to throw him against the bedroom wall; in other versions the frog is transformed after the maid has allowed him to sleep in her bed for three nights. So both this fairy-tale and "Kemp Owyne" contain an enchantment and a miraculous transformation after a period of testing.

Some of you with broader backgrounds in folk literature may have been reminded of so called "Loathly Lady" legends, of which "Kemp Owyne" is one example. There is an Irish legend about an old hag who guards a well. Four sons of the king individually go to the well to get water, but she requires of each one that he kiss her before she will release the water. After they had all fastidiously refused, the fifth and youngest son goes to the well and does kiss her. She changes into a beautiful goddess named Royal Rule and promises him success as a monarch, for he has mastered this trial.

I hope by this time these various stories suggest to you the presence of recurrent pattern, an "archetype." The hero or heroine must go through a test or series of tests in which appearances are deceiving and in which a miraculous transformation finally takes place. Kemp Owyne must overcome personal repulsion and fright and see through the ugliness of the enchanted woman; he must also comprehend her somewhat mysterious directions (how can he kiss her without touching her "tail or fin"?). His period of testing or initiation is ritualistic. The chant-like, ritual quality of the poem is reinforced by a device familiar to ballads, "incremental repetition," the repetition of some previous line or lines with slight variation to carry the plot forward.

But what is the ultimate significance of this testing, this initiation, this "rite of passage" that we have encountered in these various stories? Joseph Campbell perceptively suggests that behind the loathly lady legend is the archetypal situation of the hero meeting with the goddess. Once the hero has proved himself worthy, once he has established his gentility, valor, and intelligence, then the hag appears to him in her true form as a beautiful goddess, representing all that can be known, an incarnate wisdom. Heroes who are ill-prepared to meet this challenge suffer a fate similar to that of the hunter Actaeon, who by chance spied the naked Diana in all her splendor. Because he was not ready for such a vision (only his lust was aroused), Diana transformed him into a stag to be pursued and devoured by his dogs. If the protagonist is female, as in "The Frog Prince" or "Beauty and the Beast" or the Greek myth of Cupid and Psyche (see Hamilton, pp. 92-101), she is tested in order to become a bride worthy of either a prince (a god-like figure) or a god himself. She thereby learns divine wisdom and enjoys immortality. The Feast of the Assumption in the Catholic Church celebrates a similar situation, for "the Virgin Mary is taken up into the bridal chamber of heaven, where the King of Kings sits on his starry throne."

A more complex variant of the loathly lady archetype appears in Chaucer’s "Wife of Bath’s Tale," written in the late 14th century. A knight rapes a maiden (hardly the normal sort of knightly behavior!) and is sentenced to death. But the queen will spare him provided that within a year and a day he can answer the riddle of what women most desire. The knight cannot find the answer until he encounters an old hag who agrees to tell him what he wants to know (the answer being sovereignty in marriage) if he will grant her one wish at some future time. The knight returns to court and provides the answer, but then the hag appears and demands that he marry her. Very reluctantly, he weds her. As they prepare for bed she lectures him on gentility, poverty, and ugliness, and then she asks him whether he would prefer her fair and faithless or ugly and chaste. He lets her make that decision; once she receives a kiss from him, she changes into a beautiful woman and promises to be forever faithful to him. Since the knight let the woman decide what she wants to be, the story itself illustrates the answer to the riddle, sovereignty in marriage.

In this tale the knight goes through an educative process, starting out as a rapist and seemingly learning more noble values and behavior. But Chaucer has complicated the archetypal pattern by not making it at all clear whether the knight has really learned anything from his encounter with the goddess-figure. He does not respond very enthusiastically to her pillow talk on true "gentilesse" and is won over more by her persistence and especially by her metamorphosis into an object of sexual desire. So the knight may still be a rapist at heart. Chaucer has also complicated the archetypal pattern by using it to reveal a great deal about the personality of its story-teller, the Wife of Bath. She too is an "old hag" who has practiced mastery in five marriages. She is apparently searching for husband number six on the Canterbury pilgrimage and perhaps wishes for the ability to transform herself once again into a young and beautiful woman. She is still a robust and vital woman, but partially self-deceived, unable to see the extent to which her tale is a wish-fulfillment fantasy.

The archetype of the loathly lady even manifests itself in modern literature. A good example is the story by Paul Gallico, "The Enchanted Doll." Set in New York City, this story concerns a young medical doctor who rescues a seemingly deformed woman from her tyrannical cousin. By this time you can probably fill in the details of the plot. The doctor is not literally a Kemp Owyne, a knight in shinning armor, nor is the deformed woman literally a mysterious goddess in disguise as a loathly lady, but there are archetypal affinities between them. Gallico has reshaped the archetypal pattern in order to make it fit the expectations of a 20th century American audience. The technical term for this modification is mode, which explains archetypal variations as being the result of the historical context of the literary work. Also operating here is displacement, which explains archetypal variations as being the result of the individual personality of the artist using the archetype. Gallico’s reshaping of the archetype, however, has not been entirely successful, for he never gets beyond a fairy tale format in a supposedly "serious" work of literature. The characters are flat and lack vitality, the plot is highly sentimental, and the prose style relies too heavily on clichés. Clearly Gallico’s modification of the archetype does not measure up to Chaucer’s, which can also be accounted for by reference to mode and displacement. Obviously therefore, mode and displacement are important concepts in archetypal criticism; otherwise, we would have a hard time explaining why all stories using the same archetype are not exactly the same.


Now that we have practiced archetypal criticism on "Kemp Owyne" and seen the recurrence of the loathly lady archetype in legends, fairy tales, mythology and literature, let’s attempt a more comprehensive description of archetype. An archetype is a pattern (in our case, loathly lady) from which copies are made, usually similar to the original but not necessarily identical to it. Archetypes are analogous to "Platonic Ideas," Plato’s abstract categories that do not exist in the real world but nonetheless can be postulated. Imagine for a moment what the Platonic idea of a desk might be: a piece of furniture having a flat, horizontal surface for writing, standing on four legs, and having drawers for storage. We might say this is the archetype of the desk from which an infinite variety of individual desks can be made. Or we might shift our analogy from philosophy to linguistics. In the study of languages it is very common to find two words in different languages having great similarity in form and meaning. Linguists then look for a parent word which is the root of both words. But the parent word and its language may be lost, so their existence becomes purely hypothetical. An archetype is like the hypothetical parent word from which the different existing words stem. An archetype is thus a prototype or mold capable of modification depending on the circumstances. It is general and universal, primordial and recurrent. In fairy tales, legends, mythology and literature, an archetype may appear as a character - e.g. the loathly lady, the temptress, the witch, the braggart, the buffoon, the scapegoat, the earth mother, the questing hero, and so on. Or it may appear as a situation - e.g. the quest, various rites of passage, the journey, the fall, death and rebirth, and so on. Or it may appear as a symbol or association - e.g. light-darkness, water-desert, heaven-hell, and so on. As we will discover, there are also archetypes peculiar to literary expression itself: namely, the archetypal patterns of romance, irony, tragedy, and comedy.

Why do archetypes exist? One possible answer to this question has been provided by 20th century Swiss psychologist and psychiatrist Carl Jung. In his early career, Jung was a student of Freud and agreed with his mentor that man’s mind consists of both a conscious level and an unconscious level. Man’s mind in thus like an island in a sea. The land above the water is normal consciousness, the everyday knowing level. But just beneath the surface lies the personal unconscious, a level unique in each individual and created by repressed emotions, subliminal receptions, and forgotten occurrences. And beneath that level is what Jung describes as the "collective unconscious," a level shared by all humanity. Freud had only worked with the personal unconscious and its role in psychoanalysis. So in developing the conception of a collective unconscious, Jung went beyond his teacher and offered his own unique contribution to psychology.

Jung tried to prove the existence of the collective unconscious by use of dream analysis, for the unconscious manifests itself symbolically in dreams. He noted that the dreamland visions of many of his patients contained imagery that could not be understood in terms of their personal experiences. In one case a schizophrenic patient described to Jung a vision involving the sun’s phallus and the origin of wind. Several years later Jung came across a similar vision in a book on the liturgy of the cult of Mithras, a deity originally worshipped by the Hindus and Persians. The patient had described his vision without prior knowledge of the Mithras liturgy, for the book had not been in print until after Jung had recorded the vision. So Jung concluded from this and other examples that there exists a myth-making level of mind, a collective unconscious, common to all people of different times and cultures.

Not only did Jung use evidence from dream analysis but also he used evidence from biology to suggest the existence of the collective unconscious. Many lower animals have instinctual patterns of behavior that are seemingly innate and not learned from experience; examples include the migratory habits of birds and fish, the tail-wagging dance of bees to show the location of food, and the intricate mating dance of the male salticid spider, who must not make a mistake or the female will eat him rather than mate him. Just as these animals have these instincts, so the human mind apparently has a certain innate predisposition that resides in the unconscious. Jung argues that "We do not assume that each new-born animal creates its own instincts as an individual acquisition, and we must not suppose that human individuals invent their specific human ways with every new birth. Like the instincts, the collective thought patterns of the human mind are innate and inherited. They function, when the occasion arises, in more or less the same way in all of us."

More recent scientific studies whose results were not known to Jung are beginning to suggest a credible empirical argument for the existence of archetypes. In Archetypes: A Natural History of the Self (William Morrow, 1982), Anthony Stevens investigates a biological basis for Jung’s theory of archetypes. He draws upon the fields of ethnology, genetics and sociobiology and defines archetypes as "innate neuropsychic centers possessing the capacity to initiate, control and mediate the common behavioral characteristics and typical experiences of all human beings irrespective of race, culture or creed" (p. 296). He thus argues that archetypes can be described in terms of duality: they are both a biological instinctual response and a psychic response. As Jung had observed, "archetypes are systems of readiness for action, and at the same time images and emotions" (Quoted in Stevens with his emphasis, p. 62). Archetypal intent, embedded in our genetic make-up, needs to be actualized at appropriate times during one’s life cycle. The archetype thus achieves expression both on the objective level of outer behavior and on the subjective level of inner conscious expression. Psychological problems arise when the archetypal intent is thwarted.

Despite this recent research, the collective unconscious is still not directly knowable; it is impossible to define with precision, for we don’t know its boundaries or its true nature. But we can observe its manifestations, for the collective unconscious expresses itself through archetypes, which Jung described as "the unconscious images of the instincts themselves... they are patterns of instinctual behavior." He also wrote that "The primordial image or archetype is a figure, whether it be a demon, man, or process, that repeats itself in the course of history whenever creative fantasy is freely manifested. Essentially, therefore, it is a mythological figure. If we subject these images to a closer examination, we discover them to be the formulated resultants of countless typical experiences of our ancestors. They are, as it were, the psychic residue of numberless experiences of the same type." So archetypes are primordial and universal, the essential content of the collective unconscious and the psychological counterpart to physiological instincts.

Jung’s reference to archetype as a "mythological figure" suggests an intimate connection between archetype and myth. In fact Jung unraveled many of the symbols of his patients’ dreams by a careful comparative study of various religions and mythologies. Jung believed that myths were not invented by primitive minds in an attempt to explain something they didn’t understand, but that to the primitive mind they were a symbolic reality, full of vital meaning. According to Jung, "myths are original revelations of the preconscious psyche, involuntary statements about unconscious psychic happenings, and anything but allegories of physical processes." Jung furthermore believed that man needs to create and experience myths in order to have a healthy psyche. Much of the trauma of 20th century life, from Jung’s perspective, is the result of our attempting to turn away from mythology and thus deny a religious attitude that will give meaning and value to our lives.

Of course, myth can also be thought of as merely a "fiction," a series of false stories dealing with imaginary characters. That may be the definition you are most familiar with, for the word "myth" has this meaning in several European languages besides English. The origin in this meaning comes from ancient Greek rationalists who attacked the behavior of Homer’s and Hesoid’s gods and declared they must be poetic fictions. A little later in history the early Christian apologists also took a similar stance: they wished to neutralize the influence of pagan religion and therefore made a distinction between the truth of the Bible and the falsity of competing mythologies. The Old Testament itself reveals this "demythologizing" tendency in that all gods except Jehovah are debunked.

We might, however, take a much broader definition of myth and declare that it is more than a fiction; it is really a cluster of ideas, whether true or false, to which people subscribe, for it gives philosophic meaning to their lives. So Christianity and other religious systems are mythologies, as are political ideologies. The eminent scholar of comparative religions, Mircea Eliade, suggests that myth becomes merely fiction as culture (or the individual) becomes more profane. But in a sacred society, myth "gives meaning and value to life." For Eliade, Jung and others myths are therefore a necessary and significant part of our lives, making our chaotic world seem intelligible and crystallizing the values of our culture. Many of us have perhaps tried to deny their validity, but in the process we have merely created new myths. One such new myth is described by Theodore Roszak in his The Making of a Counter Culture (1969). He calls it the "myth of objective consciousness," the belief that by use of scientific objectivity we can solve all our problems.

An intimate and vital relationship exists between archetype and myth when it is defined in this more comprehensive way. Leslie Fielder has suggested that archetypes manifest themselves in their purest form in myth. Literature comes into existence when an individual stamps on the archetype his "signature," which Fiedler describes as the individuating aspects of a literary work, including the author’s personality and his cultural milieu. So archetype without signature is myth; archetype with signature is literature.

With our more comprehensive definition of mythology, you should begin to sense how archetypes are vitally significant, profoundly reflecting our most basic needs and desires. Perhaps that’s why we respond so deeply to archetypal patterns, whether they appear in mythology or fairy tale or literature or actual life. As Eliade observes, "at all levels of human experience, however ordinary, archetypes still continue to give meaning to life and to create ‘cultural values.’"

One of the texts assigned for the course, Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, explores the nature of mythology by using a more comprehensive definition of myth. For Campbell the true meaning of myth is not literal or historical; it is metaphysical and psychological. He suggests that modern natural and social sciences have invalidated any attempts at understanding mythology as a literal or historical fact. One of his favorite (and more controversial examples) is Jesus’ ascension to a heaven somewhere in the universe. If this were true, Jesus—even traveling at the speed of light—would not yet have left the galaxy. "But if you read ‘Jesus ascended to heaven’ in terms of its metaphoric connotation, you see that he has gone inward—not into outer space but into inward space, to the place from which all being comes, the kingdom of heaven within. The images are outward, but their reflection is inward. The point is that we should ascend with him by going inward. It is a metaphor of returning to the source, alpha and omega, of leaving the fixation on the body behind and going to the body’s dynamic source" (p. 68). Campbell therefore insists that myths be read as metaphor or symbol (he uses these terms interchangeably). Myths attempt to explain the nature of reality (metaphysics), or they attempt to explain the nature of self (psychology), or they do both (as Jesus ascending illustrates). Despite important differences due to geography and time, Campbell sees an underlying unity in all mythologies: there is essentially one story of the hero (the monomyth) and one story of transcendence. The result is a spiritual understanding of mythology that emphasizes the underlying unity or oneness of all reality. Myths function as masks that metaphorically approximate that reality; they are the "penultimate truth" (p. 206). Robert Segal describes this view of myth as "mystical": "Psychologically and metaphysically alike, the meaning of myth is mystical: myth preaches the oneness of at once consciousness with unconsciousness and the everyday world with the strange, new one." However, Campbell’s mysticism, if that is the right word, was not achieved through intuition and meditation. As he once told the Zen scholar Alan Watts, his only meditation came through academic study—"I meditate by underlining sentences...I prefer the gradual path—the way of study. My feeling is that mythic forms reveal themselves gradually the course of your life if you know what they are and how to pay attention to their emergence. My own initiation into the mythical depths of the unconscious has been through the mind, through the books that surround me in this library" (Quoted in Segal, p. 22).

Campbell’s understanding of mythology had an enormous impact in the 1980’s. His Power of Myth was also a video series on PBS that drew large audiences and critical acclaim. Kevin Tennant, a recent graduate of our HUX program, focused his final project on Campbell’s popularity. He identified four "key spiritual and cultural themes reinvigorated by Campbell’s unique blend of storytelling ability and intellectual analysis" -- 1) the reconciliation between science, history and religion made possible by Campbell’s definition of mythology; 2) the need for each individual to pursue his/her own spiritual quest—"follow your bliss"—in a society mostly devoid of meaningful ritual and myth; 3) Campbell’s life-affirming view of nature; and 4) his vision of global respect, tolerance and understanding when mythology is properly understood. Campbell remains an important figure in helping us understand mythology and its applications to the individual, to culture, and to literary analysis.


One reason for the emergence of archetypal criticism as a key 20th century movement in literature has been the influence of Jungian psychology, especially in its concern with the collective unconscious and archetypes. Another reason has been the work of 20th century comparative anthropologists, whose studies of primitive cultures have lent support to the concept of archetypes by offering evidence of similarity in mythologies and religious practices of divergent cultures. The classical anthropological work on myth, ritual, and magic is Sir James Frazer’s twelve-volume Golden Bough (1890-1915), most readily accessible in Theodore H. Gaster’s one-volume abridgment, The New Golden Bough (1959). Frazer was not the first to document "facts" about primitive cultures, but he was the first to attempt to synthesize the material into one comprehensive vision of primitive life. Frazer developed the theory of a "nature cult" appearing in various forms but in its essentials shared by all primitive societies. This cult involved a spiritual leader (a priestly king) who was the controller and regulator of fertility and vegetation. In order for harvests to prosper, taboos had to be respected. Also, certain myths and rituals dealt explicitly with dying and reviving gods as embodiments of fertility (e.g. Adonis, Attis, and Osiris). Once the priestly king became old and weak, he had to be replaced. Often when the king was in this condition, a scapegoat was used to remove anything that might hinder the prosperity of his people. Every new aspirant to his office had to show his worth by plucking a golden bough from a sacred tree. The bough ensured the transmission of fertility to the new leader.

Gaster’s introduction to Frazer’s study notes some of the weaknesses of The Golden Bough, especially in its tendency to overstate and to oversimplify. It is wrong, for example, to assume that the dying and reviving gods of mythology are basically vegetation deities. They had much broader functions than ensuring fertility. Also, Frazer’s analysis of the golden bough itself needs modification in that the bough was not a vessel of divine power but apparently only a branch carried by suppliants to a shrine. However, despite his errors in interpretation of evidence and in methodology, Frazer’s work has probably been the most influential anthropological study yet written, contributing extensively to our culture in numerous ways. Gaster observes that "what Freud did for the individual, Frazer did for civilization as a whole. For as Freud deepened men’s insight into the behavior of individuals by uncovering the ruder world of the subconscious, from which so much of it springs, so Frazer enlarged man’s understanding of the behavior of societies by laying bare the primitive concepts and modes of thought which underlie and inform so many of their institutions and which persist, as subliminal element of their culture, in their traditional folk customs." Frazer thus unveiled the archetypal pattern of primitive thought, and his Golden Bough is a rich source for archetypes in their purest form.

Archetypal criticism is thus deeply indebted to the thought of Jung and Frazer, who in a sense are the twin fountainheads of the movement. Some archetypal critics have relied more heavily on Jungian psychology, others more on Frazer’s anthropology, and few have tried to assimilate the concepts of both (of course Jung himself borrowed extensively from anthropologists like Frazer to help prove his theory of archetypes). Maud Bodkin, for example, has used Jung’s ideas almost exclusively in her influential Archetypal Patterns in Poetry (1934), a book which explains through literature Jung’s theories of archetypes and the collective unconscious. On the other hand, Jessie L. Weston’s book, From Ritual to Romance (1920), relies mostly on Frazer, for it connects the grail legend to nature cults, tracing the evolution of the grail quest from its ritual origins to its manifestations in literary romance. The return of the grail, like the securing of the golden bough, means fertility and prosperity for the community. In contrast to the methods of both Bodkin and Weston, comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell has combined both psychology and anthropology in his study of archetypes, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), parts of which you will read. Since "dream is the personalized myth, myth the de-personalized dream," both depth psychology and comparative anthropology can be used to explore archetypes. Campbell develops a composite picture of a "world hero" and his monomyth, a picture with a thousand variations but still essentially the same. The short story anthology (Discoveries) we are using in this course identifies six separate stages of the monomythic quest and includes a variety of short stories to illuminate them.

Richard E. Hughes’s The Lively Image, another required text, is also influenced by Campbell, and especially, Jung. Hughes focuses on four separate yet interrelated myths (Narcissus, Dionysos, Orpheus, and Christ) and shows how they can be interpreted through Jungian psychology:

Narcissus is the annihilation of autonomous personality, a severance with the supposedly self-sufficient ego and a turning back to the communal roots of mankind. Dionysos is the image of those roots, the underlying instinctual and unconscious moorings of human awareness. Orpheus is the assimilation of that unconscious by consciousness, the expansion of awareness... But the pattern, the archetype is not yet complete. Orpheus leads us back to the bright world of expanded consciousness, but he tells us nothing of the Shakespearean "immortal longings," nothing of Rudolph Otto’s "sense of the holy." ...Jung has shown how Jesus responds to the "longings of immortality," how he completes the archetype. (p.179)

Not only does Hughes use a distinctly Jungian explanation of these myths, but he also shows how the myths are manifested in several different literary works. Hughes’ book thus exemplifies archetypal criticism indebted to the thought of Jung. It also exemplifies Campbell’s theory that myths should be interpreted symbolically for their metaphysical and psychological insights.


Archetypal criticism thus rests heavily on Jungian psychology with support from comparative anthropologists like Frazer and comparative mythologists like Campbell. But suppose you adhere to a more pragmatic school of anthropology and believe that no two cultures are exactly alike and that therefore seeking parallels between rituals and mythologies of divergent cultures is a misleading and perhaps even erroneous scholarly pursuit. Or even more damaging, suppose you find Jung’s ideas about collective unconscious completely unacceptable. Many psychologists in fact argue that qualitatively different levels of consciousness cannot be experimentally tested and proven. There are obviously different levels of mental alertness and activity, but no laboratory experiments can isolate either "supra-consciousness" in which one experiences a heightened awareness of reality or "subconsciousness" as defined by either Freud or Jung.

Where does all this criticism leave archetypal analysis if one can’t accept some of the assumptions upon which it is based? Yet, aren’t Jung’s ideas about archetypes still valid even if one can’t accept his notion of the collective unconscious? After all, the human mind has not changed that much in the course of its evolution. So the parts of the mind (whether the collective unconscious or not) responsible for making dreams, visions, and myths would operate in a similar way even at different times and in different places. Also, man’s psychological experiences have not in the course of evolutionary development altered that much either. For example, all individuals of all cultures at all times have gone through a process of growing up: of breaking from their parents and facing life independently. We all develop myths that are expressive of these experiences and that try to make senses of the world in which we live. So we really don’t need to believe in a collective unconscious as Jung described it to realize that the human mind in its myth-making tendencies and its psychological processes and its genetic make-up has been essentially the same throughout history. Similar stimuli will produce similar archetypal results. As Anthony Storr says, "Hero myths originating from different cultures are similar because our psychological progress through life is similar, whether we were reared in New York or belong to the Netsilik Eskimos; whether we live in the 20th century or in the 5th century before Christ."

Even if you are still uneasy about accepting its notion of the mind’s essential sameness, there is yet another way of validating archetypal criticism. Don’t ask why archetypal patterns exist. Instead, empirically record their presence without asking questions about primary causes. Northrop Frye has taken this approach; his Anatomy of Criticism (1957) is another fountainhead, as equally important to archetypal criticism as the work of Jung and Frazer and Campbell. Frye inductively surveys literature to find its "conceptual framework" and suggests that criticism is as much science as it is an art. He argues that Aristotle, usually thought of as a pioneer formalist critic, was really the first scientific archetypal critic, for he discussed the archetypes of tragedy (without of course calling them archetypes) in a systematic and progressive way. Frye also suggests that Frazer’s Golden Bough is actually a work of literary criticism, describing "the ritual content of naive drama" and providing later critics the impetus to look for the origins of drama in ritual. And Frye suggests that Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious is "an unnecessary hypothesis in literary criticism," for a literary critic should not be concerned about the psychological (or anthropological) origins of archetypes. Instead he should be concerned with the archetypal patterns "which are actually in what he is studying, however they got there." (italics added)

Frye thus presents a much more empirical and scientific perspective for critics wishing to deal with recurrent patterns in literature. He does not care how they got there, only that they are there. We will be reading excerpts from Frye’s book as well as portions of Foulke and Smith’s An Anatomy of Literature (Harcourt, 1973), an out-of-print anthology of literature based upon Frye’s conception of archetypes. I used this anthology in the first edition of this course; I have decided to continue to use Foulke and Smith’s commentaries because they are more accessible than Frye’s book (Frye assumes his readers have a thorough background in European literature from Homer to major 20th century authors).

Frye and Foulke and Smith believe that an inductive survey of all western literature reveals the presence of four archetypal narrative patterns (called mythoi by Frye) and their lyric analogues. They are romance, irony, tragedy and comedy, and they constitute the basic framework of literature, having persisted from genre to genre and age to age. They have survived "because they are fundamental structures of the human imagination, perennially useful ways of perceiving the world we experience." We can imagine a world in which goals are achieved and dreams fulfilled (the world of romance), and we can imagine a world in which goals are thwarted and nightmares become reality (the world of irony). We can also imagine moving from a desirable state to an undesirable one (the world of tragedy) and a reverse movement (the world of comedy). Foulke and Smith provide a useful chart to show these variations: These four patterns can be connected to the seasonal cycles: the environment of comedy is like that of spring; romance, summer; tragedy, autumn; and irony, winter. This cyclical process also obviously manifests itself in an individual’s life cycle.


In this course we will be dealing with archetypes that are "pre-literary" in origin, that is, archetypes found in dream, ritual, myth, and legend, as well as in literature. And we will be dealing with archetypes of romance, irony, comedy and tragedy. One kind of archetypal analysis emanates from critics concerned with pre-literary archetypes. They are much more apt to rely on Jungian psychology and comparative anthropology. Another kind emanates from critics such as Frye, Foulke, and Smith who are more interested in developing a conceptual framework for literature. It is important to note that our so-called pre-literary archetypes can appear in any of the literary archetypes. When they do appear, modifications in the pre-literary archetype take place, depending on the literary archetype they are used in. For example, a rite of passage illustrating the change from adolescence to adulthood will have a much different effect when employed in romance rather than in irony. Later in the course, we will be reading several short stories that will illustrate this different effect. We might therefore take the Foulke and Smith circle and put around it another, larger circle representing the entire world of archetypes of which literary archetypes are only a part. And we will "liquefy" our pre-literary archetypes so that they can freely flow into and out of our four archetypal narrative patterns:

I hope this ameba-like diagram will help you visualize the relationship between archetypes found in forms other than literature and archetypes embodied in the structure of literature itself.

As the course progresses, you will be doing your own archetypal analysis of works of literature, discovering pre-literary archetypes and exploring the complexity of literary archetypes. Ideally, such practice will make literature as a body of knowledge more coherent to you. As in writing, once you have mastered the grammar and syntax, writing itself becomes easier; so in literature, once you have discovered its basic conceptual framework, literature itself becomes more comprehensible.

But as you proceed in your practice of archetypal criticism, you should also be aware of some of the pitfalls of this approach to literature. You should never forget that even though literature contains timeless archetypes, it is also the product of a historical period and an individual author. While focusing on similarities in patterns, your analysis should not ignore differences due to such mediating influences as the cultural context and the personality of the writer. Also, not all works of literature using the same archetype have the same literary quality. To return to our example of the loathly lady archetype, I think most everyone would agree that Chaucer’s "Wife of Bath’s Tale" has greater intrinsic literary worth than either "Kemp Owyne" or especially "The Enchanted Doll." In looking for archetypal patterns and thereby gaining a more long-range, comprehensive view of literature, don’t forget to look at each work of literature close-up to discover essential differences in both design and quality. In short, try to be critics with bifocal vision.


This introduction has undergone modest revision for this edition of HUX 573. Since the time I wrote the first edition in 1976, a new critical movement has been gaining momentum. In its less extreme form, it is known as "reader-response criticism," and as you might suspect the critical interest is on the reader (in contrast to the formalist’s focus on the text). An anthology of essays, The Reader in the Text (Princeton, 1980), edited by Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman, provides a good sampling of critics using the reader-response perspective. In her introductory essay, Suleiman identifies six varieties of reader-oriented criticism: "rhetorical; semiotic and structuralist; phenomenological; subjective and psychoanalytic; sociological and historical; and hermeneutic" (pp. 6-7). I won’t attempt an explanation of each category, but let me illustrate the first and the last (rhetorical and hermeneutic) to give you a sampling of this critical perspective. Stanley Fish’s Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971) is a first-rate reader-oriented rhetorical analysis of Milton’s poem; it shows how Milton attempts to manipulate each reader’s response to Paradise Lost so that each reader will experience, like Adam and Eve, the fall from grace and its consequences. Fish’s later book, Is There a Text in this Class? (Harvard, 1980) is an example of hermeneutic reader-response criticism. Hermeneutics focuses on the nature of interpretation; in reader-response criticism, it raises some very fundamental questions about "validity" in literary criticism - if one focuses on the reader as center of critical attention, then are all individual readings of a text equally acceptable? Fish develops the concept that a particular interpretation of a text will have validity only among those critics who share similar interpretive strategies. This means, then, that Fish in effect believes in "the instability of the text and the unavailability of determinate meanings"(p.305). But he also believes that social and institutional forces to establish normative readings of a text are so strong that few "odd-ball" readings ever emerge even though there are no transcendent norms to prevent this from happening.

While Fish represents one type of hermeneutic critic writing in the 1970’s, a more radical group of hermeneutic critics has also emerged during this time. Although there are many differences among them, they have all been identified as "deconstructive" critics. Deconstructive criticism is an approach to literature that, if accepted, completely undermines the four literary perspectives discussed earlier in this introduction. The four perspectives are rejected because they comprise an attempt to find structure and coherence in literature. Critics in this camp believe all such attempts are illusory, for there can be no such thing as a generally agreed upon reading of a text or a generally agreed upon context for a text. All readings are in fact misreadings. Some misreadings are better than others, not because they have any intrinsic validity, but because they help open up a text to additional misreadings. The best that can be hoped for is dissemination of a text, not the "truth" of a text. In fact, deconstructive critics like to focus on those aspects of a text that demonstrate its disunity, its vulnerability to multiple misreadings (contrast the formalist!). Much of their writing is consciously opaque, as dense and ambiguous as the literary texts they are analyzing. They do this partly to break down the artificial barrier between creative writing and critical writing. They are producing writing that some see as one direction "literature" is moving, and their writing is in turn subject to deconstructive criticism.

Some of the deconstructive critics are French (e.g. Jacques Derrida, Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault), while others are Americans primarily affiliated with Yale University (e.g. Paul de Man, J. Hillis Miller, Harold Bloom, Geoffrey Hartman). A good but difficult historical overview of the movement can be found in Vincent B. Leitch’s Deconstructive Criticism: An Advanced Introduction (Columbia, 1983).

The proponents and opponents of deconstructive criticism have produced some highly polemical and impassioned prose. Suleiman perceptively notes that this intensity is generated by the correlation that can be made between one’s critical stance and one’s value system. For example, both Wayne Booth and M. H. Abrams argue that Derrida’s deconstructive criticism leads straight to nihilism. Most deconstructionists agree: "The notion of the unified text, like that of the unified self, is an illusion, and the virtue of deconstructive criticism is that it places this potentially tragic insight at the center of its activity. Far from recoiling in horror at the void, deconstructive critics gaze at it with Sisyphean impassivity" (p.43). Whether deconstructive criticism will eventually come to have a lasting impact on literary criticism remains to be seen. Like Sisyphus, it may expend a great deal of energy without enduring results. If nothing else, it has forced all critics to re-examine their assumptions about the nature and validity of interpretation.

In the last three weeks of the course, you will have an opportunity to read some of the more recent critical approaches to literature and to see how they relate to archetypal criticism. You will study James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and several current critical approaches to it, including reader-response criticism and deconstructionism. In addition, you will learn about recent trends in psychological criticism (essentially Freud updated through the work of such influential writers as Jacques Lacan) and in social/historical criticism in a movement known as New Historicism. And you will be introduced to feminist criticism, an approach which examines literature and culture from the perspective of gender.

One of the more interesting and important developments in archetypal and mythic studies has a feminist orientation. Scholars are (re)examining the role of the Goddess throughout world cultures and identifying archetypal patterns that are distinctly feminine. Campbell orients us to this perspective in The Power of Myth, in his overall view of myth as providing psychological truth and in Chapter VI, "The Gift of the Goddess." Here he gives a brief history of Goddess mythology showing how matriarchy gave way to patriarchy by about 1750 BC with the consequent suppression and re-alignment of the feminine in a number of mythologies, including Greek and Judeo-Christian. A recent best-seller, Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype (Ballantine Books, 1992) by Clariss Pinkola Estes, uses goddess research and analysis to gain insight into the feminine psyche. The Goddess Within (Fawcett Columbine, 1989) by Jennifer and Roger Woolger also explores the feminine psyche from the perspective of what might be called "goddess psychology." The Woolgers examine from Greek mythology six goddess archetypes (Athena, Aphrodite, Persephone, Artemis, Demeter, Hera) and show their influence "in the lives of modern women and in contemporary society" (p. 8). They provide a "Brief History of Goddess Psychology" (pp. 431-437) that delineates the major contributors to a feminine psychology that has been developing for more than a generation. As Gestalt and Jungian psychologists, the Woolgers are interested in helping women understand themselves (and men understand them as well) and so would probably not see themselves as archetypal literary critics; however, their work draws upon Jungian psychology, identifies mythic patterns and analyzes film and literature with these patterns in mind. In a sense they represent a direction that archetypal criticism is beginning to take. I have not included their book in this course because your plate is already full and their primary focus is psychological rather than literary. However, for those interested in studying goddesses and goddess psychology, the Annotated Bibliography (see end of course guide) contains a number of excellent references, including works by Bolen, Downing, Estes, Leeming, Murdock, Olson, Walker, Wehr, Woolgers, and Whitmont.

Read Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 3-25 & 245-251, reprinted at the end of the course guide.

You should read with particular care pp. 3-25 and pp. 245-251. The rest is optional reading (almost any library or bookstore will have a copy of this book). By its use of dreams, legends, fairy tales, and myths, Campbell’s book will introduce you to numerous pre-literary archetypes, all culminating in the diagram on p. 245, which represents the archetypal mythological hero. So you might quickly read pp. 25-244, if this diagram does not make much sense to you. Later in the course, you will be reading the textual apparatus in Discoveries. That also will help explain Campbell’s monomythic hero. I have provided study questions to all of Campbell’s book in case you get inspired to read it.


Myth and Dream

  1. What is Campbell’s attitude towards myth?
  2. What is the relationship between myth and dream?
  3. Do the dreams cited in this section support Jung’s notion of the collective unconscious?
  4. What is the main purpose of rites of passage?
  5. Why does Campbell retell the story of Minos and Theseus?

Tragedy and Comedy

  1. What is the relationship between this section and the myth of Minos?
  2. Is Campbell discussing the literary archetypes of tragedy and comedy? Or is his focus really pre-literary in his discussion of the human condition and the movement of the hero?

The Hero and the God

  1. What is the relationship between the path of the hero and the typical rite of passage?
  2. Why does Campbell choose myths from all over the world to illustrate the italicized comments on p. 30?
  3. What are the key differences between the hero in a fairy tale and the hero in mythology?

The World Navel

  1. What does the successful hero do for the world?
  2. In what ways is his success often symbolized? Are these archetypal symbols?
  3. Is there any justification for evil given in the discussion on pp. 44-45? Why or why not?
  4. Why does mythology make "the tragic attitude seem somewhat hysterical, and the merely moral judgment shortsighted" (p.45)?

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