Online Hero’s Journey: The Seven Stories of Your Life
This remarkable and monumental hero’s journey at last provides a comprehensive answer to the age-old riddle of whether there are only a small number of ‘basic stories’ in the world. Using a wealth of examples, from ancient myths and folk tales via the plays and novels of great literature to the popular movies and TV soap operas of today, it shows that there are seven archetypal themes which recur throughout every kind of storytelling.
But this is only the prelude to an investigation into how and why we are ‘programmed’ to imagine stories in these ways, and how they relate to the inmost patterns of human psychology. Drawing on a vast array of examples, from Proust to detective stories, from the Marquis de Sade to E.T., Peter de Kuster then leads us through the extraordinary changes in the nature of storytelling over the past 200 years.
Peter analyses why evolution has given us the need to tell stories and illustrates how storytelling has provided a uniquely revealing mirror to mankind’s psychological development over the past 5000 years.
This seminar of one day opens up in an entirely new way our understanding of the real purpose storytelling plays in our lives, and will be a talking point for years to come.
This is a great hero’s journey. Before we embark I should set out a brief route map, so that it will become clear how the different stages of this hero’s journey build on each other in working towards the eventual goal.
This hero’s journey is divided in four parts.
Part One, The Seven Stories of Your Life examines each of the seven great stories of mankind. At first kind, each is quite distinctive. But as we work through the stories, we gradually come to see how they have certain key elements in common, and how each is in fact presenting its own particular view of the same central preoccupation which lies at the heart of storytelling.
Part Two, ‘They Lived Happily Ever After, looks more generally at what all this main story types have in common. In particular we find that they are not only basis plots to stories but a cast of basic figures who reappear through stories of all kinds, each with their own defining characteristics. As we explore the values which each of these archetypal stories represents, and how they are related, this opens up an entirely new perspective on the essential drama with which storytelling is ultimately concerned. But we also come to see how there are certain conditions which must be met before any story can come to a fully resolved ‘they live happily ever after’ ending. This leads on to part three to an hero’s journey into one of the most revealing of all factors which govern the way stories take shape in the human mind.
The third part of this hero’s journey, ‘The Tragedy” concentrates almost entirely on stories from the last 200 years, explores how and why it is possible in a storyteller’s imagination, for a story ‘to go wrong; or as we say end tragically. The first two parts of the seminar have been primarily concerned with those stories which express the archetypal patterns underlying them in a way which enables them to come to a fully resolved and satisfactory ending. In the third section of the seminar we see how, in the past two centuries, something extraordinary and highly significant has happened to storytelling in the western world. Not only do we look here at such an obvious question as why in recent times storytelling should have shown such a marked obsession with sex and violence. As we look at how each of the basic story plots has developed what may be called its ‘dark’ and ‘light’ versions we see how a particular element of disintegration has crept into modern storytelling which distinguishes it from anything seen in history before. But this in turn merely reveals one of the most remarkable features of how stories take shape in the human imagination; because we also see how those archetypal rules which have governed storytelling since the dawn of history have in no way changed.
This third part of the seminar ends with a discussion on what are arguably the two most centrally puzzling stories produced by the Western imagination, Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannos and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Only at this point have we at last completed the groundwork which is necessary to looking at the deepest questions of all. Just why in our biological evolution has our species developed the capacity to create these patterns of images in our heads? What real purpose does it serve? And how do stories relate to what we call ‘real life’?
These are the questions we look at in the fourth and final part of the journey ‘Why We Tell Stories’, which begins with two very significant types of story we have not looked at before. This relates myths about the creation of the creation of the world and the ‘fall of innocence’ to the evolution of human consciousness and our relations with nature and instinct. In unraveling these riddles, what we see is how and why the hidden language of stories provides us with a picture of human nature and the inner dynamics of human behavior which nothing else can present to us with such objective authority. We see how a proper understanding of why we tell stories sheds an extraordinary new light on almost every aspect of human existence: on our psychology; on morality; on the patterns of history and politics, the nature of religion and most importantly on the underlying pattern and purpose of our individual lives. We look at the question what the storytellers tell about the power of the story you tell yourself – about yourself – and how you can rewrite your story and thus transform your destiny.
About Peter de Kuster
Peter de Kuster is the founder of The Heroine’ s Journey & The Hero’s Journey
Peter is founder of the Heroine’s Journey and Hero’s Journey project where worldwide thousands of professionals shared their story of making money doing what you love. He wrote 50+ books. Peter has an MBA in Marketing, MBA in Financial Economics and graduated at university in Sociology and Communication Sciences.
The price of this one day seminar is Euro 995 excluding VAT per person. There are special prices when you want to attend with three or more people.
You can reach Peter for questions about dates and the program by mailing him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Read on for a detailed breakdown of “The Seven Stories of Your Life”
What Can I Expect?
Here’s an outline of “The Seven Stories of Your Life itinerary.
PART I THE SEVEN GREAT STORIES OF YOUR LIFE
- Why Do We Need Stories?
- The Basic Stories
- Once Upon a Time
- Overcoming the Monster
- The Essence of the Monster
- The Purpose of the Monster
- Not Completely Human
- The Thrilling Escape From Death
- Rags to Riches
- The Dark Figures
- The Central Crisis
- The Dark Version
- Rags to Riches: Summing Up
- The Quest
- The Call for Adventure
- The Hero’s Companions
- The Journey
- The Trials
- Visit to the Underworld
- The Helpers
- The Final Ordeals
- The Life-Renewing Goal
- Voyage and Return
The Dark Power: From Shadow into Light
PART II THE COMPLETE HAPPY ENDING
- The Twelve Dark Characters
- In the Zone
- The Perfect Balance
- The Unrealized Value
- The Drama
- The Twelve Light Characters
- Reaching the Goal
- The Fatal Flaw
PART III MISSING THE MARK
- The Ego Takes Over
- Losing Your Plot
- Going Nowhere
- Why Sex and Violence?
- Rebellion Against ‘The One’
- The Mystery
PART IV WHY WE TELL STORIES
- Telling Us Who We Are: Ego versus Instinct
- Into the Real World: What Legend are You Living?
- Of Gods and Men: Finding Your Authentic Story
- The Age of Loki: The Dismantling of the Self
Epilogue: What is Your Story?
In the mid 1970s queues formed outside cinemas all over the Western world to see one of the most dramatic horror films ever made. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws told how the peace of a little Long Island seaside resort, Amity, was rudely shattered by the arrival offshore of a monstrous shark, of almost supernatural power.
For weeks on end the citizens are thrown into a stew of fear and confusion by the shark’s savage attacks on one victim after another. Finally, when the sense of threat seems almost too much to bear, the hero of the story, the local police chief Brody sets out with two companions to do battle with the monster. There is a tremendous climactic fight, with much severing of limbs and threshing about underwater, until at last the shark is slain. The community comes together in universal jubilation. The great threat has been lifted. Life in Amity can begin again.
It is safe to assume that few of the millions of sophisticated twentieth – century moviegoers who were gripped by this tale as it unfolded from the screens of a thousand luxury cinemas would have paused to think they had much in common with an unkempt bunch of animal-skinned Saxon warriors, huddled round the fire of some draughty, wattle – and – daub hall 1200 years before as they listened to the minstrel chanting out the verses of an epic poem.
The first part of Beowulf tells us how the little seaside community of Heorot is rudely shattered by the arrival of Grendel, a monster of almost supernatural power, who lives in the depths of a nearby lake. The inhabitants of Heorot are thrown into a stew of fear and confusion as, night after night, Grendel makes his mysterious attacks on the hall in which they sleep, seizing one victim after another and tearing them to pieces.
Finally when the sense of the threat almost too much to bear, the hero Beowulf sets out to do battle, first with Grendel, then with his even more terrible monster mother. There is a tremendous climactic fight, with much severing of limbs and threshing about underwater, until at last both monsters are slain. The community comes together in jubilation. The great threat has been lifted. Life in Heorot can begin again.
In terms of the bare outlines of their plots, the resemblances between the twentieth century horror and the eight century epic are so striking that they almost be regarded as telling the same story. One which moreover has formed the basis for countless other stories in the literature of mankind, at many different times and all over the world.
So what is the explanation?
WHY DO WE NEED STORIES?
It is a curious characteristic of our modern civilization that, whereas we are prepared to devote untold physical and mental resources to reaching out into the furthest recesses of the galaxy, or to delving in to the most delicate mysteries of the atom – in an attempt, to discover every last secret of the universe – one of the greatest and most important mysteries is lying so close beneath our noses that we scarcely even recognize it to be a mystery at all.
At any given moment, all over the world, hundreds of millions of people will be engaged in what is one of the most familiar of all forms of human activity. In one way or another they will have their attention focused on one of those strange sequences of mental images which we call a story.
We spend a phenomenal amount of our lives following stories: telling them, listening to them, reading them, watching them acted out on the television screen or in fims or on a stage. They are far and away one of the most important features of our everyday existence.
Not only do fictional stories play such a significant role in our lives, as novels or plays, films or operas, comic strips or TV ‘soaps Through newspapers or television, our news is presented to us in the form of ‘stories’. Our history books are largely made up of stories. Even much of our conversation is taken up with recounting the events of everyday life in the form of stories. These structured sequences of imagery are in fact the most natural way we know to describe almost everything in our lives.
But it is obviously in their fictional form that we most usually think of stories. So deep and so instinctive is our need for them that, as small children, we have no sooner learned to speak than we begin demanding to be told stories, as evidence of an appetite likely to continue to our dying day.
So central a part have stories played in every society in history that we take it for granted that the great storytellers, such as Homer or Shakespeare, should be among the most famous people who ever lived. In modern times we have not thought it odd that certain men and women such as John Wayne and Brad Pitt or Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren should come to be regarded as among the best known figures in the world, simply because they acted out the characters from stories on the cinema screen. Even when we look out from our own world into space, we find we have named many of the most conspicuous heavenly bodies – Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Orion, Perseus, Andromeda – after characters from stories.
Yet what is astonishing is how incurious we are as to why we indulge in this strange form of activity. What real purpose does it serve? So much do we take our need to tell stories for granted that such questions scarcely even occur to us.
In fact what we are looking at here is really one mystery upon another. Because our passion for storytelling begins from another faculty which is itself so much part of our lives that we fail to see just how strange it is: our ability to ‘imagine’, to bring up to our conscious perception the images of things which are not actually in front of our eyes. We have this capacity to conjure up the inward images not only of places, people and things not present to our physical senses, but even of things, such as a fire – breathing dragon, which have never existed physically at all.
And it is of course this ability to conjure up whole sequences of such images, unfolding before our inner eye like a film, which enables us to have dreams when we sleep, and when we are awake to focus our attention on these mental patterns, we call stories.
What I set out to show is that the making of these stories serves a far deeper and more significant purpose in our lives than we have realized; indeed one whose importance can scarcely be exaggerated. And the first crucial step towards bringing this into view is to recognize that, wherever men and women have told stories all over the world, the stories emerging to their imaginations have tended to take shape in remarkably similar ways.
THE BASIC STORIES
We are all familiar with the teasing notion that there may be only seven (or six or five or two) stories in the world. It is tantalizing.
I found my attention focusing on the 1001 great stories I have ever read or seen. They included stories in literature like a Shakespeare play Macbeth and Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Lolita, stories in the movies like The Deerhunter, The Godfather, Thelma and Louise, myths like the one of Icarus, legends like Faust. On the face of it, these stories might not seem to have much in common. But what intrigued me was the way, that at a deeper leve, they all seemed to unfold rond the same general story we – as humans – tell ourselves.
Each begins with a hero, or heroes, in some way unfulfilled. The mood at the beginning of the story is one of anticipation, as the hero seems to be standing on the edge of some great adventure or experience. In each case he finds a focus for his ambitions or desires, and for a time seems to enjoy almost dream-like success. Macbeth becomes king, Humbert embarks on his affair with the bewitching Lolita, Icarus discovers that he can fly; Faust is given access by the devil to all sorts of magical experiences. But gradually the mood of the story darkens.
The hero experiences an increasing sense of frustration. There is something about the course he has chosen which makes it appear doomed, unable to resolve happily. More and more he runs into difficulty; everything goes wrong until that original dream has turned into a nightmare. Finally, seemingly inexorably, the story works up to a climax of violent self-destruction. The dream ends in death.
So consistent was the pattern underlying each of these stories that it was possible to track it in a series of five identifiable stages from the initial mood of anticipation. Through a ‘dream stage’ when all seems to be going unbelievably well, to the ‘frustration’ stage when things begin to go mysteriously wrong, to the ‘nightmare stage’ where everything goes horrendously wrong, ending in that final moment of death and destruction.
Think about a good many dramatic tragedies such as Romeo and Julia or Carmen, the story of Don Juan, the dreams turned to nightmare of those two unhappy heroines, Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, both ending in suicide. Or Bonny and Clyde, describing the two young lovers who lightheartedly embark on a career as bank robbers and end up riddled with a hail of bullets.
Again and again through the history of storytelling it was possible to see this same theme, of a hero or heroine being drawn into a course of action which leads initially to some kind of hectic gratification and dream-like success, but which then darkens inexorably to a climax of nightmare and destruction. And at this point two questions began to intrude.
First, why was this so? Why has the imagination of storytellers in the history of mankind seem to form so readily and regularly round the same theme? Why do we recognize it as such a satisfactory shape to a story. Secondly, were there other patterns like this underlying stories, shaping them in quite different ways? What about all those stories which have ‘happy endings’? Were there any similar basic patterns underlying these too?
As soon as I began to look at stories in this light, a number of basic themes in the great stories began to suggest themselves. There were, for instance, all those stories about ‘overcoming of a monster’ like Jaws or Beowulf, in which our interest centers on the threat posed by some monstrous figure of evil, who is then challenged by the hero and finally, after a climactic battle, killed.
There is the theme of ‘enormous personal growth’ like The Ugly Duckling or Cinderella, where our main interest lies in seeing some initially humble and disregarded little hero or heroine being raised up to a position of immense success and splendor. There were stories based on the theme of a great quest, like the Odyssey or The Lord of the Rings, where our interest centers on the hero’s long, difficult journey towards some distant, enormously important goal.
I embarked on a quest, looking and reading through hundreds of stories of every type of story imaginable: from the myths of ancient Mesopotamia and Greece to James Bond and Star Wars; from ET and Close Encounters of the Third Kind to Proust; from the Marx Brothers to the Marquis de Sade and the Texas Chainsaw Massacre; from the biblical story of Job to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty -Four; from the tragedies of the Roman myths to Sherlock Holmes; from the operas of Wagner to The Sound of Music; from Dante’s Divine Comedy to Amelie. And it was not long before I began to make a startling discovery. Not only did it indeed seem to be true that there were a number of basic themes or plots which continually recurred in the storytelling of mankind, shaping tales of very different types and from almost every age and culture. Even more surprising was the degree of detail to which these ‘basis story plots’ seemed to shape the stories they had inspired; so that one might find, for instance, a well – known nineteenth-century novel constrected in almost exactly the same way as a Middle Eastern folk tale dating from 1200 years before; or a popular modern children’s story revealing remarkable hidden parallels with the structure of an epic poem composed in ancient Greece.
The stories seemed to be completely diverse: several were classic children’s stories, like Peter Rabbit, Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland; there were a long list of novels, from Robinson Crusoe to Brideshead Revisited; there were science fiction stories, like H.G. Well’s The Time Machine; there were films ranging from The Third Man and the Wizard of Oz to Gone with the Wind. The further my journey proceeded, the more clearly two things emerged. The first was that there are indeed a small number of story plots which are so fundamental to the way we tell stories that it is virtually impossible for any storyteller ever entirely to break away from them. The second was that, the more familiar we become with the nature of these shaping forms and forces lying beneath the surface of stories, pushing them into patterns and directions which are beyond the storyteller’s conscious control, the more we find that we are entering a realm to which recognition of the plots themselves proves only to have been the gateway. We are in fact uncovering nothing less than a kind of hidden, universal story language; a nucleus of situations and figures which are the very stuff from which stories are made.
And once we become acquainted with this symbolic story language, and begin to catch something of its extraordinary significance, there is literally no story in the world which cannot be seen in a new light: because we have come to the heart of what stories are about and why we tell them.
ONCE UPON A TIME
Imagine we are about to be plunged into a story – any story in the world. A curtain rises on a stage. A cinema darkens. We turn to the first paragraph of a novel. A narrator utters the age – old formula ‘Once upon a time….’
On the face of it, so limitless is the human imagination and so boundless the realm at the storyteller’s command, we might think that literally anything could happen next
But in fact, there are certain things we can be pretty sure we know about our story even before it begins.
For a start, it is likely that the story will have a hero, or a heroine, or both; a central figure, or figures, on whose fate our interest in the story ultimately rests; someone with whom, as we say, we can identify.
We are introduced to our hero or heroine in an imaginary world. Briefly or at length, the general scene is set. The purpose of the formula ‘Once upon a time ‘ whether the storyteller uses it explicitly or not, is to take us out of our present place and time into that imaginary realm where the story is to unfold, and to introduce us to the central figure with whom we are to identify.
Then something happens: some event or encounter which precipitates the story’s action, giving it focus. In fact the opening of the story is governed by a kind of double formula ‘once upon a time there was such and such a person, living in such and such place… then, one day, something happened.’
We are introduced to a little boy called Aladdin, who lives in a city in China… then one day a Sorcerer arrives and leads him out of the city to a mysterious underground cave. We meet a Scottish general, Macbeth, who has just won a great victory over his country’s enemies… then, on his way home, he encounters the mysterious witches. We meet a girl called Alice, wondering how to amuse herself in the summer heat… then suddenly she sees a White Rabbit running past, and vanishing down a mysterious hole. We see the great detective Sherlock Holmes sitting in his Baker Street lodgings… then there is a knock at the door and a visitor enters to present him with the next case.
This event provides ‘the Call’ which will lead the hero or heroine out of their initial state into a series of adventures or experiences which, to a greater or lesser extent, will transform their lives.
The next thing of which we can be sure is that the action which the hero or heroine are being drawn into will involve conflict and uncertainty, because without some measure of both there cannot be a story. Where there is a hero there may also be a villain (on some occasions, indeed, the hero himself may be the villain). But even if the characters in the story are not necessarily contrasted in such black – and – white terms, it is likely that some will be on the side of the hero or heroine, as friends and allies, while others will be out to oppose them.
Finally we shall sense that the impetus of the story is carrying it towards some kind of resolution. Every story which is complete, and not just a fragmentary string of episodes and impressions, must work up to a climax where conflict and uncertainty are usually at their most extreme. This then leads to a resolution of all that has gone before, bringing the story to its ending. And here we see how every story has in fact leading its central figure or figures in one of two directions. Either they end as we say, happily with a sense of liberation, fulfillment and completion. Or they end unhappily, in some kind of discomfiture, frustration or death
To say that stories either have happy or unhappy endings may seem such a commonplace that one almost hesitates to utter it. But it has to be said, simply because it is the most important single thing to be observed about stories. Around that one fact, and around what is necessary to bring a story to one type of ending or the other, revolves the whole of their extraordinary significance in our lives.
It was Aristoteles in Poetics who observed first that a satisfactory story – a story which, as he put it, is a ‘whole’ – must have a beginning, a middle and an end’. And it was Aristotle who, in the context of the two main types of stories first explicitly drew attention to the two kinds of ending a story may lead up to. On the one hand, as he put it in the Poetics, there are tragic stories. These are stories in which the hero’s or heroine’s fortunes usually begin by rising, but eventually ‘turn down’ to disaster (the greek word catastrophe means literally a down stroke, the downturn in the hero’s fortunes at the end of a tragedy). On the other hand, there are, in the broadest sense, comedies: stories in which things initially seem to become more and more complicated for the hero or heroine, until they are entangled in a complete knot, from which there seems no escape. But eventually comes what Aristotle calls the peripeteia or ‘reversal of fortune’. The knot is miraculously unraveled. Hero, heroine or both together are liberated; and we and all the world can rejoice.
This division holds good over a much a greater range of stories than might be implied just by the terms ‘tragedy’and ‘comedy’. Indeed, with qualifications, it remains true right across the domain of storytelling. The plot of a story is that which leads its hero or heroine either to a ‘catastrophe’ or an ‘unknotting’; either to frustration or to liberation; either to death or to a renewal of life. And it might be thought that there are almost as many ways of describing these downward or upward paths as there are individual stories in the world. Yet the more carefully we look at the vast range of stories thrown up by the human imagination through the ages, the more clearly we may discern there are certain continually recurring shapes to stories. It is at the most important of these underlying shapes of stories that we now look.
OVERCOMING THE MONSTER
In 1839 a young Englishman, Henry Austen Layard, set out to travel overland to Ceylon, the island now known as Sri Lanka. Halfway through his journey, when he was crossing the wild desert region then known as Mesopotamia, his curiosity was aroused by a series of mysterious mounds in the sand. He paused to investigate them, and thus began one of the most important investigations in the history of archaeology. For what Layard had stumbled on turned to be the remains of one of the earliest cities ever built by humankind, biblical Niniveh.
Over the decades which followed, many fascinating discoveries were made at Niniveh, but none more so than a mass of clay tablets which came to light in 1853, covered in small wedge-shaped marks which were obviously some unknown form of writing. The task of deciphering this ‘cuneiform’ script was to take the best part of the next 20 years. But when in 1872 George Smith of the British Museum finally unveiled the results of his labours, the Victorian public was electrified. One sequence of the tablets contained fragments of a long epic poem, dating back to the dawn of civilisation, it was by far the earliest written story in the world.
The first part of the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh tells how the kingdom of Uruk has fallen under the terrible shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of the threat is traced to a monstrous figure, Humbaba, who lives half across the world, in an underground cavern at the heart of a remote forest. The hero, Gilgamesh, goes to the armourers who equip him with special weapons, a great bow and a mighty axe. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Humbaba’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such supernatural powers, it seems Gilgamesh cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowy threat has been lifted. Gilgamesh has saved his kingdom and can return home triumphant.
In the autumn of 1962, 5000 years after the story of Gilgamesh a fashionable crowd converged on Leicester Square in London for the premiere of a new film. Dr No was the first of what was to become, over the next 40 years, the most popular series of films ever made (even by 1980 it was estimated that one or more of the screen adventures of James Bond had been seen by some 2 billion people, then nearly half the earth’s population). With their quintesssentially late – twentieth century mixture of space – age gadgetry, violence and sex, anything more remote from the primitive world of those inhabitants of the first cities who conceived the religious myth of Gilgamesh might seem hard to imagine.
Yet consider the story which launched the series of Bond films that night in 1962. The Western world falls under the shadow of a great and mysterious evil. The source of that threat is traced to a monstrous figure, the mad and deformed scientist Dr No, who lives half across the world in an underground cavern on a remote island. The hero James Bond goes to the armourer who equips him with special weapons. He sets out on a long, hazardous journey to Dr No’s distant lair, where he finally comes face to face with the monster. They enjoy a series of taunting exchanges, then embark on a titanic struggle. Against such near – supernatural powers, it seems Bond cannot possibly win. But finally, by a superhuman feat, he manages to kill his monstrous opponent. The shadowry threat has been lifted. The Western world has been saved. Bond can return home triumphant.
Any story which can make such a leap across the whole of recorded human history must have some profound symbolic significance in the inner life of mankind. Certainly this is true of our first type of story, the plot which may be called ‘Overcoming the Monster’.
THE ESSENCE OF THE MONSTER
The realm of storytelling contains nothing stranger or more spectacular than the terrifying, life-threatening, seemingly all-powerful monster whom the hero must confront in a fight to the death.
We first usually encounter these extraordinary creations early in our lives, in the guises of wolves, witches and giants of fairy tales. Little Red Riding Hood goes off into the great forest to visit her kindly grandmother, only to find that granny has been replaced by the wicked wolf, whose only desire is to eat Red Riding Hood. In the nick of time, a brave forester bursts in to kill the wolf with his axe and the little heroine is saved.
Hansel and Gretel are cruelly abandoned to die in the forest, where they meet the apparently kindly old woman who lives in a house made of gingerbread. But she turns out to be a wicked witch, whose only wish is to devour them. Just when all seems lost, they manage to push her into her own oven and burn her to death, finding, as their reward, a great treasure with which they can triumphantly return home.
Jack climbs his magic beanstalk to discover at the top a new world, where he enters a mysterious castle belonging to a terrifying and bloodthirsty giant. After progressively enraging this monstrous figure by three successive visits, each time managing to steal a golden treasure, Jack finally arouses the giant to what seems like a fatal pursuit. Only in the nick of time does Jack manage to scramble down the beanstalk, and bring it crashing down with an axe. The giant falls dead to the ground and Jack is left to enjoy the three priceless treasures he has won from its grasp.
The essence of the ‘Overcoming the Monster’ story is simple. Both we and the hero are made aware of the existence of some superhuman embodiment of evil power. This monster may take human form (e.g. a giant or a witch), the form of an animal (a wolf, a dragon, a shark) : or a combination of both (the Minotaur, the Sphinx). It is always deadly, threatening an entire community or kingdom, even mankind and the world in general. But the monster often also has in its clutches some great prize, a priceless treasure.
So powerful is the presence of this figure, so great the sense of threat which emanates from it, that the only thing which matters to us as we follow the story is that it should be killed and its dark power overthrown. Eventually the hero must confront the monster, often armed with some kind of ‘magic weapons’ and usually in or near its lair, which is likely to be in a cave, a forest, a castle, a lake, the sea, or some other deep and enclosed place. Battle is started and it seems that, against such terrifying odds, the hero cannot possibly win. Indeed there is a moment where his destruction seems all but inevitable. But at the last moment, as the story reaches its climax, there is a dramatic reversal. The hero makes a ‘thrilling escape from the death’ and the monster is slain. The hero’s reward is beyond price. He wins the treasure. He has liberated the world – community, kingdom, the human race – from the shadow of this threat to its survival. And in honor of his achievement, he may well go on to become some kind of ruler.
What is this monster which, since time immemorial, has so haunted the imagination and fantasies of mankind?
THE PURPOSE OF THE MONSTER
It is a question of deepest importance to the understanding of stories, relevant to tales of many kinds other than just those centered on the plot we have been discussing. The question may be put in the singular – speaking of one ‘monster’ rather than many – if only because of the essential characteristics of this creature are so unvarying, regardless of the variety of outward guises in which he (or she) appears.
For a start, throughout the world’s storytelling, we find the monster being described in strikingly similar language. It tends, of course, to be highly alarming in its appearance and behavior. It may be:
- horrible, terrible, grim, mis-shaped, hate-filled, ruthless, menacing, terrifying
As goes without saying, it is mortally dangerous:
- deadly, bloodthirsty, ravening, murderous, venomous, poisonous
It is deeply and tricky opponent to deal with:
- cunning, treacherous, vicious, twisted, slippery, depraved, vile
There is also often something about its nature which is mysterious and hard to define. It may be:
- strange, shapeless, sinister, weird, nightmarish, ghastly, hellish, fiendish, demonic, dark.
In other words, in its oddly elusive way, we see this ‘night creature’ whether it is a giant or a with, a dragon or a devil, a ghost or a Martian, representing (often vested in a kind of dark, supernatural aura) everything which seems most inimical, threatening and dangerous in human nature, when this is turned against ourselves.
Then there are the monster’s physical attributes. And here we must not be misled by the fact the monster is so often represented as an animal, or even a composite of several animals: e.g. the dragon. Such monsters may be animal in form, but they are invariably invested with attributes no animal in nature would possess, such as a peculiar cunning or malevolence. They are in fact preternatural, having qualities which are at least partly human.
NOT COMPLETELY HUMAN
There are many monsters in stories which are human, but invested with animal attributes, either directly, like the Minotaur, half-man, half-bull. They are seen as less than wholly human. And even when monsters are shown as entirely human in appearance, they tend to be in some way physically abnormal: abnormally large (giants), abnormally small (dwarves) or in some way deformed (e.g. missing an eye or a limb, or hunchbacked).
By definition, the one thing the monster in stories can never be is an ideal, perfect, whole human being.
Then there are the monster’s behavioural attritutes. We invariably see it acting in one of three roles:
- In its first ‘active’ role, the monster is Predator. It wanders menacingly or treacherously through the world, seeking to force or to trick people into its power.
- The monster’s second, more ‘passive’ role is as Holdfast. It sits in or near its lair, usually jealously guarding the ‘treasure’ it has won into its clutches. It is in this role a keeper and a hoarder, broody, suspicious, threatening destruction to all who come near.
- When its guardianship is in any way challenged, the monster enters its third role as Avenger. It lashes out viciously, bent on pursuit and revenge.
In fact, we may often see the same monster acting out all three roles at different stages of the same story. In Jack and the Beanstalk, for instance, we first see the giant as Predator, prowling about, demanding human food. We next see him as Holdfast, brooding in miserly fashion over his treasures. We finally see him, when Jack steals the treasures, running angrily in pursuit, as Avenger. And the point about these three roles is that they represent all the main aspects of the way human beings behave when acting in an entirely self-seeking fashion. When people are at odds with the world, behaving selfishly or anti-socially, they are after ‘something’ as Predators; wanting grimly to ‘hold on to something, as Holdfasts; or as Avengers, resentfully trying ‘to get their own back’.
One may sum up by saying that, physically, morally and psychologically, the monster in storytelling thus represents everything in human nature which is somehow twisted and less than perfect. Above all, and it is the supreme characteristic of every monster who has ever been portrayed in a story, he or she is egocentric. The monster is heartless; totally unable to feel for others, although this may sometimes be disguised beneath a deceptively charming, kindly or solicitous exterior; its only real concern is to look after its own interests, at the expense of everyone else in the world.
Such is the nature of the figure against whom the hero is pitted, in a battle to the deat. And we never have any doubt as to why the hero stands in opposition to such a centre of dark and destructive power: because the hero’s own motivation and qualities are presented as so completely in contrast to those ascribed to the monster. We see the hero being drawn into the struggle not just on his own behalf but to save others: to save all those who are suffering in the monster’s shadow; to free the community or the kingdom the monster is threatening; to liberate the ‘Princess’ it has imprisoned. The hero is always shown The hero is always shown as acting selflessly and in some higher cause, in a way which shows him standing at the opposite pole to the monster’s egocentricity.
And even though the monster wields such terrifying power that, almost to the end, its dark presence is the dominant factor holding sway over the world described by the story, it has one weakness which ultimately renders it vulnerable. Despite its cunning, its awareness of the reality of the world around it is in some important respect limited. Seeing the world through tunnel vision, shaped by its egocentric desires, there is always something which the monster cannot see and is likely to overlook. That is why, by the true hero, the monster can always in the end be outwitted: as was the mighty Goliath by little David, who was able to stay out of reach of the giant’s strength by using his little slingstones. As was the Medusa by Perseus with his reflecting shield, which meant he did not have to look at her directly; as was Minos by his own daughter secretly presenting Theseus with the sword and thread; as were Well’s Martians by their overlooking even something as apparently insignificant as the destructive power of bacteria. It is this fatal flaw in the monster’s awareness which is ultimately its undoing. Despite its power, the monster is shown not only as heartless and egocentric. It is also, in some crucial respect which turns the day, blind.
THE THRILLING ESCAPE FROM DEATH
Again and again in all these expressions of the Overcoming the Monster plot we see a moment which is of fundamental significance to storytelling: one which, like the characteristics of the monster itself, is relevant to stories of many kinds other than just those shaped by this particular plot.
To the huge relief of the hero (and of ourselves as the audience, identifying with his fate), just when it seems all is lost and that his destruction is inevitable, he makes a miraculous escape. Always it is only in the nick of time, just when all seems lost, that Luke Skywalker escapes from the final deadly assault by Darth Vader; that Quatermass saves mankind from the extra-terrestrials; that James Bond escapes from the clutches of his villains; that Well’s invading Martians are killed by bacteria; that the guns of Navarone are blown up; that Gary Cooper in High Noon is saved by the unexpected shot fired by his wife; that Jack manages to scramble back down the beanstalk; that the forester bursts in to save Red Riding Hood from the devouring wolf. From the constricting sense of imminent death, often physically represented by some dark, enclosing space in which the hero or heroine is trapped, they, and we the audience, are suddenly liberated.
The significance of the thrilling escape from death runs very deep. It is one of the most consistent motifs in storytelling, cropping up again and again in stories of every kind, and it is hardly surprising that we should find stories based on little else but the build up to a thrilling espace. For instance, Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year and Camus’s La Peste are both stories set in a city which has been attacked by a mysterious, deadly pestilence. From small beginnings, we feel the virulence of the plague becoming more and more obvious and terrifying until it seems no one can possible survive: then suddenly, as by a miracle it fades away. The mysterious plague in such stories is playing the part of the monster, all – conquering, deadly, remorseless in its power: except that we never see this particular monster face to face because it cannot be directly personified, but remains just a shadowy, increasingly threatening presence. Similarly the hero is not personally responsible for overcoming the monster. At the story’s climax, the reversal comes when the threat suddenly recedes. We experience such stories, in fact, through the eyes of a hero who is merely a more or less helpless observer, sucked into a nightmare which seems certain to end in his death, until brought to an end by agencies beyond his awareness or control.
Stories on this pattern have again become familiar in recent times in the form of those ‘disaster movies’ so popular from the 1970s onwards such as ‘Airport’. This film is centered on a group of passengers caught in the ‘enclosing space’ of a crowded airliner at night, threatened with imminent destruction by the presence of a madman armed with a bomb. At least here the threat is partly personified, and when the bomb explodes and the madman is sucked out into the darkness, it might seem that the ‘monster’ has been ‘overcome’: except that the real source of the nightmare is not the madman himself, as it would be if he were a true monster, but simply the fear of the plane crashing; and this remains until, with enormous difficulty and to universal relief, the plane is at last brought safely to the ground.
In fact this story of the hero’s deliverance from the nightmare of being trapped in some dark, enclosing space, threatening death is one of the oldest in the world. An obvious example is the tale of Jonah, who falls overboard an is swallowed by the ‘great fish’. For three days he lies in its cavernous interior, sure he is about to die:
‘the water encompassed me round about, even to the soul; the depth closed me round about, the weeds were wrapped about my head. I went down to the bottom of the mountains; the earth with her bars was round me forever’
Then miraculously his prayers are answered and the fish ‘vomited out Jonah on the dry land’.
Jonah does not, of course, kill his ‘whale’, which is why again this adventure cannot be considered strictly an Overcoming the Monster story. But this is only one of the countless tales of a hero swallowed by a monster, found in mythology and folk tales from Europe, North America, Polynesia, Japan and almost all over the world in many of which the hero does actually slay the monster from within.
RAGS TO RICHES
Again and again in the storytelling of the world we come across a certain image which seems to hold a peculiar fascination for us. We see an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps on the center of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional.
An obscure little squire accompanies his master up to London for the solemn ceremonies surrounding the choice of a new king. A mighty stone has appeared in St Paul’s churchyard, with a sword fixed in it and the inscription that anyone who can pull out the sword shall be king. All the great men of the nation try and fail. But to everyone’s astonishment the unknown young squire steps forward and removes the sword effortlessly. He becomes King Arthur, the greatest king his country has ever known.
A little ungainly duckling, quite different in appearance from all his brothers and sisters, miserable at being ridiculed for its size and clumsiness, sets out into the world where he sees a sight which takes his breath away – some great white birds, more beautiful than anything he has ever known. They are swans, but they fly away for the winter, leaving the duckling more miserable than ever.
Finally spring comes, and he sees three swans on a lake. He swims towards the ‘kingly’birds, fearing that, like everyone else, they will only mock him for his ugliness. He lowers his head in apprehension and catches sight of his reflection in the water. To his astonishment and joy, he sees that, without knowing it, he has become a swan himself – in the words of an onlooker, ‘the most beautiful of all’.
A dirty, ragged little Cockney flower seller, treated by passers by almost as refuse, is picked up in the streets by a distinguished professor of phonetics. Hidden away from the world, she is scrubbed clean, given fine clothes and her tortured vowels are gradually moulded into the accents of the aristocracy. A few months later, she is brought into public for the first time, when she is taken to a grand ball, attended by the cream of London’s fashionable society.
As she enters, there are gasps of astonishment at her beauty and bearing, and she is taken by many present to be a princess.
Few images in the popular storytelling of our time have fixed themselves more vividly in the mind than the moment when Clark Kent, the weedy, bespectacled news reporter, is suddenly transformed into Superman, the all-powerful righter of the world’s wrongs; or when Popeye, the shambling, ineffectual sailor man, swallows his tin of spinach and swells up into a bulging-muscled hero, effortlessly dispatching the bully who has been forcing his attentions on Popeye’s helpless girlfriend. Few clichés of old pre-feminist Hollywood were so well-tried as the moment when the handsome her removed the plain, bespectacled girl’s glasses, let down her tightly-coiled hair, gazed at her with awe and exclaimed ‘Gee…. but you’re beautiful.
In all these scenes, someone who has seemed to the world quite commonplace is dramatically shown to have been hiding the potential for a second, much more exceptional, self within. Somehow the moment of transformation when this other greater self emerges has a strange power to move us. And we begin with this transformation because it lies at the heart of our second great story plot, ‘Rags to Riches’.
Early in our lives, most of us became familiar with a story which ran something like this.
Once upon a time there was a young hero or heroine, not yet embarked on adult life, living in lowly and very difficult circumstances. This humble little figure, almost certain an orphan, was regarded as of little worth by most people around, and may even have been actively maltreated. But one day something happend to send our hero or heroine out into the world where they met with a series of adventures which eventually brought about a miraculous transformation in their fortunes. Emerging from the shadows of their wretched former state, they were raised to a position of dazzling splendour, winning the admiration of all who beheld them. The hero won the hand in marriage of a beautiful Princess; the heroine won the love of a handsome Prince. They succeeded to rule over a kingdom. And from that day forth they lived ‘happily ever after’.
So familiar did this plot become to us in childhood that we take its almost unvarying regularity for granted. It is of course the story of how the little orphan Cinderella, dressed in rags and forced to sit in the ashes by her cruel stepmother and vain stepsisters, is enabled by her fairy godmother to go out to the ball – which eventually wins her the hand in marriage of her Prince. It is the story of how the little orphan Aladdin is led out of the city by his wicked ‘uncle’, the Sorcerer, to retrieve the magic lamp, thus embarking on the strange series of adventures which transform him into a rich and admired national hero, winning the hand of the Princess and finally succeeding to the kingdom of her father, the Sultan.
Most of the variations on this Rags to Riches story we met in childhood were adapted from folk tales, and it is perhaps not until we begin reading through folk stories from many different countries and cultures that we come to appreciate how universal this type of story is. The basic outline of the story we know as Cinderella is reckoned by the students of folklore to have given rise to well over a thousand different versions, found in every corner of Europe, in Africa, in Asia and among the indigenous peoples of North America. Other permutations on the Rags to Riches theme appear so often in folklore that on this score alone it must be regarded as one of the basic stories in the world.
But the story of the humble, disregarded little hero or heroine who is lifted out of the shadows of a glorious destiny is by no means, of course, confined only to only folk tales. We have already touched on such familiar examples as the opening episodes in the medieval story of King Arthur; or the modern fairy-tale transformation of the ragged little flower-girl Eliza Doolittle into a grand and beautiful lady which made one of the most popular stage and film musicals of our time, My Fair Lady (although without Shaw’s original happy ending in Pygmalion, where Eliza finally marries and lives happily ever after).
We can find the Rags to Riches theme in almost every form in which stories have been told. It is as ancient as the biblical story of Joseph, the little dreamer so despised by his brothers that they want to kill him, who eventually rises to a position as the Pharaoh’s chief minister, ruler over the might kingdom of Egypt. It is as modern as the countless versions produced in our own time by Hollywood, so that the very phrase ‘rags to riches story’ is these days likely to conjure up for many people the type of film which shows how a poor, obscure chorus girl dances her way to stardom or a poor boy from the slums battles his way to the top to become a world boxing champion.
Indeed there are certain categories of popular storytelling which seem so naturally drawn to the Rags to Riches plot, that we often think of this kind of story, with its ‘fairy tale happy endings’as being essentially rather simple and sentimental, the stuff of wish fulfilment rather than great literature. The Rags to Riches theme has, for instance, traditionally been associated with that type of romantic fiction which was mainly written by and for women, telling how some poor and beautiful (or plain and disregarded, but secretly admirable) heroine rises from obscurity to win the heart of a prince, dashing duke or millionaire.
But equally the Rags to Riches plot has inspired some of the most serious and admired novels in Western literature. An obvious example is David Copperfield, in which we see how an unhappy, persecuted little orphan goes out into the world and eventually rises, after many adventures, to become a rich and famous writer, at last happily united in the closing pages to his ‘true angel’. Agnes Woodward. In Jane Eyre, we again follow the fortunes of an unhappy, persecuted little Cinderella like orphan as she goes out into the world, where she eventually becomes an heiress and, against all odds, marries her adored ‘Prince’ Mr Rochester. In each of these novels the fundamental plot shaping the story is precisely that of the childhood fairy tales: that of the unhappy and disregarded little child at the beginning gradually developing and maturing through the vicissitudes of life to the fulfilment, united at last with a beloved ‘other half’.
In general terms, such a story obviously makes some profound appeal to the human imagination. But when we come to look more closely at a wide cross section of such stories, we find that they have, we find that they have much more in common than just a vague, generalized outline. Wherever we find the Rags to Riches theme in storytelling, we may be struck by how constantly certain of its features recur.
THE DARK FIGURES
First of these is that, more consistently than in any other type of plot the Rags to Riches story first introduces us to its hero or heroine in childhood, or at least at a very young age before they have ventured out on the stage of the world. As yet they are not fully formed, and we ware aware that in some that in some essential way the story is concerned with the process of growing up.
When we first see them in this initial state, it is always emphasized how the little hero or heroine are at the bottom of the heap, seemingly inferior to everyone around them. Often they are the youngest child and disregarded for being so. They thus begin in the shadows cast by more dominant figures around them, who not only can see no merit in them but are usually deeply antagonistic to them.
These ‘dark’ figures who overshadow the hero or heroine in the early stages of the story fall into two main categories. Firstly they may be some adult figures, often acting in the place of a parent, such as Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, who replaces her loving real mother; or David Copperfield’s cruel stepfather Mr Murdstone and his grim sister Miss Murdstone, who replace his real parents when they die; or Jane Eyre’s guardian Aunt Reed, and the fearsome Mr Brocklehurst who takes her away to an orphanage. Secondly there are those figures nearer to the hero or heroine in age and status: Cinderella’s vain, scornful stepsisters, Joseph’s hostile older brothers, who want to kill him; the Ugly Duckling’s fellow ducklings who, along with the other animals of the farmyard, jeer at him for his awkwardness and ugliness.
Whichever of these categories they fall into, these dark figures are always presented in the same light. In their scornful attitude to the hero or heroine, they are both hard-hearted and blind: they can neither feel for them nor perceive their true qualities. They are also, like Cinderella’s stepsisters, wholly self-centered: vain, puffed-up, short-tempered, deceitful, concerned only with furthering their own interests. Later in the story, other ‘dark’ figures may emerge to stand between the hero or heroine and their ultimate goal: as we see in David Copperfield’s rival for the hand of Agnes, the treacherous Uriah Heep; or in Jane Eyre’s egrerious suitor St John Rivers. But these characters are typified by precisely the same negative qualities; they are defined by their egocentricity, their blinkered vision, their incapacity for true, selfless love.
What we see in the ‘dark’ figures of Rags to Riches stories is thus a combination of characteristics already familiar from our first plot, Overcoming the Monster. Psychologically, they share the same essential attributes as the monder. And against this we see the hero or the heroine themselves set in complete contrast. The hero or heroine begin the story largely unformed, in the shadows cast by the more dominant figures around them. But it is central to the story, as they gradually emerge from these shadows toward the light, that the hero or heroine are not marked by these same hard, self-centred characteristics. We always see them as a positive against the overshadowing negative: and in this sense, as the story unfolds, they do not change their essential character. All that happens is that they develop or reveal qualities which have been in them, at least potentially, all the time: to the point where, by the end of the story, two things have happened.
Firstly, all the dark figures have either been discomfited or have just faded away. And secondly, the hero or heroine have at last emerged fully into the light, so that everyone can at last recognize how exceptional they are. It is this which has essentially been happening in the story, and the fact that their material circumstances may also have gone through such a transformation – e.g., that they have exchanged their original poverty and rags for riches and fine clothes – is only an outward reflection of what has inwardly happened to them, lending it dramatic emphasis.
Even in the simplest folk-tale versions of the Rags to Riches plot, we can see how carefully this point is brought out. By the end of the story, no one ever doubts that the originally derided and humble little hero or heroine should be worthy of their final glorious destiny, however improbable it might have seemed from their circumstances at the beginning that they have already revealed along the way qualities which show their true inner worth. When Cinderella goes to the ball and meets her Prince for the first time, it is not just the magnificent clothes in which she has been dressed by her fairy godmother which catch every eye; it is her innate beauty and obvious sweetness of nature, which fine clothes have only helped to ‘bring out’ (it is a telling detail at the end that when the Prince finally sees her in her rags, he at once recognizes her as the girl he loves; she does not need external trappings to be seen as beautiful in the eyes of the right person). Similarly, when Aladdin is decked out by the genie of the lamp in all sorts of splendor for his wedding to the Princess, the formerly scorned little urchin win all hearts by his generosity and noble bearing, and astonishes his prospective father-in-law the Sultan by his ‘eloquence and cultured speech’, his ‘gallantry and wit’.
Yet obviously these dazzling young heroes and heroines are not exactly the same people that we saw, unhappy, confused and rejected, in the earlier scenes of their stories. What has happened to them is that they have at last revealed or developed what was potentially in them all the time. They have matured. They have grown up. They have fully realised everything that was in them to become. In het best and highest sense, they have become themselves.
An example of a Rags to Rigs story which makes this point particularly clearly – because, stripped down to this essence, the story consists of very little else – is Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling. Being a duckling, the hero can hardly make the journey from literal rags to literal riches. But he is certainly looked down on by everyone at the beginning, and almost our entire interest in the tale centers round the contrast between that long initial period of misery and confusion when he suffers because he does not know who he really is, and that final moment of joyful self-realization when he flowers into his true self as a beautiful swan.
In the majority of Rags to Riches tales, however, the joy and perfection of the central figure’s final state are also expressed by those two other ingredients which equally have nothing to do with literal riches, but which are so fundamental to the world’s storytelling that they are almost synonymous with our notion of a ‘happy ending’.
The first is that, somewhere along the way the hero should have met the girl of his dreams, a beautiful maiden or ‘Princess’. The heroine has met her handsome ‘Prince’. Nothing more profoundly conveys our sense of resolution at the end of the story that they should be united ,two lovers brought together in perfect love.
The second is that the hero, or the newly united pair, should then succeed to some kind of kingdom, inheritance or domain, over which they can rule. There we can leave them, with the sense that, after a long period when it seems that dark forces and uncertainty ruled the day, everything has at last been brought or restored to where it should be. We may at this point be told that ‘they lived happily ever after’ and we do not necessarily need to know anything more about them: because we have reached that mysterious central goal in storytelling, where everything seems to be perfect and complete.
THE CENTRAL CRISIS
At first sight it might seem that the process whereby the hero or heroine of a Rags to Riches story eventually reaches this goal is fairly simple. But the more systematically we examine such stories, the more we may be struck by the way the hero or heroine’s emergence from the shadows is rarely presented as a simple, unbroken climb. In fact there is usually a particular moment in the story when, after an initial improvement in the hero’s or heroine’s fortunes (sometimes so great that it might in itself seem the cue for a happy ending), they suddenly hit a new point of crisis, when all hopes of a happy ending seem to have been snatched away forever.
A central moment of crisis and despair is in fact so natural to the pattern of the Rags to Riches story that there are few examples where in some form or another it does not appear. Even in the Ugly Duckling there is no moment when the hero’s spirits are at a lower ebb than after his first glimpse of the ‘kingly’ swans: a prevision of the unthinkable glories life might hold. But then the swans disappear, leaving the duckling alone to face the hardships of a long, terrible winter. He has never been so cold, short of food or miserable. It is only when he has been through this last greatest ordeal that at last spring arrives, bringing with it the miraculous moment of his transformation into a ‘kingly’ swan himself, ‘the most beautiful of them all’.
Similarly in Cinderella, there is no moment when everything seems more hopeless for the heroine than after her third visit to the ball. Three times she has left her rags and ashes to dance with the Prince, winning universal admiration and catching a glimpse of the unthinkable happiness life might hold for her. Now, as she returns to her miserable, imprisoned life as a maid-of-all-work, with no prospect of ever seeing the Prince again, all seems blacker than ever. But of course, in her headlong flight from the palace on the third visit, she has left behind her dainty slipper; and, quite unknown to her, the Prince has found it, and sent out far and wide across the kingdom to see whose foot the slipper will fit. As with Arthur and the sword in the stone, the trying on of the slipper is a version of that motif familiar from many of the world’s myths, legends and folk tales, ‘the test which only the true hero, or heroine, can pass.’ Cinderella comes through her ordeal triumphantly. The Prince at once recognises her in her rags, and they proceed to the traditional happy ending.
In each of these examples we see the same essential structure to the story, as it falles into two distinct stages, separated in the middle by the central crisis. First there is the initial rise in the hero’s or heroine’s fortunes, as they are taken out of their original state of helpless misery and may have a glimpse of the glorious state they might one day attain Then comes the terrible crisis, when all seems lost again. Then comes the second half of the story, which shows them being prepared unwittingly for their final reversal of fortune, their final emergence into the light and the glorious state of completeness at which they arrive at the end.
We can already see this pattern at work in by far the earliest example of a Rags to Riches story of which we have record, the story of Joseph from the biblical book of Genesis When young Joseph’s jealous brothers, after first planning to leave him to die in the desert, then sell him into slavery in Egypt, he eventually rises to rule as an overseer over the household of Potiphar, the captain of the king’s guard. This is an important position, and considering Joseph’s earlier plight, when he faced death in the desert, it might seem like a miraculous happy ending to the story. But just then Joseph is falsely accused by Potiphar’s temptress wife of attempting to seduce her. He is thrown into prison and his life seems irrevocably in ruins. Only after a long time of utter despair is Joseph’s talent for interpreting dreams (the very thing for which he had nearly been murdered by his brothers) quite unexpectedly brought to the attention of Pharoah himself. Through this he is eventually raised up to infinitely greater heights as chief minister, the second most powerful man in the kingdom. But even then, as Joseph enjoys his position of immense wealth and splendor, there is a crucial piece of unfinished business remaining before the story can come to a completely happy conclusion: Joseph’s rift with his brothers. As famine stalks the land of Israel, they come to Egypt pleading with this mighty, powerful figure to be given enough corn to survive. At first Joseph rejects them, until he is so moved by the sight of his youngest brother, ‘little Benjamin’, who had not been party to his earlier persecution, and by the thought of his aged father Jacob starving back in Israel, that he relents. He gives them the food they need. Only when he has passed this final test, and been reunited with his family in a state of love and forgiveness, can the story end on an image of complete resolution.
Equally it is by no means just in the older and more traditional forms of the Rags of Riches tale that we see this pattern of the story’s division into two ‘halves’ interrupted by a ‘central crisis’. We are just as likely to find it in versions as far removed from the world of the traditional folk tale or biblical legend as could be imagined.
THE DARK VERSION
Once we are familiar with the essential outlines of this type of story we can recognise a variation on the theme which may be called the ‘dark’ version of the Rags to Riches plot. This is the sort of tale which shows a hero or heroine who attempts to follow the general pattern of the climb from rags to riches, but in some way fails to arrive at its fully rewarding conclusion.
Le Rouge et Le Noir introduces us to a little hero of humble origins living in an obscure provincial town in France in the years after the fall of Napoleon. Julien Sorel, a clever boy who enjoys reading books, is scorned by his practical, down-to-earth father and older brothers (we hear nothing of his mother, who appears to be absent). In this sense he starts as a litlle dreamer, his head apparently in the clouds, who is scorned and rejected by his unimaginative family.
But Sorel is not like the traditional folk tale hero. He is profoundly ambitious. His dreams are of winning earthly glory, like his hero Napoleon, and in general his attitude towards the rest of the world is one of contempt. As he nears adult life, he goes out from home in a first, limited way, by having an affair with an older married woman in the town where they live, but eventually he contemptuously rejects her. He then goes off to a seminary for prospective priests, but only because he has calculated that the Church is the best stepping stone for a poor boy to further his worldy ambitions. Again this attitude towards his fellow students is one of heartless scorn.
Eventually Sorel travels to the centre of all his ambitions, the great city of Paris, where he wins the post of private secretary to the magnificent Marquis de la Mole, the most powerful man in France. He unscrupulously worms his way into the heart of his employer’s beautiful daughter Mathilde (whom he enjoys humiliating sexually) and seems on the verge of marrying her and succeeding to the ‘kingdom’ of immense power and riches. But at the last moment disaster strikes. The unhappy mistress he had discarded years before comes back into his life, obsessed with her desire for revenge. In a desperate bid to hold onto his new prospects, he attempts to murder her – and ends up, not at the altar with his ‘Princess’, but disgraced an on the guillotine.
Obviously there is a huge difference between the heartless, self – seeking Sorel and the essentially good-hearted heroes and heroines we have been looking at (who are so specifically contrasted with the self-seeking dark figures who are their main antagonists and rivals). When Sorel comes into any kind of opposition to others in his story, it is they who become victims of his egotism rather than the other way around. He himself is indeed a kind of ‘monster’. Yet, outwardly, the ultimate goal he is seeking is remarkably similar to that central symbolic goal we see in other stories. What he aspires to is union with the ‘beloved other’ and succession to a position of great power: except that he is after these things only as a means to egotistical gratification, as expressions of his desire for power over others. And in the end his drive for that goal is not just frustrated; it brings about his complete destruction.
We shall later see that the Rags to Riches plot is by no means the only type of story which can give rise to ‘dark’ versions like this. Yet what is significant is how these unfold to their self-destructive endings by precisely the same rules which govern the way in which the ‘light’ versions proceed to their happy endings. In coming to understand just how subtly and consistently this principle operates all through storytelling we shall uncover one of the most important secrets stories have to offer.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES: SUMMING UP
A second way in which a story naturally takes shape in the human imagination is that which shows how some young, unrecognized hero or heroine is eventually lifted out of obscurity, poverty and misery to a state of great splendor and happiness. But their upward progress is unlikely to be a continuous unbroken climb, and most Rags to Riches stories, except the very simplest versions, may well unfold through a recognizable series of stages like this:
- Initial wretchedness at home and the Call to Adventure. We are first introduced to the young hero or heroine in their original lowly and unhappy state, usually at home. The most obvious reason for their misery is that they are overshadowed by malevolent ‘dark’ figures around them, who scorn or maltreat them. This phase ends when something happens to call and send them out into a wider world.
- Out into the world, initial success; Although this new phase may be marked by new ordeals, the hero or heroine are here rewarded with their first, limited success, and may have some prevision of their eventual glorious destiny. They may make a first encounter with their ‘Princess’ or ‘Prince’ and may even outstrip dark rivals, but only in some incomplete fashion, and it is made clear that they are not yet ready for their final state of complete fulfillment.
- The central crisis: Everything suddenly goes wrong. The shadows cast by the dark figures return. Hero or heroine are separated from that which has become more important to them than anything in the world, and they are overwhelmed with despair. Because of the earlier lift in their fortunes, and because they are so powerless, this is the worst moment in the story.
- Independence and the final ordeal: As they emerge from the crisis, we gradually come to see the hero or heroine in a new light. Although still unfulfilled, they are discovering in themselves a new independent strength. As this develops it must at last be put to a final test, again usually involving a battle with some powerful dark figure who stands, as a dark rival, between them and their goal; and this forms the climax to the whole story. Only when this has been successfully resolved and the shadow over their lives wholly removed, are they at last liberated to move to the final stage.
- Final union, completion and fulfillment: Their reward is usually a state of complete, loving union with the ‘Princess’ or ‘Prince’. They may also finally succeed to some kind of ‘kingdom’, the nature of which is not spelled out but which from their mature and developed state, implies a domain over which they will rule wisely and well. The story thus resolves on an image which signifies a perfect state of wholeness, lasting indefinitely into the future (‘they lived happily ever after’)
As in the Overcoming the Monster plot, we see that, at its deepest level, the Rags to Riches story unfolds through alternating phases of constriction and expansion. We begin with the hero or heroine weighed down by the contempt and even persecution to which they are exposed in the opening scenes. This is followed by the sense of a gradual opening out and lifting of their hopes as they go out into the world and meet with their modest early successes. But this is abruptly ended by the shock of a central crisis, imposing a new sense of constriction. Again there is a gradual opening out, as they develop a deeper maturity, until this is put to a climactic test, when the sense of constriction is at its most severe. Only then can we see the final act of liberation which enables them to emerge triumphant at the end of the story, having won the prize which gives them a sense of complete fulfillment and a hold on life which will continue indefinitely into the future.
In the distant land of Mordor, says Gandalf, the old wizard, there is a mighty volcanic mountain. Your task, he tells Frodo, the young hero, is to journey to that far-off place, carrying a priceless ring, and cast into the Cracks of Doom.
When Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey look at the parchment map the young hero Jim Hawkins has found in a dead man’s chest, they see that it reveals the place on a far – off desert island where a fabulous pirate treasure is buried. They at once agree that they must sail in search of it.
When Odysseus embarks with his men after the sack of Troy, his only desire is to return home to his far-off island kingdom of Ithaca and his beloved wife Penelope.
No type of story is more instantly recognisable to us than a Quest. Far away, we learn, there is some priceless goal, worth any effort to achieve: a treasure, a promised land; something of infinite value. From the moment the hero learns of this prize, the need to set out on the long hazardous journey to reach it becomes the most important thing to him in the world. Whatever perils and diversions lie in the wait on the way, the story is shaped by that one overriding imperative; and the story remains unresolved until the objective has been finally, triumphantly secured.
Some of the most celebrated stories in the world are quests: Homer’s Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. The theme has inspired myths, legends, fairy tales and stories of all kinds, right up to such popular modern examples as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, Richard Adam’s Watership Down or Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.
On the face of it, stories based on the plot of the Quest could hardly seem more disparate. Consider, for example, the variety of goals the hero is seeking. It may be some fabulous buried treasure, as in Stevenson’s Treasure Island or Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines.
It may be some other, rather more mysterious priceless object, such as the Golden Fleece or the Holy Grail sought by King Arthur’s knights or the most sacred treasure in Jewish tradition, the Arik of the Covenant in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
It may be ‘home’ as in Odysseus’s wanderings after the Trojan War. It may be some new home, as was sought by Aenas, or by the Jews in their exodus from Egypt towards the ‘promised land’. It may be the secret of immortality, as was sought by Gilgamesh in his journey to the end of the world – or simply the distant ‘freedom’ dreamed-of by the escapers in so many Second World War prison-camp escape stories. It may be the Celestial City, Paradise itself as in Pilgrim’s Progress or the Divine Comedy.
Yet when we come to examine such tales more closely, we find that they reveal some startling similarities.
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
We begin with the reason why the hero and his companions set out on their journey in the first place. The Quest usually begins on a note of the most urgent compulsion. For the hero to remain quietly ‘at home’ (or wherever he happens to be) has become impossible. Some fearful threat has arisen. The ‘times are out of joint’. Something has gone seriously and terrifyingly wrong.
The story of Aeneas begins amid the roaring flames, billowing smoke and crashing masonry of his beloved Troy, as it is being sacked by the Greeks. Christian in Pilgrim’s Progress has a nightmare vision in which he sees that the city he lives in ‘will be burned with fire from heaven’.
In the midst of this fear and suffering comes the Call. Amid the smoking ruins of Troy, the ghost of Aeneas’s lost wife Creusa looms up, ‘larger than life’, to tell him that across ‘a great waste of ocean’, in the Western land’ he will find a new home. Christian meets Evangelist, who points out a distant shining light and tells him that he must head for it. Moses has a terrifying vision of God in the Burning Bush, telling him that the Jews must flee Egypt and that they eventually will be brought up into ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.
The Grail quest begins with the arrival of King Arthur’s court of a strange knight. He proves to be the only knight who can sit safely in the Siege Perilous, the ‘Seat of Danger’at the Round table. And this seemingly miraculous arrival of the young hero Sir Galahad is seen as the signal for the long-promised quest for the Holy Grail, ‘to free our country from the enchantments and strange events which have troubled it so often and so long’. There is a terrible clap of thunder, the hall is lit by a ray of more than earthly light, and the knights are given a ethereal prevision of the Grail for which they are about to set off in search.
So subtly constructed is the Odyssey, with its flasbacks and shifts in the centre from which the narrative is related, that, as Homer arranges the story, we do not begin with Odysseus at all. The story begins with the terrible threat overhanging the kingdom of Ithaca from which its king Odysseus has been absent for many years. Amid the riots and debauches of the suitors for the hand of his queen Penelope (who has all but given up hope that Odysseus will ever return), the Call comes in a visit by the goddess Athene to his son Telemachus. She sends him forth to search for his lost father, almost as if young Telemachus is himself the hero of the quest. It is not until some considerable time later that we finally join up with the real quest motivating the poem: that of Odysseus seeking to return home, which had of course begun long before, like that of Aneas, in the smoking wreck of Troy.
Surrounded by this atmosphere of menace and constriction the Quest hero and his friends feel under intense compulsion to get away. Even so, they may face every kind of discouragement and opposition before they can depart. Aeneas and his friends only escape from Troy by the skin of their teeth. While the longest struggle of all is faced by the Jews in Egypt, who only escape the clutches of the tyrannical Phaoroah in Egypt after the land has been smitten with seven plagues. But at last, led on by visions of a goal which has become more precious and desirable to them than anything in the world, the hero and his companions set out.
THE HERO’S COMPANIONS
We can say ‘the hero and his companions’ because a distinctive mark of the Quest is the extent to which, more than in any other kind of story, the hero is not alone in his adventures. The story does ultimately centre round the single figure of the hero. But we are also made aware of the presence and importance of the friends who accompany him.
In fact the relationship of the hero to his companions assumes one of four general forms.
Firstly, the hero’s companions may simply be a large number of undifferentiated appendages, few if any of whom we even know by name. Such are the twelve boatloads of men who set out from Troy with Odysseus, Aenas’s Trojans or the main body of the Jews who accompany Moses.
Secondly, the hero may have an alter-ego who has no real distinguishing mark except his fidelity. Frodo in the Lord of the Rings has the ‘faithful Sam Gamgee’ , Hamlet has his ‘faithful Horatio’.
Thirdly, the hero may have a subtler type of alter-ego whose role is to serve as a foil, displaying qualities the opposite of those shown by the hero. In the story of the Jewish exodus, for instance, Moses is shadowed in this way by his brother Aaron. Whenever Moses is being particularly faithful to his commission to lead the Jews into the Promised Land (as when he is up on Mount Sinai, receiving the ten commandments), Aaron is likely to be embodying infidelity and disloyalty (as in inciting the Jews to worship the Golden Calf). When the hero in the Epic of Gilgamesh sets out to slay the giant Humbaba, he takes with him his friend Enkidu; whenever Gilgamesh expresses courage and confidence, it is Enkidu who expresses the opposite emotions, fear and doubt. Equally, whenever the hero is in negative mode, it may be the alter – ego’s role to be positive. This kind of relationship where the chief companion embodies compensatory qualities missing in the hero is of enormous importance in stories, and we shall come across many other examples: Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Lear and the Fool, Don Giovanni and Leporello, to name a few.
Fourthly, in the most fully-differentiated form of the relationship between the Quest hero and his companions, the latter are each given distinct characteristics which complement each other, and add up as a whole. For in stance the group who set out on the Quest in King Solomon’s mines. Their leader and the story’s hero is Allan Quatermain; his companions are the ‘bull – lke’ Sir Henry Curtis, representing physical strength; the immaculate Captain Good, who represents rational calculation; while the intuitive principle is represented by their mysterious, regal Zulu companion, Umbopa, who seems to have more knowledge of the goal they are heading for than he lets on, for reasons which eventually emerge.
The essential pattern of the journey in a Quest is always the same. The Hero and his companions go through a succession of terrible, often near-fatal ordeals, followed by periods of respite when they recoup their strength, receiving succour and guidance from friendly helpers to send them on their way. In other words, after the initial feeling of constriction which dominates the start of the story, we now experience the journey itself as a series of alternating phases of life – threatening constriction followed by life-giving release. We shall now consider each in turn: first, the nature of the ordeals; then that of the hero’s allies, who rescue him and help him towards his goal.
The first problem facing the hero and his companions is the nature of the terrain across which they have to make the most of their journey. Its essence is that it is wild, alien and unfriendly: a desert or wilderness (the Jews, Allan Quatermain) ; a forest (e.g. the Waste Forest’, ‘vast and labyrinthine in its depths’ in which the Grail seekers have most of their adventures); moorland or mountainous countryside; a countryside full of dangers from animals and men or the wild and treacherous sea.
Some of the perils they encounter therefore are simply those of the hostile terrain itself. Odysseus and Aeneas are caught in great storms of sea. The Jews and Allen Quatermain face terrible ordeals through lack of food and water, from which they are miraculously saved, in ‘thrilling escapes from death. But rather more specific obstacles than these stand between the hero and his goal, and these fall into four general categories.
Firstly the hero and his companions are likely to encounter ‘monsters’. The episode in the Odyssey, for instance, in which Odysseus and his men are trapped in the cave of the man -eating, one-eye giant Polyphemus, and finally make their thrilling escape by blinding the Cyclops and concealing themselves under his sheep.
Aeneas and his men have a fearsome battle with the Harpies, loathsome beasts, half woman, half bird. The Argonauts also encounter the Harpies, are set on elsewhere by a race of six handed giants and, on the island of Babycos, one of them has to face in single – combat the dreaded King Amycus, who has previously challenged and killed every passer-by. Allan Quartermain and his friends have scarcely set out than they have to kill an enormous, deadly bull-elephant.
The Jews are threatened first by the pursuing armies of the Egyptians, then by the giant ‘sons of Anak’. Frodo and his companions are threatened with death by a whole range of monstrous opponents, from the mysterious ‘Black Riders’to the fearsome giant spider Shelob. While the Grail – seekers have on various occasions to fight tremendous battles in the forest with mysterious ‘Black Knights’, who are usually holding captive some beautiful maiden.
The second specific peril the Quest hero has to face is rather more deceptive and treacherous: the ‘Temptation’. This often but not always involves some beautiful and captivating woman. The essence of the Temptation is that it holds out the promise of some physical gratification. It may be sexually arousing. It may offer rich food and intoxicating wines. It may just offer the hero a time of ease and pleasure, in contrast to the hard and austere nature of the task he has been set. In fact to surrender to a Temptation may be as unambiguously deadly as confrontation with a Monster. But often the danger the hero runs is simply that he will be seduced and lulled into forgetting the great task he has undertaken, and will abandon his Quest under some beguiling spell. The most complete picture of the various forms the Temptation may take is given in the Odyssey.
- the beautiful but deadly Sirens who, like the Lorelei of German legend, lure sailors to their doom by their bewitching sonds. Their only aim is to kill.
- the beautiful enchantress Circe, who imprisons all visitors to her island by turning them magically into animals (symbolising the way they have surrendered to their ‘animal’ appetites). But she does not kill them.
- Calypso, another beautiful enchantress, who falls in love with Odysseus and so captivates him that he stays seven years in her cave. But, although restive, he stays voluntarily.
- the simple, enervating captivation of the Land of the Lotus Eaters, which saps all will in an atmosphere of relaxed self indulgence. This traps many of Odysseus’s men until they are forcibly dragged back to their ships.
For Aenas, the chief temptation is of the Calypso type: his love affair with Dido, the widowed queen of Carthage, which is brought to an abrupt end when the messenger of the gods, Mercury, is sent by Jupiter to ask the hero ‘what you can possibly gain by living at wasteful leisure in African lands’ and to order him peremptorily back on his quest. Much the same temptatioin ensnares the Jews when they are lured into committing ‘whoredom with the daughters of Moab’, and the Argonauts when they arrive on the island of Lemnos to find that the women have killed all their menfolk and are avid for new lovers. It is Heracles who on this occasion strides angrily round the island with his club, sternly recalling Jason’s men to their duty.
For the knights of the Grail, sworn to chastity, temptation is firmly of the Siren type. When Sir Percival loses his horse, he meets ‘a timid maiden’in the forest, who offers him another ‘huge and black’, which carries him off uncontrollably for ‘three days or more’. Coming to a black river, burning with fire, Percival crosses himself, whereupon the horse throws him: and he wakes up trapped, foodless, on a precipitous island in the middle of the sea. In the heat of the day a handsome ship approaches, and sitting in it, under an awning, is the most beautiful woman he has ever seen. She erects a shady tent on the shore and invites Percival to an esquisite meal, with the most potent wine he has ever drunk: and then implores him to make love to her, saying ‘you have not hungered to possess me half as much as I have wanted you, for you are one of the knights I was most passionately set on having’. As they are about to climb together into a great bed, Percival catches sight of the cross on his sword-hilt; he crosses himself, the tent vanishes in a puff of foul-smelling smoke and the ship hurtles away at unnatural speed across the ocean, leaving a wake of fire rising from storm-tossed waves.
Of course the Temptation has much in common with the Monster, except that the latter threatens the hero by direct confrontation, while the former seeks to lure him to his doom by guile and seduction. The Sirens are only Predators in another guise. While the enchantress who seek to imprison travellers by their spells, or the arts of love, are another version of Holdfast. Nevertheless, if they are mastered or overruled in some way, these Temptresses may completely change their nature, or rather their relationship to the hero. From being malign, destructive and a hindrance, they can become the most benign of allies. When Odysseus is given the magic herb by Hermes which enables him to withstand Circe’s spells, he can persuade her to release all her victims from their enchantment. And though he stays with her, feasting and making love for another year, she in the end releases him with all sorts of aid and vital guidance for his journey. Similarly Calypso, at the behest of the gods, sends him on his way with every kind of equipment and good advice. The Temptresses have in fact been transformed into that other kind of crucially important figure the hero meets on his journey, the ‘helper’ whom we shall be looking at shortly.
VISIT TO THE UNDERWORLD
A final, rather different kind of ordeal which the Quest hero may have to undergo before arriving at his goals is a visit to the underworld, inhabited by the spirits of the dead. In some cases, this is simply a horrific experience, in other instances however, the journey through the underworld is not just a harrowing ordeal; it serves a deeper purpose, enabling the hero to contemplate the fate of those who have lived before, and also to consult them on matters vital to his future.
When Odysseus is guided by Circe to the gate of the netherworld which lies beyond the River of Fear and the City of Perpetual Mist, on the very edge of the world, he meets the long-dead seer Teiresias, who gives him the advice which will enable him, alone of all his men, to reach his goal; predicting for the hero exactly how the rest of his journey and his life will unfold. When Aeneas finally arrives on the shores of Italy, his first duty is to pay a visit to the maiden-priestess, the Cumaean Sibyl. Beside an echoing cavern in the mountainside, the Sibyl summons up the god of the oracle within:
‘suddenly …. her hair fell in disarray…. her bursting heart was wild and sad, She appeared taller and spoke in no mortal tones’.
The prophetess gives him careful instructions as to how he can descend in to the underworld (Aeneas first has to search ‘the endless forest’, with the aid of two doves, for the ‘golden bough’, which is protected in the dark of the forest by a little circle of light). They eventually make their descent, witnessing every kind of monster and horror, and the shades of the damned enduring eternal punishment. Finally they come of the Land of Joy and the Fortunate Woods, where they find the wise old Anchises who, like Teiresias, reveals to Aeneas the nature of the ordeals he still has to face, his future life and the glorious prospects for his descendants when the new city of Rome has been founded. With this advice and guarantee of his eventual success, Aeneas is at last ready for the final stages of his Quest.
In addition to all the negative figures the hero and his companions meet on the journey, they also, as we have seen, encounter some difficult figures, the ‘helpers’who give them positive assistance, ranging from periods of respite to crucial guidance. And among these two very important figures predominate, who are to be met with in countless guises, not just in Quest stories but throughout literature.
We have already begun to meet them in the characters of the old seers Teiresias and Anchises on the one hand, and that of the Sibylline priestess on the other. These are the figures of a benevolent, usually wise old man and a beautiful young (though often mysteriously ageless) woman.
At the most basic level, the old man and the young woman may simply provide hospitality, rest, food, nursing care and other material assistance, as Odysseus receives from the kindly King Alcinous and his daughter, the Princess nausicaa, when he is washed up exhausted on their island, after being shipwrecked. A similar pair appear to help Allan Quatermain and his friends when they arrive in the lost land of Solomon: the old man INfadoo who warns them of many dangers and the beautiful Foulata.
In fact the ‘old man’ and the ‘young woman’ are of ever greater significance to the hero the nearer they come to being invested with supernatural powers. Their role is not so much to intervene in the action as to act as guides and advisers, drawing on supernatural wisdom and prescience. Perhaps the supreme example of such a pair of guides in literature are the venerable sage Virgil and beautiful Beatrice who lead Dante on his journey up to Paradise in the Divine Comedy.
In the stories we are considering here, the supreme example of a ‘wise old man’must be the mysterious figure who from start to finish guides the Jews on their hazardous journey to the promised land, the ‘Ancient of Days’, Jahweh himself. Not only does he appear to Moses at crucial moments of the story to reprimand, advise and warn him, but he gives many ‘signs’ to the Jews that they are on the right path, such as the miraculous ‘pillar of fire’ which leads them on through the trackless wilderness. It is no accident that in all attempts which have been made by artists or film-makers to personify this figure (as in paintings showing the handing down of the tablets of stone to Moses on Sinai), he is always represented as an immensely patriarchal, bearded, wise old man.
The outstanding example of a young but ageless feminine figure is she who assists Odysseus, the ‘flashing – eyed goddess of wisdom’ Athene, ‘tall, beautiful and accomplished’, who watches over and guides her protege through every peril, and fights for his cause in the counsels of the gods against the hero’s chief opponent, the vengeful Poseidon (a similar though less intimate role is played for Aneneas by Venus, the goddess of love).
In the Quest for the Grail, the part of the ‘wise old man’ is played by the succession of hermits and holy men, whose chief role is to interpret to the heroes the meaning of the great tests and ordeals they have just undergone, and to give warnings for the future. Similarly, at various points in the story, mysterious young women of unblemished virtue appear to guide the heroes on their way – particularly important being the beautiful maiden who at last appears to summon the three supreme heroes, Galahad, Percival and Bors, onto the ship which will take them over the sea to begin the closing stages of the Quest.
In modern storytelling there is no more memorable an example of these archetypal figures than the two who play such a crucial role in guiding Frodo on his mighty quest in The Lord of the Rings, the all seeing old wizard Gandalf and his ally, the beautiful, ethereal, visionary queen Galadriel.
THE FINAL ORDEALS
At last the heroes of our Quest stories come to the edge of the great goal towards which, through as many perils and ordeals, they have been journeying so long. Odysseus at last reaches the island of Ithaca. Aeneas reaches Italy where is to make his new home. Jason arrives in Colchis, home of the Golden Fleece. After forty years in the wilderness, the Jews at last cross over the river Jordan and arrive in the promised land. The rabbits reach Watership Down, which they decide is the perfect place to settle and to make their new home.
We now discover one of the most surprising things about the Quest plot. Most people, if one talks about a quest will say, Oh yes, a story about a journey. The very word quest from the Latin quaere, to seek, after all means a search. But in fact the journey in a Quest only makes up half the story.
It has taken Odysseus twelve books of the Odyssey to get back to Ithaca: but there are still twelve books to go before the story is finally over. Aeneas has reached Italy by the sixth book of the Aeneid: but the poem has twelve books in all. When the Jews reached their promised land flowering with milk and honey or the rabbits reach Watership Down, there is still a huge part of the story left to unfold. In almost all the quests we have been looking at the journey turns out to have been the first part of the tale. The second art, which begins when the hero is actually within sight of his goals, sees him having a final great ordeal or series of ordeals, which may take as long to describe as everything which has gone before. It is this final struggle which is necessary for the hero to lay hold of his prize and to secure it.
The entire second half of the Odyssey, for instance, describes what follows when Odysseus arrives incognito back on the island, to find his kingdom in near-total disarray, overshadowed by the arrogance, greed and dissipation of the infesting army of suitors. We see him travel across the island to arrive at his palace, disguised as a beggar, treated by the suitors like dirt. His queen Penelope has finally despaired of ever seeing him again, and decreed that she will marry anyone who can bend Odysseus mighty bow, and shoot an arrow through a row of axe-heads. The suitors all try and fail miserably. Finally Odysseus reveals himself in all his kingly majesty (in a way we have not seen at any time before in the story). He seizes the bow, passes the test with ease (the test which only the true hero can pass) and he and his son Telemachus then turn on the suitors and massacre them. Thus is he finally reunited with his loving Penelope, and thus does he triumphantly reclaim is kingdom.
No sooner has Aeneas returned from his visit to the underworld in the Aeneid than the Trojans recognise that they have at last arrived at the very place, the mouth of the river Tiber, where the gods intend they should settle. And at first all seems set for a quick and happy ending to the story. They are warmly welcomed to the local king Latinius, because prophecy has long foretold that strangers would arrive, bringing great honour to his land, and that their leader would marry his daughter, the beautiful Princess Lavinia, who has been vainly wooed by every prince in Italy, above all by the great Turnus, king of the nearby Rutulians.
But when the Princess is promised to Aeneas, black jealousy seizes Turnus heart and gradually the storm clouds gather for Aenas last and most terrible ordeal. The entire second half of the poem is taken up with describing how the tribes gather from all over the surrounding countryside, to hurl the Trojan interlopers back into the sea; the mustering of two great armies; the first skirmishes a tremendous battle, which the Trojans survive only by the skin of their teeth and finally the titanic single combat between Aenas and his dark rival, which at first it seems the hero will lose. But it ends at last, with his protective goddess Venus hovering over him, in his total victory.
Again, when the Argonauts arrive in Colchis to claim the Golden Fleece, the evil King Aetes tells Jason that he must face three tests, far worse than anything the Argonauts had met on their journeyings. First he must yoke two monstrous, brazen-hoofed, fire-breathing bulls, which live in an underground cavern, and plough a great field. Then he must sow the field with dragons teeth, from which will spring up an army of fierce warriors, and slay them. Finally, if he survives all this, he must somehow slip through the defences of the fearsome, unsleeping dragon which is coiled round the tree on which the shining fleece hangs, guarding it night and day.
It seems like mission impossible. But fortunately for Jason, just as happened when Theseus arrived in Crete to challenge the Minotaur, he has already won the love of a helper of supernatural powers, the tyrants beautiful daughter the Princess Medea. Just as Ariadne provided Theseus with the magic thread, so Medea provides Jason with a magic salve, which enables him to withstand every onslaught of the mad bulls. When he has sown the field with the dragons teeth, and is confronted with the mass of armed warriors, he is again saved from seemingly inevitable death, this time by his own ingenuity, when he throws a rock into the middle of them, so that they all turn on each other. Finally, when Medea learns that her enraged father is treacherously planning to murder Jason and all his companions while they are sleeping, she secretly leads him by night to the sacred grove where the Golden Fleece hangs, armed with a magic drug which renders it unconscious. At last he can seize his prize.
When the Jews arrive in the Promised Land (without Moses or Arron, whom God has decreed should die before the goal is reached, for allowing their faith in his protection to waver), they face a series of final ordeals just as great as those confronting the other Quest heroes: a series of tremendous battles with the tribes who already live there, beginning with the great siege of Jericho, and culminating in their victory over the Thirty One Kings.
Halfway through the story of the Holy Grail, when it is clear that only three knights, Galahad, Percival and Bors, are worthy to undertake the final stages of the Quest, there is a kind of complete scene shift to mark the second part of the story from the first. We leave the Waste Forest and travel with the three heroes across the sea, in a miraculous ship steered by a beautiful maiden. When the heroes disembark, they face their last great series of ordeals, including the bloodiest battle of the story, the captive of a grim castle in which, as usual, a Princess has been imprisoned. All this prepares them for the mystical climax when they arrive at another mysterious castle, to see the Holy Grail itself borne in by angels, with a vision of Christs presence hovering above them.
When Allan Quatermain and his friends finally cross over the great mountain barrier, they have similarly reached the halfway point of their story. They have at last left behind the torturing heat of the desert, and they find themselves looking down on the breathtakingly beautiful, lush countryside of Solomons lost kingdom, ringed by blue mountains. They are greeted by the natives as gods, and led along a great, ancient highway to the capital, where they find that the country is under the evil sway of the tyrranical King Twala and his hideous old henchwoman, the witch Gagool, hundreds of years old.
They discover that their mysteriously regal companion on the journey, Umbopa, is in fact the true king of his land, returning to claim his throne from the usurper Twala; and again, like other heroes, they have to face three ordeals. In the first they fall into Twalas power, while attempting to rescue the beautiful Foulata, a local girl who has become attached to them. By cunning use of the almanac predicting a lunar eclipse, they terrify Twalas followers and make a thrilling escape from death. Second is the great battle between the followers of Twala and those of Umbopa, which culminates in the tyrants death. Thirdly, the climax to the whole story, is their journey with Gagool into the series of vast, mysterious caves in the heart of the mountains, which turns into a combination of visit to the underworld, overcoming the monster, liberating the treasure from the dark enclosing space and thrilling escape from death all in one. In one cavern they find the petrified corpses of the kings of the land, sitting round a stone table. In the last they come across the legendary treasure of Solomon, the richest hoard of diamonds the world has ever known, shining in the darkness. At this point, Gagool, the guardian of the treasure, creeps back like a snake and with a look of fearful malevolence swings shut the great stone door – but in the process crushing herself to death. The heroes are trapped in the eternal darkness and prepare to die. Only in the nick of time, like Aladdin trapped in his treasure cave, do they miraculously find a way out: threading their way like Theseus, through the labyrinth of secret passages which lead them at last up and out into the cool, fresh air of the mountainside.
When the little band of male rabbits arrives on Watership Down, they are at much the same halfway point of their story as Aeneas and the Trojans when they arrive in Italy. They have reached their goal, but they must face now the task of finding some female rabbits with whom they can found a lasting community; and the rest of the book tells of their tremendous struggle with the fearful Efrafa, a warren some way off which is run like a totalitarian prison by the grim tyrant General Woundwort, where it just happens that a group of young female rabbits are imprisoned, led by the beautiful and intelligent Hyzenthlay. There is a thrilling escape when their young rabbit princesses are liberated. General Woundwort, as Avenger, comes hot in pursuit with a band of Efrafan thugs, to reclaim his own. There is a great battle back on Watership Down, with Hazel and his friends seemingly trapped in the dark enclosing space of their warren. But just when all seems lost, Hazel ingeniously manages to enlist the help of a nearby farm dog, which puts Woundwort and his army to rout. The new warren is at last safely and securely established.
THE LIFE-RENEWING GOAL
Thus does the great quest come to an end, and we then see perhaps the most surprising thing of all about this kind of story. The heroes of all these very dissimilar tales have in fact arrived, by remarkably similar stages, at a remarkable similar goal. Odysseus has regained his Queen and his kingdom. Aenas has won his Princess and his kingdom. Jason has won his Princess and, through her, succeeds to the kingdom of Corinth. The Jews have won and established their new kingdom. The Grail heroes carry their great treasure, the golden Grail, to the city of Sarras, where Galahad becomes king, succeeding an evil tyrant, and is then received into the kingdom of heaven. Allan Quatermain and his friends, having established Umbopa as the rightful king over the lost and now found land of Solomon, in place of an evil tyrant, return home with their fabulous treasure.
Of the Quests we have looked at in any detail, the only one which might not seem to follow this pattern is “Pilgrim’s Progress’. But even Christian meets his most nearly fatal ordeal on the very edge of his goal, when he nearly drowns, amid hideous visions of ‘hologoblins and evil spirits’ in the deep, dark river which surrounds the hill on which the Celestial City stands – and is then received to the sound of trumpets into the kingdom of heaven. And as if Bunyan subconsciously realised that, to make his story complete, Christian should there be united with a ‘Princess’, he promptly set about writing the second, much less well-known part of his tale, which tells of how his hero’s wife Christiana makes her own long and hazardous journey to join him.
The real point about the ending of all these stories is that in essence it is so familiar. The real goal of the Quest emerges as remarkably similar to that happy ending we have seen in our previous types of story; the final coming together of hero and heroine, man and woman, and the succession to, or establishing of a kingdom. In each case it is this, in part or whole, which enables the Quest to end on an image of completion. And in each case what this also conveys to us is the sense that life, which in the opening stages of the story seemed so threatened, has in some profound sense been renewed. Odysseus has redeemed and brought his kingdom back to life, after the long sterile years of the suitor’s tyranny. Aeneas’s city of Troy is dead: but on the Tiber it lives again, as new Rome, and will do so far into the glorious future. Jason returns home to redeem Iolcos from the sterile tyranny of his step-father King Pelias, and then sets up his own new dynasty in Corinth. As the Jews toiled across the dead wilderness there was no more regular promise of the new life that was to come than Moses’ repeated striking of ‘living waters’ out of the rock and from the years of harsh slavery in Egypt, where their sons, the promise of new life, had routinely been murdered, they are at last set free in the lush land ‘flowing with milk and honey’, where life abounds and is assured for the future.
A third way in which stories naturally shape themselves in the human imagination centres on the pull of the hero towards some distant, all-important goal. However much he becomes drawn into particular episodes along the way, we always know that these are mere subordinate to his overriding purpose, and that until that goal has been reached and properly secured, the story cannot be satisfactorily resolved. The basic Quest story unfolds through a series of stages like this:
- The Call: Life in some ‘City of Destructioin’ has become oppressive and intolerable and the hero recognises that he can only rectify matters by making a long, difficult journey. He is given supernatural or visionary direction as to the distant, life-renewing goal he must aim for.
- The Journey: The hero and his companions set out across hostile terrain, encountering a series of life-threatening ordeals. These include horrific monsters to be overcome; temptations to be resisted, and, probably the need to travel between two equally deadly ‘opposites’. These each end with a ‘thrilling escape’and the ordeals alternate with periods of respite, when the hero and his companions receive hospitality, help or advice, often from ‘wise old men’ or ‘beautiful young women’. During this stage the hero may also have to make a ‘journey through the underworld’, where he temporaily transcends the separating power of death and comes into helpful contact with spirits from the past, who give him guidance as to how to reach his goal.
- Arrival and frustration. The hero arrives within sight of his goal. But he is far from having reached the end of his story, because now, on the edge of the goal, he sees a new and terrible series of obstacles looming up between him and his prize, which have to be overcome before it can be fully and completely secured.
- The final ordeals. The hero has to undergo a last series of tests to prove that he is truly worthy of the prize. This culminates in a last great battle or ordeal which may be the most threatening of all.
- The Goal. After a last ‘thrilling escape from death’, the kingdom, the ‘Princess’ or the life-transfroming treasure are finally won; with an assurance of renewed life stretching indefinitely into the future.
I have so far illustrated the Quest story by looking at some of the bestknown and most profound examples in the world. A light and entertaining tale less obviously shaped by the quest is Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). The story’s suspense hangs entirely on whether the hero, Phineas Fogg, can reach his distant goal in time to win a hefty bet. The fact that the goal of his Quest happens to be to arrive back exactly where he started is in this sense immaterial. Naturally much of the book consists of his journey, complete with ordeals and thrilling escapes, the most dramatic of which is in India where, with the aid of his servant and faithful companion Passepartout, Fogg literally liberates a Princess, Aouda, the beautiful young widow of an Indian prince, just as she is about to be consumed by the flames of her husband’s funeral pyre. The three travel onwards, shadowed by the detective Fix, who wants to arrest Fogg for having master-minded a huge robbery at the Bank of England. They arrive back in England just in time, when disaster strikes. Within sight of his goal, Fogg faces three unexpected ordeals. First he is arrested by Fix and imprisoned. IN the nick of time it is discovered that he is perfectly innocent: but he has now missed the last train which could carry him back to Lonon in time to win his bet. He hires a ‘special’ train, but it is held up on the way and arrives in London minutes too late. It seems all is lost, and next morning Fogg begins to make preparations for suicide. Then Passepartout happens to hear someone mention the date. Of course! By going round the world from west to east they had gained a day; and they now have just ten minutes for Fogg to get to his club to claim victory. The hero makes it with three minutes to spare. He has won his ‘treasure’: although, as the author is careful to emphasise, the real treasure he has gained from his journey is the ‘Princess’. Just when all seemed lost, they had finally declared their ‘sacred love’for each other, and can now get married.
Although the Quest is such a distinctive type of story, it obviously has features in common with the two types of plot we looked at earlier, not least in terms of its basic structure. We saw how, at their deepest level, both Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches stories unfold by a kind of three-fold rhythm. They begin on a note of constriction, followed, when the hero or heroine respond to the ‘Call’ by a phase of expansion, as spirits and hopes are lifted. This leads eventually to a more serious constriction, leading to a phase when the hero or heroine are gradually being brought to a state of readiness for the final decisive confrontration with the dark forces which have so long oppressed them. When this arrives, providing the climax to the story, constriction reaches its height. Then comes the reversal, the triumphant liberation which paves the way to the happy ending.
We see the same fundamental rhytm at work in the structure of the Quest. There is the initial feeling of constriction which persuades the hero and his companions that they must leave. We then have a sense of enlargement as they set out into the world on their journey: although this contains within it lesser alternations of constriction and release, as each ordeal is followed by respite. We then come to the more serious constriction as the hero comes within sight of his goal, and has to face the final ordeals. Gradually the story works up to its climax, when he is pitted in a last decisive battle against the dark forces which have stood between him and his goal all along. At last we share his liberation from all opposition, as the darkness is overthrown, the goal secured and the story ends on the image of life gloriously renewed.
All the plots we have looked at so far share the same essential structure. Something else they have in common is that the dominant figures opposed to their heroes or heroines – the monsters, tyrants, witches, wicked stepmothers and rivals from whose malevolence the sense of threat and constriction mainly emanates – are invariably dark figures; while the heroes and heroines themselves display qualities which put them unmistakably on the side of ‘light’. They may in the the earlier stages of the story show certain weaknesses and inadequacies. But the whole underlying purpose of the action is to show us the hero or heroine maturing to the state where they are finally ready for that decisive confrontation with the archetypal power of darkness which can bring their complete liberation.
Nevertheless, just as we earlier saw a ‘dark’ variation on the Rags to Riches story, so there are ‘dark’ versions of the Quest. Perhaps the most obvious example in all literature is Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). The central figure, Captain Ahab, sets out on his obsessive quest across the oceans of the world to find the almost supernatural great white whale.
Ahab looks on Moby Dick, as other quest heroes look on the Holy Grail or the Golden Fleece or the Firebird, as a prize of infinite value, worth any effort or sacrifice to seek out. Certainly the mysterious numinous whale is an archetypal symbol for the essence of life. But there is nothing life enhancing or light about the spirit in which Ahab pursues his goal. His only desire is to destroy it. He is not on the side of life but opposed to it. This is why the voage which makes up his quest is so strained and sinister, fraught with omens of disaster. And when he does finally find the whale, it is ofcourse Ahab himself who is slain. But once again, by those inexorable rules which govern the way in which stories unfold, all the clues as to why Ahabś quest can only end in disaster are there in this very sombre tale.
VOYAGE AND RETURN
What do the stories of Alice in Wonderland or Goldilocks and the Three Bears have in common with H.G. Well’s The Time Machine and a great deal of other science fiction? What has Beatrix Potter’s little nursery tale of Peter Rabbit in common with Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, or Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner with the parable of the Prodigal Son; or the Greek myth of Orpheus’s journey to the underworld with the film Gone with the Wind?
There is a second plot based on a journey, quite different from the Quest. It has inspired such an extraordinary range of stories that it might seem impossible that most of them could have anything in common – apart from the fact that they include some of the most haunting and mysterious tales in the world. This is the plot we may call the Voyage and Return.
The essence of the Voyage and Return story is that its hero or heroine (or the central group of characters) travel out of their familiar, everyday ‘normal’ surroundings into another world completely cut off from the first, where everything seems disconcertingly abnormal. At first the strangeness of this new world, with its freaks and marvels, may seem diverting, even exhilarating, if also highly perplexing. But gradually a shadow intrudes. The hero or heroine feels increasingly threatened, even trapped: until eventually (usually by way of a thrilling escape) they are released from the abnormal world, and can return to the safety of the familiar world where they began.
There are two obvious categories of story where the Voyage and Return plot is particularly familiar. The first is that type stretching back to the dawn of storytelling which describes a journey to some land or island beyond the confines of the known and civilised world. The other describes a journey to some more obviously imaginary and magical realm closer to home.
It is general through stories of this second type that most of us first become acquainted with the Voage and Return theme because, from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz, it provides the basis for some of our best-loved stories of childhood.
Two classic instances are Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Bored and drowsy on a hot summer’s day, a little Victorian girl suddenly finds herself transported underground into a totally strange ‘wonderland’. Several times she finds herself altering in size. She meets a bewildering succession of animals and other creations, behaving like human beings but talking to her in riddles. Everything in this surreal dreamworld is like a parody or distortion of something familiar. But just as this dream seems finally to be turning into a death-threatening nightmare, with the Queen of Hearts in the courtroom scene angrily shouting ‘off with her head’ and all the cards rising up into the air and ‘flying down upon her’, Alice is jerked back to the reality of her familiar world by waking up, as if from a dream.
Almost identical in outline is the plot of that popular Hollywood fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz (1939). Young Dorothy, who is staying with her uncle and aunt on their farm in Kansas, is upset when her dog Toto is taken off by Miss Gulch for chasing the rich, bad-tempered old spinster’s cat. Toto manages to run back home but, terrified she will lose him again, Dorothy takes him off into the countryside, dreaming of escape into some far-off-land ‘over the rainbow. On their way home, they are suddenly swept into the sky by a swirling tornado and find themselves falling abruptly down into the magical technicolor land of Oz, like Alice falling down her hole into Wonderland. Here Dorothy is greeted by a bewildering succession of characters, including the little Munchkins and the Good Witch Glinka, but provokes the deadly hostility of the Wicked Witch, the equivalent of Alice’s Queen of Hearts (and a reincarnation of Miss Gulch). Dorothy escapes down the Yellow Brick Road to seek the help of the mysterious Wizard of Oz in getting home. On the way she is joined by three allies, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion, but eventually the Wicked Witch traps them all in her castle. Just when the nightmare is at its height, Dorothy in desperation throws a bucket of magic water over the witch, causing her to vanish. After their ‘thrilling escape’, they return to the Wizard, who turns out to be a fraud. But the Good Witch uses her magic to enable Dorothy to return home to Kansas, where she wakes up in bed as if emerging from a dream.
Another familiar childhood example of such a journey into an imaginary world in Barrie’s Peter Pan (1904), the story of how the children of the Darling family fly off from their familiar nursery in the middle of the night, led by the little boy who cannot grow up, to the Never Never Land, a strange childhood dream realm inhabited by faires, Red Indians, talking birds and pirates. Again the mood of their adventure is initially one of exhilaration. But increasingly it is shadowed by their awareness of the menacing presence of the pirate chief Captain Hook, a typical ‘monster’ figure, with his hook in place of a hand. Eventually the story works up to a nightmare climax, when Hook and his men take the children prisoner on board their ship and threaten to kill them. There is a final thrilling escape when Peter Pan arrives in the nick of time and forces the monstrous Hook to jump overboard into the jaws of the crocodile, and the children return safely home to their nursery at home with their parents.
The Tale of Peter Rabbit tells of the little rabbit who ventures out of the familiar world of the burrow and the wood which are his home, into the forbidden world of Mr McGregor’s kitchen garden. At first the new world is exhilirating. But gradually the mood changes. First Peter feels sick with overeating. Then he turns a corner and sees the terrifying Mr McGregor, who pursues him. The nightmarish chase continues until Peter thinks he is irrevocably trapped in the garden. But at last, by jumping up on a wheelbarrow, he sees the gate leading back to safety. He makes a heroic dash, with McGregor in hot pursuit, and in a ‘thrilling escape’ just manages to scramble out of the garden and back to the familiar, safe world of home and mother.
But of course the Voyage and Return theme has shaped stories a good deal more complex than these simple versions of childhood. Here we move on to the second category in which such stories are most immediately familiar to us, those which involve a journey to some undiscovered realm beyond the confines of the known world.
We can find versions of this form of the Voyage and Return plot at almost every step doing the history of storytelling. These were well-known Greek, Roman, Norse and mediaeval versions. There is even a strong Voyage and Return element in the closing episode of the earliest story ever recorded, the Epic of Gilgamesh, in the hero’s journey to the far-off and mysterious land of Utnapishtim. But this kind of tale became noticeably more evident in Western literature after the Renaissance, during the age of the great European voyages of discovery to every corner of the globe: and this was particularly true from the eighteenth century onwards.
Again these stories fall generally into two main types: those where the hero is marooned on some more or less deserted island; and those where the land he visits is the home of some strange people of civilisation.
In the earlier eighteenth century two of the most famous of such stories were published, within a few years of each other: one in each category.
The first, in 1719, was that paradigm of all ‘desert island’ stories, Robinson Crusoe. The plot of Defoe’s novel follows the now familiar pattern. As a young sailor whose ship is wrecked, the hero suddenly finds himself all alone on a semmingly deserted tropical island. The first half of the story, after Crusoe has recovered from the initial shock, is dominated by his growing confidence as he comes to terms with his plight and with the simple wonders of his unfamiliar new world (e.g. discovering his ability to grow corn and bake bread). Then a shadow intrudes, when he sees the imprint of a strange human foot. As Crusoe realises that he may not be alone on the island, he begins to experience a sense of threat, which grows progressively more acute as he finds that his little kingdom is in fact regularly visited by bands of cannibals to pursue their horrid practices. The second half of the story is dominated by the measures Crusoe takes to protect himself; by his gradual recruitment of a little army of runaways and finally as the climax of the tale, by leading his followers into a successful battle against the mutinous sailors on a Portugese ship which has anchored offshore. This culminates in his joyful release, when the grateful captain takes him off the island and back to civilisation.
The theme of the castaway of castaways cut off from civilisation so seized the European imagination that Defoe’s novel was to find imitators. William Golding’s The Lord of the Flies is a model example of the Voyage and Return plot, with the description of a group of young, upper-middle class English schoolboys marooned on a desert island by a plane crash. After an initial period of reasonably well-behaved excitement they gradually degenerate into bloodthirsty savages until, just as the nightmare has reached its murderous climax, they are plucked back to the normal world when they are miraculously rescued by the Royal Navy.
The travels of Lemuel Gulliver are made up of no fewer than four voyages, each to a separate land of freaks and marvels; the most famous of course being those to Lilliput and Brobdignag. Both episodes follow a classic Voyage and Return pattern, with the hero finding his initial sense of wonder turning to frustration as he realises that he is trapped. In Lilliput the tiny inhabitants finally turn against him when he helpfully puts out a fire in the king’s place by urinating on it. Gulliver is threatened with blindings and death, and only manages to escape in the nick of time, first to the neighbouring kingdom of Blefescu, then back to Europe. From Brobdignag, where Gulliver becomes the tiny plaything of giants his escape is even more dramatic when his travelling box, in which his captors carry him about, is picked up by a monstrous eagle and dropped ino the sea, from where he is rescued by a passing ship.
Another example is Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. The greybearded old sailor-hero tells of how, many years before, he had gone on an initially exhilarating voyage into the unexplored southern ocean (we were the first that ever burst into that silent sea), and how the greatest marvel they found there was the huge, beautiful white albatros which followed their ship. But then, in a reckless moment, the mariner had shot the albatross, at which a terrible curse had fallen over the voyage. The ship is becalmed amid terrifying visions of sea monsters. Finally a spectral vision of another ship approaches, containing Death and her mate. The mariner sees his shipmates all die, one by one, of hunger and thirst. Then, just when all seems lost, the mariner is looking down at a mass of sea-snakes crawling around the ship. He is so moved by the sight of the only living creatures left apart from himself that he croaks out a blessing on them. The ship returns to ghostly life, and a mysterious wind springs up, carrying it back within sight of home: at which point it sinks, leaving the mariner to be carried to shore, half-dead, but repentant of his crime.
Other authors had taken still more imaginative steps to surmount the shrinking availability of such settings on the face of the globe. Jules Verne set one of his most famous Voyage and Return adventures in an imaginary underworld deep below the earth’s surface (Journey to the Centre of the Earth) and another, a few years later, below the surface of the sea (20.000 Leagues Under the Sea). H.C. Wells found a still more dramatic solution in The Time Machine taking his hero out of the familiar world in terms not of geography but of time. The Time Traveller invents a machine which transports him 800.000 years into the future, where he discovers a little, child-like Eloi, living in palaces in a seemingly paradisal landscape full of strange exotic flowers and fruits. But then the familiar shadow intrudes. He gradually becomes aware that there is another semi-human inhabiting this world, the sinister Morlocks who live underground, hating the light and coming uup at night to prey on the defenceless Eloi for their food. The story winds to a familiar nightmare climax when the hero is chased and nearly caught by a gang of these horrible night-creatures, only managing in the nick of time to scramble back onto his machine, to return to the safe Victorian world he had left.
A major factor contributing to the emergence of science fiction was simply the need of storytellers in an over-explored world to find alternative and unfamiliar worlds in which to set Voyage and Return stories. For the essence of this plot is its central figure’s confrontation with the unknown, that which seems abnormal precisely because it is in such contrast to and so out off from the familiar world he or she naturally inhabits.