Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Sunday, 23 October 2005

"The Seven Basic Plots" by Christopher Booker

This is a long and interesting book that starts by discussing literature, shows how archetypes (and hence Self-realisation) are central to an understanding of literature, and ends by re-interpreting Religion and History from this perspective. I've re-ordered some of his subjects here, keeping quotes as far as possible in context (I think his ordering of material was chosen to build up suspense). If you want to know about the Religion and History stuff, buy the book.

The Plots

He begins by presenting the 7 basic plots: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. As he points out, he's not not the first to attempt such an endeavour, and he's not claiming that all stories fall neatly and exclusively into one of these categories - "Lord of the Rings" fits into at least 6 - and later he introduces 2 less basic plots: Rebellion Against 'The One' and Mystery. For each of these categories he gives a history and presents plot summaries of examples ranging from fairy tales to Proust, including plays and movies. If you distrust his readings, you're going to doubt his conclusions. My guess is that he likes Beethoven but not Proust or "Ulysses" (or any "non-aristotelian" novel). And he may not have read any theory written in the last few decades.

Stories tend to have the same structure - initial minor success followed by crisis then lasting success or failure. He sees in this an analogue to human development, an impression strengthened by the cast of stock archetypal characters, and by the endings - "we might almost say that, for a story to resolve in a way which really seems final and complete, it can only do so in one of two ways. Either it ends with a man and a woman united in love. Or it ends in a death ... that is 'unnatural'" (p.153)

In this first part of the book he underlines similarities almost at the expense of distinguishing features. He writes "stories take shape in the human imagination round certain archetypal patterns and images which are the common property of mankind. Furthermore, at the very deepest level, the essence of the message they are putting across is always the same. What this points to is something the implications of which are truly awesome" (p.543). Before reaching these awesome implications he makes interesting points

  • Overcoming the Monster (Gilgamesh, The War of the Worlds) - the ego-centric predator/hoarder/avenger is beaten against impossible odds
  • Rags to Riches - dark father/mother, dark rival, dark other half. Initial success, challenge then true success. In both this and Overcoming the Monster the hero needs the same qualities.
  • The Quest - hero mature already. The companion(s) can be of 4 types - a mass, a loyal alter-ego, a shadow, a unified squad symbolising a unity. Companions are useful - they can make fatal mistakes without the story having to finish. They meet helpers along the way
  • Voyage and Return - Needs the unknown, and SF provided new frontiers. "The essence of all these Voyage and Return stories is that they show their hero having to move away from the pole of limited 'ego-consciousness'". (p.252). In Voyage and Return moreso than The Quest the initial emphasis is on the hero's limitations
  • Comedy - the only form that's evolved appreciably since the Greeks. "Three things mark out Comedy from other types of story ... more insistently than any other type of plot, Comedy is concerned not just with the individual fate of its central figure but with the network of relationships ... it shows us all the characters in the story being brought at the end into the light ... there is something very important that they do not know or cannot see" (p.254). There's a misunderstanding or a confusion about identity, often involving a poorly fitting persona (the social front we present to the world - a device to reduce social stresses and strains by concealing our true feelings).
  • Tragedy (Overcoming the Monster from another viewpoint)
  • Rebirth (can be like Rags to Riches)

Variations on these include "dark" versions and omission/shortening of stages (usually the initial stages).


The centrality of archetypes to his world-view gradually emerges. He considers Jung's theory of archetypes to be "one of the greatest intuitive discoveries of the twentieth century, ranking alongside those of Einstein" (p.554). "The point about the archetypes is that they constitute a crucial legacy from that process whereby human consciousness split off from our unconscious obedience to instinct. The chief archetypes - Mother, Father, animus and anima, Child - represent all the most basic roles that human beings can be called on to play in that central instinctive process" (p.554). Without instinct to guide us we need "to preserve the order of the group against all the disruptive tendencies arising from egotism ... it becomes necessary by conscious effort to create elaborate codes of social behaviour, with a framework of laws and punishments to enforce them" (p.551). We developed government and sport. "An even more significant instance of how human beings express this urge to transcend the limitations of their ego-existence is through every kind of artistic expression. The underlying purpose of all art is to create patterns of imagery which somehow convey a sense of life set in a framework of order ... all great art ... harmonises consciousness with the ego-transcending Self", (p.552).

So stories replay our instinctive desire to survive and reproduce. They employ archetypes which (by chance) resemble real-life events in their dynamics. "The very fact that they follow such identifiable patterns and are shaped by such consistent rules indicates that the unconscious is thus using them for a purpose: to convey to the conscious level of our mind a particular picture of human nature and how it works", (p.553).


Having introduced the components and root cause of stories, it's time to look at the dynamics. Here the idea of Self-realisation takes over - "each of us born into a family unit soon becomes conscious that ... we are the 'third' of that 'three', we are the central focus of a process of growth and transformation ... we instinctively know that the original 'three' must become a 'four'", (p.282). "to reach the fully happy ending, hero and heroine must represent the perfect coming together of those four values: strength, order, feeling and understanding. But in the end, all these values represent simply two halves. masculine and feminine which make up the whole. ... The first essential principle is the masculine one of power and control. The second, allowing the state of potential wholeness to be reached, is the feminine one of connection and joining together.", (p.268)

Dark/light and male/female components must be balanced.

  • "At one pole is the power of darkness, centred on the ego, limited consciousness and an inability to see whole, making for confusion, division, and untimely death. At the other is the power of the feminine, centred on selfless feeling and the ability to see whole, making for connection, the healing of division and life. At the deepest level, it is around this opposition that the whole of the eternal conflict presented by stories revolves." (p.257)
  • "the nature of the dark figure gives us a direct, unconscious clue as to what needs to be transformed into its positive, light version for the story to reach a happy ending" (p.278)
  • "What lies at the heart of tragedy therefore is always the same problem; and again it confirms the way in which the positive development of the masculine and feminine values must go together. A hero cannot be fully a man, fully strong, unless he is also selfless, inwardly feminine. So closely interdependent are the two that if he is not light in both respects, he must inevitably become dark in both respects." (p.342)

At this stage one begins to gain the impression that the author might prefer stories that have the right shape. He points out that in "Lord of the Rings" the Quest has no treasure at the end, and Frodo doesn't marry the princess - "no other half to make him whole". This "leaves us at the end with the sense that there is still something lacking and that, for all its splendours, The Lord of the Rings is not a fully integrated, grown-up story" (p.321).

The author now begins to deal with the issue of non-conforming stories - "Why should a storyteller only be able to imagine a story according to these 'rules'? Why should the 'values of the Self' always be triumphant? What happens if a storyteller, consciously or unconsciously, is not himself in harmony with those particular values, and sets out to shape a story in a quite different way?", (p.343), "But of course stories do not just present us with an idealised picture of how human nature can achieve a reintegrated state. They also provide us with a mirror to all those different states of psychological imbalance which can prevent human beings from reaching that state of wholeness in the first place" (p.558)


It all went wrong about 200 years ago. In music there was "the ponderous, overblown Romanticism of Brahms" (p.660). In literature "the archetypal patterns underlying stories began to be refracted through the story-teller's ego producing dark inversions and sentimentalism" (p.648), "stories became more like personal dreams, reflecting the particular psychological inadequacies and imbalances of their creators" (p.412). "The ego had intruded. And with it came all the the cloudy sentimentality, the disintegration of form, the sensational striving for effect which we associate with the age of Romanticism" (p.654)

"One of the most significant consequences, as the ego takes over, is that all the internal symbolism through which archetypes operate becomes projected outwards, onto the external world... the story has become subtly detached from its archetypal roots. And this disintegration shows itself in three main ways - the hero follows the right path but fails because he is egocentric and dark; the hero reaches their goal but there's a final twist revealing that success is illusory; the hero follows the right path but it's sentimental: form without content, no inner transformation." (p.367), and "because they are simply external projections of the archetype, we find that something has gone askew with the story's proper structure" (p.392)

He then considers examples of these 3 romanticised aspects of the 7 plots. (e.g. the sentimental version of Overcoming the Monster is the first Star wars film.). When Ego takes over in tragedy, the story's no longer seen from the viewpoint of the wider whole - the tragic heroes emerge (e.g. Young Werther). "The most obvious thing which happens when storytelling moves exclusively into the world of the ego is that stories no longer centre round the archetypal opposition between darkness and light. ... The characters thus appear in a kind of twilight, cut off from one another, living on dreams which can lead only to disillusionment", (p.438)

  • "What is new about this world conjured by Chekhov is that for the first time we get a real preview of what was to lie at the end of that road which storytelling had begun to take in the dawn of Romanticism", (p.430)
  • "What makes Waiting for Godot exceptional is how, in one particular respect, it characterised the end of that psychological road which storytelling has been travelling since the dawn of Romanticism more profoundly that any other story", (p.444)

There can be no archetypical endings, only pseudo-endings - sudden violence; circularity; or making a virtue of the fact that nothing's been resolved. "It is indeed the essence of ego-based fantasies that they feed on images which are unresolved and incomplete. It is the very fact that its images cannot lead to resolution which gives them their power to tease and tantalise and to make them seem more significant than they are" (p.461)

The author increasingly nails his colours to the mast, telling us what a "well-constructed" story is - "in storytelling the underlying archetypal structures are so constituted that they must always work towards that concluding image which shows us everything in a story being satisfactorily resolved. The mark of a well-constructed story is that every detail in it is contributing in some way towards that final resolution. And this can only come about if the story finally resolves in some image of the Self." (p.462).

But all is not lost - "The human psyche is so constituted that if any of its archetypal components no longer appear on a conscious level, this is not because they have vanished altogether. They regress into the unconscious, to re-emerge in some dark or 'inferior' form.", (p.501)

The twentieth century

Alas, things don't improve. "The most obvious expression of the Self archetype in the twentieth century was that it shared the same fate as other archetypes. It was taken over by the ego". (p.501). "that Self, that core of individual human identity, ... can never be wholly suppressed. In the end, it will always somehow re-emerge, because the archetypes programmed into the human psyche cannot be cheated and can never die" (p.503).

"Unquestionably the most striking feature of Western storytelling in the closing decades of the twentieth century was the unprecedented way in which it became dominated by the imagery of sex and violence" , (p.455), "Inevitably, as stories came increasingly to be spun out of the fantasy level of the mind, centred on the ego, this was where they would one day end up.", (p.456). "no aspect of this cult of sensation is more revealing than the way it engenders in the ego the illusion that, in escaping from the archetypal constraints of the Self it can achieve an ever greater state of liberation. In reality, by the law of the 'dark inversion' ... The further the ego attempts to 'push back the frontiers', the more it becomes boxed into an ever more constricting prison of cliches and stereotypes", (p.463).

The Self

The Self lost its way. "the framework of the Self ... ultimately gives human life its sense of structure, meaning and purpose; ...once contact with that is lost, the isolated ego is at last facing nothing but a dark and empty void", (p.423), "Through most of human history, [the archetype of Self] was nowhere more obviously represented than in the symbolism and myths associated with the world's religions" (p.501). As religion faded, "The Gothic Revival expressed a sentimental desire to recreate the symbolism of the Self. ... The literary form which came closest to conveying the values of the Self in the nineteenth century was the novel" (p.655).

The cultural dominance of the USA doesn't help - "in the prevailing ethos of the American way of life, the highest prize may be not to achieve individual maturity but simply to earn the approbation of the crowd ... This profoundly important aspect of the American character originated in the rootless insecurity of a society which carried so much unconscious emotional bruising from the way it was originally forged: from the rebellious desire to escape from the oppressively 'grown-up' old world of Europe, and from the psychological one-sidedness of the struggle to impose the white man's will on that vast natural wilderness... All this has engendered in American culture an endemic immaturity which we see reflected throughout its history ... It is this which helps to explain the remarkable fact that so few stories conceived in America over the past two centuries have ever managed to resolve in an unambiguous image of the fully mature, fully realised Self" (p.383)

2 more plots!

But at least we have more plot types nowadays.

  • Rebellion Against 'The One' - Rare. '1984' is one of perhaps only 3 examples. "it shows us a solitary hero who finds himself being drawn into a state of resentful, mystified opposition to some immense power, which exercises total sway over the world in which he lives... He is forced to recognise that his view had been based only on a very limited, subjective perception of reality"
  • Mystery - "The real point of the Mystery story, ... is that the hero - the detective or investigator - is in a peculiar way not directly involved in the central drama of the story. He or she stands outside it, as a kind of voyeur, only intervening, if at all, as a detached, superior deus ex machina. ... the drama the investigator is observing ... is invariably shaped by one of the basic plots" (p.513). "The point of detective stories is that they derive from that part of the human psyche, the ordering function of the mind, when this becomes split off from those feminine principles of feeling and intuitive understanding which can connect it to the reality of the living world. It then operates on the level of a fantasy or daydream.... The drama has been conceived on that same sentimental level we have seen giving rise to other types of story, where the ego can fantasise about enjoying the rewards of the Self without having to go through the deeper processes required to achieve it." (p. 514)


It's tempting to turn the book's theories on itself - archetype as hero or as monster? Does the author's Self or Ego emerge to be the victor? The first part of the book was interesting, but later sections need at least a severe edit. Once archetypes appear, they first affect the readings of stories, then their aesthetic evaluation.

I suspect that the archetypes relating to family are as universal as families. In situations where the family units are less of an influence on childhood and adolescence, I'd guess that different templates would emerge - as perhaps they have in the USA.

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