So what’s an archetype? It’s a form of ideas about a thing. A typical set of ideas. A complex symbolism that could represent a personality. Almost anything can be symbolic, and the archetype is a prevailing shape of a particular idea. It’s a kind of trope. A meme of mythical ideals. So what is typical? It depends on the story and who’s telling it.
If you have a fairytale you like to re-imagine, you already have an intuitive sense of archetypal storytelling. It doesn’t have to be a character role. It can be an element in a story, like the legendary weapon archetype. But the archetypes I’m writing about in this essay are character roles.
What are archetypal roles?
Archetypal roles can be flexible. It doesn’t have to be limited to the lists of common archetypes. It can bring out your deepest desire. Align your heart with your mind, your nature with your character. Recall the last time you cared about a movie or a book. You identified with at least one of the characters – understood their motivations, felt their personal struggles. You admired, or in some cases condemned, their choices. These are character driven narratives. When you begin to see the commonalities in characters that appeal to you, or repulse you, you begin to see the archetypes they represent. Let’s walk through some examples by talking about wolves.
I call it flexible, because it depends on where you draw your sources from. How many types of wolves do you know? We all know about the Big Bad Wolf. In Norse mythology, the wolf sons of Fenrir chase after the sun and the moon, and will devour them on Ragnarok. Fenrir himself grows at an impressive rate, until the Gods fear him. In another version of the tale, Fenrir swallows the sun. We all know the story of Red Riding Hood, the Three Little Pigs, and the Boy Who Cried Wolf. The wolf is always out to eat something, it seems.
There are other kinds of wolves.
In the fairytale The Golden Mermaid, the hungry wolf approaches the prince. The prince kindly offers his horse for food, and in return the wolf aids the prince in his journey. In Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, Moro the wolf god adopts a human child and cares for her as one of her own. In Roman myth, the twins Remus and Romulus are left to die by exposure to the elements. They are discovered by a she-wolf, who suckles them until they are found and taken in by a shepherd and his wife. In the Dragon Age: Origins quest Nature of the Beast, Witherfang is the leader of a pack of werewolves, and is also the Lady of the Forest. She helps the werewolves control their beastly nature.
So wolves can be guides, guardians, and allies. They can also be shapeshifters. Let’s take a closer look.
This archetype takes on different shapes that conceals its true nature. Often it’s to achieve a purpose through trickery, but not always. Like in the case of Mr. Darcy from Pride & Prejudice, he is bewildered to discover Elizabeth Bennet’s perception of him, and spends the rest of the story making a better impression. But there is a kernel of truth to her accusations. That’s why I still included the wolves who are actually shapeshifters in the wolf archetype.
Shapeshifters can also be tricksters. In The Golden Mermaid, the hungry wolf that the prince fed his horse to is actually a great magician. When the prince is condemned to death by an emperor, the wolf in disguise shapeshifts into a king and approaches the emperor.
He tricks the emperor into releasing the prince, and continues to help the prince on his journey. This happens much the same way twice. The wolf-magician is also a guide. He has knowledge pertinent to the quest that he shares with the prince, but it is the prince who has to do the work. As a guardian and an ally, the wolf is there to assist with his magic and shapeshifting abilities.
It’s more than telling a lie and having it believed. One of the main qualities of a trickster is to upset the balance. In The Golden Mermaid, the prince is the youngest of three sons. He’s the dumb one, the least expected to succeed. For his kindness to a hungry wolf, he earns the friendship of a powerful magician. How does a powerful magician end up a hungry wolf? When it seems the prince might fail for good, the wolf intervenes and presents a new path. The prince tries three times to get what he came for, and succeeds on the third time. On his return journey, he keeps on winning. All this is only possible because he trusts the wolf and does as he says. As the trickster archetype, the wolf changed the odds and arranged it in favour of the prince. He rewards the prince’s kindness and trust with everything he ever wanted.
In The White Wolf, a king is traveling back to the palace and fetches presents for his daughters. The youngest especially asked for a wreath of wild flowers, but none of the flower shops had any. With only a little ways back to the palace, the king notices a white wolf by the roadside. Conveniently upon its head is a wreath of wild flowers. Turns out the wolf talks, and proposes an exchange. He tricks the king into giving away his youngest daughter. A recurring theme in this story is being tricked into exchanging something precious (the princess) for something coveted (the wreath of wild flowers). Later in the story the princess is separated from her beloved white wolf, and she implements the same ploy to reunite with him.
Knowledge, power and mystery are within the realms of the magician. They seldom explain themselves, so we simply have to accept that they know and they can.
The wolf in The Golden Mermaid outshines his contemporaries because he also resurrects the prince. As the magician archetype, the wolf doesn’t need to explain how he knows these things.
In The White Wolf, the wolf is also a shapeshifter. He’s some kind of wolf-magician-prince with a palace on top of a glass mountain. When the king and queen attempt to trick him and disguise a servant as the princess, they are found out. The wolf returns angry and threatens to summon a storm that will destroy the king’s palace. Although it never comes to pass, it’s easy to believe the wolf knows how to cause a storm, just he as knew to wait by the roadside with a wreath of wild flowers.
So these are the wolves
Not the only kinds out there, of course. Go back to your favourite stories, and see if you can’t pick out some archetypes. Write meta-posts, construct your own set of archetypes, and breathe new life into the stories you know and love.