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Archetypes are somewhat more difficult to understand than symbols and motifs. The concept of archetypes was developed by Carl Jung who said that we all have a “collective unconscious” consisting of plots, character types, and patterns common to any culture. Embedded in our past experiences, certain images and patterns we expect to recur. And they often do in our literature. For example, the most common archetypal character is that of the hero. He/she usually must endure some sort of ritual or test, go on a journey, perform a task, and save the day. This hero/heroine, prevalent in fiction and non-fiction, represents a major archetype because we expect him/her to act like a hero. Any deviation from what is expected is unacceptable.

Listed below are several examples of well-known archetypes and examples of each


Initiation — an individual understands his/her responsibility; often a rite of passage into adulthood. Huckleberry Finn, King Arthur

Transcendence — sometimes the initiate undergoes an ordeal and assumes a new role as an adult. Stephen Dedalus in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

Task — an extraordinary feat which must be accomplished to save the day. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone; Odysseus strings the bow and fires the arrow through the ax handles; Robin Hood splits the arrow.

Quest — the search for someone or something needed to save the day. The Holy Grail

Journey — the difficulties which the hero must undergo to accomplish the task, usually involves traveling. The Canterbury Tales, The Odyssey

Ritual — an official ceremony; may be part of the initiation or rite of passage. Weddings, graduation

Fall — loss of innocence or a fall from grace which often includes expulsion from paradise. Adam and Eve

Death — like in the cycles of nature; an actual or spiritual death, equated with the seasons of fall and winter, evening

Rebirth — again like nature, renewal, equated with spring and summer, morning

Sacred marriage — the joining, often of opposites, which restores peace. Beauty and the Beast

Battle between good and evil — we want good to win. Cartoons, many movies, Paradise Lost

Natural world opposed to mechanical world — usually nature is good, technology evil. Brave New World, Walden

Innate wisdom versus educated stupidity — some characters, though ignorant, exhibit a natural wisdom. This is often shown in animals. Others, though educated, have no “street smarts” and make poor decisions. An example is the teacher in To Kill a Mockingbird with her tirade about Hitler and prejudice.

Unhealable wound — may be physical or psychological. Captain Ahab’s wooden leg

Magic weapon — usually bestowed by a mentor to the hero. Excalibur; light sabers in Star Wars

Supernatural intervention — the gods help (or hurt) the hero. The Trojan War

Light versus dark — light represents hope and illumination; dark indicates hopelessness and the unknown. Light shines from heaven to indicate goodness; characters are often drawn into evil darkness

Heaven versus hell — supreme beings and mythological gods live in the skies; evil forces, including Satan, come from the underworld. Mythology; Paradise Lost

Haven versus wilderness — Havens are places of comfort and safety. The garden of

Eden; Camelot. Wilderness includes any place of danger. Escaped slaves such as

James Pennington had to go into wilderness before they could reach safety from the

underground railroad.

Water versus desert — Water is a symbol of life and birth. Used in baptism. Deserts indicate lack of life, desolation. Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert. The Joads in The Grapes of Wrath must cross the desert before they get to the “Promised Land” of California and see the river.

Fire versus ice — fire depicts knowledge and life; ice represents ignorance and death. Frankenstein’s monster begins his life with fire (lightning) and disappears in the ice.



Hero — usually rises from a rather lowly birth to become a leader or king after facing many trials. Examples are Arthur, Jesus, Beowulf, Harry Potter, Superman

Young person from the provinces — taken from home and returns with a new perspective. Tarzan; Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz; Alice from Alice in Wonderland

Initiates — innocents who train for the quest. Luke Skywalker; Aragorn from Lord of the Rings

Mentors — teachers or counselors for the initiates. Yoda from Star Wars; Gandolf from Lord of the Rings

Benevolent guide — usually an older person who gives the hero wise counsel. Merlin;

fairy godmothers          

Shaman — protector of rituals and traditions. Rafiki in Lion King; witch doctor

Parent-child conflict — generational tension. Romeo and Lord Montague, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader

Companions — loyal to hero at all cost The Fellowship in tile Lord of the Rings  trilogy; Robin Hood’s merry men

Loyal Retainer — a true and loyal friend; often a servant. Sancho Panza in Don Quixote

-Friendly beast — helps hero. Chewbacca, Toto

Trickster — a wise fool, a rascal, troublemaker. Loki in Norse mythology; Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars series; a clown; Br’er Rabbit

Devil figure — purely evil. Satan; Sauron from Lord of the Rings; Grendel in Beowulf Simon Legree in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Evil figure with ultimately good heart — redeems himself by end of story. Darth Vader; Scrooge

Scapegoat — sacrificed animal or human who takes on the sins and punishment for others. Jesus; Tom Robinson from To Kill a Mockingbird; Jim Casy from The Grapes of Wrath; the mother in “The Lottery”

Outcast — is banished from society. Quasimodo in The Hunchback of Notre Dame; Frankenstein’s monster

Star-crossed lovers — fate is against them. Romeo and Juliet; Guinevere and Lancelot

Earth mother — provides life and nourishment. Mother Nature; Mammy in Gone With the Wind

Temptress — beautiful woman who brings the destruction of the hero. Delilah; Helen of Troy

Platonic ideal — the woman on a pedestal who inspires the hero, but with whom the hero has no physical relationship. Ladies of the court in whose names the knights fought; the Virgin Mary

Unfaithful wife — a married woman involved in illicit affair(s). Madame Bovary; Hester Prynne

Damsel in Distress — must be rescued by the hero, who is often trapped when he comes to her aid. Guinevere

Creatures — monsters who threaten the hero. Grendel in Beowulf; Cyclops; vampires