Music of the Mythospheres,
The City of God, Part I.
By Richard Farley.
“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God . . .”
–Ralph Waldo Emerson
Prologue : The Children of Creation
Imagine you are a newborn, a child less than a day old. Envision your sense of wonder and delight. The whole world, everything in it, and every experience is new, unexplainable, mysterious, magic. Imagine your first smell, first taste, touch, sound, sight. Mysterious and delicious. Or loud and terrifying. Or beautiful. Or too horrible to describe.
Now imagine you, the child, this newborn, though still a child in mind, live in the body of an adult.
This is what it may have been like for the earliest human beings: sucklings of the nurturing Earth; or the progeny of the celestial sun; or the brood of a waxing and waning moon; or the sons and daughters of a coruscating heavenly host–the stars.
If we can assume anything of prehistoric cultures based on the mythologies of the earliest historical civilizations and on the religious practices of the extant hunter-gatherer cultures of the Earth, we can assume four things:
First, it is likely that, in their way of thinking about things, there would have been few boundaries. Early humans presumably saw themselves more as participants in the creation than as worshippers of a particular Creator. While certain distinctions were no doubt observed, the categorization of human knowledge and experience was not to begin in earnest until Aristotle’s time. Birth, death, human, nature, materiality, and spirituality were probably perceived as only differing aspects of a single underlying reality. Thus, for many early peoples, the observation of various experiential phenomena and the observances of the supernatural forces that governed them would probably have been perceived as one and the same.
Second, relationships in primal hunter-gatherer cultures were based on kinship and were relatively egalitarian. Their nomadic nature precluded most concepts of personal ownership of land. And the evidence suggests that there was nothing remotely like the widespread poverty that would later plague the average citizens of the first agricultural civilizations. The obligations of kinship and a comparative lack of inequality, combined with the inherent freedom to leave the tribe at will and found a clan of one’s own, probably prevented an elite group of leaders from gaining undue influence over others.
Third, the peoples of primal cultures would have been perfervidly prerational. Anything remotely resembling the thinking tools of logical discourse and skepticism, with which some of us now feel almost too familiar, would, at best, have been extremely rare. Instead, the workings of the human mind must have been as inscrutable and divinely enchanted as everything else about their (as the German idealist philosophers might have put it about two centuries ago) “Zeitgeist.”
Fourth–and this is, perhaps, increasingly difficult for us to understand in our fast-moving, modern world, but the evidence suggests it–primitive peoples would have seen the macrocosm–however they defined it, and despite their various cosmogonic speculations–as fundamentally changeless and eternal. It is unclear whether this was caused by the sheer length of the anterior human experience (modern paleoanthropologists have unearthed evidence that indicates our direct, hominid ancestors have been evolving for the last five or six million years or more), or whether it was simply based on contemporaneous observation. Whatever the reasons, for inestimable generations, the archetypal aphorism of the elders of humankind must have been (and has been until very recent centuries) something like, “‘Twas always thus, and always thus will be.”
Whether gazing in rapture at the vast scintillating patterns of a night’s constellations . . . or in awe of the literally blinding light and sometimes merciless heat of a rising and setting sun . . . or in reverence in the presence of a sublime rebirth of a crescent moon . . . or in trepidation before the blazing flash and booming thunder of an approaching storm . . . or in astonishment as witnesses to the numinous artistry of the aurora borealis . . . or ineffably at the crashing waves of a seemingly infinite sea . . . or in wonder beneath the immutable peaks of majestic mountains . . . or in quiescence near the bank of a tranquil pond or stream . . . for our earliest ancestors, all thoughts, emotions, and phenomenological observations would almost certainly have been as if of one unity of experience: epiphanies of the divine; affirmations of eternity.
A Tale of a Blind Seer
Old Man sits in silence in the deep shadows. The cloying smell of his many burning magics is in the air. Old Man’s gaze is unwelcoming, his darknesses unwarming. He stares at us, but he does not see. We have come again, we say, for the blessings, and for the telling of what must be.
The outer edges of Old Man’s lips twist in an oddly placid smile. Unable to see as we see–and able to see where we cannot–his rough hands touch each one of us, trace the familiar contours of our faces. Outside are voices, mothers’ voices, children’s voices, voices which now seem silent to us as Old Man raises the blessing wand.
What must be, Old Man says, is another homage to the Blinding One, the greatest of the gods. For it is She who gave me these wisdoms, and it is She who blinded me in my insolent youth for daring to attempt to discern Her true nature. What must be, Old Man says, is a greater supplication, a larger offering, so that Her Warmth will return to us and nurture us and Her sister, the Earth.
Old Man looks at us. Not seeing us. Blesses us. We leave his darkness. And so we begin again, knowing we must prepare yet another sacrifice for the sacred fires.
Places in the Sun
We don’t really know when hominids first took notice of the sky, nor who first initiated a noetic explanation of his or her observations–but we do know this: in the sun, the moon, the stars, the planets, and the infinitude surrounding them, he or she had stumbled upon what would become, arguably, the most generative ground for storytellers for all the many millennia yet to come.
As storytellers, some of us may be more inspired by the thought of racing through the darkness with the goddesses of the hunt, or by a high-stakes game of dice with the moon; or perhaps one of our characters will be forced to confront the black sorceries of Tezcatlipoca, or become a witness to the sublime birth of Star Child. But aside from personal inspirations as storytellers, as cultural explorers, it is worthwhile to note that many scholars believe sun worship in particular–often indistinguishable from fire worship–was the most universal religious practice in ancient cultures. True or not, one doesn’t have to look to the ends of the earth to find evidence. In ancient times the sun was worshipped among many peoples, including for example, the Sumerians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Egyptians, the Hittites, the Greeks, and, in the Americas, among the Iroquois, Plains, and Tsimshian peoples of North America, and among the Native Americans of Mexico and Peru.
In ancient Persia, the ceremonial keeping of the flame–fire being the earthly manifestation of the heavenly light–was the chief characteristic of the Zoroastrians. In Zoroastrian scriptures the word for “priest” literally means “belonging to the fire.” In India, the fire and sun god Agni was once the most important deity. Hindu hymns in praise of Agni outnumbered those of any other divinity, and a sacrifice to the fire was once one of the first acts of morning devotion. Many centuries later, in Asia, the Yamato clan of Japan still traced its origins to a sun god, and, in 1926, the Emperor Hirohito’s coronation included paying homage to a sun goddess. The name “Japan” itself, in Japanese, means “great origin of the sun.”
And, in the recital of ancient sun and fire gods, we have not yet even begun. Whether by the name of Agni, Ahura-Mazda, Apollo, Aton, Bridget, Dogon, Helios, Hephaestus, Huitzilopochtli, Hyperion, Lludd, Mithras, Moloch, Phoebus, Ra, Shamash, Sol, Utu, Vesta, Vulcan, Xiuheuctli–or by any other names–the sun gods are still with us.
The rituals and symbols of ancient sun worship persist. Firewalking, closely associated with fire worship, is still practiced in Tahiti, Trinidad, Mauritius, the Fiji Islands, India, and Japan. The Hopi, and many other cultures throughout the world, still preserve their ancient heritages with rituals of sun and fire worship. The modern Olympic torch relay, as well as traditional Christian practices like the Easter bonfire and the Yule log on Christmas, are all remnants from the traditions of bygone sun and fire deities. East and West, in which the sun rises and sets, are still almost universally symbolic of birth and death, of beginnings and endings.
But what of the moon?, the stars?, and the death of days?
Why sun and fire worship were so universal
The primary reason for sun and fire worship’s near ubiquity must be that many ancient peoples, even those who may not have actually worshipped the sun, recognized the sun’s significance in the cycles of life, both relative to night and day and to the changing of the seasons. And it must have been obvious to even the earliest hominids that plants deprived of the sunlight for long periods of time invariably withered and died. Likewise, as fire came under human influence and peoples migrated into colder climates, it, too, would have been recognized as life-sustaining.
But another, and perhaps more subtle, reason may be that, whatever the various hypotheses of scientists as to why it should be so, we human beings rely on our eyesight at least as much as any other species on Earth. That makes us far more dependent on light than many species in our daily activities. It also makes us portentously hors de combat in the dark. As amply demonstrated by the fact that it was the light source of necessity in early Hollywood filmmaking, the only truly illuminating source of light, until recent decades, was the sun. And the resultant nights and days were, and remain, the most powerful synchronizers of our physiological clocks.
The Sacred Fire Within Us All
Light and darkness (and shadow), waking and sleep, good and evil, knowledge and ignorance. Although most of us do not often contemplate them, the connections between the sun, light, life, concepts of goodness, knowledge, and the ideas and ideals of spiritual awakening are conspicuous. After all, when was the last time you heard someone speak of “endarkenment?”
Once again, these consanguinities seem to reach all the way back into our prehistory. The rhythms of night and day, and our profound dependency on light, have influenced many of our perceptions of good and evil throughout our cultural histories.
Scientists now speculate that when a neuron has used up most of its ATP–(adenosine triphosphate, the main immediate source of usable energy for the activities of cells)–adenosine levels build up. The adenosine then leaks out, and binds to cholinergic receptors. That, in turn, induces the need for sleep.
But the mythic explanations of early human beings, to them at least, must have seemed far more sensible.
Some scientists have postulated the need to sleep may have developed as a survival mechanism, and certainly, before human beings mastered fire, to sleep at night would have helped to keep our ancestors out of harm’s way from nocturnal predators. But the survival value of their circadian rhythms probably never occurred to the hominids of the earliest cultures.
Perhaps to sleep was to “die” to the “overworld” and to journey with the enigmatic, and sometimes evil, spirits of the “underworld.” To awake refreshed the next morning may have been perceived as akin to a resurrection of sorts. Of course when speaking of prehistory, whether as scientists or as storytellers, we moderns are again making myths. Whatever the hermeneutic tales inspired by these arcana, they are now lost to us. We simply do not know. Whatever the case may be, night and sleep and dreams must have been worlds of many spiritual mysteries, even as, some would say, they remain.
Most mythologies do speak at least of how fire was brought to humankind. Cultural legends of heroic figures or magical beasts who seize fire, often from the gods, abound. For example, among the Polynesian Cook Islanders of the South Pacific, a legend tells of the descent of Maui into the underworld where he learned the art of making fire. The mythologies of many Native American tribes, in a way similar to that of the tribal cultures of West Africa, credited ancestral fire spirits. And in the legends of the ancient Greeks, we are told the Titan Prometheus either stole the flame from Mount Olympus or ignited a torch using the burning rays of the chariot of the sun god Phoebus.
However it happened, to prehistoric peoples, fire must have at first been a frightening spectacle. Often the result of lightning or volcanic eruptions, both daunting forces accompanied by thunderous emanations (the “voices of the gods?”), it must have been a doughty soul indeed who first approached the embers of a fire kindled by nature.
Many scholars believe the use of fire was the single most important change in technology before the coming of agriculture. Its use must have been revolutionary. Human beings eventually (possibly 600,000 years or so ago in China) learned to preserve it, then to make it, to use it to cook, to sharpen and harden their wooden tools, to frighten off wild beasts, to conquer the cold and the dark, to move into less temperate climes, to assemble around it as a group, and perhaps to become more aware of themselves as a community. Maybe, just maybe, it was while gathered around one of those fires that some imaginative souls first began to elevate and refine the art and craft of storytelling: to syllogize the measures of the moon; to postulate the governing influences of the stars in their courses; to venerate the cyclic perpetuities of the heavens; and to begin the first of many interpretations of the place of humanity in the mystic rhythms of eternity.
So is it any wonder the light and the heat of fire were sometimes perceived as of the same essence as the light and the heat of the sun? And is it any wonder that essence was of a god?
Is it coincidence that, in the Bible, God’s personal appearance to Moses in the Old Testament was as a god of fire? Is it coincidence that many of the religious traditions throughout our histories, and in our own time, refer to the supreme deity as “the light” or as “the light of the world?” And could the relentless heat and the blinding light of a desert sun have inspired some to fevered visions of an almost merciless God?, or of a God too luminous for the human eye to behold?
We human beings, as always, will believe what we will, but perhaps, short of divine revelation, we will never know for certain.
Copyright 1997 by Richard Farley. All rights reserved.
Story Type and Subplot
By John Jarvis.
As those of you know who have studied the Jarvis Method, I advise against using subplots. The main reason for this is practical rather than artistic: most writers cannot handle subplots well.
First, let’s understand what a subplot is not. It is not the relationship between characters in a story. Clearly Character A deals with Character B, Character C, and so on. Thus, the main character (Character A) in a film such as Gone With the Wind has many interactions with other characters. Scarlet has dealings with Mammy, Ashley, Rett, and so on. These examples are not of subplots, but simply of elements necessary to fully develop the story within a given setting. And when the setting changes, the change–and subsequent interactions with characters–are a natural plot development (as when Scarlet and Rett go to London).
No, a true subplot would involve just what the name implies: plot. Thus, instead of Character A dealing with Character B, a subplot would involve Character A dealing with Plot B. In Gone With the Wind, Scarlet (Character A) would leave her environment and go, say, out West to become a cowgirl (Plot B). Sounds silly doesn’t it? Yet many writers are told to dutifully put in a subplot and then try to make it work into the main plot. This is somehow supposed to make the story better!
Or course, ideally the story could be made more interesting by the skillful management of the two plots. If, for example, Scarlet had gone West to convince men to come south and fight, there would be something to be said for this chain of events. But very little. For the whole point of Gone With the Wind is not that Scarlet is trying to save the South, but that she is trying to save herself by working out her personal problems. In short, Gone With the Wind is not a Civil War story, but the story of a spoiled brat whose drama just happens to take place in a certain place and time. (Indeed, the same type of story has often been told of an aristocratic character in England — or of any other types of characters in virtually any other places.)
Yet, with all this said, there comes a time, albeit rare, when a subplot will help the story. Let us say that Scarlet really did want to help the South. If the Story Concept (which should never be fractured, even if in carrying it out the plot has to be) were that Scarlet wanted to help the Southern cause, her going West to round up help would make sense. But we need to look at the story we want to tell and our main character.
This, then, leads to a golden rule of writing: If understanding of your character is aided by the introduction of another plot sequence, by all means add a subplot. However, remember that adding another plot requires a lot of skill; I still recommend that most writers avoid subplot, even if it means discarding a cherished Story Concept.
NOTE: There are those few times when a subplot is necessary. I explain how to use it in this month’s “Type Casting,” which analyzes, together with our staff, Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations.
Through a Glass Darkly
Being and Somethingness – Part II
By Gary Kriss.
Oscar Wilde is taking the compulsory divinity portion of his Oxford examinations. The requirement is to translate aloud from the Greek version of the New Testament. Wilde’s assigned the section dealing with the Passion which he rapidly begins rendering into perfect English. The examiners tell him he can stop, but Wilde continues. Eventually they’re able to halt him. Crestfallen, Wilde looks at them and exclaims, “Oh, do let me go on — I want to see how it ends.”
No matter what the language, a good story will hold readers and keep them turning pages. And one of the most wonderful collections of good stories ever is the Bible. This probably helps explain why the Bible is also the greatest bestseller of all time.
Last month I said that we’d start examining some of the most basic “commandments” or rules of writing in light of the Bible and see what riches, if any, might be revealed. So here goes. Our First Commandment (selected at random, not on the basis of priority): Thy Story Shall Be Driven Either By Plot Or By Character.
Try this premise on for size: a handsome prince chucks a beautiful princess, wealth, power and certain control over a vast and marvelous empire to become a slave. He goes on to defy the most awesome army in the world and successfully leads a rag-tag people out of chains into freedom. Can you picture it? Hollywood certainly could. Even producers could appreciate that Moses is at the heart of one of the greatest plot-driven sagas of all time.
Want another one? How about a mighty warrior who was also headstrong philanderer and who ultimately used his arms not to defend his people but to embrace a woman who would betray him. Humiliated, he repents in furious fashion, single-handedly bringing down a pagan temple, killing himself and the horde who had come there to mock him. Obviously the author of the Book of Judges didn’t have summer blockbuster in mind when recounting the travails of Samson, but certainly such is the stuff that popcorn plots are made of!
Then of course there’s David who impregnates a friend’s wife then conspires to have said friend dispatched so that he can marry said wife. Wow! Talk about your basic Fatal Attraction! And the list goes on. Open The Old Testament almost anywhere and you’ll find a tale of love, sex, jealousy, violence, horror, and/or murder, just to name a few classic plots guaranteed to boil pots. Nearly every page of this wonderful work has enough passion to put any book currently on the Fiction Best Seller list to shame. There are a number of explanations for this. Let’s take one. The Old Testament is, among other things, a book of law — a book that defines relationships — all kinds of relationships, not just the one between Creator and Creator. It specifies external conditions, if you will. And trying to adhere to those conditions more often than not produces high drama — and great plots.
And now another story. Like that of Moses, it also involves transformation, but this one is character, not plot-driven. Ready? From childhood, he was torn between two worlds. Through his mother, he was a Jew. But through his father, he was a Roman citizen, a fact that filled him with pride, so much pride that he insists on using his Roman rather than his Jewish name, Yet he still doesn’t abandon his Hebraic heritage. No, he has a foot in both the traditional and cosmopolitan worlds he inhabits and sometimes — actually often — the balance is precarious. That in itself is enough character trauma to trigger a pretty good tale. But there’s more.
His conflicted nature couldn’t be contained. He took to persecuting minorities. He even took to murder. Then, suddenly, he changed. Dramatically. He was literally struck blind. He claimed it was a revelation. Others less charitable might categorize it as hysterical blindness caused by inner rage. Whatever the reason, when he gained his sight — and insight — he was converted. He no longer persecuted minorities but identified with them and pleaded their cause. Though his external life became one of turmoil, his soul was finally at peace. He had made a 180 degree turn and it had led him home.
St. Paul could keep every school of psychoanalysis in session year-round. For our purposes, it’s enough to note that we can clearly see his character in his writing and it keeps us reading. Now, instead of The Old Testament, take The New Testament, open it up almost anywhere and you’ll find enough character strengths and weaknesses to propel a lifetime of New Yorker type fiction. Yes, The New Testament is about law. But its real thrust is love. Internal conditions take precedence over external relationships. Accordingly, it produces less “spectacle” than The Old Testament but more identification with its protagonists (and antagonists, as well, as any Sunday sermon is quick to point out). In other words, even without obvious “plot devices” there is reason to read and keep reading. Welcome to Writing 101!
Plot driven? Character driven? A little of both? There’s no clear choice. But the Bible offers us plenty of opportunity to see good examples of all these options. Go back and look at them. Maybe read them again for the first time. Even though you know the outcome of most of the stories, guaranteed that, like Oscar Wilde, you’ll still keep going to see how they end.
And it will remind you that, on many levels, there are lots of good lessons to be learned from the Good Book
Of Apollo and Dionysus
The Third Cycle,
Part I — The Ancient Worlds
Let us pretend that we have a time machine and can go backwards to the great cultures of yesteryear. What would we find? Where would you go?
Me, I would whisk myself to ancient Athens. Now if I had a very, very good time machine, it would arrive at a performance of one of Sophocles’s plays. Well, since this is imagination, let’s also assume a very cooperative time machine.
And so my time machine took me to an open-air stadium. In it was a large crowd watching not a play (as we knew it), but an action. To my delight, I have arrived just at the end of of one of my favorites: Oedipus Rex. At the end of this play, some masked figures chant to the throng. Let me quote them. (You will see the importance of this quotation to our discussion later.):
Ye who live in my ancestral Thebes, look upon this Oedipus —
Look upon the man who solved the great riddle and rose to our envy most high.
And now see how fortune swallows him and takes him into her night. —
O friends, look upon him! He is you. Count no man happy till he
Has passed the limits of this life, and is free from pain.
There are three plays in the Oedipus series, and I want to stay to see all of them. However, I know my pretend time machine (though very good) has it limitations; I’ll be trapped in time if I don’t get back and I want to stop at a few other places, for I’ve just had an idea: I’ll try to find the difference between cultures. Not the superficial difference, such as the worship of gods, but the basic difference — the difference in relationship between the individual and the god (or gods).
And so I once more get in the machine, turn a dial, and continue.
Much as I’d like to visit ancient Rome, it does not fit my new agenda (which I haven’t told you about yet — have patience). Anyway, I know that the Romans, as with the Greeks, believed in fate, in the omniscience of the supernatural, and I wanted to find a culture that didn’t have such a belief.
To find one, I decided to go way past the ancient world and enter Europe near the end of the Middle Ages. Now, I will reveal the purpose of this first essay in my thoughts. (This feat was accomplished by special circuits in the time machine, by the way.) And these thoughts were: Here is bound to be something different! For I am almost 19,000 years from the date of that Greek play. More important, men in this day, although believing in God, also believe in the importance of the self — no longer in this age, certainly, would man still be a pawn!
My time machine put me down at the end of the 14th century. It was near twilight and I could hear monks from their normally silent chambers chanting their vespers. Hmm. That similarity with the chants in the ancient Greek plays must be an accident. Luckily, I could prove this contrast, for it was still not too dark to read. And before me was a book on the road (almost as if placed there for me by the god). Eagerly picking it up, I thumbed through it and found the book to be The Divine Comedy of Dante. And in that twilight, I read these words:
Midway through life’s journey, a dark forest appeared before my eyes.
And although I searched every way, I could not find the right path anywhere
I closed the book and thought for a long time. Was I wrong? Is man the same regardless of time?
No longer the smug modern man, who believed he was different and better than those before me, I once again entered the time machine. Still upset that we had not progressed since the days of the Greeks, I just sat there for a moment, then once more turned the dial and next went to the early 17th century — after the Renaissance began. If I find the same traits here, I will abandon the search.
It took a moment before I could work up the courage to get out of the ship. When I did, I found himself before an audience in a theater not too unlike the one where I had watched Oedipus. This is worse than Dante or the monks! Then something the actor spoke caught my attention:
To be, or not to be: that is the question:/ Whether tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, /Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them.
Man in control, not fate or the gods? This is more like it! And I have passed only a little time beyond the Middle Ages to reach this point, compared to my journey from ancient Greece. Yes, I had at last found a difference. Or had I? I needed more proof. Shakespeare is a great man and all that, yet I remember from school that his near-contemporary John Milton was very religious. Surely, if someone can confirm or deny this philosophical revolution shown by the Bard of Avon, it would be the next most famous English poet. With renewed interest (and smugness), I once more entered the time machine and went a few years more into the future.
Yet this journey was not a smooth voyage. For no matter how hard I tried, the dial seemed to have a mind of its own. At last I came to rest — in a home. Before a large fireplace, sat a blind poet, dictating to one of his daughters a great poem. Milton was facing me, but the eyes were eyeless. Nor could the daughter observe the stranger, as her back was turned (the time machine — very, very good, remember? — made no noise). The scene was surreal, not only because of the people in the room and the words the Blind Poet spoke, but also because Milton, just as if an actor, would use different voices for different characters. I recognized Satan’s words from Paradise Lost, just after the Fiend had been sent to his fiery prison:
“Is this the region, the soil, the clime,” / said the lost Archangel, “this the seat,
That we must change for Heaven? .
[Then] hail horrors! hail, / Infernal world! And thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor–one who brings / A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
Awestruck as I was, I almost shouted again at the difference between this “take control” attitude expressed by both Milton and Shakespeare, and man as a pawn of fate and the gods (or God) expressed by Sophocles and Dante.
Anyhow, I left and started on my way, eager to check our century to confirm that the ideas of these men had not changed in our age. Yet, almost as soon as my time spaceship got underway, the sound of a war seemed to stop it like an arrow in flight. There was a large crashing sound, followed by an explosion. Suddenly, I found myself in a free fall down to earth.
Although close to the ground, I was far enough above it (about 20 feet, I guess) for any crash landing not to be very gentle. And the small metal object I was in came down with a thud into a small village just outside Moscow.
It was cold, the snow was heavy, and once more I had landed near twilight. Bruised as I was, I discovered that I was not badly hurt, and soon began to take more interest in the surroundings. At first, all that could be seen was a winter wasteland. Then, softly, I began to hear what at first seemed to be the sound of monks chanting. Was I back in the Middle Ages? No, for I began to see people in the snow — large masses of people. As they drew closer, I saw that they were peasants, and the sound was rejoicing. But for what? As if in answer to my question, the sound and sight of the peasants faded into another sight: a man standing before a ragtag army. And that man I recognized at once! Weeping, he carried his hand on his chest; a Satan who had again lost Heaven.
What had happened to that joyous culture I knew just a few hundred years before? Were we going to return to a life where we were no longer responsible and repeat what had gone before?
But then reality entered. Bad as man’s fate may be, mine was worse! For I had crashed; my imaginary journey was at an end; I left the time machine.
But where was I exactly? And more, why was I sent here, and what am I to learn?
Archetypes in Classic Literature and Recent Cinema
By the Staff.
This is, of course, one of the most famous stories ever written. Note the craftsmanship Dickens uses here and how sparingly he uses the subplot (Story B) during most of the story (the two plots occur together only at Step #4). Also notice how Story B takes over at the end.
1. The Story Concept.
“Values are more important than material well-being.”
Even though Great Expectations uses subplots, note that its Story Concept contains only one thought.
2. The Story Category.
Theme, for this story is about a change in a belief system.
Note that the Category must remain the same regardless of the number of subplots.
3. The Story Types.
To prove his Story Concept, Dickens uses the Coming-of-Age (Theme) Type for the A story and the Love (Theme) Type for the B story.
Indeed, whenever an author is telling a story covering a long span of time in a character’s life, the Coming of Age Story Type is almost a requirement. (The B story can be any Type, as long it’s of the same Category.)
These three preparation steps — Concept, Category, and Type — give us the foundation of our story. We now need to create the various elements — the extended premise or World Creation — of our narrative.
4. World Creation.
THE ORDINARY WORLD — Pip’s cottage and its environment.
Dickens spends a lot of time here. For reasons of space, we are unable to do the same. But keep in mind that one of the strong points of any story is a well-developed world. (Indeed, world creation and character are what make Dickens the great writer he is.) In many cases, world creation is almost — but not quite — as important as establishing all the major features of your Hero and Antagonist before continuing.
THE EXTRAORDINARY WORLD — Miss Havisham’s house and the London of the late 19th century.
THE MAIN CHARACTER, OR HERO — Pip.
At the start, Dickens shows us the kind of person our main character is to be. We also have the Hero’s inner need, which is shown in Pip’s actions toward the Prisoner. Indeed, this is almost an Excess and Downfall Story Type, but for the fact that Pip ultimately will return to his true nature. Thus, what is said above about “a change in beliefs” must be qualified.
THE HERO’S HELPERS — Biddy, Joe, and the Prisoner.
THE ANTAGONIST — Estella.
Some might think that the Prisoner is the Antagonist, but he has little to do with forcing the Hero to change — the main function of a THEME Antagonist. (The main function of an Action Antagonist is to oppose the Hero.)
THE ANTAGONIST’S HELPERS — London, Miss Havisham, and the people of her world.
The Antagonist (Estella) acts as a Shape Changer; London and Miss Havisham act as Gate Guardians. If you need to read up on these terms, see last month’s “On the Jarvis Method.”
We now come to the doing, the construction of the story itself. So far, we have constructed our story from a brief Concept, put it in a Category for character development, selected its Story Type, and, finally, fleshed out the premise (World Creation). We now have enough information to begin the notes for the structural part of our story. To structure it, we will use Joseph Campbell’s 12 stages of a Hero’s journey; fine tuning this journey with the story’s Category and Type.
5. Story Creation (Structure) Steps.
Step #1: A Story (only): Hero’s world as a child.
From World-Creation: Ordinary World
This first step works almost as a prologue.
Step #2: A Story (only): Hero’s belief system dramatically challenged.
From World-Creation: Ordinary and Extraordinary Worlds
Dickens employs an early P.O.A. (Point of Attack) in this story. The boy’s confrontation with the Prisoner shows early the value system of Pip.
Step #3: A Story (only): Hero talking to a Mentor.
From World-Creation: Ordinary World
Now Pip interacts with Joe and all the people in his life. It is obvious from the beginning that Pip will always carry Joe’s values with him, although part of the story is pointedly involved with Pip’s drifting away from those values only to find them again.
A Story: Hero wrestling with child/adult choices.
B Story: Symbolic or actual preparations to find Antagonist.
From World-Creation: Extraordinary World, Hero, Antagonist, Antagonist’s Helpers
It would be hard to find a more interesting character than Miss Havisham and her home. Pip is brought there for the old woman’s entertainment.
Miss Havisham is raising a young girl, named Estella, our Antagonist. In a stroke of genius, Dickens introduces this Antagonist as a love story subplot. (Only real masters of the craft can use subplots; as those familiar with my Method are aware, I advice against subplots not because they are ineffective, but because the are so often bungled.)
Step #5: A Story (only): Hero, still psychologically a child, joining the adult world.
From World-Creation: Ordinary and Extraordinary Worlds
Pip suddenly comes into a lot of money from a mysterious source. No one seems to know this source; in any case, Pip is sent to London to become a gentleman.
Step #6: A Story (only): Tests of beliefs by Antagonist’s Helpers.
From World-Creation: Hero, Hero’s Helper, and Extraordinary World, especially London
Pip must learn to adjust to his new surroundings. It turns out his roommate is someone whom Pip had met on his childhood visits to Miss Havisham’s. His country ways run up against the London way. He finally masters London, though pushing his values into the background, a mistake which he will pay for shortly.
Step #7: B Story: (only) Tests of love by Antagonist.
From World-Creation: Hero, Antagonist
Estella returns from France, more beautiful than ever. For a time, Pip and Estella are reunited.
Step #8: A Story (only): Crisis in Hero’s life — near death or facing major decision.
From World-Creation: Hero’s Helper
As if Pip didn’t have enough problems, one stormy night someone knocks at his door. It is an old man, whom Pip takes a moment to recognize: the Prisoner whom Pip met on the moors one late afternoon. Pip is about to dismiss him when the Prisoner reveals some interesting information — information that only his mysterious benefactor could have known. Although he tries to put the best face on things, it is clear Pip is thunderstruck by this revelation. (He had always assumed that his benefactor had been Miss Havisham.)
Step #9: A Story (only): Hero finally becoming an adult. Transformation.
From World-Creation: Hero, Hero’s Helper
Pip realizes that he has turned into a snob. The Prisoner, who had escaped, had risked his life in coming to see Pip. Pip repays him by trying to save that life.
Step #10: B Story (only): Pursuit of Hero and Antagonist by evil forces.
From World-Creation: Hero, Antagonist
However, when Estella learns who Pip’s benefactor really is, she emotionally moves away, announcing her engagement to another. (His lawyer later tells Pip something that Estella herself doesn’t know at the moment: that Estella is really the daughter of the Prisoner, who, when captured, was given to Miss Havisham to raise.)
Step #11: B Story (only): Destruction of forces keeping Hero from Antagonist.
From World-Creation: Ordinary and Extraordinary Worlds, Hero, Antagonist
The Prisoner dies of fever, which Pip himself catches. (It is not too subtle in the plot that Pip’s artificial former life and his loss of Estella had as much to do with this breakdown as did the fever.) In any case, he goes back to his old home in the country.
One day, when he is better, he decides to go to Miss Havisham’s old place. He enters, remembering the voice of Estella with every sight he sees. When he enters the old room that Miss Havisham had lived in, suddenly we see a glove on the old table; it belongs to Estella. Her husband-to-be had canceled the engagement when he heard of his wife-to-be’s humble origins. She has now decided, she tells Pip, to stay in that old house till she herself rots away.
Step #12: B Story (only): Antagonist and Hero going into sunset.
From World-Creation: Extraordinary World, Hero, Antagonist
Pip refusing to listen to her melancholy, jumps up to the old curtains and tears them down. Then he takes Estella by the arm and leads her back out into the sunlight