Wednesday, December 31, 2008

From seven to one

According to Christopher Booker, the seven basic plots can, in fact, be reduced to different aspects of one story:
Each begins by showing us a hero or heroine in some way incomplete, who then encounters the dark power. Through most of the story the dark power remains dominant, casting a shadow in which all remains unresolved. But the essence of the action is that it shows us the light and dark forces in the story gradually constellating to produce a final, decisive confrontation. As a result, in any story which reaches complete resolution (and of course for reasons we will explore there are many which do not), the ending shows us how the dark power can be overthrown, with the light ending triumphant. The only question is whether the central figure is identified with the light, in which case he or she ends up liberated and whole; or whether they have fallen irrevocably into the grip of darkness, inwhich case they are destroyed. But, whatever the fate of the central figure, the real underlying purpose of the process has been to show us how, in the end, light overcomes the darkness. Such is the archetypal pattern around which our human urge to imagine stories is ultimately centred.
A couple of thoughts. First, how "light" and "darkness" are defined isn't necessarily linked to a particular morality. A friend recently wrote an essay relating to a couple of short stories, in whih the heroines found themselves "liberated" through what would be conventionally immoral behaviour. But even so, the dynamic is one of movement from darkness and confusion into light in a properly resolved narrative. (I've yet to see what he does with unresolved ones: still only at page 250 of 700 or so!) However, there is a sense of morality of some sort; Macbeth, Humbert, Bonnie and Clyde are clearly recognisable as people who have transgressed, no matter how sympathetic the reader is to them at different stages.

Next, and this is one that really interests me, is how closely this reflects a Christian perception of the world. Booker is, as far as I know, not a Christian, and refers to the evolutionary origins of such archetypes. Later in the book, he intends to develop his theory about the origin. However, it is striking that the very language he uses to describe these archetypes should have been borrowed so directly from the gospels.

As I've mentioned before, my theory is that we are designed to respond to certain forms of narrative because the designer has a particular narrative to tell that it is important to understand. This narrative is an historical one, and relates to a battle between light and darkness - and the key question is whether a person aligns themselves with light or with darkness. Interesting that such a weighty work should come to a conclusion about narrative which should be so linked.

More generally, this book is amazing, and I really don't want it to end. It is presenting a kind of "Grand Unified Theory" not only of literature but of all narrative, and making a reading list for me for the rest of my life! Peer Gynt,, The Snow Queen and Dorian Gray are all there now ... yeah, I know, should have read them already. I've had a lot on ....

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