Archetypal literary criticism (Myth theory and crticism)

Categories : Literary Criticism

archetypal literary criticism

archetypal literary criticism
Archetypal literary criticism (Myth theory and crticism) 3

In literary criticism, the concept of archetype refers to recurring narrative designs, patterns of action, character types, themes, and images that appear in a wide range of literary works, as well as in myths, dreams, and even social rituals. These recurring elements are often believed to be the result of elemental and universal patterns in the human psyche. When effectively embodied in a literary work, they evoke a profound response from attentive readers because they share the psychic archetypes expressed by the author.

“The Golden Bough” (1890-1915),

One important precursor to the literary theory of archetype was the treatment of myth by a group of comparative anthropologists at Cambridge University, particularly James G. Frazer. In his work “The Golden Bough” (1890-1915), Frazer identified elemental patterns of myth and ritual that he claimed recurred in the legends and ceremonies of diverse cultures and religions. An even more significant precursor was the depth psychology of Carl G. Jung. Jung applied the term “archetype” to what he called “primordial images,” which he believed were the psychic residue of repeated patterns of experience in our ancient ancestors. According to Jung, these archetypes survive in the collective unconscious of the human race and find expression in myths, religion, dreams, private fantasies, and works of literature.

Maud Bodkin’s book “Archetypal Patterns in Poetry”

Archetypal literary criticism gained momentum with Maud Bodkin’s book “Archetypal Patterns in Poetry” (1934) and flourished especially during the 1950s and 1960s. Some archetypal critics deviated from Jung’s theory of the collective unconscious as the deep source of these patterns. According to Northrop Frye, this theory is “an unnecessary hypothesis,” and the recurrent archetypes are simply present, “however they got there.” In other words, they exist as inherent and fundamental elements of human storytelling and imagination.

Among the prominent practitioners of various modes of archetypal criticism, in addition to Maud Bodkin, were G. Wilson Knight, Robert Graves, Philip Wheelwright, Richard Chase, Leslie Fiedler, and Joseph Campbell. These critics tended to emphasize the persistence of mythical patterns in literature, operating under the assumption that myths are closer to the elemental archetype than the deliberate manipulations of sophisticated writers.

One of the central archetypal themes often explored by these critics is the death/rebirth motif, which is considered the archetype of archetypes. It is believed to be grounded in the cycles of the seasons and the organic cycle of human life. This archetype is said to appear in primitive rituals of the king who is annually sacrificed, widespread myths of gods who die and are reborn, and a multitude of diverse texts, including the Bible, Dante’s “Divine Comedy” in the early fourteenth century, and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” in 1798.

In addition to the death/rebirth theme, archetypal critics frequently trace various other themes, images, and characters in literature. These include the journey underground, representing a descent into the depths of the unconscious or the realm of the shadow; the heavenly ascent, symbolizing spiritual transcendence or enlightenment; the search for the father, representing the quest for identity or understanding; the dichotomy of Paradise/Hades, representing contrasting states of existence; the Promethean rebel-hero, challenging authority and seeking knowledge or freedom; the scapegoat, bearing the burden of collective guilt or punishment; the earth goddess, symbolizing fertility, nurturing, and the natural world; and the fatal woman, embodying seduction, temptation, and destruction.

These archetypal themes, images, and characters are seen as recurring and universal patterns deeply embedded in human consciousness and collective experience. They provide a framework for interpreting and understanding the underlying symbolic meanings and psychological resonances within literary works.

“An Anatomy of Criticism” (1957), Northrop Frye

archetypal literary criticism
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In his influential book “An Anatomy of Criticism” (1957), Northrop Frye developed the archetypal approach, combining it with the typological interpretation of the Bible and the concept of imagination found in the works of poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827). Frye’s aim was to radically and comprehensively revise the foundational concepts of literary theory and the practice of literary criticism.

Frye proposed that the totality of literary works constitutes a “self-contained literary universe” created by the human imagination over the ages. This universe serves to assimilate the alien and indifferent world of nature into archetypal forms that satisfy enduring human desires and needs. Within this literary universe, Frye identified four radical mythoi, corresponding to the four seasons in the cycle of the natural world, which are incorporated in the four major genres:

  • comedy (spring),
  • romance (summer),
  • tragedy (autumn), and
  • satire (winter).

According to Frye, each of these genres has its own archetypal mythos, and individual literary works also play variations upon a number of more limited archetypes. These archetypes are conventional patterns and types that literature shares with social rituals, theology, history, law, and other discursive verbal structures. From an archetypal perspective, Frye argued that literature plays an essential role in refashioning the impersonal material universe into an alternative verbal universe that is humanly intelligible and viable. This is achieved because literature is adapted to universal human needs and concerns.

Frye further expanded his archetypal theory in a series of later writings, incorporating traditional critical concepts and procedures into its scope on different levels. He also applied the theory to everyday social practices and elucidated writings ranging from the Bible to contemporary poets and novelists. Frye’s archetypal criticism aimed to provide a comprehensive framework for understanding and interpreting the symbolic and imaginative dimensions of literature, situating it within a broader cultural and human context.

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