Definition of Archetype

As a literary device, an archetype is a reoccurring symbol or motif throughout literature that represents universal patterns of human nature. It can also refer to the original model on which all other things of the same kind are based. For example, the common character of a hero is an archetype in that all heroes in literature share some key traits. We can also call certain famous heroes such as King Arthur and Luke Skywalker archetypal heroes, as they fit this mold.

The word archetype comes from a compound Greek word for “origin” and “model.” Therefore, the definition of archetype refers to it as the first form for whatever else comes after it. Archetypes are abstract in that the first mold is not a specific person or thing, but instead a concept made concrete by specific and reoccurring examples and patterns in literature. Therefore there is no one character who is the archetype for all heroes that came after, but instead an intangible sense of hero that is personified by the many hundreds of hero examples that have been created in literature.

Common Examples of Archetype

It can be helpful to think of archetype as similar to a cookie cutter. The cookie cutter is not the cookie itself, but instead gives form to the cookie. While we colloquially use the term “cookie cutter” to mean identical products, one could argue that a cookie cutter could be used on infinitely diverse types of dough. Therefore, the product is always similarly shaped, yet has a vast array of possible variations, just like archetypes.

Many types of media use archetypes with frequency. Reality shows always seem to portray at least one character as the villain, while sitcoms often have the archetypal character of the sidekick.

There is a huge list of character types, symbols, and situations that are considered archetypes. Here are some examples of archetype from real life:

  • Hero: Martin Luther King Jr., Mahatma Gandhi
  • Rebel: Che Guevara, William Wallace
  • Ruler: Napoleon, Genghis Khan
  • Healer: Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa
  • Adventurer: Christopher Columbus, Marco Polo
  • Innocent: Anne Frank, Malala Musafzai
  • Genius: Albert Einstein, Leonardo da Vinci
  • Jester: Mark Twain, Charlie Chaplin
  • Outlaw: Jesse James, Butch Cassidy

Significance of Archetype in Literature

Almost all works of literature contain examples of archetype. This is because archetypes stem from cultural and psychological myths that are universal or nearly so. For example, the plot of a character going on a quest is found in oral storytelling traditions and works of literature from around the world and from all time periods. Thus the “quest” plot is an archetype. Since almost all types of plots and characters have been codified into archetypes it is difficult, if not impossible, to create a story without using these long established symbols and patterns. By trading in archetypes, authors help the audience understand what the expectations are for a certain type of story or character. The author then doesn’t have to explain as much, and when the author breaks from the mold to some degree, that rupture will be all the more intriguing to the reader.

Examples of Archetype in Literature

Example #1: Quest Archetype

So then, royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, man of exploits, still eager to leave at once and hurry back to your own home, your beloved native land? Good luck to you, even so. Farewell! But if you only knew, down deep, what pains are fated to fill your cup before you reach that shore, you’d stay right here, preside in our house with me and be immortal.

(The Odyssey by Homer)

In this excerpt from Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the goddess Calypso addresses Odysseus as he’s about to set off on his quest. There are many thousands of stories based on the archetype of the quest, or journey, and The Odyssey is one of the most famous. Calypso foreshadows the difficulties that are present in this archetypal plot; the reader will know to expect the challenges that Odysseus later faces both because of this excerpt and because of the traditional guidelines of a quest story.

Example #2: Villain Archetype

IAGO: Why, there’s no remedy. ‘Tis the curse of service.
Preferment goes by letter and affection,
And not by old gradation, where each second
Stood heir to th’ first. Now sir, be judge yourself,
Whether I in any just term am affined
To love the Moor.
RODERIGO: I would not follow him then.
IAGO: O sir, content you.
I follow him to serve my turn upon him.

(Othello by William Shakespeare)

Iago is one of the most famous villains in all of literature, and here we can see a good example of what makes him villainous. He is Othello’s closest confidant, and yet he acknowledges to Roderigo that he will only “follow [Othello] to serve my turn upon him.” The villain is often a manipulative character who can’t be trusted, and here Iago plays into that expectation.

Example #3: Lover Archetype

CHORUS: Two households, both alike in dignity,
In fair Verona, where we lay our scene,
From ancient grudge break to new mutiny,
Where civil blood makes civil hands unclean.
From forth the fatal loins of these two foes
A pair of star-cross’d lovers take their life;
Whose misadventur’d piteous overthrows
Doth with their death bury their parents’ strife.

(Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare)

William Shakespeare created perhaps the most famous archetypal lovers in Romeo and Juliet. Their story is so well known that the archetypal plot of star-crossed lovers is named after this prologue. However, Shakespeare was certainly not the first person to write a story about what we now call star-crossed lovers. Indeed, his play falls into the tradition of tragic romances, and was based on a very similar sixteenth century Italian story. Tragic romances often concern lovers who are kept or driven apart by obstacles outside of their control.

Example #4: Rebel Archetype

I don’t give a damn, except that I get bored sometimes when people tell me to act my age. Sometimes I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything.

(The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger)

Holden Caulfield, the protagonist of J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, is noted for being a rebel. Caulfield calls out “phonies” and generally has contempt for many of what he sees as society’s evils. Like Caulfield, rebel characters often criticize problems in culture. Some rebels attempt to change the culture, like the real-life example of Che Guevara, while others just reject it.

Example #5

The Mother gives the gift of life,
and watches over every wife.
Her gentle smile ends all strife,
and she loves her little children

The Warrior stands before the foe,
protecting us where e’er we go.
With sword and shield and spear and bow,
he guards the little children.

(A Storm of Swords by George R. R. Martin)

In his recent series of books, A Song of Ice and Fire, George R. R. Martin has created several unique religions that his characters believe in. One of the most widespread religious beliefs is in “The Seven,” a group of seven gods and goddesses. Each one is, in fact, an archetype: the Father, the Mother, the Warrior, the Crone, the Smith, the Maiden and the Stranger. This interesting archetype example is from the main prayer, called “The Song of the Seven,” and shows just how each figure is an important part of the whole. Characters in the book sometimes choose one of the gods or goddesses to pray to depending on what situation they are in—mothers and wives in the book often pray to the Mother, while men about to go into battle pray to the Warrior. By appealing to the different archetypes, the characters hope to emulate the best of that archetype or draw strength from them. Martin’s strategy of creating a religion around archetypes is clever in that readers will not need a lot of extra information to grasp the fundamental ideas of the religion. Thus, even though the fantasy world of the books is not real, Martin makes it feel more familiar and comprehensible through the use of archetypes.

Test Your Knowledge of Archetype

1. Choose the best archetype definition:
A. A specific person that everyone else tries to copy.
B. Many completely identical versions of the same thing.
C. A reoccurring symbol that represents universal patterns of human nature.

Answer to Question #1 Show

2. Which of the following words is not an archetype?
A. Lover
B. Flower
C. Hero

Answer to Question #2 Show

3. What is the benefit of George R. R. Martin basing a fictional religion on archetypes?
A. Readers will understand this fictional religion more easily because they already know these seven archetypal figures.
B. Readers will find the religion completely bewildering, and therefore be more intrigued.
C. Readers will confuse the different religions in the book and thus work harder to understand what’s going on.

Answer to Question #3 Show

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