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Storytelling and Archetypes

Exploring Greek Myths and the philosophies of Carl Jung.

Given the infinite richness of stories and storytelling, it is not surprising that analytical thinkers have tried to apply analytic, abstract reasoning to see whether a smaller number of patterns underlying narrative might be detected.

One of the first of these was Pausanias who visited Greece in the second century after Christ and tried to reconcile the various versions of the stories of the gods and humans. As he went about his journey, he found it impossible to reconcile the inconsistencies. By the time he reached the end of his journey, he had concluded that the wise men of Greece told their stories in riddles, and not out of stupidity. He had entered that paradoxical world where it was perfectly natural for the goddess of war and destruction was also the goddess of healing and the peaceful arts. (Shearer, p.4)

The complexities of storytelling are not easily amenable to reductionist thinking. "Only when we have become aware of a sudden inconsistency between incompatibles, can we say that we have crossed the threshold of myth." (Calasso, p. 22)

When we cross this threshold, we are in Karl Jung's world of archetypal energies, those "forms or riverbeds along which the current of psychic life has always flowed". (An archetype is an original pattern, or model, from which all other things of the same kind are made; prototype; or a perfect example of a type or group.)

As to what these narrative archetypes might consist of, the Greek myths have stood the test of time, and remain as fresh and resonant as if they were composed yesterday. We continue to find sharp meaning and very modern implications in their story lines, several thousand years after their creation (see for example The Springboard, chapter 12).

Carl Jung's own efforts to ascertain even simpler patterns were not as successful. While his distinction between introverts and extraverts continues in use today, some of his conclusions on supposed archetypes read quaintly and dated today, if not narrow-minded and male chauvinist of the worst variety. For example: "Whereas logic and subjectivity are usually the predominant features of a man's outer attitude, or are at least regarded as ideals, in the case of a woman, it is feeling." (Jung, on Archetypes, page 102)

The narrative form exhibits an almost infinite plasticity and flexibility, but the efforts of abstract thinkers to pigeon-hole stories into rigid taxonomies continue unabated. They include, to cite just a few::

Kenneth and Mary Gergen classify stories into three classes: stability narrative, in which the protagonist remains unchanged with the respect to the goal; progressive narrative, in which advancement to the goal occurs; and regressive narrative, in which the protagonist ends up further from his goal at the conclusion.
Northrup Frye divides stories into myth, romance, high mimetic, low mimetic, ironic.

Stories are even more powerful when they are mythic universal stories—that is stories that you will find in any culture, which resonate deeply with human motivations, and that convey a complex of meanings. Carol S. Pearson’s work on such stories emphasizes the way that people actually live stories and in the process gain certain human abilities and virtues (The Hero Within, Awakening the Heroes Within). Pearson emphasizes the need to develop narrative intelligence to understand the nature of archetypal stories and what they inspire in oneself, others, and whole social systems.

Many other attempts are cited in chapter 3 of Polkinghorne to develop a taxonomy of stories. No agreement has been reached, or is even in sight, as to how to classify stories. To the extent that these classificatory efforts help us understand the patterns underlying stories so as to make it easier to craft and understand the power of stories, they are useful. 

To the extent that these taxonomic activities represent an effort to turn narrative into a sub branch of abstract thinking, their motive is somewhat less honorable, and in any event, is doomed to failure, Stories have proven remarkably immune to being reduced to a mere subset of some classificatory scheme, and the infinite plasticity of stories eludes any common agreement in terms of abstract analysis as to their underlying nature. Hamlet remains uniquely Hamlet no matter how many different ways we analyze or classify it.

A possible reason for this failure to reach agreement on the classification of narratives is the fact that narrative thinking is not simply another branch of abstract thinking, but rather a different type of thinking altogether.


See Stephen Denning, The Springboard: How Storytelling Ignites Action in Knowledge-Era Organizations. Boston, London, Butterworth Heinemann, October 2000

Robert Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, London, Vintage, 1994.

Northrup Frye, The Anatomy of Criticism, Princeton, 1957.

Kenneth and Mary Gergen, in Narrative Psychology: The Storied Nature of Human Conduct ed by Theodore Sarbin, NY, Praeger, 1986.

Carl Jung, The Essential Jung, Selected by Anthony Storr, London, Fontana, 1998.

Carol S. Pearson: The Hero Within.

Polkinghorne, Donald.E.. Narrative Knowing and the Human Sciences. Albany N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1988.

Ann Shearer, Athene: Image and Energy, London, Penguin, 1996.

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