Homework: Archetypes Part I

Okay–I signed on to do this. I have to keep telling myself that–I volunteered. In fact, I was thrilled–I still am. I get to stand up and talk to an audience of one about something it’s taken me hard years to learn about, and something that actually uses my English degree to the max. (My pedagogical degree is a total loss–I’m having philosophical differences with California at the moment.)

So I signed on to talk about archetypes and urban contemporary fantasy, and by golly, I’m gonna do just that.

But first, I’m going to bore all of you with it, to make sure I’m not a complete babbling mess. Before I start, I’ll tell you that most of my sources are the anthologies I use to teach the kids, but if Curmudgeonly Colleague is paying any attention, he’ll be able to tell you right quick that a lot of this is my own reasoning. Are there papers out there or professors who have already reasoned through this and published large? Morenlikely. Have I read any of them? Nope. This is all the product of my fevered brain, right? Feel free to ignore at will. I’ll also tell you, I may have repeated parts of this at various times–I’ve got three years of blog archives back there, and this is one of my favorite subjects–so, again, if I bore you to tears, well, be kind.


A literary archetype is a mold–it’s like God made certain types of humans–same mold, different accessories, and man, following Her footsteps (gotcha!) created certain heroic molds–forms, shapes, etc. The clever writer hangs different accessories on the mold, makes the archetype into a character, and the REALLY clever writer makes the character into a human being–but it was created from the mold, after all.

Now British and American literary archetypes tend to develop along the lines as the British and American civilizations. As I tell the kids all the time, if you’re living back on the cliffs of Dover in 700 A.D., looking out at a vast, unlit sky and an obsidian ocean, who’s your hero? Your hero is the big fucking sword between you and the barbarian hordes looking to kill you, steal your land, and rape your women. Consequently, your Epic Hero–your Beowulf, for example–he really didn’t need a whole lot of civilized characteristics, did he? Beowulf didn’t need no stinking love life, he didn’t need a whole lot of personality–all he really needed to be was the strongest guy with the biggest sword who promised not to murder his brother or eat his fellow humans. Compared to the bad guys, Beowulf was the pinnacle of gentility–we didn’t need to know if he scratched his balls in public or ate his meat with the same hand he used to pick his nose–he had a big fucking sword and he was willing to use it on the guy who threatened to eat you. Hero! Buddy! Rock-the-fuck-ON!

Now Beowulf’s counterpart in the modern world would be Superman. Notice Superman never really hooked up with Lois Lane? A woman was too complicated for the Epic Hero. According to one of my anthologies, an epic hero had the following characteristics: crossed geographical boundaries, worked for a higher purpose, fought for a universal truth, had some sort of divine help, had some weight in the world (the anthology says ‘of noble birth’–the point was, he wasn’t the third peasant living under the pig-pen), and he gave long-assed formal speeches. Superman DOES all that–I mean hell, he can fly, right? He crosses boundaries, he’s always working for truth, justice, and the American way, he’s got that sci-fi strength thing, what he does is important–with the exception of that last requirement. (Okay–that last one? That doesn’t really carry too much weight in the modern world, but it does explain why Superman always sounds like he’s got a stick up his ass, doesn’t it?)

Now imagine that British civilization gets a little more set, Edward the Confessor comes in after a few hundred years of civilized warfare and guys in tank suits, and he brings his wife who likes the pretty French stories of King Arthur. King Arthur hits Great Britain HUGE, except Artie, he’s not a hero like Beowulf. Artie’s got personal problems–in fact, he lets his personal problems get in the way of his job, and the peasants? They’d rather watch King Artie deal with his baggage than worry about the fact that their pigs have to come in for the winter or they’ll starve come the spring, so they’re right on board. Artie, Lancelot, Merlin, Gawain–they become the first Romantic Heroic Archetypes. This is our favorite archetype to put on the movie screen–he’s the guy who wants to save the world AND save the girl, and we WANT him to be able to juggle both those agendas. Spiderman is the perfect example of the Romantic archetype– remember that scene where the Goblin tells him he can save the girl or the car full of kids? And Spidey gets them both? YAHTZEE!

Of course, the Romantic Archetype is a lot more human than the Epic archetype–and humans fuck up, as Epic heroes don’t. They fuck up bad enough, and they get themselves, or the people they love, or a group of complete strangers killed–or, like MacBeth, they kill these people themselves, which is even worse. Because the same rules still apply–noble birth, a little bit of God mojo, strength, intelligence, knowledge of right and wrong–and a big honkin’ flaw in their make-up that is eventually going to destroy them, and that they can see coming. And since their heroic flaw fucks up the universe the hero lives in, he also gets to set the universe right with his death–although I’m not sure that’s a whole hell of a lot of comfort. This, ladies and gentleman (there’s one out there. Maybe two.) is the Tragic Heroic archetype–hel-lo Elizabethan theatre, hel-lo Incredible Hulk. Take a look at Hamlet–he’s a prince–and a lot is made of how handsome, witty, bright and shiny he is as a prince, but he gets into a black funk of vengeance, and this melancholy paralyzes all his action, and even though he knows that no action may possibly be worse than action at all, he still can’t make himself kill his uncle in cold blood. HE SEES IT COMING–and can’t do a fucking thing to stop it. Of course, I’m not sure he deserved to see the stage littered with bodies, but he kept his very good buddy from falling on his sword at the end to tell his story and restore his name, and the final requirement of the tragic hero was fulfilled. Universe better, Hamlet Dead. Go team.

The Hulk fulfills the same requirements (except that last one–he never dies, because, well, it’s Marvel, and you know, dead guys don’t sell a lot of comic books). David Banner’s original problem was that he was too weak to save his family, and then he was too weak to forgive himself and then he gave himself the serum, and his temper became his tragic flaw. Too weak to control his strengths–that there is a heroic flaw even Shakespeare could have embraced. He’s smart, has heft (notice it’s DOCTOR David Bruce Banner) a little preternatural God mojo, and a big honking flaw. However he dies, you can bet when he goes, the universe will be made right when it happens–I’d put money on it.

But what if the Romantic hero HAS no flaws–what if he’s constantly trying to rise above the petty human problems of pride and weakness and romantic attachments and he’s all about the greater good and he never allows himself to be humans and…

Well, that’s a whole other flaw, isn’t it? And here you get your Gothic hero–your Frankenstein, your Batman, your bad guy on Serenity, your Sam Winchester (we’ll get back to him when the show ends, or after tomorrow night’s season finale, which, by the way, threatens to RIP MY FUCKING HEART OUT, but that’s another post) but anyway, you get the picture. The Gothic hero is the uber-romantic hero. The guy who has human needs but refuses to acknowledge them, whose flaw is that he tries to have no flaw and thus, rises so far above the rest of humanity that when he has his fall (oh yeah, he always falls) he not only shatters the pavement, he punches a hole through the crust of the earth and drags assorted buildings and civilians in after him. Victor Frankenstein rose above humanity, created the creature, bailed on the creature, and fucked us all. Batman forsook his humanity in patrolling Gotham–and he’s the only shmuck who could have created the Joker. The bad guy on Serenity forsook his humanity for the Alliance because he thought his bosses would build a better world, and then realized the Alliance had fucked up the world they built and used him to sweep it under the rug. Even poor, doomed Sam started drinking demon blood in order to be a more effective demon killer–he didn’t even realize he was turning into what he hunted. One of the major differences between the Gothic hero and the tragic hero is that death doesn’t seem to be a requirement of redemption–Faust and some versions of Batman have a chance to redeem their fuck-ups. Frankenstein DID, but he was too fucking stupid. The guy from Serenity actually DOES, but he has to abandon all of the trappings of who he was in order to do do it. The Gothic hero rises above us, falls beneath us, and maybe gets a chance to atone for his foul-ups… but that last one doesn’t seem to be a requirement of the beast.

So these are your British Heroic Archetypes (excluding the Satiric hero–a whole other post, thank you very much) and they’re fine and dandy–but they spawned a buddy who is worth mentioning.

The American Heroic archetype came along in America about the time Great Britain was fermenting Frankenstein. Whereas the Gothic archetype was the dark side of individuality gone haywire, the American Heroic archetype was America’s individual finger in the face of British cynicism (or, at least that’s probably how the American transcendentalists thought of him. They were bright people, but not short on sanctimony, oh, no, not in the least. The American Romantic Hero has some specific traits too–a sort of academic checklist, some of it borrowed from the mama country, but some of it uniquely ours. The ARH needs to be young–or young at heart, which means Bruce Willis in Die Hard 4 counts. He needs to have a distrust of ‘fancy book learnin’, some serious independence and ingenuity, and he needs to work outside of societal laws–which he can do, because he’s going for a higher purpose. He’s innocent instead of sophisticated, willing to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and trusts his own inner experience as opposed to what other people tell him to do. He’s also supposed to be a total loss with women, but since the rest of this sounds so much like Dean Winchester it’s almost like Kripke had the same anthology I did, I’m going to take a wild guess and pull that requirement into the 21st century and say he’s just not great with relationships and leave it with that. I would imagine the Flash would be your American Heroic Archetype–but really, most of your comic book characters stick to the big British Four–mostly, I would guess, because if your AHA gets too angsty, he becomes Batman, and that puts him in the Gothic category and he’s got a whole other set of problems, right?

Now, I’ve got a reason for rehashing all this shit–I really do, and it’s not to agonize over tomorrow’s season finale (Dean? Sam? You MUST spend Season five together or I can’t hardly stand to watch… just sayin’…) The deal is, the urban contemporary fantasy HEROINE hasn’t really been defined in terms of these tried and true archetypes, and, just for shits and giggles, I wanted to figure out where she stood.

And tomorrow, that’s EXACTLY what I’m going to do.

0 thoughts on “Homework: Archetypes Part I”

  1. Unknown says:

    Good post. It brought back memories of your class. Before you finalize it for the presentation you will be giving, you may want to go back through and fix the hazy transition between the Romantic and Tragic heroes.

    This is another reason why you should read the Hyperion Cantos: Dan Simmons practically shows the reader the mold itself that he took each of the various characters from.

  2. Louiz says:

    Cool. re the arthurian stuff, you might want to see if you can watch a programme called “inside the medieval mind”, the episode on sex, which covered this with some interesting insights. It was on the BBC, but I think you can’t watch the iplayer thing unless you’re in the uk. It might be on youtube.

  3. Tanner says:

    Now you have me wondering where my two little heroes fit into the mold: Ky, Lord of Chaos and kaben nine. I do remember being ‘physically’ present for one college literature class, but other than that, I have very little knowledge in this sort of thing.

    After part two, I’ll have to see where I can fit them in. kaben nine will be difficult because he’s not done cooking yet, but I should be able to find someplace for Ky.

    I wish my Lit teacher taught like this, I may have learned something. Great blog!

  4. roxie says:

    Well, my mind is bigger now. Lots to think about. But I’m sure that Sanna is an American Romantic hero.

  5. Sam’s drinking blood?! When did that happen?! Grilltech better get those show burned so I can watch them this weekend.

    Good write up on the hero’s.

  6. Julie says:

    You fuckin’ rock. Joseph Campbell would be proud. All those modern, useful contexts in the discussion, instead of just going off on obscure Greek mythologies and leaving us all going “WTF?” No, you pull in the Hulk and Spiderman, and, and, PEOPLE WE RELATE TO!

    I’d be interested in where and how you define the modern ‘anti-hero’ in all this, a la Han Solo and Wolverine. Just sayin’.

  7. NeedleTart says:

    Love the posts where you learn something. BTW Tom Hanks just said (in an interview) that all the great heros are really lonely. Hamlet? Lonely. MacBeth? Kills everyone and then he’s lonely. Othello? Lonely til he meets Desdemona and then he kills her and, ta dah, lonely. Fun.

  8. DecRainK says:

    That was extremely interesting and thought provoking. As a History major looking to teach High School history and maybe English (gotta take the evil CSET for it first though) it makes me think of some great ways to provoke a class of students into thinking/using their brains and having fun…….. THANKS!!!!!!!

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