Borrowing from the work of Northrop Frye, particularly “The Archetypes of Literature ,” the archetypal and mythological approach to literature is to sort of “stand back” when you look at literature to get the general building blocks. If you are looking at a painting of the Madonna up close, you...
Borrowing from the work of Northrop Frye, particularly “The Archetypes of Literature,” the archetypal and mythological approach to literature is to sort of “stand back” when you look at literature to get the general building blocks. If you are looking at a painting of the Madonna up close, you see something very specific and seemingly particular. When you stand back and look at multiple depictions of the Madonna over history, you begin to see a pattern. An archetype is an original model that serves as a repeating pattern. Frye notes that literature is built upon these archetypes. Fyre was attempting to take literary criticism from the ‘close’ reading of the New Critics (and their emphasis on form, structural literariness) and focus more on the scientific building blocks/elements of the history of literature. He claimed that these archetypes (such as the hero on a quest) could be found throughout literature and that, over time, they became universal ideas to the point of becoming mythological; mythological in the sense that they were interpretative or fictitious and mythological in the sense of becoming a traditional story and part of the identity of a culture.
Psychologically speaking, Frye used Carl Jung’s concept of “collective unconsciousness” to describe the way we have repeated these archetypes as the building blocks of literature/culture and how we collectively do this primarily unconsciously.
What Frye was doing was more scientific – different from what’s considered literary criticism – criticizing to find ‘good’ vs. ‘bad’ literature. Frye’s was a systematic, scientific study of literature, sharing some elements of formalist criticism but he was criticized for taking the political and historical implications of literature away from criticism. But Frye was looking at literature, like the Formalists did, as a body of knowledge by itself, simply to get at the machinery of it. On the other hand, identifying archetypes and the mythologies of our collective unconscious is a practice that involves deeply symbolic images and ideas that are part of culture, politics and history.
Although this kind of analysis is mostly apolitical, it is so applicable to today’s popular culture (particularly in movies), which is rampant with stereotypical and archetypal characters.
Frye’s pattern of archetypal becoming mythological cycle of seasons and organic cycle of human life:
- Dawn, spring, birth.
- Zenith, summer, marriage, heroic triumph.
- Sunset, autumn, death.
- Darkness, winter, dissolution, defeat.
The Archetypal analyst would then look for these archetypes in literature and how they contribute to myths which are also repeated patterns. Frye says the central myth is the quest. (again, myth here means traditional repeated story).