Christopher Booker believes that there are seven archetypal plots: overcoming the monster (eg Perseus and the Gorgon), rags to riches (eg the Ugly Duckling), the quest (eg the Odyssey), voyage and return (eg Robinson Crusoe), comedy (eg the Marriage of Figaro), tragedy (eg Macbeth) and rebierth (eg a Christmas Carol). This is because, he thinks, they reflect deep patterns within our collective unconscious. So fundamental are these patterns that stories that flout these rules, in particular the necessity of 'happily ever after', are in some way failed stories.
His literary criticism that leads him to the seven plots (and later to the two extra ones of rebellion against the one (eg 1984) and mystery (any Poirot) is brilliant and wonderful. When I was half way through the book I was ready to agree even with Michael Gove that this was a 'masterpiece'. He had analysed myth, fairy tales, Shakespeare, Peer Gynt, the Bible, even James Bond, and shown the fundamental structure underlying each. Although it was clear that a storyteller could offer variations around a theme, such as changing the hero for a heroine or intermingling the plots (seen from one point of view Romeo and Juliet is a comedy).
But then he got carried away. Stories that he felt did not conform were "insubstantial"; this was usually due to the personal inadequacies of their creators. He started to rubbish what others consider to be great literature. Whilst Watership Down is "one of the most haunting and successful of recent Quest stories" (p391), Orwell's Coming Up For Air is a "spiritually shrunken world" (p390). This is because it projects "the Quest archetype out into the external world" (p390); but that is what Watership Down does and so does the Odyssey and almost every story projects an internal psychological drama into the external worlkd because that is what storytellers do!
Basically he rubbishes most stories from the nineteenth and twentieth century. Stendahl's hero Julien Sorel on The Scarlet and the Black is a "cardboard creation" (p 350) because he never undergoes an inner transformation, he is as nasty at the end as at the start; this is apparently because Stendahl was sexually inadequate. Chekhov has a "limited perspective" (p432). Proust is "a classic case of the 'boy hero who cannot grow up'" (p433); his masterpiece is "the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of story-telling." (p438). Joyce's Ulysses is "meandering" and Leopold Bloom is a "little hero" (p464). Lady Chatterley's Lover has a plot which creaks (p469).
Clearly, many twentieth century stories are pot-boilers with cardboard characters. Here he falls prey to the 'cathedral fallacy'. Some people believe, on the evidence of cathedrals, that builders in the middle ages were much more skilful and much more artistic than they are today. They point to the office blocks and suburban housing developments that suggest modern builders have little soul. But they are not comparing like with like. Most of the buildings from the middle ages fell down or burned down or were pulled down. There is rubbish in every age but the rubbish from old times gets cleared away. Similarly, the only stories to have survived from ancient times are the ones that people have continued to tell. We don't have 'Beowulf meets Godzilla' because that particular pot-boiler wasn't reprinted. Similarly, we might be able to point to the sexual inadequacies of modern authors because we know their biographies. We don't know about Plautus although one would suspect from his fixation on dirty old men that he might have rather fancied young girls in his old age.
It seems that Booker hates modern books partly because they depict sex and partly because they are amoral. Often there is no happy ever after. Often the baddy wins or the hero loses. So he rubbishes the writing. He calls the characters two-dimensional, as if any characters are less rounded that the Ugly Sisters. What modern writers try to do is to re-interpret archetypal stories within real life. Booker hates this and he rubbishes it.
And if the whole of twentieth century literature fails to fit his archetypes then surely his theory must necessarily be wrong.
But not for Booker. Obsessed with his theme, he enters the nightmare stage. He believes that Jung's understanding of the unconscious "was one of the greatest intuitive discoveries of the twentieth century, ranking alongside those of Einstein and other nuclear physicists, or Watson and Crick's double helix" (p554). He starts to reinterpret human psychology and human history through his theory: dark fathers, anima, light heroes and all. Clearly, in Booker's view, industrialisation has been a disaster for the human psyche, divorcing us from an appreciation the the One. Perhaps my biggest concern was the dogmatic way in which Booker wrote, as if a person who understands story structure therefore must be an authority on psychology and history (and Einstein and Watson and Crick). At this point hubris overwhelms Booker and his thesis, like Icarus, tumbles from the air.
The first half of this book is absolutely brilliant. Read it. Then don't read the rest. July 2013; 702 pages
- I live in Bedford, England. Having retired from teaching; I am now a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Threshold Concepts in the context of A-level Physics. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. I have also recently become a keen playgoer to London Fringe Theatre. I enjoy mostly classics and I read the playscripts and add those to the blog. I am a member of Bedford Writers' Circle. See their website here: http://bedford-writers.co.uk/ Follow me on twitter: @daja57