Teaching the Bible as Literature

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Archetypal Criticism

by Leland Ryken

(reprinted from "Teaching the Bible as Literature")

Scholars of ancient hero stories have long recognized that these stories are reenactments

of a common pattern. More recently it has become clear that all literature is made up of

repeated images and motif's thatt are known as archetypes.

An archetype is a symbol, character type, or plot motif that has recurred throughout

literature. Northrop Frye defines as archetype as "a symbol, usually an image, which recurs

often enough in literature to be recognizable as an element of one's literary experience as a whole.

" Leslie Fiedler speaks of archetypes as "any of the immemorial patterns of response to the

human situation in its permanent aspects." An example of an archetypal image is the spring

season to suggest rebirth: an example of an archetypal character type is the hero or heroine.

Archetypes are the basic building blocks of literature. Mastering the archetypes of

literature thus becomes a prerequisite for understanding literature itself.

Two features of the archetypal content of literature are crucial. One is that literary

archetypes fall into a pattern made up of opposing halves. The second is that the archetypes

add up to a coherent, circular whole, which I will call the monomyth.

The dualistic nature of archetypes. The dualistic or dialectical nature of literature

becomes evident the moment one begins to organize the archetypes of literature. Virtually

all of the archetypal images and character types of literature can be divided into the dual

categories of ideal and unideal, comic and tragic. This is why Northrop Frye can say that

literature is "two dreams, a wish-fulfillment dream and an anxiety dream." In other words

literature has themes: the things that people long for (wish fulfillment) and the things that

are wrong in the world around them (anxiety).

The dualistic structure of literature is illustrated in the following list, which catalogs

the archetypes of literature.

The circular pattern of the monomyth. In addition to having this dualistic pattern, literature as a whole makes up a single story with a circular structure. This composite story ("composite" because it is made up of all the individual works of literature) is called " the monomyth" because it is the "one story" of literature. The monomyth is shaped like a circle and has four separate phases. As such, it corresponds to some familiar cycles of human experience, such as dawn-zenith-sunset-darkness and spring-summer- autumn-winter.

Romance (which Northrop calls "the story of summer" ) pictures idealized human experience and is a-wish-fulfillment dream of complete happiness. Its opposite, anti-romance ("the story of winter"), portrays unideal experience and is an anxiety dream of total bondage and frustration. Tragedy ("the story of fall") narrates a fall downward from bliss to catastrophe, and comedy ("the story of spring") narrates a rise from bondage to happiness and freedom. These are the four kinds of plot material, and together they make up the composite story of literature. The earlier list of archetypes takes its place within the framework of the monomyth. Romance and comedy employ the archetypes of ideal experience, while tragedy and anti-romance use the archetypes of un-ideal experience. The monomyth unifies literature as a whole including Biblical literature.

It is a general outline where every individual story or poem, as well as the imagery and symbolism, can be put. If the dual list of archetypes is particularly applicable to images and characters, the cyclic pattern of the monomyth is a similarly good framework for organizing archetypal plot motifs. These plot motifs usually unfold along the circular

pattern of the monomyth. The most important archetypal plot motifs are the following:

1. The quest in which the hero leaves the security of his home, undertakes an ordeal that tests his powers and temporarily defeats him overcomes the obstacles and either returns home in triumph or achieves a new state of bliss (which still constitutes a return to the initial state).

2. The death rebirth motif in which a hero endures death or danger and returns to life or security.


  1. The initiation in which the hero is thrust out of an existing, usually ideal, situation and undergoes a series of ordeals as he or she passes from ignorance and immaturity to social or spiritual adulthood.

4. The journey in which the hero passes through various trials.

5. Tragedy or its more specific form of the fall from innocence.

6. Comedy, a U shaped story that begin in prosperity, descends into tragedy, but rises to a happy ending as obstacles to success are overcome.

7. Crime and Punishment, in which the order of society is destroyed and the criminal undergoes punishment as social order is reestablished.

8. The temptation motif, in which an innocent person becomes the victim of an evil tempter or temptress.

9. The rescue motif for the chase and rescue motif in which characters undergo dire threats and then are rescued.


10. The Cinderella or rags-to-riches pattern in which a character overcomes the obstacles of ostracism and poverty.


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