The Labyrinth is Thoroughly Known

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Last week I got a bit academic on you and started down this road of form and structure, and what it means to readers and writers and so on. The reason for this dialectic digression stems from my own exploration of the concepts of form over the past few months while I have been structurally editing my manuscript. As anyone who has ever done this knows, ideas of form are integral to the structural process.

I began last week by underlining the fact that ‘form’ as a concept is incredibly complex and a multifaceted term that at different points in one discourse may refer to genre, style, format or structure, or something else altogether. Indeed, ‘form’ often refers to a combination of all these things within the cultural connotations that society has built up over a good few thousand years of literary and narrative art, since well before Aristotle’s Poetics first tried to categorise and define these ideas.

Not only do these concepts of form span history, but they also span ethnicity. While world cultures vary in language, customs, religion and social structures, the ideas of form within storytelling seem yet to transcend even these vast diversities (Let’s pause for a moment and wonder at the incredible global unity that is created by the sharing and telling of stories, and how we have come to be at this moment in time as a result of the many ages and cultures that have come before).

So form is complex, yet it is also timeless. It’s difficult to define, and yet a firm grasp of form can provide an author with a necessary framework to build or remodel a work of narrative art. This is why so many literary courses deal weightily with the study of form. It not only informs our reception and criticism of narrative work, but also the way in which we construct it.

Last week I proposed we look at some theories of form that have emerged over the past fifty years or so, since the advent of Modernism combined with massive industrial and technological progress opened the world up to a greater consumption of and formal interest in literature. In the 1950s there unfolded a rebirth of literary academics, and therefore a new progression of philosophical schools of thought about the subject. Here we shall touch on only a few, but at least some of the most important theories that shape how we currently think about structure and story.

Northrop Frye

Last week I pointed you in the direction of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism as a foundational academic work that paved the way for all modern concepts of form. Frye was labeled a ‘structuralist’ (as opposed to the post-structuralists that came later) because his theories were founded on the idea of certain concrete and universal frameworks of story.

Don’t be discouraged if you began to drift halfway through Frye’s ‘Polemical Introduction’ and gave up before you even started on the first essay. Frye is considered by many to be the most important theorist on Western literature to have existed in the past fifty years. So his work is necessarily detailed and extremely thorough.

Here’s the general idea about Frye:

  • He was one of the first literary theorists to develop a theory of criticism solely based within the framework of literature itself, instead of applying theories of criticism from other fields of study, as everyone else was doing at the time.
  • This meant he studied the works themselves and developed a theory based on content and communicative ability instead of the whims of literary trends and personal taste.
  • As a student of Aristotle, he based his analysis of literature on the elements identified in the Poetics.
  • By interrogating the substance of great works of literature, he surmised that literature has a general tendency to rely on primitive formulas.
  • He developed a four-fold scope of analysis that was inherently cyclical, that is, took cues from the progressive and atmospheric change of natural seasons, the ages of man, and the progress of history.
  • This is where his famous theory of seasons comes from, where each season corresponds to an archetype of story: comedy, romance, tragedy and satire.
  • He argued that myth and literature are codependent, as literature is merely a means for a society to reinterpret and revoice myths that are central to its foundation and development.
  • His theories focus on the way in which these myths are retold.

In summary, Frye was a genius. In order to really understand his work you need to read it, but short of that try Wikipedia’s summary or this rather helpful slideshow. Basically, he discovered that within certain combinations of foundational elements, all the variety of world literature takes life, much like the twelve tones of music, transmuted through differences of register, metre, rhythm and timbre, form the basis of all the musical works of the world.

Essentially, he found that literature is about telling the same stories in an infinite number of different ways.

Joseph Campbell

Campbell takes this concept of central story archetype one step further in his seminal work, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, from which the theory of monomyth, or The Hero’s Journey, is derived. Campbell was a scholar of legends and world religion and his work points to the same conclusions as Frye regarding literature and narrative being simply the retelling of myths. However Campbell goes on to decide that all stories can be traced back to a single myth, irrespective of time, place or culture: the transformative myth of the hero.

John_William_Waterhouse_-_Ulysses_and_the_Sirens_(1891)

Here’s where we can get less abstract and more concrete about form, specifically how it applies to narrative structure. While Campbell’s work was also complex and expansive, he was very adept at applying his theories to modern stories, not just literature but film as well. Add to that a fantastic way with words and ideas, and you quickly see why this guy became so important to contemporary story theory.

Campbell’s work is much more accessible for non-academics than Frye’s so I recommend a full read. However, this series of interviews with Bill Moyers provides a comprehensive and entertaining summary of his ideas, beginning with this fantastic quote from The Hero with A Thousand Faces:

We have not even to risk the adventure alone; for the heroes of all time have gone before us; the labyrinth is thoroughly known; we have only to follow the thread of the heropath. And where we had thought to find an abomination, we shall find a god; where we had thought to slay another, we shall slay ourselves; where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence; where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.

Here’s the Campbell overview:

  • Through extensive comparative research of myths and legends throughout the world he developed a theory that all stories centre on a hero completing a transformative quest.
  • He defines a hero as someone who has found or achieved or done something greater than the norm; who has risked himself for the benefit of others.
  • Like Frye, Campbell discovered that story was cyclical, specifically formed by a going and a return.
  • The basic motif is that of leaving one condition and finding a source of strength or change in order to bring the hero into another, more mature or advanced condition.
  • All stories are based on the objective of saving something: a people, a race, a person, an object, an ideal; and of the hero sacrificing something in order to achieve that salvation.

Have a quick search around the internet and you will find countless diagrams of the hero’s journey and pictorial depictions of Campbell’s work. You will also find a lot more information on the ideas that have come from his writings, specifically the monomyth, but also the structures of initiation rituals and coming-of-age stories as they tie in to the hero’s journey.

In summary, Campbell found that all stories can be traced back to the idea of a transformative quest, that of sacrificing one state for another in order to benefit an external cause.

So…

You may not agree with the above ideas, in which case you would be more interested in the schools of deconstructionism and post-structuralism which became very popular when meta-thinking was all the rage, and was probably what dominated most literary corridors when you were at university (and no doubt still does). Next week we’ll touch briefly on these thoughts, and consider why, after all that, we keep on coming back to this inescapable idea that there is nothing new under the sun except the way in which we colour things.

Is the labyrinth thoroughly known? Or is it impossible to ever know?

Perhaps therein lie two sides of the same coin.

 

Elise Janes

 

The Many Forms of Form

Literature and philosophy have been inseparably entwined in the thoughts of humankind since we first had such thoughts about such things. Almost all our modern thinking about narrative structure and form has its foundations, at least in part, in Aristotle’s famous examination of story, Poetics, which itself was a product of centuries of development of dramatic art and narrative experimentation.

school of athens

The stories we tell have impact far beyond narrative content and plot elements such as character, place and time. Indeed the way we say something is just as important as what we are saying when it comes to the influence and interpretation of meaning in narrative art.

Form is a many-faceted concept for just this reason. When we try to list form or define it in some way, we inevitably find a myriad of cross-overs between other literary elements, most particularly structure and genre (even Wikipedia has trouble). These techniques and concepts become indelibly linked in our cultural consciousness as a byproduct of the way we develop certain constructions around certain types of stories.

Literature can be said to be divided into the grand dichotomy of poetry and prose. But even there we have problems when we start to identify the way in which these two literary metrics can be presented.

Then we may try to list the grand narrative media in an exhaustive and mutually exclusive list of constructs, from longer narratives:

  • Novel
  • Epic poem
  • Drama

To shorter narratives:

  • Poem
  • Novella
  • Short story
  • Vignette
  • Legend
  • Myth
  • Folk tale

And then we should consider the performative arts who often have their own distinct formal constructs:

  • Theatre
  • Film
  • Song

And then we ask, should dance be included or is it non-literary, even though it is also a narrative form?

Then consider informative texts. Do they have their own structural conceits? Do they classify as separate forms of writing?

  • Historical novels
  • Literary non-fiction
  • Biography and autobiography
  • Documentary
  • News
  • Persuasive arguments
  • Thesis & analysis

What about functionality and purpose? Does that play into the divisions of form?

  • Fairy tales
  • Morality tales
  • Teaching parables
  • Analogy & symbology

And of course broad-spectrum genre is a major form qualifier:

  • Fantasy
  • Epic
  • Comedy
  • Tragedy
  • Drama
  • Quest

And the many derivative narrative structures that have sprung up over the most recent decades as technology plays into the way we communicate our stories to each other:

  • Blogs
  • Forums
  • Music videos
  • Short films
  • Tweets
  • Status updates
  • Flash fiction
  • Vines

All of these forms, from the grand multi-volume works to the one-hundred and forty characters, have intricately linked cultural associations attached to the way they are presented. A play in the Shakespearean style may have five acts, employ poetic metre, follow the conventions of tragedy or comedy, and even include songs and musical numbers. A fantasy narrative may take the form of either a multi-volume novel or an epic poem, media themselves bound in pre-conceived structural nuance, employing well-rehearsed act-divisions and conventional literary techniques such as catalogue, dialogue, monologue, and even deeper formative layers of allusion to legend and myth.

Narrative form as a classifiable entity came under specific academic study in the 1950s, after the great revolutions of the Modernist period threw all previous conventional understandings of form into flux. Since then several schools of thought have sought to demystify the question of form for philosophical and technical reasons, in aid of both the audience and the auteur.

Clearly this is a topic too vast for one discussion, or even one series of discussions. So over the coming weeks we will explore the modern concepts of form and structure and how they apply to narrative art in contemporary practice, examining the theories of narrative form developed since the 1950s. We will touch briefly on the works of structuralists such as Joseph Campbell and Northrop Frye, to that of post-strcuturalists like Michel Foucault and then on into the most recent decades where the advent of screen culture has brought about the revival of the oldest known form of story-telling, the ubiquitous and oft-bemoaned three-act narrative.

To get yourself started, have a look at the seasonal myth theory of Northrop Frye and then this brilliant introduction to Joseph Campbell’s hero narrative.

Look close enough and you will see these monomythic stories everywhere, leaving us to wonder whether there are a myriad of different forms as diverse and nuanced as life itself, or if there is really only one true story, told over and over again in many different guises, tracing back over all narratives since the beginning of time.

 

Elise Janes

 

The (Super)Hero’s Journey

(Or, what we can learn from the rise of the caped avenger)

superhero picThe hero, it seems, will never die. From the ancient empire-creating adventures of Odysseus to the poetic quests of Sir Gawain, masterpieces that have truly stood the test of time have been tantalisingly heroic. Why? People like them.

Fast-forward a millennium or two and the narrative world is overrun with neon spandex and flying shields. Almost forty superhero blockbusters have been released since 2000. One has even made it into the top ten most popular movies of all time (according to the IMDb). Guardians of the Galaxy is already at 8.5 (at time of print) placing it on the same rung as Taxi Driver, American Beauty, even Citizen Kane. And this is a movie that features Bradley Cooper (two-time Oscar nominee) as a talking raccoon.

A talking raccoon.

Let’s not get into a debate about what is literary and what is not, and the fact that movies are a visual medium so of course everything with flash-bangs is going to be popular. And before you roll your eyes and go on about the difference between quality cinema and blockbuster material, and how you yourself have never even seen Spider-Man (the first or the second or the third, or the remake or the sequel of the remake), consider what the facts are telling us: people like them.

So a superhero movie has never been listed on the AFI’s Top 100, or taught in any serious cinema course, or even won an Oscar for anything besides technical production (except for Heath Ledger, but come on, he was astounding) but that doesn’t mean we, serious people who read Booker-prize-winning novels, can’t learn us a lesson or two about What People Want From Their Stories…

  1. A hero. Simple. A guy or girl who is strong or tough or can do awesome shit, and will pretty much save the entire known universe. Probably in New York City.
  1. A vulnerable lead. One with flaws and a past and tough, personal choices to make (italics necessary). Self-doubt is the key. A tragic orphaned upbringing? Great! If they have to sacrifice their greatest love/best friend/mentor/home planet or even a limb in the course of true justice, even better!
  1. Crazy, made-up shit (as long as it’s justified (or sometimes even if it’s not)). People love it. They love stupidly-named planets and weird teleport gateways, and bizarre fighting implements. They love flying submarine-ships, rocket-powered suits, web-swingers, or guys who can just plain fly (of course he can fly, he’s from Krypton!). They love alternate universes, mythological gods, magic crystals and glowing blue cubes of whatever-the-hell-that-is. The weirder, the better. Our audience may be getting more sophisticated, but they’ll never be too sophisticated for crazy, made-up shit.
  1. A good villain. Gone are the days when the bad guy is just a two-dimensional bad guy bad guy (or girl). No, no, no. There must be a reason. They must be vengeful, or misunderstood, or mistreated, or horribly disillusioned, or just plain unfortunate. Or played by Tom Hiddleston. That helps.
  1. A kick-ass supporting cast, not just a sidekick anymore. The funny-guy is mandatory. It’s even better if they can all crack a joke at some point. A range of genders, ethnic backgrounds, fighting abilities, and/or species is appreciated. The quasi-mentor who the audience gets attached to and then dies is always a winner (hey, you can always bring him back in the TV series).
  1. A dark ending. Is the hero dead? Did the bad guy win? Is our world destroyed? Is all hope really lost? Think The Empire Strikes Back, then add some more budget.
  1. Intertextuality and framed narratives (now we’re getting there, lit nerds). What’s better than one superhero? More superheroes! Get them together and let them push each other’s buttons. Develop a bromance or two. Run out of ideas? Write it again, only different! Create entire histories that no-one cared about before. Let worlds collide. There’s nothing a character-loving audience likes better than you exploring their what-ifs for them.
  1. A never-ending chain-link of narrative hooks. Damn you, black screen chapter-break, I want to know what happens next! How could they possibly resolve this terrible situation when there’s only ten minutes left?! No, that can’t be the end! What if that is the end? Surely there will be another sequel! Who was that guy we saw at the end of the credits? Who the heck was that? Tell us!
  1. Themes, themes, give us righteous themes! Good vs evil. Power vs sacrifice. Pride vs humility. The big guy vs the underdog. Forgive yourself! Let go of the past! Work as a team! Please, just teach us something about the nature of humanity.

A closing thought. James Joyce (arguably the best novelist who ever lived) based his masterpiece Ulysses on the heroic epic that started them all: The Odyssey. If he were alive today he might be tempted to write an indecipherable, genre-mash-up, satirical epic based on the formative years of Rocket Raccoon. Well, you never know.

And if it’s good enough for him? Well, then it’s good enough for you.

Elise Janes