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Myths: Function, Recurrence, Character Roles and Archetypes

The World Tree (axis mundi) is a mytheme or archetype which recurs in many cultures. It is a colossal tree linking heaven with earth and the underworld. In Norse mythology it appears as Yggdrasil, the Mayans called it yax imix che (Blue-Green Tree of Abundance), Buddists have the Bodhi (Bo tree). In other forms it is the Biblical Tree of Life, the Islamic Tree of Immortality and so on.

Yggdrasil: Norse Myth

Mythologist Joseph Campbell believed that myth functions to express humankind as a ‘totality […] not in the separate member, but in the body of the society as a whole.’ Thus, myths about a hero, an individual, reflect the group and cosmos. They help us to understand the world in which we live.

Certain elements are essential to drive forward the narrative of myths – the stories we tell ourselves. The most important of which are plot (how the action and events unfold) and characterisation (how characters are set up and developed).

Propp’s Character Types

Within myths and folklore, narrative theorist Vladimir Propp identified basic character types which crop up time and again across the world, and can also be found in popular culture, in different genres (eg. science fiction, adventure, fantasy) and in various media (eg. novels, films). Each character type serves a specific function. Propp’s work focused on narrative theory and, perhaps for this reason, he only identified seven character types.

Propp's Character Roles
Propp’s Character Roles (Revised)
  1. Hero: The protagonist. Can be male or female.
  2. Villain: The antagonist. Creates conflict. Tests the hero.
  3. Donor: Often the mentor or voice of reason. Gives the hero something with which to overcome the Villain, thereby restoring harmony. The ‘something’ can be physical (such as a weapon) or not (magic).
  4. Helper: The sidekick. Helps the Hero achieve the goal with human assistance. Can add comedic or romantic elements to the narrative.
  5. Princess: Often the prime victim of the Villain but also the prize at the end of the goal. Can add a romantic element to the narrative.
  6. Dispatcher: Sends the Hero on the mission.
  7. False Hero: Appears to be good for most of the narrative but this turns out to be untrue.

Jungian Archetypes*

Psychologist, Carl Jung expanded these common character types and adopted the term archetype. He suggested the existence of a collective unconscious. The archetypes can be viewed as functions rather than static characters, such that the Hero turns Villain (eg. Anakin Skywalker to Darth Vader). They can also function as different aspects of the same personality (the Hero or writer), or the personification of different human traits.

*(source: Vogler)

  1. Hero: Represents the self (ego) in search of identity and wholeness.
  2. Mentor: Wise (wo)man. Represents the Self.
  3. Threshold Guardian: encountered by the Hero at the gateway to each new world. The Hero must learn their nature to determine how to handle them and pass over the threshold.
  4. Herald: Challenges the Hero and announces the coming of significant change.
  5. Shapeshifter: Changes appearance or mood. Confuses the Hero.
  6. Shadow: Represents the energy of the dark side, the unexpressed.
  7. Ally: Companion, sparring partner, conscience, or comic relief.
  8. Trickster: Represents the desire for change and the energies of mischief.

References

  • Campbell, Joseph, (2008) The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd edn. Novato: New World Library, p.330
  • Propp, Vladimir, (1927) Morphology of the Folktale. Trans., Laurence Scott. 2nd edn. Austin: University of Texas Press.
  • Vogler, Christopher (2007) The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 3rd edn. Studio City: Michael Wise Production.

If you liked this, check out my lists of

Greek Myths in Fiction

and

Norse, Celtic & Germanic Myths, Folklore & Fairy Tales in Fiction

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