I used to teach a course at Concordia University in St. Paul, Minnesota, about the power of mythology and how authors can tap into it to make their stories resonate with readers. Here’s what I told my students on the first day of class:
Myth: a traditional story originating in a preliterate society, dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serve as primordial types in a primitive view of the world. Myths bring the unknown into relation with the known.
Why do we tell stories, or read books, or watch movies and television shows? Is it merely for entertainment, to pass the time, or to relax our minds as we take a break from our busy workaday world? Or is there something deeper going on, some yearning to make sense of our existence?
The great scholar Joseph Campbell was convinced that mythology dips into the hidden recesses of our minds and reflects common themes and characters that have been important to humankind since the first hunter pulled down a wooly mammoth on some frozen plain thousands of years ago.
Campbell, of course, is famous for the PBS TV series The Power of Myth, and also for his many books about mythology, especially Masks of God and The Hero With a Thousand Faces. He defined the Hero’s Journey, a course of plot events that occur in nearly every myth, with a cast of readily definable supporting characters that include mentors, villains, heralds, and tricksters.
The same basic characters appear over and over again in stories. They share many common characteristics, and perform very specific functions that propel the plot. Swiss psychologist Carl Jung called these characters archetypes.
Jung suggested that archetypes, as well as common plot elements, come from the “collective unconscious,” ancient personality patterns that are shared by all and passed down generation to generation. As Christopher Vogler notes in The Writer’s Journey, “Fairy tales and myths are like the dreams of an entire culture, springing from the collective unconscious. The same character types seem to occur on both the personal and the collective scale. The archetypes are amazingly constant throughout all times and cultures, in the dreams and personalities of individuals as well as in the mythic imagination of the entire world. An understanding of these forces is one of the most powerful elements in the modern storyteller’s bag of tricks.”