Archive for the ‘Archetypes’ Category

Katniss Everdeen

Katniss Everdeen (from the UK "Hunger Games" video game)

    When the rules no longer exist and  “life as we know it” is over,  will human intelligence and resourcefulness still win the day?

     Civilizations have wondered “what if” since before the Visigoths and Vandals had their way with the Roman Empire. (Exhibit one: the Mayan calendar.)   Modern society has had a profound incentive to ponder “what if/then what” since the advent of the nuclear bomb.  The allure of what happens after the worst-case scenario has given rise to a modern archetype, the post-apocalyptic hero: an individual who survives when confronted with a dystopian society and constant, mortal danger.  If you are an archetype geek as I am, the notion that archetypes continue to form as society continues to evolve is a dazzling one. (They didn’t stop with Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung? Oh, joy!)  To that end, Dr. Eric Dodson  of University of West Georgia has crafted a thorough profile of the post-apocalyptic hero here.

     It’s easy to see that the post-apocalyptic hero and her/his environment breed with gusto in the modern public’s imagination: consider the wild popularity of Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games, Robert Neville of I Am Legend, and Max Rockatansky of the Mad Max/RoadWarrior trilogy to cite but three.  Furthermore, there are more post-apocalyptic video games today than I can even begin to name.

The post-apocalyptic hero is not confined to an imaginary future civilization ravaged by corruption and mass destruction, however.  Arguably, both Nazi Germany and the pre-civil rights era American South make valid settings for the post-apocalyptic hero.  I submit that the following men are two of the most compelling heroes in modern literature precisely because their stories are true:


Maus (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Few would argue the apocalyptic nature of Nazi Germany. The horrible fates inflicted upon those of Jewish descent during the Holocaust suit  “apocalypse” to sickening perfection.  The central figure of Maus I and II, Vladek Spiegelman, is a post-apocalyptic hero in that he devises ways to survive in a society gone criminally insane.  Although the Germans are bent on the destruction of any Jew, Vladek’s cunning responses to situations in the camps ensure his survival.  For example, shortly after arriving at Auschwitz, Vladek encounters a prison camp guard who wants to learn English.  Vladek offers to aid the guard, who appreciates the instruction and takes steps to protect him (Spiegelman, 32).  Later in his confinement at Auschwitz, Vladek overhears a high-level prison guard complain about his damaged boot. Vladek quickly offers to repair the boot, falsely claiming that he had been a shoemaker before his imprisonment (Spiegelman, 60).  Vladek manages such a clever repair of the boot that the officer is delighted.  Vladek receives special protection from that officer, as well as more cobbler work from Gestapo officers.    Vladek’s wiliness in this instance results not only in his survival, but also in a comparatively luxurious standard of living for him at Auschwitz: he regularly receives extra food in thanks for his handiwork.   Finally, Vladek has the presence of mind to carry a blanket aboard with him one of the Nazi “death trains” (Spiegelman, 85).  Forced by the hundreds into a railcar meant for livestock,   many debilitated prisoners suffocate, are trampled, or succumb to disease. Vladek, however, uses his blanket to rig a makeshift sling in the train car. Able to stay in a virtual hammock above the fray, he survives many days of imprisonment.  Clearly, Vladek Spiegelman is a textbook example of a post-apocalyptic hero in his crafty survival of the Holocaust death camps.

Another apocalyptic scenario occurs in John H. Griffin’s Black Like Me (BLM).   A factual story set in the South in the mid-1960s, BLM chronicles Griffin’s journey through the deep South while disguised as a black man. The virulence of Southern backlash against civil rights legislation from Washington puts black society under constant mortal threat: it is true dystopia. Judges refuse to prosecute those who lynch blacks, while violent crimes against blacks are investigated loosely, if at all.  Vicious, racist activists have carte blancheto destroy anyone of color.  Griffin finds that he, in his role as a black man, is subject to that same peril, making him a post-apocalyptic hero.   Little time elapses after Griffin’s skin color transformation before he receives the first of many “hate stares” from a white person. Describing the stare, Griffin observes, “It shows humans in such an inhuman light. You see a kind of insanity, something so obscene the very obscenity of it (rather than its threat) terrifies you” (51).   Griffin quickly adopts coping strategies in his dangerous existence, showing the reader his post-apocalyptic heroism. Seated on a bus with a surly, racist driver, Griffin endures the driver’s cruel cat-and-mouse game when the driver refuses to let Griffin off at his stop, pausing instead eight blocks later (Griffin, 44).  Subsequently, Griffin seeks out the publisher-activist P.D.East, whose aid assists him in dealing with rampant bigotry in the civil-rights era South (Griffin, 72).  Furthermore, Griffin cleverly aligns himself with East as well as with Sterling Williams, a street-smart shoeshine man: these strategies enable Griffin to avoid confrontations with Southern whites who would cheerfully kill him if they disliked his facial expression. Having survived his experiment, but obviously shaken by it, Griffin writes, “The real story is the universal one of men who destroy the souls and bodies of other men… I could have been a Jew in Germany” (preface).  Confronted with the brutal reality of life as a black man in the white-supremacist South, Griffin contrives to survive with a post-apocalyptic hero motif.

Black Like Me

Black Like Me (Photo credit: Amazon)

Both BLM and Maus I & II are set against backdrops of dystopian, apocalyptic social fabric. Each story, therefore, has a post-apocalyptic hero whose actions not only highlight the hideous environment in which he must function, but also deliver powerful meaning about the ugly truths of  “worst-case” scenarios.  John Griffin and Vladek Spiegelman are good men who act constructively in the face of unrelenting, mortal danger: each has a profound message to share.  Each character is a potent example of the post-apocalyptic hero archetype. Each is more compelling than any hero in theaters today because his story is not fantasy, but fact.

You might also enjoy Archetypes: Surprising “Warrior”, Archetypes: The Rebel in Multicultural Literature


Dodson, Eric. Post-Apocalyptic Film and the Postmodern Apocalypse. University of West Georgia.

Griffin, John H. Black Like Me. New York: Signet, 1996.

Spiegelman, Art. Maus II.   New York: Pantheon, 1986.


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Sherman Alexie (via yareviews)

Although our immigration rich history has made us a proud “nation of foreigners”,  racism and Anglo-centrism persist in America.  These influences leave some minority Amercian cultures to self-destruct in poverty, addiction, and self-hatred.  Two authors who address modern-era struggles of racial minorities are Sherman Alexie (The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian) and Toni Morrison (The Bluest Eye).  Each author creates an adolescent protagonist who chooses to be an achiever despite the attitudes of his/her peers:  interestingly, these determined young characters are perfect examples of the Rebel archetype.

  The components of a Rebel archetype are defined by scholar Caroline Myss:

“Whether politically inclined like Martin Luther King, Jr., or…

 an artistic innovator such as Van Gogh, Joyce, or Coltrane,

the Rebel is a key component of all human growth and

development.  The Rebel … can be a powerful aid in helping 

(to) break out of old tribal patterns. It can also help you see

past tired preconceptions …  The Rebel can also lead you to …

seek out more appropriate paths.”

Breaking free of the cyclical disaster in their respective cultures requires both Junior and Claudia to be Rebels.   Like the Rebel archetype, each seeks to break out of old patterns; each sees past fatalistic preconceptions by choosing a more appropriate, self-actualizing path for personal growth and development.

Junior, Sherman Alexie’s hero of Diary, shows his Rebel characteristics early and often.  For example, on page six of Diary, Junior defines his drawing as “my only real chance to escape the reservation”, referring to his cartoons as “tiny little lifeboats”.  Word choice matters: by using “escape” and “life boats”, Junior announces that he chooses a future without the reservation.  As most Spokane Indians live their entire lives on “the rez”, this decision flouts established tribal patterns in clear Rebel style.  Junior’s mother even cautions him that “the Indians around here are going to be angry with you” (Alexie, 47).  Regardless of tribal disdain, Junior acts as a Rebel by enrolling at an all-white school.  He claims “we Indians were the worst of times and those Reardan kids were the best of times”, further describing the white Rearden kids as “beautiful and smart and… filled with hope” (Alexie, 50).  Because he discards the tribe’s sad traditions of accepting poverty and a substandard education, Junior confirms his Rebel persona.  Although he has some mixed feelings about his rejection of aspects of the Native American lifestyle, wondering “(if) they would someday forgive me for leaving them” (Alexie, 230), Junior moves toward the manifestation of his dreams.  Junior’s  unconventional choices toward a better life are textbook Rebel traits: progress toward self-actualization, finding a higher way at the cost of the status quo.

Similarly, Toni Morrison uses The Bluest Eye to create a young African-American girl who is a true Rebel. Claudia is a Rebel in that she ultimately loves and

Toni Morrison (via webjunction)

respects herself, choosing a view diametrically opposed to the “contempt for their own blackness… exquisitely learned self-hatred… elaborately designed hopelessness” (Morrison, 65) that her peers embrace.  Using the Rebel quality of rejecting tradition, Claudia fails to find “a blue-eyed, yellow-haired, pink-skinned doll” (Morrison, 20) the answer to her dreams; the child instead disassembles the doll, trying to solve the puzzle of its alleged beauty.   Though the adults in her circle fuss and cluck over the charm of little white girls, Claudia maintains that their allure “elude(s) me” (Morrison, 23).  This single-minded strength of character is a Rebel trait, the self-assurance to scrap the norm.  Claudia exhibits more Rebel-esque rejection of societal preconceptions when a light-skinned new girl, Maureen, enrolls at her school.   Others see Maureen as a “high yellow dream child” (Morrison, 62) with lovely clothes, pale skin, and green eyes; while her friends and the surrounding adults kowtow to Maureen, Claudia the Rebel wants to kick her, fantasizing about “accidental slammings of locker doors” (Morrison, 63) on Maureen’s exalted hand.  Finally, Claudia extends her own self-respect to the life of an unborn, unwanted baby: when the despotic Cholly Breedlove assaults his own daughter and impregnates her, Claudia wants “the black baby to live — just to counteract the universal love of white baby dolls, Shirley Temples, and Maureen Peals” (Morrison, 190).  If the sad, misbegotten black fetus is a metaphor for African American culture, then Claudia has stated her manifesto in that sentence.  She is a Rebel who honors her heritage, even when all others despise it.  Claudia adopts the qualities of the Rebel archetype to discard old patterns, seeking the path of self-love by rejecting her culture’s self-destructive stereotypes.

Clearly, Alexie and Morrison not only highlight the situation of minorities in American society, but also they create charismatic heroes of the Rebel archetype to inspire their readers.   Junior and Claudia must be Rebels to cast off the despair that pervades their cultures; each rejects stifling attitudes in order to grow and develop to his/her fullest potential.  By offering young main characters that have the willpower and self-awareness to excel when those around them succumb to the numbing status quo, Alexie and Morrison use the Rebel archetype to excellent effect.

You might also enjoy Archetypes: Surprising “Warrior”, The “What-If” Archetype: 2 True Post-Apocalyptic Heroes

Alexie, Sherman.  The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian.  New York:  Little,      Brown and Company, 2007.

Morrison, Toni.  The Bluest Eye.  New York: Plume, 1994.

Myss, Caroline.  “A Gallery of Archetypes.”  Myss Library., n.d.  Web. Feb. 20, 2012.




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Warrior (2011 film)

Have you found yourself seeing archetypes everywhere, now that you know what they are?  Hollywood is an abundant source of them, si? Some archetypes, like Hero and Villain, we see often in film; some, like the Shadow/Hero, are less common. Finally, some Shadow/Hero roles are played by dudes with amazing abs.

I recently watched Warrior (Lionsgate, 2011).  It is about two brothers who were estranged, yet come back together through a mixed martial arts (MMA) prize fight called -Greek alert- Sparta; the “Rocky”-esque movie is allegedly based on a true story.   The hero is Brendan Conlon/Joel Edgerton, but my archetype-alert system went off  for the anti-hero,  Brendan’s  brother Tommy Conlon … and no, not because he has the better abs.  Here is why renegade Marine Tommy Conlon /Tom Hardy  is a textbook Shadow character, with definitions by John Dowell:

  • Tommy arrives back in the States after a grueling tour in Iraq (his loss of innocence and fall). His experiences there have made him an antisocial, brutal machine (Shadow: the darkest fears, rejected qualities) who dispatches his MMA opponents with serial-killer efficiency (Shadow: intent for physical destruction of hero).
  • The audience learns that Tommy, while deserting his unit in Iraq, happened upon a group of Marines under fire and saved them by literally ripping the door off of a tank (Shadow: may reveal admirable traits, even has redeeming qualities).
  • Tommy is unlikable, brusque, savage, compassionate, loving… he is a true Shadow.

Additionally, the key points of the Hero’s Journey are all in the film, as are the character archetypes of Mentor, Hero, and Fatal Woman.  Warrior‘s situational archetypes include the Fall (mentioned above), the Unhealable Wound,  Father-Son Conflict, and Death/Rebirth (Lawrence).  There are symbolic archetypes, too: water as metaphoric baptism, along with water versus desert as death versus rebirth (Lawrence).   This movie is so full of archetypes, symbols, and Heroic Journey benchmarks that I lack space to list them all here.  (Yo, students and/or educators: analysis of  Warrior would make a rockin’ paper.)

In retrospect, Tommy’s ethos surprised me.   To protect the plot for readers wanting to see the film, I will only say that one’s heart goes out to Tommy in spite of his disturbing brutality.  Tommy Conlon is a complex character, a Shadow/Hero, and therefore is more interesting  than his cookie-cutter-hero brother. Furthermore, I now wonder if the screenwriters have any idea how loaded with archetypes their flick actually is!   If you choose to watch Warrior, tell me whether you agree.

You might also enjoy Archetypes: The Rebel in Multicultural Literature, The “What-If” Archetype: 2 True Post-Apocalyptic Heroes


Dowell, John. “Interpretations of Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey.” Michigan State University. Michigan State University, n.d.. Web. 2 Jan 2012.

Lawrence, Lisa. “Archetypes and Symbols” . West Morris Regional High School District, n.d.. Web. 2 Jan 2012.

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