Ecology of Story: Place as Allegory

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Birds on Deer Lake, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

An allegory is a complete narrative whose images and material things represent an abstract idea or theme such as a political system, religious practice or figure, or a philosophical viewpoint. The entire narrative is a metaphor in which all components are symbolic. Most fairy tales, folk tales and myths are allegories. Examples include: Edmund Spencer’s Faerie Queen; Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein; and Beowulf.

The narrative of allegory is a fractal nest of symbolic names, places and things, that contribute key elements to the story (e.g., Luke Skywalker and Han Solo in Star Wars; Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd; John Savage of Stanger in a Strange Land; Darwin Mall in Darwin’s Paradox; Middle Earth in Lord of the Rings; Lilliput in Gulliver’s Travels). Setting and place in allegory symbolizes the theme being explored (e.g. Orwell’s farm in Animal Farm represents a totalitarian world of oppression; the road in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress represents the journey of humankind; the island in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies represents the world at war).

As an aside, the science of place names, geographical names or toponyms (derived from a topographic feature) is called toponymy. The city of Montreal, for instance, is a toponym (named after le Mont Royal). Toponyms often come through the local vernacular. Given their link to cultural identity, such place names can provide a significant symbolic role in story.

Animal Farm-GeorgeOrwellIn Animal Farm, George Orwell uses animals to describe the revolution against a totalitarian regime (e.g. the overthrow of the last Russian Csar and the Communist Revolution of Russia). The animals embrace archetypes to symbolize the actions and thoughts of various sectors within that world. The pigs are the leaders of the revolution; Mr. Jones represents the ruling despot who is overthrown; the horse Boxer is the ever-loyal and unquestioning labor class.

John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, tells the story of a narrator who falls asleep and dreams of a man named Christian fleeing the City of Destruction while bearing a heavy burden (e.g., symbolizing his own sins) on his back. A character named Evangelist shows Christian the way to Celestial City, a perilous journey through the Slough (swamp) as characters called Mr. Worldly Wiseman and Hypocrisy try to lead him astray.

LordOfTheFlies-WilliamGoldingIn Lord of the Flies, William Golding explores the conflict in humanity between the impulse toward civilization and the impulse toward savagery. The symbols of the island, the ocean, the conch shell, Piggy’s glasses, and the Lord of the Flies, or the Beast, represent central ideas that reinforce this main theme. Each character has recognizable symbolic significance: Ralph represents civilization and democracy; Piggy represents intellect and rationalism; Jack represents self-interested savagery and dictatorship; and Simon (the outsider in so many ways) represents altruistic purity.

Many of Golding’s potent symbols to power his allegory come from the natural world. These include the use of smoke, fire, and snakes to invoke the imaginary beast (that exists within each of them). The scar left from the plane crash that destroys this natural paradise symbolizes our savage and destructive nature.

Allegories may also be powerful as satires. The social commentary of satires expose and criticize corruption and foolhardiness of societies, groups or even individuals through humor, irony and even ridicule. Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift is a good example of satire and parody. Swift targets politics, religion and western culture through satire. Aspects of place, landscape and setting are effectively used to feature his commentary. Another excellent example of political satire and use of place and setting with embedded character is found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

TheHandmaidsTale-MargaretAtwoodExcellent examples of satires with less obvious allegorical structure (but it’s there) can be found in the genre of science fiction—a highly metaphorical literature that makes prime use of place and setting with archetypal characters to satirize an aspect of society. Brave New World by Aldous Huxley is a satirical response to his observation of humans’ addiction to (sexual) pleasure and vulnerability to mind control and the dumbing of civilization in the 1930s. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eight-Four satirizes humanity’s vulnerability to fascism, based on his perception of humans’ sense of fear and helplessness under powerful governments and their oppressive surveillance. Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale satirizes a society in which a woman struggles in a fundamentalist Christian dictatorship patriarchy where women are forced into a system of sexual slavery for the ruling patriarchy.

Other examples include Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein; The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin; The Time Machine by H. G. Wells; The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. Each of these stories examines the world of the day and provides critical commentary through premise, place and character. In each of these stories, place and setting help define premise and theme (e.g., what is being satirized.)

 

 

MockUpEcology copyThis article is an excerpt from The Ecology of Story: World as Character released in June 2019 by Pixl Press.

From Habitats and Trophic Levels to Metaphor and Archetype…

Learn the fundamentals of ecology, insights of world-building, and how to master layering-in of metaphoric connections between setting and character. “Ecology of Story: World as Character” is the 3rd guidebook in Nina Munteanu’s acclaimed “how to write” series for novice to professional writers.

 

 

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Nina Munteanu is a Canadian ecologist / limnologist and novelist. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books. Nina’s bilingual “La natura dell’acqua / The Way of Water” was published by Mincione Edizioni in Rome. Her non-fiction book “Water Is…” by Pixl Press (Vancouver) was selected by Margaret Atwood in the New York Times ‘Year in Reading’ and was chosen as the 2017 Summer Read by Water Canada. Her novel “A Diary in the Age of Water” will be released by Inanna Publications (Toronto) in 2020.

The Power of Myth in Storytelling

If a being from another world were to ask you, ‘How can I learn what it’s like to be human?’ a good answer would be, ‘Study mythology.’ ”—Joseph Campbell

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Boardwalk in Giant Cedar forest, Mount Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

For Joseph Campbell, perhaps our era’s most influential student of mythology, myths express our basic need to explain, celebrate and immortalize the essence of life. Given that life itself has no “meaning”—it simply is—it is our stories (pulled from the ethers of our “muse”) that give meaning to life. We tell stories about how the world began, our struggles to survive, our victories against greed and evil. Each culture clothes its stories according to the place and time and associated issues. And each defines its heroes and villains accordingly. At the root of all these lies a universal and timeless human experience; where metaphor and imagery of myth transcend culture, time and place to encompass all of humanity and our striving journey toward truth, grace and peace. This is why all myth, from Plutarch’s Theseus & the Minotaur to George Lucus’s Star Wars, resonates with us, regardless of whether it was created yesterday or thousands of years ago.

Greek, Roman, Norse, African and Asian myths all address fundamental questions about our humanity: the fall of Icarus, Jason and the Argonauts, Romulus and Remus, Oedipus, Medusa, Perseus, King Arthur, Oedisseus, Vassilisa, Siegfried and the Nibelungenleid, Beowulf and Grendel, Jonah and the whale, Isolde and Tristan, Persephone and the underworld, Orpheus and Eurydice, Hercules, Osiris, Gilgamesh … the list is endless.

Artist as Mythmaker … and Shaman

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Cedar roots, Revelstoke Park (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“There’s an old romantic idea in German, das Volk dichtet, which says that the ideas and poetry of the traditional cultures come out of the folk. They do not,” says Campbell. “They come out of an elite experience, the experience of people particularly gifted, whose ears are open to the song of the universe.” He is referring to the artist, who speaks to “the folk”, who answer and create an interaction. “The first impulse in the shaping of the folk tradition,” says Campbell, “comes from above, not from below.” He is referring to the divine source, the muse, the gift of “seeing” bestowed on those willing to open themselves to it. According to Campbell, “The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.” Like the shamans of ancient times, the storyteller— whether painter, writer, actor, singer or filmmaker— interprets the divinity in nature for others. We interpret unseen things for a tangible world.

Artists are the mythmakers — the shamans — of today. The ancient shaman’s authority came from individual psychological experience, not a social ordination (like a priest). A shaman’s powers were symbolized through her own familiars and the deities of her own personal experience. Her personal truth. As artists we wholly participate in our “landscape”. Like Dante, we journey to the depths of our world, become its deepest truths to emerge later and share.

The Mythic Hero’s Journey in Story

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Nina in bliss with giant cedar, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

In my opinion, the best stories follow the mythic hero’s journey plot structure. This is because “hero’s journey” stories are transformative for not only the protagonist (our hero) but for readers following along and identifying with her. Stories that pull a reader through the three steps of a human being’s evolution (separation, transformation, and return) promise great depth and fulfillment. This is what great storytelling does: they take us on a transformative journey of learning, through challenges of change to realize a prevailing victory. Writers are the shamans of today and the heroes we write about are our agents of change. Through our artistic drama of metaphor, we make commentary on the world and what it means to be human.

The hero archetype is particularly interesting, given that he or she is essentially us as we journey to prevail over the obstacles of our fears, weaknesses, and disappointments. Every hero is on a quest or mission (whether she realizes it or not). The true mark of a hero is in her willingness to sacrifice something of value, perhaps even her life, on behalf of an ideal or a group and ultimately for the greater good. A hero is the ultimate altruist. And she is you, the artist.

The Power of Mythologist

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Moss-covered cedar, Revelstoke (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I recall a discussion with a young friend some time ago about her knowledge of writers vs. book titles (she knew few names of writers, even those whose works she had enjoyed, but could happily recite book titles). I realized that she chose her books based on their cover and the “promised story” within—with no attention placed on the author and no intention of following that author’s other works.

I found that focus limiting; not just because I was an author myself, but because my young friend had made the choice not to connect with the artist and his or her inherent worldview. Not acknowledging the artist is to ignore that artist’s “voice” and their subtle but deep “sharing”.

“When you find an author who really grabs you, read everything s/he has done,” says Campbell. “Don’t say, ‘oh, I want to know what so-and-so did’—and don’t read the best-seller list. Just read what this one author has given you … the world opens up in a way that is consistent with a certain point of view … When you go from one author to another, you may be able to tell us the date when each wrote such and such —but he hasn’t said anything to you.”

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Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 2, Heroes and Other Archetypes

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Accolade by Blair-Leighton

The world of fairy tales and myth is peopled with recurring character types and relationships. Heroes on a quest, heralds and wise old men or women who provide them with “gifts” or motive, shady fellow-travelers—threshold guardians—who “block” the quest, tricksters who confuse things and evil villains who simply want to destroy our hero and her quest.

Jung adopted the term archetypes, which means ancient patterns of personality shared by humanity, to describe these as a collective unconscious. An archetype models a personality or behavior; a mother-figure is an archetype. This is what makes archetypes, or symbols, so important to the storyteller. Archetypes are found in nearly all forms of literature, with their motifs mostly rooted in folklore.

Assigning an archetype to a character lets the writer clarify that character’s role in the story. Archetypes are an important tool in the universal language of storytelling, just as myth serves the overall purpose of supplying “the symbols that carry the human spirit forward.” (Joseph Campbell). Joseph Campbell went so far as to describe the archetype as something that is expressed biologically and is wired into every human being.

Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer’s Journey, lists the seven most useful archetypes for the writer.

The Hero

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Friend Anne walks among giant cedars, Revelstoke, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

The hero sacrifices his own needs on behalf of others. He provides a character for us to identify with and is usually the principal POV character in a story, with qualities most readers can (or want to) identify with. The hero “transforms” through her journey as she encounters other archetypes on her journey, whether it is a physical journey or a psychological journey toward “home” (salvation or redemption) through sacrifice. The true mark of the hero, says Vogler, is in the act of sacrifice: “the hero’s willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even her own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group,” and ultimately for the greater good.

Heroes may be willing or unwilling. Anti-heroes are notably flawed characters that must grow significantly to achieve the status of true hero. Often the anti-hero starts off more like a villain, like Tom Cruise’s character in Rainman. The wounded anti-hero may be a “heroic knight in tarnished armor, a loner who has rejected society or been rejected by it,” says Vogler: Aragorn in Lord of the Rings. The catalyst hero shows less of a character arc, but precipitates significant change or transformation in other protagonists. A good example is David Adams, in Ben Bova’s Colony.

The Mentor

The mentor often possesses divine wisdom and has faith in the hero. He often gives the hero a “gift”, which is usually something important for the quest; either a weapon to destroy a “monster” or a “talisman” to enlighten the hero. A good example is in Star Wars, when Luke’s mentor, Obi Wan, provides him with his father’s lightsaber (Luke’s magic talisman).

The Herald

Heralds announce the coming of significant change, whether the hero likes it or not (and usually they don’t). They deliver the call to adventure. The herald is a catalyst that enters the story and makes it impossible for the hero to remain in status quo. Existing in the form of a person, an event, or just information, they shift the hero’s balance and change her world.

In Star Wars, Ben Kenobi issues the call when he invites Luke to join him on his mission to Alderaan. The herald also provides the hero with motivation. In Romancing the Stone, the herald for Joan Wilder comes to her as a treasure map in the mail, and a distressed phone call from her sister.

The Threshold Guardian

This archetype guards the threshold of “Separation from the Ordinary World” on the hero’s quest to achieve his destiny. Threshold guardians spice up the story by providing obstacles the hero must overcome. Threshold guardians are usually not the main antagonist. In the Harry Potter series, this role is fulfilled by Malfoy, Snape or Filch, even. They help round-out the hero’s journey and develop his character arc. The threshold guardian can be a “friend” who doesn’t believe in the hero or her quest. Ultimately, this is the role of the threshold guardian: to test the hero’s resolve in her quest.

The Shape shifter

The shape shifter adds dramatic tension to the story and provides the hero with a puzzle to solve. They can seem one thing and in fact be another. They bring doubt and suspense to the story and test the hero’s abilities to discern her path. Yoda in Star Wars is a bit of a shape shifter, initially masking his ancient wisdom with a foolish childlike appearance when Luke first encounters him.

The Shadow

The monster under the bed, repressed feelings, deep trauma, a festering guilt: these all possess the dark energy of the shadow. This is the dark force of the unexpressed, unrealized, rejected, feared aspects of the hero and represented by the main antagonist or villain.

Voldermort in the Harry Potter series; Darth Vader in Star Wars. These are shadows and worthy opponents for the hero, bringing out the best in her and usually demanding the ultimate in self-sacrifice (the hero’s destiny).The shadow force, if internalized by the hero, may serve as a threshold guardian, to overcome; ultimately challenging the hero to overcome her greatest weakness and prevail.

The Trickster

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Nina Munteanu leans against giant cedar, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Anne Voute)

Practically every Shakespearian play contains a jester or fool, who not only serves as comic relief but as commentator. This is because tricksters are usually witty and clever, even when ridiculous. The comedy of most successful comedians touches upon the pulse of a culture by offering commentary that is truism (often in the form of entertaining sarcasm). As commentator, the trickster is often you, the artist, with one foot in and one foot out for perspective

Recommended Reading:

Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

The Hero’s Journey: Part 1, The Hero & the Journey

All stories consist of … common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero’s Journey — Christopher Vogler, “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers”

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Boardwalk among giant cedars, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“The Hero’s Journey” myth follows the three-act structure of the ancient Greek play, handed down to us thousands of years ago. Drawn from the depth psychology of Swiss psychologist Carl Jung and the scholar and mythologist Joseph Campbell, author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, it duplicates the steps of the “Rite of Passage” and is a process of self-discovery and self-integration.

The Power of Myth & Archetype

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Cedar tree, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Campbell recognized that myths weren’t just abstract theories or quaint ancient beliefs but practical models for understanding how to live. Ultimately, the Hero’s Journey is the soul’s search for “home”. It is a journey of transformation we all take, in some form.This is why the Hero’s Journey model for writing is so relevant and why it appeals to all readers.

Jung proposed that symbols appear to us when there is a need to express what thought cannot think or what is only divined or felt. Jung discovered reoccurring symbols among differing peoples and cultures, unaffected by time and space. He described these shared symbols as archetypes: irrepressible, unconscious, pre-existing forms of the psyche. Joseph Campbell suggested that these mythic images lay at the depth of the unconscious where humans are no longer distinct individuals, where our minds widen and merge into the mind of humankind. Where we are all the same.

The Hero’s Journey in Storytelling

Compelling stories resonate with the universal truths of metaphor within the consciousness of humanity. According to Joseph Campbell this involves an open mind and a certain amount of humility; and giving oneself to the story…not unlike the hero who gives her life to something larger than herself:

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Creek in Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

“Anyone writing a creative work knows that you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself….you become the carrier of something that is given to you from … the Muses or God. This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer [or artist] brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone.”

I call this tapping into the universal truth where metaphor lives. A story comes alive when these two resonate.

Vogler suggested that using the principles of myth,helps “create a masterful story that is dramatic, entertaining, and psychologically true.”

The Hero and the Journey

Heroes are agents of change on a quest. The hero is the ultimate altruist, sacrificing her life for the greater good. She is warrior and lover who slays the dragon of the status quo, so to speak. She enacts the ultimate in sacrifice in her quest to change the world (and/or herself). The hero’s task has always been to bring new life to an ailing culture, says Carol S. Pearson, author of The Hero Within. Julia Cameron reiterates this in her book, The Artist’s Way, when she describes the concept of art as a healing journey (not just for the individual but for a culture). This is because the writer/artist changes society by changing themselves.

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Moss-covered cedar, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Campbell describes a 12-step journey of the hero within 3-acts and influenced by five major archetypes (herald, mentor, threshold guardian, trickster, shadow and shapeshifter). Our hero starts her journey in Act 1 — in the Ordinary World — and will eventually separate from the Ordinary World in Act 2— entering the Special World, where she will transform through her many challenges. In Act 3, she re-enters the Ordinary World, changed, with her gift to the world. I’ll go into more detail about how you integrate other archetypes and the steps of the journey in “storytelling” in Parts 2 and 3 of this series.

For now, let’s concentrate on our hero and what her journey means to her. She begins her quest with one giant step. How does she do it? How does she muster up the courage and resolution to proceed (often against all odds) on a journey that promises only challenge and hardship. She does so because our hero, whether she realizes it or not, has faith in her quest (even if she may not have faith in herself).

In some versions of the Holy Grail quest, relates Pearson, the hero reaches a huge chasm with no apparent way to get across to the Grail castle. The space is too great for him to jump across. Then he remembers the Grail teaching that instructs him to step out in faith. As he puts one foot out into the abyss, a bridge magically appears and he is saved. Anyone who has left a job, school, one’s home town, or a relationship has stepped out into that abyss, separating them from the familiar world they’ve known.

Just as “the knights of King Arthur’s Round Table set off to seek the Holy Grail,” says Mary Henderson, author of Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, “the great figures of every major religion have each gone on a ‘vision quest’, from Moses’ journey to the mountain, to Jesus’ time in the desert, Muhammad’s mediations in the mountain cave, and Buddha’s search for enlightenment that ended under the Bodhi tree.” The journey, and the abyss, is often not a physical adventure, adds Henderson, but a spiritual one, “as the hero moves from ignorance and innocence to experience and enlightenment.”

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Cedar tree, Revelstoke Park, BC (photo by Nina Munteanu)

Here are the 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey:

ACT ONE: Separation

  • Ordinary World
  • Call to Adventure
  • Refusal of the Call
  • Meeting with the Mentor
  • Crossing the Threshold

ACT TWO: Initiation & Transformation

  • Tests, Allies, Enemies
  • Approach to the Innermost Cave
  • Ordeal (Abyss)
  • Reward/Seizing the Sword (Transformation and Revelation)

ACT THREE: the Return

  • The Road Block
  • Resurrection / Atonement
  • Return with the Elixor
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Devil’s club (photo by Nina Munteanu)

I’ll talk about these in more detail and show you some examples in Part 3 of my Hero’s Journey series. Next in the series is “The Hero’s Journey—Part 2, Archetypes”.

 

Recommended Reading:

  • Cameron, Julia. 1992. The Artist’s Way: a Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity. Penguin Putnam. 222pp.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1970. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. World Publishing Co. New York.
  • Campbell, Joseph. 1988. The Power of Myth.
  • Henderson, Mary. 1997. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. Bantam Spectra. New York. 214pp.
  • Munteanu, Nina. 2009. The Fiction Writer: Get Published, Write Now! Starfire World Syndicate, Louisville, KY. 266pp.
  • Pearson, Carol S. 1998. The Hero Within: Six Archetypes We Live By. Harper. San Francisco. 3rd Edition.
  • Vogler, Christopher. 1998. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. 2nd Edition. Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, California. 326pp.

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Nina Munteanu is an ecologist and internationally published author of award-nominated speculative novels, short stories and non-fiction. She is co-editor of Europa SF and currently teaches writing courses at George Brown College and the University of Toronto. Visit www.ninamunteanu.ca for the latest on her books.