How are Archetypes Used in Literature

Archetypes in Literature

An archetype is a recurrent motif or symbol that represents universal patterns of human nature. The term archetype comes from Greek arkhetupon which refers to something molded first as a model. The psychiatrist Carl Jung theorized them as “primitive mental images inherited from the earliest human ancestors, and supposed to be present in the collective unconscious.” According to this theory, all human beings have a set of preferences and expectations about stories. Archetypes help the authors to fulfill these expectations of the readers. They also enable the readers to easily identify and relate to the plot, setting and characters of the story. Therefore, they also bring a sense of truth or realism to literature.

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How are Archetypes Used in Literature

In literature, archetypes are used as,

  • A character type
  • A plot pattern
  • A symbol
  • An idea
  • A theme
  • An image

Authors use various archetypes in their work. Given below are some common examples of archetypes used in fiction.

Archetypal Characters

Hero – The hero is the protagonist of the story. He saves the world from the evil forces. Ex: Harry Potter, Frodo

The character of hero can be further categorized into different types such as anti-hero, tragic hero, romantic hero, warrior hero, superhero, etc.

Villain – The main opposing force of the hero; he is evil and dark, and wants to dominate/conquer others.             Ex: Voldemort, Sauron

Damsel in Distress – A vulnerable woman who needs to be rescued by the hero. Ex: Rapunzel, Sleeping beauty

Mentor – An old, wise mother or father figure who teaches and guides the hero; he often serves as the hero’s role model or conscience. Ex: Dumbledore, Gandalf

How are Archetypes Used in Literature

Faithful Sidekick – Loyal friends or servants of the hero, who help him in his quest. Ex: Ron and Hermione, Sam (in “Lord of the Ring” trilogy).

Star-crossed lovers – Two lovers who are separated from each other due to some tragic situation. Ex: Romeo and Juliet

Archetypal Situations 

  • The hero has sudden help from divine or supernatural forces. Ex: stories of Hercules 
  • The hero has mysterious origins or is brought up as an orphan. Ex: Harry Potter, Jane Eyre, Oliver Twist
  • The hero has a loyal group of companions. Ex: Frodo & the fellowship of ring, Tom Sawyer & his group of friends 
  • The hero makes a stirring speech that affects everyone. Ex: Henry V’s speech to the troops
  • The hero goes through a rite of passage, which changes him or her from an immature individual to a mature, worldly person. Ex: Jem & Scout in “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Huckleberry Finn 
  • The hero suffers from an unhealable physical or emotional wound. Ex: Frodo never fully recovers from the physical and emotional wounds from his adventures. 
  • The battle between the good and evil. Ex: conflict between Death eaters and Order of the Phoenix 

Archetypal Plot Patterns

  • The journey in search of knowledge Ex: mystery novels 
  • The quest for vengeance Ex: The Count of Monte Cristo 
  • The quest for identity Ex: The Bourne Identity 
  • The search for love Ex: Pride and Prejudice, Sleeping Beauty

Archetypal Symbols

Some examples of archetypal symbols include: 

The tower – a place of evil

Ex: Barad-dûr(dark tower) in “Lord of the Ring” trilogy

Light vs. Darkness – light symbolizes hope, goodness, and knowledge whereas darkness symbolizes evil, ignorance, and despair.

Ex: in “Macbeth” most evil things happen at night, in the cover of night.

Fog – Fog can be a symbol of uncertainty, misery

Ex: London fog in Dicken’s novels

Maze – A maze can represent a great uncertainty or dilemma; a journey into the darkness

Ex: labyrinth in the works  of Jorge Luis Borges

Magic Weapon – A weapon hero needs in order to use his powers or complete his quest

Ex: The Deathly Hollows in Harry Potter

As illustrated above with examples, authors use different types of archetypes in their works. Character types, Plot patterns, symbols, and setting are some of the commonest archetypes seen in literature. Archetypes help the readers to identify certain ideas and concepts, and relate to the stories more easily. 

Image Courtesy:

“Idylls of the King 15” (Public Domain) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Hasa

Hasanthi is a seasoned content writer and editor with over 8 years of experience. Armed with a BA degree in English and a knack for digital marketing, she explores her passions for literature, history, culture, and food through her engaging and informative writing.