Tag Archives: archetypes

Why Brave is an Important Movie

I tend to lightly toss around terms that are meaningful to me, but may seem odd to outsiders, such as “archetypes” or “gothic”. To others, I may even sound more than a little obsessed. Focused on particular ideas would be more accurate, however. My entry into the world of the gothic corresponded with my studies of the British Enlightenment and, although archetypes can be found in stories dating from ancient times, my fascination with these tropes grew with the gothic monster. The gothic is and was a study of the shadow archetype of mankind; this appeals to my human core, to my understanding that I have a shadowy side to my persona that I fear and desire to keep hidden. I don’t want to acknowledge this side of me, but neither can I deny it. Denying it is, in fact, dangerous because it means I’m no longer in conscious control of it.

To exemplify this archetype, as well as some others, I’d like to discuss a movie of the past year I considered to be both well-done and important, albeit often misunderstood: Pixar’s Brave. To feminists, the brave female Merida is not a symbol of feminine power. To others, the lack of the typical romantic ending is a form of trickery [this response I read in forums–critics wouldn’t dare to complain about a lack of someday my prince will come]. And to those on the cultural fringe, such as the Botkin sisters, Merida is hardly a female worth emulating because she creates yet another “unhealthy stereotype” for girls to follow–too feminist, in other words. Frankly, as a female, I find these opposite and varied reactions to be false, or even worse, to be obtusely missing the point.

The heroines that make up our post-feminist culture generally follow two models: women desiring to fill male archetypes–most notably the warrior archetype–or women discovering themselves through princes who rescue them. Both of these models imply a worship of the male and a degradation of the female. But ironically, the male idolatry we involve ourselves in has created a counter-phobic reaction against men because, ultimately, women will never be men, no matter how hard they try. And so we find ourselves at this strange cultural crossroads of reviling the feminine and masculine alike, rather than discovering the ways in which the sexes may mutually benefit each other in this modern egalitarian patriarchy we currently live in.

In Merida, we see a young woman who is consumed by the worship of the masculine. She’s wild; she’s a warrior; she resists all attempts her mother makes to cultivate her into a feminine princess. While her mother works behind the scenes to bring about a marital alliance that might save the clan, her father encourages his daughter to be as rough and tumble as her three little brothers. The masculine, or the animus, as Jung would put it, is ruling Merida’s person.

To run through the story very quickly–Merida turns to a witch for magic that will change her mother’s mind about forcing Merida into an arranged marriage. The magic, of course, takes a strange and dangerous turn when her mother transforms into an enormous female bear. Meanwhile, the plot of the hateful masculine is formulated through a warrior who has transformed himself, using the same magic, into a giant black bear. At some point in the past, this bear warrior has left Merida’s father as a one-legged warrior. Those of you who are familiar with archetypes probably already see where I’m going with this–the enormously dangerous male bear is Merida’s shadow. It threatens to consume Merida after she falls into its lair (subconscious, anyone?); it has already left her father as half a warrior, or half a man, in a sense, limping along on one leg. As a young woman who doesn’t want to be one, Merida doesn’t approve of men any more than she approves of herself or her mother. This hatred is demonstrated through her ridiculous male suitors. Are men really as foolish as these cartoon buffoons? No, but they’re certainly foolish as viewed through Merida’s mental filter.

This movie could have gone in any direction. Merida’s family could have produced a prince for her to marry. Merida could have become a female warrior, thereby fulfilling the deep feminist longings of women wanting to be men. But, no, the story writer chose to uphold the feminine. Merida’s mother, as the big black she-bear must defeat the warrior bear spirit that’s threatening to consume her daughter. After the mother accomplishes this, she changes back into her human form. Merida then has a renewed relationship with her mother, which also represents the feminine in Merida’s soul. At the end, the buffoons sail away, and Merida and her mother ride their horses off into the sunset, so to speak, and they’re together–united. Merida has been united with the feminine.

Will Merida ever marry? No doubt, if her parents present a worthwhile man, she will concede that the clan needs her to marry. But that’s speculation. Not every female is meant to marry, and that isn’t what Merida’s story is about. It’s about the restoration of the feminine in a girl who’s being ruled by her masculine side. It’s about the rightness of females and the beauty of being one. And it’s not about filling a personality stereotype or denying who one is at core. The mother acknowledges this–Merida is a female, but she’s a female unlike her mother. Still, a woman, of any personality, possesses a feminine spirit, and who would want it any other way?

Too many people would like it to be different, actually. And so, here we are, shuffling uneasily at this bizarre cultural crossroads in which we have learned that women are to be despised because they aren’t men, and that men are to be despised because they are naturally men. I applaud Pixar for defying the cultural norms and giving us strong women who are naturally women. Brave’s archetypes resonate with me, and they prod me forward and away from the crossroads, into the gothic forest of the subconscious, where my shadow waits–that female inside me that’s still waiting to be discovered.

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The Devil’s in the Details

Most of us are lost in Plato’s Cave, though some of us are more firmly shackled there, and those who refuse to turn to the right or the left care only for watching the passing shadows on the walls. The shadows give us enough “substance” to discuss, argue, predict, and expound our great understanding of what we refuse to know.

I’m in Plato’s Cave. I’m not shackled there, except by my own self-limiting thought processes. I’m shackled by my own need to understand what I can’t see from my perspective. I woke here, on this damp earth–I woke facing red flesh, and my face is still planted there. I scrape at the flesh with a sharp rock. I peel off a pale green substance and hold it in my palms and sniff at it. I dig around the perimeter of the red-fleshed beast–I dig, and I search. I listen, I smell, I taste. I feel the soft dampness, feel the prickles that dig into my skin, feel the dampness in the space around me.

I’m confused. I’ve used my five senses, and I can’t figure this out, any of it. I can’t determine a name, an understanding. I can only chart my observations. I can chart them for the benefit of future understanding.

And just as I begin this lengthy process, in which I gather my wits and the materials around me and begin scratching out my data, I hear an irritated voice speak to me: “Are you still there?” the voice asks. “Are you still in the same place you were when you were born?”

I force my body around, even though it’s both painful and difficult. I look at the man who towers above me. “As soon as I figure this out, I’ll move,” I tell him. Without constant interruptions, such as his own, I might have finished years ago. There are interruptions, too many–they sway above, patter below, shriek circles around my head.

“It’s a tree,” the man says. “It’s a cedar. Look around you. You’re in a forest, and you’re missing it because all you can see is the bark of one tree.”

I’m a little irritated by his need to explain this to me–typical man. I could have figured it out on my own, eventually. But I rise, anyway, and admit that not only am I in a forest, but I’m in a forest with an entire eco-system at its floor. Beyond that, the ocean stretches with its own systems, and to the south, the sand hills stretch with worlds within worlds. Soon, I’m lost in these worlds, and when the man finds me again–he does, every once in a while–he shakes his head at me. I might as well have remained at the base of the cedar because I don’t get it, and I never will.

If I were to create myself as an archetype, I would be the researcher. Sadly, the researcher is a lost soul–not the hero, no, never the hero. The hero deigns to visit the researcher and discover certain facts important to his heroic mission, and then leaves the researcher in his cave, in his darkness, in his web of cryptic knowledge that can’t fit itself into a larger picture, at least not in the researcher’s mind. Meanwhile, the hero uses his instincts to save mankind, and nobody cares that the researcher translated the archaic language on the ancient map that leads the hero out of the cave.

At this point, I’m not about to change my archetype. In fact, I don’t think it’s a possibility. But I’m ready to circumvent the labyrinth. I’m ready to stop wasting my time planning, thinking, reading and researching in order to, at some point in the distant future, begin.

How have I come to this? Recently, I read Tolkien’s biography, and his method of writing was so eerily familiar to my own that it made me physically ill. He researched. He wrote. He edited. He edited again and again and again and conducted more research. I don’t want to edit and re-edit and research and dig deeper. I don’t want my magnum opus, whatever that may be, to remain incomplete at my death because I couldn’t wade out of the details. I don’t want the process to replace the work, and I’m firmly convinced that, to Tolkien, the process of creating legend was more important than any completed work of literature.

I need my story to have an ending. No longer ask me how far in I want to go, because I don’t want to go in. I want out. Some of us, deep inside, are asleep, and others are awake and studying shadows on the wall, convinced the shadows are truth. And others have left the cave. I want that to be my story, my end.

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The Ego, the Animus, and the Twelve-Headed Hydra

From a multitude of thought, the hydra sprang. It sprang from a sea of words—a black beast, twelve heads writhing in every direction, eyes that followed my progress and watched carefully for intruders. By adulthood, I’d learned to ignore its vast presence across my landscape, even if it virtually occluded true vision of the world around me.

I had books to write. Distractions of expository dragons meant nothing at all. But in a sense, work was my only method of defeating the hydra and all twelve of its heads. At least, that’s what I came to understand—to believe on. Work followed this model: Researching–>Knowing–>Understanding–>Writing. No other model existed in this worldview, in this landscape. And that’s what speculative authors are concerned with, aren’t they? They’re concerned only with the landscapes they create in their minds.

Work wasn’t, to put it bluntly, working. The hydra’s heads grew larger, its necks longer and thicker, the supporting torso less like a serpent and more like a dinosaur from the deep of the sea. In fact, I had to admit, that even understanding the hydra’s place in mythology meant little to its defeat. I could write the Herculean story any day, and the words would make no difference. I could place it firmly in its proper Jungian archetype and, actually, I did. The dragon symbolized the ego that I must conquer; its blackness the shadow of the unconscious psyche.

No, work wasn’t working. I had to construct a new model. By a quirk of fate, I took a vacation at the coast—North Bend, Oregon, a place fraught with rearing sea dragons. It rained the entire two weeks I was there, but that’s a usual detail.

Throughout the drizzle, I sat on driftwood and devised calculations in the sand. If I used brute force, I calculated, I would have to chop off each of my hydra’s heads in .33 seconds, or more heads would sprout by the time I had reached the twelfth. I could practice, of course, on cords or ropey structures. I could time my axe-wielding techniques. But, no, I could never succeed.

Maybe I could smudge the heads out with new or different words. Maybe, I thought—and this was an entirely new idea that seemed to drift or, more violently, explode from the mind of God. I could write myself a new landscape, where the twelve-headed hydra didn’t exist.

Meanwhile, as I camped on the driftwood, my knees drawn to my chest, the night blackened as a shadow behind me. The air seemed groggy, somehow, and I furiously drew my calculations in the sand. I would build a fire once the work was complete. My work. Once my work was complete, I would build a fire, and I would think about food or drink or other substantive things.

If I could reconstruct my first words, the hydra might disappear. I wrote a new sentence in the sand with the twig I’d taken up as my pencil. I crossed out the words. Why couldn’t I determine the beginning? That was the issue. Beginnings were impossible to calculate.

I pressed my forehead against my knees. I was incapable. What did the word incapable mean? It had something to do with the Latin root of taking in, which could conversely be given out. And I thought about that, and I wrote cap in the sand, using capital letters, and it occurred to me that cap might be related to capt or capit, meaning head. If that was the case, I could only reach capacity if I defeated the hydra and all its twelve heads. On the other hand, I might need twelve heads in order to produce anything of merit.

I heard a strike, a thwack, and I relaxed on my driftwood. These were usual sounds to me. They were camp sounds. Soon, I heard the crackle of fire, and I smelled wood smoke. Either I could make my own fire, or perhaps the fire-starter would allow me to share his. Meanwhile, I could continue my false starts.

Oh, God, the fire felt warm against my skin. I dreamed a new landscape, a new worldview of warmth and life, an impossible place. And then I heard a series of whacks. Whack-whack-whack-whack-whack. The noise distracted me, and I leaned in closer to the sand, which hit me with its damp fishy odors, and the darkness created confusion. How could I finish, or yet begin?

I looked to my right and watched the flames of a bonfire spark up into the smoky, cloud-stricken air. Thunk-thunk-thunk. Charred heads dropped and rolled against each other in the fire, not two feet from me. My breath caught, smoke in the lungs, and I coughed convulsively. I leaned back, taking in gulps of the clearer air.

A man stood in silhouette behind the fire, my axe in his hand. He raised it—thwack-whack, roll, sizzle. The smell of salted, singed flesh tickled my nostrils. Why had this man invaded my campsite?

“What are you doing?” I yelled at him.

“Only what needs to be done,” he said, and he slammed the axe head into the nearest fallen log.

The hydra had collapsed, its heads cut asunder—all twelve, plus the small ones that sprouted in the intervals between whacks. He’d destroyed my hydra.

“But how did you manage?”

The man, dressed as a woodsman with flannel shirt and coarse work pants, barely moved a muscle. The cutting down of ancient archetypes hadn’t winded him.  “I chopped them off as fast as I could until they were gone.”

Oh. Without another word, he departed, his boot heels scuffing over the sandy earth. He disappeared in the trees.

“Wait!” I called to him, but he didn’t stop.

Eventually, I rose from the driftwood and followed him, though I didn’t really because I had no idea which direction he’d disappeared. Desperation filled my soul. In the distance, though, I caught the bobbing light of his torch, which moved forward without hesitation.

I would never catch him, I knew, because my hero—my woodsman knew the way back home, and I could only navigate by unfamiliar stars that rarely revealed their faces from behind dense clouds. He’d destroyed my hydra, but my world was still occluded. How would I begin? And how would I begin again?

In the grip of my fist, I still clenched my twig—my pencil—and I threw it down like a gauntlet. We would see who knew the way. We would see. And I crossed the threshold of darkness in pursuit of a knowable world.

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