How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?
I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?
I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.
I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.
So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?
Let me outline a narrative structure for you, and see if you can divine its exemplar.
A small person is required to take charge of a significant object but is then catapulted into a long and complex journey across country, encountering wolves and also kindnesses in unexpected places. There is a king-in-waiting who befriends the hero, but he is opposed by a sinister lord, whose minions attempt to thwart him. Another diminutive creature who dwells under the mountain attempts to steal the precious object back. The climax of the tale occurs under a mountain where the sinister lord and his minions meet their downfall.
Maybe you were thinking of Tolkien’s magnum opus The Lord of the Rings (1968). You perhaps conjured up the halfling Frodo from your memory, the hobbit who is also Ring Bearer, confronting wargs, orcs and Sauron but also helped by others of his kind, by men (including Aragorn, the future king) and by elves. Gollum attempts to take the ring but all is concluded in the fires of Mount Doom.
And yet what I was also describing was Joan Aiken’s The Whispering Mountain (1968). Young Owen Hughes is responsible for the Harp of Teirtu, whose ownership is claimed by many, not least by awful Lord Malin, and at one stage it’s stolen by a dwarfish underground denizen. However, Owen is assisted by his friend Arabis and the wizard-like monk Ianto, and rescues the Prince of Wales from either being drowned or eaten by wolves. The final denouement takes place under Fig-hat Ben — also called the Whispering Mountain or, in Welsh, y mynydd sibrwd — and here Malin and his henchmen meet their just deserts and the harp is secured.
Nobody would argue that Joan Aiken copied from or was directly influenced by The Lord of the Rings. To note the similarities is not to suggest plagiarism but to recognise the differences in tone, in detail, in setting and in characterisation. The Whispering Mountain came out in 1968, the same year that LOTR was first published in a single-volume edition (also the year I first read it, as it happens); but even though Tolkien’s trilogy came out earlier in separate volumes between 1954 and 1955 I suggest that the winner of the Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize bears only the faintest relationship to the earlier fantasy epic.
Here’s another plot to consider.
A young person with latent magic powers, who has managed to overcome one adversary, through a combination of pride and carelessness draws the attention of a shadowy being which seeks to take over the protagonist. The youngster leaves home to be tutored in further magical skills, and subsequently manages — only just — to partially extricate themselves from their adversary. Yet they remain haunted by the thought of being continually pursued; that is until they learn that they must face up to their fear and confront the adversary by following it to the edge of existence, only then realising that they are encountering an aspect of themselves.
Perhaps you still have Ursula Le Guin’s death in late January in your thoughts and so have immediately hit on the narrative of The Wizard of Earthsea (also published, coincidentally, in 1968). Here young wizard Ged magically foils invasion of his island home before travelling to a school for wizards, though here he invokes a shadow from his past, nearly bringing about his own death. Finally realising the folly of running he pursues the shadow across islands and oceans until, with a help of a friend, he confronts it.
But again, I was actually outlining the plot of Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky (2004). We have young witch Tiffany Aching who has previously foiled the Queen of the Fairies. Now, working out a way of (as it were) standing outside her body, she invites the attention of an entity which seeks to inhabit the bodies of powerful magical beings. She goes to learn her trade from an experienced witch but then inadvertently lets the entity in. Partially regaining possession of her body doesn’t release her from the fear of repossession, so she has to decide whether to pursue the entity as far as the uttermost ends of — well, let’s call it death for now — in order to regain her integrity.
Again, tone and circumstance and characterisation differ hugely when we consider the Discworld tale in comparison with the Earthsea novel. One has lashings of humour, an English sensibility and fairytale tropes in a homely setting, the other combines tragedy, anthropology and psychology on an epic canvas; both however, when we really come to consider them, retain a basic humanity at their compassionate core.
It is this humanity, this compassion that to me truly characterises all these narratives, that underlies all these structured plots, that in fact unites them. Organised monotheistic religions tend to emphasise the command in Luke’s gospel that the believer should love God “with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind, and with all thy strength.” But fiction with no religious axe to grind prefers themes based on the injunction “Love thy neighbour as thyself” because without a basic humanity what are we?
This love for neighbour — caritas in the Latin, so much more than is implied by its translation ‘charity’ — to me is the impulse that drives all four novels noted above, that also determines the structure of many of the narratives that we find attractive, satisfying and — ultimately — live-affirming.
Perhaps they are indeed parallel tracks leading to the same goal.