Parallel lines

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.

22 thoughts on “Parallel lines

    1. Thanks, Sue! Perhaps I should have come up with a different metaphor — but couldn’t think of a more apt image at the time. Interestingly, I meant to use a photo I’d taken of tracks from a railway bridge but couldn’t find it, so used this image of a path I’d mowed through a field to our old house in Pembrokeshire.

    1. A greater compliment is hard to match in the blogosphere than that a post is reblogged, so thanks again, Dale. And always good to confirm we share similar tastes in reading matter and authors. 😊

  1. Pingback: Parallel lines — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

  2. The world in reality would indeed be doomed if there were not a majority that love their neighbours as themselves. And in reality we are also constantly challenged by those who are more interested in have dominion over their neighbours. The themes reflect life I guess, which is so often said of stories, novels, etc.

    1. Many of us are attracted by works that confirm we’re not alone in believing there are better things in life than dominion over others, cruelty, exploitation and abuse. Hope not hate (as stated by a movement of the same name) is what any right-thinking person yearns for, and literature that reinforces that aspiration is always worth searching out and sharing. Glad one of the central ideas here resonated with you, Alastair.

  3. Interesting post! I enjoyed Propp’s book, not in the least because it analyzed Slavic folklore :). Admittedly, it’s not a light read, very structuralist ;). There’s also quite Freudian work of Bruno Bettelheim, The Uses of Enchantment, still waiting its turn on my shelf – as of yet I’ve read only bits and pieces of it, but after your post I guess I’ll bump it up on my TBR :).

    1. Thanks very much! I’d forgotten the Bettelheim, lots of interesting insights here, but a text I’d be wary of accepting in toto. For example I seem to remember him making great play of the number of dwarfs in the Grimm’s version of the Snow White story, but we know that not only did the Grimms constantly edit their source material but that in analogues of this tale the number seven is simply not canonical. Bettelheim (if I remember correctly) suggests that seven dwarfs represent the number of months that Snow White, Persephone-like, spent ‘underground’ in the dwarfs’ cottage. I must read it again, however, sure there’s much of worth there! (And the Propp, too, must be a good fifteen years since I finished it.)

      Anyway, glad you got something out of this post, a bit of a waffle really but I felt I had to get my thoughts all down before the moment passed.

      By the way, if you can find the Dorfman book that’s interesting stuff too, covers a lot of European literature though heavily based, I think, on French and Spanish romance epics.

    2. piotrek

      I found Campbell inspiring during my very first reading, not so long ago. Not the most sophisticated theory, but the basis of so many stories, and enriches my reading of many others. His view of religion is particularly interesting!
      Propp is one name I will add to my TBR after this post, I remember being intrigued by a short text on him, but never got around to actually reading anything.
      It’s a nice thought that all the diverse human cultures have so much in common, even in the stories they tell 🙂

      1. Must look at Campbell again, it’s been many years, though I have dipped into his Hero study since then. His premise is a sort of Theory of Everything, but for mythology instead of astrophysics, I seem to recall. Propp’s purview was limited to Slavic, mostly Russian, fairytales and so has been critiqued as of limited application to other cultural traditions, but I could see it of relevance certainly to a wider European field at least.

  4. There is a similarity of construction in books forming a series, whereby if one likes the first couple of books one will probably enjoy the rest. As with music, the themes may be very different from one another, but the treatment is similar, and this forms the basis of enjoyment of particular types? There is no doubt that just as stories fall into different genres, so there are distinct divisions within those genres, and further divisions within those.

    1. What you say about construction is probably true, because as readers we have expectations of more of the same. Though often the best writers confound those expectations, but in a good way — instalments in Le Guin’s Earthsea series are very different narratively, one from another, though the language and the atmosphere are common to all. Indeed much as with movements of a suite or some symphonic composition. Good points, Col, thank goodness for so much variety.

  5. Lovely post, Friend! Ah, I couldn’t help but think of Dark Lord of Derkholm here. I’m sure you know why–Jones tickling us with the parallels we come to expect in epic fantasy. But we as readers like that old path, the acts of love done in friendship or more. We want a moment to laugh, to slide off our chair or walk into a wall while we read, desperate to learn if the hero lives or dies. That experience of, well, adventure. But I think these parallels also exist because we’re so often hesitant trying new things. We expect these milestones in the story, and we feel comfortable taking this path because we know those milestones are there. When the milestones are taken away, I’m guessing a few readers act like my son Biff, who HATES change with a PASSION. (You don’t need to hear him scream. Just know he does.) So perhaps that’s why these well-worn parallels aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, either. 🙂

    1. Thanks for the complimentary comments, Jean, as a practioner you’ll know how strong the magnetic pull is towards the lodestone of certainty, and how important it is to challenge expectations!

      I’m on the autistic spectrum and am also very anxious around change of any kind– or at least until I’ve had a chance to acclimatise and accept it — so I understand the need for the old well-worn paths (a bit like Biff, perhaps). Spontaneity too causes me grief — like Bilbo and his Unexpected Journey! — unless I’m the one initiating it.

      But I also like variety, especially the created kind rather than the random type, which is why the Derkholm book both satisfies and upsets — DWJ is in control of where it’s going so you can generally expect a pleasing outcome, but the sheer waywardness of the villain of the piece ups anxiety levels. (It’s a bit like real-life politics in that respect, but without the guaranteed happy ending. And certainly *no* milestones of any worth or accuracy.)

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s