Metaphor (All Types) and Archetype

Metaphor (All Types) and Archetype - Metaphor, in general, is our ability to see similarities between at first unrelated things, be they people, places, ideas, objects, cultures, actions—whatever. Metaphorical language is symbolic, in that such language asks us to be able to read one thing and think of some other thing.

There are various levels of metaphor. The simile is the weakest; the words “like” (for two nouns or noun phrases—for things, people, places) and “as” (for verbs—actions) qualify our comparisons, getting us out of trouble if readers disagree. “The woods stood open just like the dark mouth of a great monster.” We know the woods are just the woods. “The girl jumped as a gazelle would,” if a gazelle ever played hopscotch.

The standard metaphor in literature is more direct: “The woods were the mouth of a beast.” Can you hear the difference? We are more affected (scared, moved, tense). Then again, if the metaphor was not well constructed, we wouldn’t “get” the comparison being made.

conceit runs throughout a story, comparing the same things again and again. In Moby-Dick, Melville often calls his fellow humans “shipmates” and thinks of a preacher as a “pilot;” his conceit is that humanity is on a single whaling vessel, earth; we are in it together, profiting or dying as one.

Beyond conceits, allegories turn whole stories into chained comparisons, wherein every element stands for something else (everything is a symbol—see below). Think of Star Wars. Luke is not just “a specific ‘water-farmer’ named Luke,” but every good guy, the White Knight—the hero. Vader is not just a sort of Secretary of Defense in the future, but the “bad father,” a stand-in for any villain, oppressor, totalitarian ruler—the villain. The movie is an allegory, substituting specific, silly, sci-fi characters for universal types (see below for more on types). We say that many texts have allegorical readings; they can be read as stories (Luke vs. Vader) or as mythology (good vs. evil).

To give another example, we say that the Odyssey is an allegory for a man’s growing up, from fiery young warrior to wandering wisdom-seeker, to good husband and father. All the little events in the Odyssey can be read allegorically as providing experiences that any human needs to grow up and earn his wife, son, and home/his or her place in the world.

The importance of a story’s allegorical dimension—the non-literal, not-simply-the-plot aspect of a text—is even more obvious when we consider the people who populate great stories—such as Luke, Odysseus, and Joyce’s young Stephen Daedalus, who undergoes the Odysseus cycle in a single day in Dublin in the 1920s—buying milk, joking, going to a whorehouse, getting drunk, arguing, and admiring an older friend’s marriage.

These people are not simply specific characters, written to be enjoyable within the frames of specific plots; these people are archetypes, characters who metaphorically stand in place of other similar characters, of people we know whose attributes mirror those of the characters, and—ultimately—for aspects of ourselves that we understand at times, as in literature, mythology, and so on, by examining them from the outside—by imagining them as characters instead of mental/spiritual ways-of-being.

Let’s take Ishmael in Moby-Dick as one example: In the plot, he’s specifically a depressed ex-school teacher and merchant-sailor who decides to go whaling. Speaking allegorically, he is an archetype for “the person on a quest,” for the part of ourselves that isn’t sure what meaning is, what truth is, what or why life itself is. In short, he’s seeking God (or whatever word you use for “the idea of ultimate Truth”). He reminds us of other seekers: Odysseus wins a big war but is left behind, shipwrecked, lost, forced to fight monsters and even travel to hell for advice on how to get home. He seeks not only a way home (plot), but a meaning for his difficult journey (truth), a meaning for life (Truth). He reminds us to be humble and avoid hubris. Both characters have narrative and allegorical characteristics.

Luke Skywalker is an archetypal hero: He has to face “pure evil” that turns out to be his own father—his shadow, or his own self in a dark mirror—or the part of himself that is greedy and unforgiving. He must conquer fear itself. Luke reminds us of a knight in King Arthur’s court, someone who must overcome an evil specific to himself in order to win a wife, protect a land, and help save a king or saint. The questing-knight is an archetype. Cervantes plays with this archetype in Don Quixote, inventing a new and very modern archetype (often exploited by Woody Allen)—the pathetic hero, who never even gets to go on his quest. His quest is not to slay dragons but to find a quest—to become another archetype entirely. When he dies (old, no knight), it is up to us to determine if the story is sad or funny or deep or all three: Has he earned his knighthood in death, by always acting as a knight would, even if he was only a lame old writer in a post-chivalrous world?

Going back to Moby-Dick, we know that Ishmael is an archetypal seeker, someone endlessly trying to come up with a greater, deeper definition of Truth—but it’s up to us to be seen if he ever gets there, in our opinion, or if his final definition of Truth is inadequate.

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