Home ➨ Slightly Foxed - The Plots Thicken
On New Year’s Eve 2013 I was standing in the kitchen of a house overlooking the Pacific Ocean in California, chatting to an Englishman who writes English subtitles for French films. We began to talk about Beowulf, David and Goliath, and Jaws. Then one of us said, with a shrug and an upward sweep of the hands, ‘They’re the same story.’ The other nodded. A flash of recognition passed between us which said, ‘You’ve read that book too?’ And indeed we had.
It has become something of a truism in literary circles, since at least the middle of the eighteenth century, that all the world’s literature, and indeed all the world’s storytelling, can be reduced to a handful of storylines. Goethe believed this, as did Samuel Johnson, who contemplated writing a book on this theme but gave it up. No doubt the inertia of his own lassitude was too much for him.
Fortunately, another man did not give up. He took all the world’s storytelling from the Epic of Gilgamesh to Star Wars – myth, legend, films, novels, theatre, opera, narrative poetry, everything, and everyone from Dante to Tolkien, Homer to Hemingway – and boiled all storytelling down to seven basic plots. It took him more than thirty years. It is a wonder it did not take him thirty decades. The result is 700 pages of not-terribly-large print which reads like an adventure story. I passed my copy on to a friend, an accomplished actor who fell in love with theatre because he loves storytelling, and it destroyed his life for a week. His wife couldn’t get him off the sofa. She regards me to this day with uneasy suspicion.
The man who accomplished this thirteenth labour of Hercules, this literary distillation that forges friendships and threatens marriages, is Christopher Booker, and his book is The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories.
Known to British readers as the founding editor of Private Eye and a contributor to the Sunday Telegraph, Booker has written a stout pile of books, none of which, I must confess, I have read, though their titles would suggest he thinks for himself, does not shun controversy and, armed with a satiric wit, relishes being contrary. Good for him. The world needs more contrarians, if only to keep the rest of us intellectually honest and clear in our thinking. And Booker seems to have ruffled more than a few feathers. No matter. He wrote The Seven Basic Plots, and that’s good enough for me.
Booker has that peculiar genius which connects commonplaces that we would never have connected for ourselves, makes observations that, only when once made, are self-evident, and asks questions we would never have thought to ask. The world’s greatest storytellers are among the most famous and honoured people in history. Why? What is the value of storytelling? What need does it fulfil? Why is storytelling central to our humanity? Why is it that some stories are inherently satisfying, even spiritually nourishing, while others leave us with an empty or incomplete feeling? What is the role of numbers in storytelling? Why is it that there are few things as compelling in storytelling as the desire to have the threads of narrative untangled and explained? These are the questions Booker sets out to answer. It is a task which would have brought a lesser man to despair.
He begins with the basic structure of story, organizing plotlines by commonalities which are sometimes self-evident and at other times surprising. The Seven Basic Plots are: Overcoming the Monster (Beowulf, Jaws), Rags to Riches (Aladdin, Oliver Twist), The Quest (Homer’s Odyssey, Watership Down), Comedy (Aristophanes, The Marx Brothers), Tragedy (Oedipus, Macbeth), Rebirth (Sleeping Beauty, A Christmas Carol) and Voyage and Return (Peter Rabbit, Brideshead Revisited). (One wonders what Evelyn Waugh would have made of that last pairing.) Booker points out that there are very few works that interweave all seven basic plots, but one that does is a twentieth-century masterpiece. It will surprise no one who has read it to learn that this work is The Lord of the Rings.
Booker also finds archetypal figures inhabiting the world of story, each with its evil twin or ‘dark inversion’, all of whom interact to create the masculine-feminine, good-and-evil tension that makes the machinery turn: the Wise Old Man, the Good King and Queen, the Companion, the Child, the Helpful Animal, the Trickster and the Other Half, who must unite with the hero or heroine to make them whole.
Booker concludes that
the real significance of our ability to tell stories is twofold. Firstly, it provides a uniquely revealing mirror to the dynamics of human nature. But secondly, by laying bare the unconscious foundations which underlie so much of the way we view the world, this can in turn cast an extraordinarily revealing light on . . . almost every aspect of human thought and behaviour.
Ever the undaunted scholar, he is not content to stop there. He now proceeds to lay bare those unconscious foundations. He notices that after 5,000 years of storytelling, something in the last 200 years has changed. Storytelling has broken free of its archetypal mooring and been set adrift. The storyteller is no longer an adventurer sailing from port with sails unfurled, but a rudderless wanderer without hope of landfall. Booker turns to Yeats to voice his darkest forebodings:
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Having watched others hold the mirror up to life, he now holds life up to the mirror. He turns his attention from storytelling outward, to the storytellers and to the societies that produce them, and asks what has unloosed Yeats’s rising blood-dimmed tide that, as Booker sees it, has debauched storytelling since the Romantic period.
What he finds is that the emerging creative impulse is, as Wordsworth wrote of Shelley’s poetry,
what astrology is to natural science . . . a confused embodying of vague abstraction – a fever of the soul, thirsting and craving after what it cannot have, indulging its love of power and novelty at the expense of truth and nature.
Booker is deliciously, bracingly opinionated, and is not afraid to play the iconoclast. His perspective is grounded in Jungian psychology. Thus he believes that the purpose of story is to help us see what it means to be a healthy, whole and wholly integrated human being, our emotions, intellect, senses and intuition united in the four archetypal attributes of personhood: strength, order, compassion and understanding. These attributes are designed to counterbalance one another. When they are thrown into conflict, the centre cannot hold. Stories light the way through the labyrinth in which the journey of personal growth takes place, and the false pathways in which we lose ourselves.
What Booker detects in the modern artistic ethos, not merely in literature but also in theatre, music and art, is a bedlam of egocentricity. The orientation is turned inward, where strength, order, compassion and understanding have no communal context, leaving the artist blind, stunted and barren, the degradation of storytelling reaching its nadir in the hopeless futility of Beckett, Chekov, Proust, Joyce. It would be virtually impossible for all of his observations and conclusions to be right, for even a man with his genius cannot be expected flawlessly to accomplish the task he has set for himself, yet he is extremely convincing, and in those rare moments where he is unconvincing, he is always challenging, and writes with a narrative grace that is seldom seen in work of this scholarly calibre.
There is an in-depth case study of Thomas Hardy which was for me particularly gratifying, as I have always found Hardy’s invincible pessimism hard going, and when I finished Booker’s analysis of Ulysses, which he says is ‘inspired’ by Homer’s Odyssey only in the sense that it is a revoltingly vulgar comic strip parody, I gave away my copy of Joyce. Booker was right. I no longer wanted Joyce sullying my shelves. To read Booker is to be forever transformed, almost cleansed, as a reader.
Having disentangled the narrative strands of millennia, Booker then intertwines them into one universal, perfect plot; one plot that explains all storytelling; one plot that is so inherently satisfying, so essential to human nature, so nourishing, so central to our growth and health, so foundational to our humanity, that no effective storytelling can ignore it.
And that plot is . . .
But I will leave this for Mr Booker to explain.