Allusions, Archetypes, and Writing from the Soup

I don’t know about you, but I love reading books that allude to other stories or bodies of knowledge. The allusions can be as simple as character or place names or as complex as a borrowed plot. These allusions—when most skillfully handled—require no explanation but deepen the experience of the story for readers aware of the reference.

One great example that comes to mind is the naming of some of the characters in the Harry Potter series. Let’s start with one of my favorite characters, Sirius Black. Sirius, along with his brother Regulus (and some other members of the family), are named after stars. The star Sirius, it so happens, is also known as the “Dog Star” and is in the constellation Canis Major (Greater Dog). Now, not knowing that Sirius is the Dog Star, and thus, Sirius Black’s name actually describes his Animagus form of a big black dog, doesn’t detract from a reader’s experience of The Prisoner of Azkaban. But knowing it deepens the experience. The very name is a clue. The reader in the know can anticipate the revelation of the identity of the mysterious black dog following Harry with the notorious escaped prisoner Sirius Black.

Likewise, the name of Professor Lupin, another favorite character introduced in The Prisoner of Azkaban, reveals his secret. While the allusions will escape a reader who doesn’t know that the professor’s first name, Remus, is that of one of the brothers raised by wolves in the Roman myth or that Lupin is a form of the Latin word for “wolf,” those who do know will not be surprised at the revelation that Lupin is a werewolf. And when the revelation comes, they will read it with the satisfaction of knowing they knew all along.

I love the multi-layered feeling that such allusions provide to a story, giving it depth by pulling in additional information or worlds with a very economical use of words. Allusions to mythology, fairy tales, or classic literature—those stories that are so deeply ingrained in our culture that they are easily recognizable—can be the most powerful.

Similar to allusion is the use of familiar tropes or plotlines, for example, the Cinderella story, the Beauty and the Beast story, or the Hero’s Quest. These stories are all archetypes that have been used over and over and over—and they can always be made new. A writer can adapt the plot and make it her own, but the archetypal nature of the plot enriches the writer’s story, because it carries the original and all the many variations along with it. When, as writers, we adapt this kind of archetypal plot, not only are our own stories enriched, but they too become part of the common story as they are added to the collective of stories sharing that plot.

All this information, from myths to fairy tales to science to popular culture, makes up what I think of as “the soup.” It surrounds us or supports us, a kind of Jungian collective unconscious, chock full of stuff for us to draw on for inspiration—or perhaps stuff that jumps out at us as inspiration. Somewhere in the soup, images and plots and characters come together, and then they go looking for an author.

In her wonderful TED Talk on “Your elusive creative genius,” writer Elizabeth Gilbert describes an interview she did with an elderly poet who spoke of experiencing her poems as thundering across the landscape toward her. When she felt one coming, she said, all she could do was run and hope to get to a pencil and paper in time to write it down. Otherwise, the poem would blow right through her on its search for someone to author it. She said she sometimes could catch a poem just as it was about to pass through her and drag it back, and when she did, she wrote the poem in reverse. (If you haven’t heard Gilbert’s TED talk, please do yourself a favor and listen to it. She offers amazing advice on writing and creativity.)

I am blown away by this poet’s story—and just writing it down for this blog post makes my eyes fill with tears—because it feels so true. While I’ve never felt chased by a poem in that way or pulled one back into my body to transcribe in reverse, I do have the sense that my poems and stories are revealed to me, that they just bubble up from the soup, and I am honored that they chose me to author them—as well as terrified that I won’t do them justice (but that’s part and parcel of the writing game too).

Whether we get our inspiration from the soup—either by searching or by being found—or whether we refer to some pieces of the soup in the use of archetypal plots or economical allusions, we can all be aided by positioning our work as part of something bigger. In that way, the experience of our work (both the reader’s experience and our own) and the experience of the collective are deepened and enriched.

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12 Responses to Allusions, Archetypes, and Writing from the Soup

  1. Pingback: Stories We Tell – janetkwest

  2. ioniamartin says:

    Reblogged this on readful things blog and commented:
    Writers! Read this:) You will be happy you did!

  3. I’m linking to this on my Facebook page–beautifully said!

  4. petchary says:

    Isn’t this trying to find the muse, and hoping the muse will find you? And when she does… I love the idea of that poem chasing you down. Thrilling!

    • sstamm625 says:

      Yeah, I think so. Isn’t that story awesome? I love it too. It really does me make me cry every time I tell anyone about it–or even think about it too much.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful post. You’ve touched on one of my hot buttons: metaphor. I believe that metaphor–allusion, archetype and symbols–is the BIOS of thought…to use a metaphor.

    Metaphor allows us to experience the unfamiliar in familiar terms. Metaphor is economical. If you write, “her marraige is a nightmare”, your reader doesn’t have to know the particulars of the relationship, but knows that it is unpleasant, emotional, and difficult to escape.

    Similarly, archetypes resonate. Our experience includes the hero, mentor, ally, shapeshifter, trickster, herald, adversary, etc. These are seen collectively in the myths of every culture (says Joseph Campbell) and individually in the formation of imago in the infant consciousness.

    What a delight to recognize an archetype in someone’s story!

    Allusion goes off the rails (another metaphor) when references are merely sly. I’ve never read Harry Potter (gasp!) so I don’t know if the characters you cite have canine or lupine behaviors. That the names enrich your experience rather than detract from it, speaks well of Rowling’s craft.

    Thanks, too, for the reference to Ms. Gilbert’s Ted talk. I’ll be sure to check it out.

    You might enjoy the book, “Metaphors We Live By” (George Lakoff & Mark Johnson). The text demands concentration because the authors employ metaphorical and literal meaning. Lakoff and Johnson believe that metaphor is central to thinking. For example, consider the metaphors, “ideas are objects”, “words are containers” and, “communication is a conduit”. We ‘have’ ideas: they are objects capable of being possessed. We ‘put’ them into words–again, ideas are objects, and words are containers. We seek to ‘get’ ideas ‘across’–speech is a conduit..

    Heady stuff. Thanks for starting the train of thought.(Thought has motion–it can start–and is a vehicle.)

    Sorry to write such a long response. I didn’t have time to write a short one.

    • sstamm625 says:

      Awesome, thoughtful response, Harry. And I’m glad you took the less time-consuming route of the long one! So much information here. Yes, metaphor is so, so important. And I’m surprised at the number of people in the world who don’t get it and insist on taking too many things literally–and missing out on the richness of the metaphorical. Thanks for the recommendation of the Lakoff and Johnson book. I’ll definitely have to look it up!

  6. L. Marie says:

    I’m playing blog catch-up today. I’m so glad you posted this. I love allusions!!! That’s what I love about Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. He has hundreds of allusions to other works. They make his series so much richer. Thanks also for the link to the TED Talk. I will listen to it as soon as I finish typing this comment.

    • sstamm625 says:

      Thanks! The TED Talk is awesome! I’ve never read the Discworld books–though I’ve heard good things about them and should. I loved Good Omens, the book Pratchett wrote with Neil Gaiman.

  7. Pingback: Part 3 of The Sticky Situation: Part 3: Dr. Michael LeSouse-Rowes, or How I Learned to Shut Up & Accept Who I Really Am | FanFiction Fridays

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