Descent, Retrieval and Return: An Archetype for Writers

Many of you would be familiar with the Greek myth concerning Orpheus and his journey to the underworld to bring back his recently deceased wife, Eurydice. A similar journey is undertaken by Odysseus in an episode of the Odyssey. Instead of searching for a person, he is on a quest to find information about how he is going to get home to Ithica. In 14th cent. Ireland an anonymous author committed to paper a story about a ship that appears in the air over a church in Clonmacnoise. An anchor is lowered to the ground amidst a group of monks. Then a man leaps from the air ship and, swimming in the air as if it were water, he retrieves the anchor. In JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, Gandalf goes down into a chasm in the mines of Moria to fight the Balrog. He returns later in the book, transformed into a new, more powerful Gandalf: Gandalf the White.

Noticing a pattern?

Yes, all the stories are about descent, retrieval and return. They are all versions of the same archetypal idea. There is much we can learn from this archetype, especially us authors if we draw a correlation with the process of creative writing.

To write convincingly, writers must dig deep. We try to access the sub consciousness and retrieve something. What is this something? Of course, it is truth. The truth about ourselves. The truth about the universe. Whoever said that writers are liars was wrong. Or at least they were wrong about genuine writers who try to give their readers something real. The ego lies but the sub conscious id never does.

Let’s take a closer look at one of the stories I outlined earlier: the voyage of Odysseus to the underworld. Odysseus visits Hades as he is trying to get home and needs directions from the seer, Tiresias. Before he meets Tiresias, he must confront the ghosts of his past. Someone once said that all writing is autobiographical. This insight supports the analogy I am trying to make. When we write, what else are we doing but confronting our own past? But Odysseus’ quest is to find out how he will get home. He needs Tiresias’ prophecy to discover this knowledge. How does this fit into our analogy? We’ve made the point that the writer confronts his own past but there is a huge chunk of the creative process we haven’t mentioned yet: the imagination. To see into the future, we need imagination. To get home, we need imagination. And the writer is lost without it just as Odysseus is lost without the prophet Tiresias. The fact that Tiresias is blind is significant. As is the tradition that Homer, the author of the Odyssey, himself was blind.

So, the two major resources of the creative writer are memory and imagination, ghost and prophecy. And these things bring truth. I won’t force this analogy any more.

Again, we learn from the ancient Greeks. Mythology and archetypes are there to help us achieve self-awareness and self-knowledge. One of the guiding maxims of the ancients was to ‘know thyself’. This is also the goal of psychoanalysis – to make the sub-conscious conscious.

The next time you put pen to paper, remember Odysseus and the underworld or the crewman from the air ship or Gandalf fighting the Balrog. If you want to write powerfully and convincingly you must take a journey into the unknown. There is no way around it. No detours.

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