Literature is full of similar characters, situations and symbols. These familiar patterns are called archetypes. Literary archetypes represent common elements of human life -- universally recognized symbols, themes and stories. Archetypes recur throughout literature, from ancient Greek to British romanticism to contemporary novels. Authors often use archetypes because they are relatable, familiar and emotionally powerful, and therefore resonate with readers. Some critics believe the key to understanding literature is to understand archetypes.
Characters are perhaps the most recognizable archetype in literature. Nearly every story has a hero, a character who must restore harmony to a community -- think of Harry Potter or Frodo from “The Lord of the Rings” series. Similarly, nearly every story has a villain or devil figure, the character who represents evil -- like Lord Voldemort. Sometimes the archetype is a redeemable villain, a figure who is saved by the hero’s nobility. Other archetypes exist to help the hero, such as the hero’s loyal friends or the mentor, who often appears as a wise old man, like Gandalf or Merlin. Other common character archetypes include the star-crossed lovers, the earth mother, the outcast, the underdog and the damsel in distress.
Familiar stories and situations are known as situational archetypes. Perhaps the best-known is the quest -- the hero’s search for someone or something that, when found, will restore harmony or bring justice to a community. Similarly, the task --when the hero must accomplish a feat -- and the journey, which includes a series of trials and tribulations, are also common. Think of Frodo in “The Lord of the Rings,” who must return the ring to Mordor in order to save Middle Earth. Another situational archetype is the fall, in which the hero suffers a loss of innocence, such as King Arthur and Adam and Eve in "Paradise Lost." Other common situational archetypes include the battle between good and evil and the death and rebirth archetype, in which someone or something dies, yet is accompanied by some sign of birth or rebirth -- like Aslan the lion in "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe."
Color is a powerful archetype with deep emotional associations. Literature often features the archetypes of light versus darkness, with light suggesting hope, goodness, innocence or intellectual illumination, while darkness represents ignorance, despair, death or evil. Red can indicate blood or violence, but also birth, energy and fire. Green is commonly associated with fertility, nature and growth. Blue, such as a clear sky, frequently suggests themes of devotion, truth and spirituality. Gold and silver also often appear as literary archetypes, with gold representing the sun, truth and wealth, and silver as symbols of the moon or money.
Archetypes Related to Nature
Literature often includes archetypes related to nature, symbolizing life, growth and death. Water is among the most common archetypes, representing birth or spiritual rebirth, such as in a baptism. Fire suggests life, power and the ability to transform -- think of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. Trees often represent knowledge, but a forest can indicate being lost or fearful. Many nature archetypes are meant to symbolize spirituality, such as the Wind, which frequently represents the Holy Spirit, or valleys, which can indicate evil. Celestial symbols -- the sun, stars and the moon -- are also common literary archetypes, symbolizing guidance, brightness, enlightenment and transition. Other archetypes in nature include ice or snow, which indicates coldness and sterility, or lightening, which suggests inspiration or intuition.