Once Upon a Time

Reviewed by Denis Dutton
Sunday, May 8, 2005


Why We Tell Stories

By Christopher Booker. Continuum. 728 pp. $34.95

In the summer of 1975, moviegoers flocked to see the story of a predatory shark terrorizing a little Long Island resort. The film told of how three brave men go to sea in a small boat and, after a bloody climax in which they kill the monster, return peace and security to their town -- not unlike, Christopher Booker observes, a tale enjoyed by Saxons dressed in animal skins, huddled around a fire some 1,200 years earlier. Beowulf also features a town terrorized by a monster, Grendel, who lives in a nearby lake and tears his victims to pieces. Again, the hero Beowulf returns peace to his town after a bloody climax in which the monster is slain.

Such echoes have impelled Booker to chart what he regards as the seven plots on which all literature is built. Beowulf and "Jaws" follow the first and most basic of his plots, "Overcoming the Monster." It is found in countless stories from The Epic of Gilgamesh and "Little Red Riding Hood" to James Bond films such as "Dr. No." This tale of conflict typically recounts the hero's ordeals and an escape from death, ending with a community or the world itself saved from evil.

Booker's second plot is "Rags to Riches." He places in this category "Cinderella," "The Ugly Duckling," David Copperfield and other stories that tell of modest, downtrodden characters whose special talents or beauty are at last revealed to the world for a happy ending.

Next in Booker's taxonomy is "the Quest," which features a hero, normally joined by sidekicks, traveling the world and fighting to overcome evil and secure a priceless treasure (or in the case of Odysseus, wife and hearth). The hero not only gains the treasure he seeks, but also the girl, and they end as king and queen. Related to this is Booker's fourth category, "Voyage and Return," exemplified by Robinson Crusoe , Alice in Wonderland and The Time Machine . The protagonist leaves normal experience to enter an alien world, returning after what often amounts to a thrilling escape.

In "Comedy," Booker suggests, confusion reigns until at last the hero and heroine are united in love. "Tragedy" portrays human overreaching and its terrible consequences. The last of the plots of his initial list is "Rebirth," which centers on characters such as Dickens's Scrooge, Snow White and Dostoyevsky's Raskolnikov. To this useful system he unexpectedly adds two more plots: "Rebellion" to cover the likes of 1984 and "Mystery" for the recent invention of the detective novel.

Booker, a British columnist who was founding editor of Private Eye, possesses a remarkable ability to retell stories. His prose is a model of clarity, and his lively enthusiasm for fictions of every description is infectious. He covers Greek and Roman literature, fairy tales, European novels and plays, Arabic and Japanese tales, Native American folk tales, and movies from the silent era on. He is an especially adept guide through the twists and characters of Wagner's operas. His artfully entertaining summaries jogged many warm memories of half-forgotten novels and films.

I wish that an equal amount of pleasure could be derived from the psychology on which he bases his hypothesis. Booker has been working on this project for 34 years, and his quaint psychological starting point sadly shows its age. He believes that Carl Jung's theory of archetypes and self-realization can explain story patterns. Alas, Jung serves him poorly.

Malevolent characters, for example, are constantly described by Booker as selfish "Dark Figures" who symbolize overweening egotism. (Booker is from a generation of critics who used to think that simply identifying a symbol in literature can explain anything you please.) In Jungian terms, the dark power of the ego is the source of all evil, along with another of Booker's favorite Jungian ideas, the denial of the villain's "inner feminine."

Granted, egotism may explain the wickedness of someone like Edmund in "King Lear." But Grendel? The shark in "Jaws"? Oedipus is arguably a more egotistical character than Iago, who in his devious cruelty is still far more evil. The malevolence of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park or the Cyclops in The Odyssey lies not in their egotism. These creatures just have a perfectly natural taste for mammalian flesh. They are frightening, dramatic threats, to be sure, but not symbols of anything human. Sometimes in fiction, as Freud might have said, a monster is just a monster.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2005 The Washington Post Company