09 September 2009

Embracing What's Come Before

Merriam-Webster defines original (adj.) as "not secondary, derivative, or imitative" or as "independent and creative in thought or action".

M-W defines an archetype (n.) as "the original pattern or model of which all things of the same type are representations or copies".

When we look to the ever-helpful Wikipedia for guidance, we learn that Tolkein's beloved Gandalf is an archetypal figure himself, the wizard-as-advisor, of the likes Merlin — who himself was quite possibly modeled after religious authority types (like Odin).

Hold up, JRR Tolkein, the father of modern fantasy, was unoriginal? His main characters had been done before? His venerated series is allegory?

You may be wondering why the Hell I'm giving you a vocab lesson. The truth is, I think that we (writers, agents, etc.) can use the reminder. There is a big difference between the use of an archetype and a lack of originality.

The goal of a work of fiction, as far as I am concerned, is to pull something new and exciting out of those old stories and characters – out of the familiar. That balance of new and old is what makes a great story great, in part at least.

We've got to move past the anything-with-a-school-is-like-Harry-Potter and anything-with-a-butt-kicking-female-protagonist-is-a-Buffy-rip-off reactions. See stories for what they are, and if they're good enough, it won't matter how many tropes the author used.


Kimberly said...


You know my feelings on this topic -- and I'm completely with you! I wish we could all say this to each other more often, rather than point out the lack of originality in one another's work. Joseph Campbell's Hero with a 1000 Faces says most journey stories proceed through the same phases or steps, which is a mirror image of the lifespan, where we all journey through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and the elder years. That's not to say that the stories that do so are bad, rather I think of it as evidence that certain archetypes in stories resonate with us and our own personal lives in such a way that it appeals to (... can I say this without sounding like a total nerd? ...) our collective unconscious.

Trisha Pearson said...

Very good point!

Samantha Elliott said...

Thanks! *blush* I try not to get on my soap box if I can help it, but since I've be distracted by life lately, it seems that's where my blogging muse has taken me.

Nicole Celine said...

Just to point something out...Tolkien actually refused to call his story allegorical. Yes, in various ways they can be seen as allegorical, but he refused to have his books labeled as such.

It's one reason he stopped talking to C.S. Lewis. Tolkien thought that the Narnia series was too obvious and Tolkien loved subtly.

If you don't believe me, start looking up the word schemes going on in the name of "Baggins." ;)

But I do love the point you make. Quest stories have been done before-in fact I think you and I had a discussion on quest stories-but that doesn't make them any less original.

But Twilight-no matter how original-will always suck (no pun intended).

Samantha Elliott said...

The point you make about Tolkien spurning the allegory label is very interesting! I bet there are a lot of authors out there who wish that they could apply their own labels to their books... hmm....