The Seven Basic Plots. Why we tell stories
 London and New York: Continuum, 2005.
In the last chapter of the first part, “The Dark Power: From Shadow into Light,” the author examines from the point of view of small children the symbolism of stories like Peter Rabbit or Little Riding Hood (possibility of escape and return home), Jack and the Beanstalk (they must and can slay the giant, get a huge reward, and then return home) or The Three Little Pigs (possibility of escape, but do not return home), Aladdin (final reward: marriage and kingdom), all these stories helping them in the transition from childhood to maturity. He also finds the same underlying impulse from their own distinctive angle in the first three basic plots: “the idealised pattern of how any human being can travel on the long, tortuous journey of inner growth, finally emerging to a state of complete self-realisation” , whereas “Voyage and Return” stories show us “a hero who, in order to reach the goal, has to go through a complete shift in his psychological centre” . The same is true for Comedy, with in the end an emphasis on the whole community, who is eventually brought to unity and wholeness once “everyone has been freed to become his or her proper self” , whereas in Tragedy the heroes cannot go through “the inner transformation which could release them” , and in Rebirth they have to move “from the restricted awareness centred on the ego to that deeper centre in the human personality which opens out their understanding and unites them to all the world” . In the “Epilogue to Part One: The Rule of Three,” he examines the role played in stories by numbers, especially number three, “the number of growth and transformation” , noting that a three-fold rhythm provides stories with their most basic archetypal structure, and number four, the number of completion and perfection while “of course the supreme symbol of completion […] is the union of two people, hero and heroine, masculine and feminine, to make a whole” .
In “Part Two: The Complete Happy Ending” (8 chapters), the author explains “how all the host of characters who teem through story telling ultimately resolve down to a handful of archetypal figures” . He first re-examines the seven basic plots, showing for example how in Overcoming the Monster stories the hero needs masculine physical courage and wit to fight the monster but also has to be open to his inner feminine (represented by a passive heroine threatened by the monster, like Andromeda with Perseus or by an active one, like Ariadne with Theseus). In Voyage and Return stories, the emphasis is on the hero’s initial limitations, which he has to overcome to reach state of wider awareness. In Comedy darkness and confusion run through much of the story leading in the end to “the moment when the revealing truth can suddenly emerge from the shadows” . There are the same ‘dark figures’ as in the other plots, but all tend to be male: they represent the hard, negative side of masculinity and it is up to the heroine to represent true feeling and the promise of life. Tragedy on the other hand occupies a unique place among the basic plots, because in a sense it turns the essential pattern of the other main types upside down, for “in violating or rejecting the feminine outside themselves,” the dark masculine heroes “have become catastrophically closed off to the feminine value within themselves”  while often succumbing to the “dark feminine” (Cleopatra, Carmen, Lady Macbeth…) and at the same time becoming un-manned. To succeed in the Quest stories, the hero has to show such obvious manly qualities as outstanding physical and mental strength and stamina (Odysseus, Superman, Robin Hood, James Bond…), but he also has to possess a sense of order. The dark masculine however is based on the principle of separation and division of these qualities, so this type of hero is often either tyrannical or weak, especially when he has succumbed to the “dark feminine.” So he has to find a balance between his masculinity and his inner feminine. Rebirth stories show “how it is impossible to develop one side of the human personality fully, masculine or feminine, unless this is also given positive counter-balance by the other” . This idea ofthe perfect balance between the masculine principle of power and control and the feminine one of connection and joining together is found in most stories in the final union of the hero and heroine.
The author then analyses the four characters present in the archetypal family drama: first there are the father, mother and the child, and then the child grows up to adulthood and finds the “other half” necessary to “bring the whole process back to its starting point with the creation of a new child” . Dark Figures correspond to each of the four figures in this primordial drama, each posing a “particular negative threat which the hero or heroine must surmount by showing themselves as its positive equivalent” . He then goes on: “this essential pattern is programmed into our unconscious around a set of archetypes […]. If a story manages to reach the complete happy ending, what it shows us is its hero and heroine finally coming together to become a potential new Father/King and Mother/Queen, reflecting that process central to human life whereby each new generation grows up to succeed to the one before it.” Stories however are not concerned with this succession in its biological sense but with its psychology: “what they are showing us is those psychological qualities which are essential for the succession to take place in the right way”  and for the children’s “unrealised value” to become manifest to all, through stories of disregarded boys who become great kings (Perseus, David, The Lion King…). The question in many stories is not simply “can they get married?” but can they confront and overcome the fundamental problem of all human life: immaturity, which is synonymous with egotism?
The author then goes back to Tragedy, the odd one out because contrary to the other plots, which have a happy ending, it brings its central figure to a lonely, violent death, and tries and understands why. According to Aristotle, a “fatal flaw” (Greek word: hamartia) in the hero renders him unable to succeed (to be successful and to succeed to an inheritance) and makes him fall into the state of hubris (reckless arrogance, but etymologically the word means “stepping over the bounds”), so he tries to reach his goal (win power, sexual gratification) in the “wrong way.” Tragedy is the inverted form of the other plots, “an exact reversal of the pattern that leads to wholeness” , as is shown in the characters of Macbeth (“the strong man unmanned”), Dr Faustus (“the weak man unmanned”), Dr Jekyll (“the fantasy self”) or Humbert Humbert in Lolita (“the infantile anima” Lolita being “the dark child,” “a very rare figure in stories” ) and tragic heroes and heroines cannot develop either the masculine or feminine aspects of themselves completely and so become whole .
In “Part Three: Missing the Mark” (10 chapters), the author looks at what he calls “one of the oddest and most revealing developments in the evolution of storytelling” in the last two hundred years: stories that “have become detached from their underlying archetypal purpose” . He links that disintegration to the advent of Romanticism, a movement based on the Ego and not the Self. For him, the central question is then: what happens to the archetypal plots when they are appropriated by the ego? He re-examines once more the seven basic plots in this new light, starting with Rags-to-Riches stories and the example of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le noir: “whereas earlier storytellers down the ages had imagined their stories in accordance with the values of the Self, here was an author quite consciously creating a hero to defy those values” . As the story centres round a dark, egocentric hero, there is no way the plot can unfold to a fully-resolved archetypal happy ending. There are also sentimental (sentimentality being defined as “the false version of something real; the counterfeit of something which can inspire proper human emotions”  versions, especially stories made in the dream-factory of Hollywood and particularly Charlie Chaplin’s films. In its Romantic versions, the Rags to Riches story was thus becoming “not so much a reflection of the hero or the heroine’s inner growth towards eventual integration, but simply the vehicle for ego-centred fantasies or daydreams” . The Overcoming the Monster story is completely turned upside down in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for example as “it begins with a hero who is dark and a monster who is light; and ends with the hero being overcome by the monster” [356-57]. For the author, those changes in storytelling are linked to changes in the psychology of the Western man, who “in becoming emancipated from the constraints of nature like never before,” thanks to unprecedented advances in scientific knowledge, “was also becoming in a new way alienated: not just from the natural world outside him but from the deeper levels of his own nature” [364-65]. As for the film King Kong, it is less dark than Frankenstein, but again there is no proper archetypal ending as the monster was by no means wholly a monster; in some respects “less so than those little modern men, trapped in their limited ego-consciousness, whose strength was all projected outward through their machines, while their sense of the feminine was non-existent” . In Jurassic Park the hero does not even overcome the monster but simply makes “a thrilling escape from death.” Usually in war-stories (like The Guns of Navarone), even if the “monster” is destroyed, the story of the hero’s personal maturing has disappeared, and the same applies in James Bond films. The author then turns to the first Star Wars film: apparently, George Lucas deliberately tried to follow the archetypal ground rules (under the influence of Joseph Campbell, “the distinguished American writer on the symbolic role of the hero in world myth and folklore”  but nonetheless got it wrong on two counts: the heroine (Princess Leia) is rescued but the monster (Darth Vader) is left alive and the film does not end in the union of the hero and heroine, but with two male figures, Han Solo and Luke Skywalker, walking up together through a roomful of cheering people. This is for the author a typical aspect of the endemic immaturity of the American character: the “highest prize may not be to achieve individual maturity but simply to earn the approbation of the crowd, the collective, one’s own group, one’s fellow citizens” .
As for Quest stories, they were now dominated by “the destruction of some figure symbolising wholeness and light” , for example in Richardson’ Clarissa, who was to become the prototype of “the persecuted maiden,” which in turn was to lead to Sade’s novels. A “less dark” version of the Quest, like Richard Adams’ Watership Down, was little more than an escapist and rather melancholy dream. “Dark” versions for Voyage and Return stories include Kafka’s The Trial. Tragedy in turn was taken over by the ego as the typical romantic hero/heroine was no longer seen as the author of his/her own misfortunes (Lear, Anna Karenina) but as a victim of fate (Goethe’s Werther). It then became fashionable to have “dark, tragic endings without any redeeming sense that the forces of life had triumphed” , particularly in opera (Verdi’s Rigoletto, Wagner’s Ring, Puccini’s Madame Butterfly). The author then turns to a particular case-study, that of Thomas Hardy, because his novels show us “the pattern of disintegration actually taking place”  and “a particularly vivid picture of a process that was taking place all over the Western world in the XIXth and early XXth centuries”, when people “were losing contact with much of that which had helped root human existence in the Self”  because of industrialisation, loss of religious faith and morality, etc. According to him, there are two distinguishing features in Hardy’s novels. First, they are sharply polarised: on the one end, we find interchangeable characters representing “the timeless virtues of unselfish goodness and practical common sense” who look on “shrewdly but sadly, while others in the story get carried away by self-deceiving fantasies, recklessly encompassing their own destruction”; and on the other a male figure, “a predator on women, dark, heartless, without roots or moral centre, who inflicts misery and destruction on all who fall under his spell” . Second, they are centred on “their characters’ hopeless search for the right partner,” “the ‘other half’ who would make them whole” .
Christopher Booker then examines examples of “the passive ego” in XXth century literature, where he sees “the Disappearance of the Self,” in particular in the plays of Anton Chekov and in Proust’s À La Recherche du temps perdu, which he brands “the greatest monument to human egotism in the history of story-telling” . For him, Beckett’s Waiting for Godot marks the end of the road for while evoking the “missing Self more hauntingly than any other story of the age,” we are presented with “all the rootless emptiness of life when viewed just through the ego” . What happens when storytelling moves exclusively into the world of the ego is that stories no longer centre round the archetypal opposition between darkness and light and so the characters appear in a kind of twilight and cannot go through any real inner transformation. Only three “pseudo-endings” are then possible, and sometimes combined: a “shocking act of violence”; a circular ending, which refers back in some way to its beginning; or a narrator who “tries to make a virtue of the fact that nothing has been resolved” [438-39]. So by the mid-XXth century, “the tradition of storytelling, which through myths and legends, plays and novels, had for thousand of years provided mankind with its richest single store of meaning, was at last being sucked down into a black hole of nothingness” . This was also reflected in XXth century art in general: for example in music with John Cage’s “4.33” or science-fiction films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). The author then turns to examples of “the active ego” and wonders why there is such an obsession with sex and violence intwentieth-century literature, while admitting they have always been present before, but according to him mainly off-stage, as in Titus Andronicus. He starts with Sade’s Justine, where the archetypal values are turned on their head: he describes this “shining symbolic figure being defiled and violated in every way he can imagine, by a series of male and female monsters who in every case end up […] prospering from their villainy” [460-61]. He defines the “fantasy spiral”: no satisfactory resolution being possible, there is a need to constantly ‘up the dose’ “simply to sustain the sense of gratification” . In Lady Chatterley’s Lover, by “trying to evangelise for his belief that physical sexuality between a man and a woman can stand for the totality of love,” D. H. Lawrence has in turn sought to defy the archetypes . Then with the great psychological watershed of the late 1950s and early 1960s came the “compulsion constantly to push the bounds of what was permissible a little further”  in novels but also in films (Hitchcock’s Psycho, Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris, Hopper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), plays (Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade, Edward Bond’s Saved). This was accompanied by the collapse of plot and structure (Resnais’s L’Année dernière à Marienbad). Ego-centred sex and violence had now become an established part of the landscape. With the rise of the feminist movement came a conscious rejection of those values which had traditionally been understood as “feminine” and a “new emphasis on the importance of asserting that ‘masculine’ element in the female psyche which Jung terms the animus”  as for example Clarice Starling in The Silence of the Lambs and Catherine in Basic Instinct. But according to the author these “fantasy” stories quickly run into a dead end, because when the archetype is defied the story cannot be brought to a proper resolution and peters out, “leaving the audience curiously unsatisfied” .
For the author, the Self is “obviously represented in the symbolism and myths associated with the world’s religions” . In the biblical story of Job, “compared with the majesty of this super-mind which has created every last, minute detail of the universe, he knows nothing,” however he is also part of the totality, whereas in Huxley’s Brave New World and Orwell’s 1984 that once-religious hunger for a sense of totality “took on political expression,” most notably “through those totalitarian political systems which in the XXth century came to be imposed over large parts of mankind” .
Christopher Booker then analyses mystery story, which are for him “a by-product of that shift in the psychological centre of gravity which has characterised storytelling since the rise of Romanticism”  and which he characterises as a harmless form of self-indulgence operating on the level of fantasy or daydream.
He concludes the third part on a discussion of two major plays: Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, “the supreme story in the world of a man having to face up to his own guilt, on a cosmic scale” as “he has offended against one of the most fundamental laws of nature”  and Hamlet, which deals with the infinite capacity of human beings to put on a false front to the world. If however no idea is more central to storytelling than that of one generation succeeding to another, and of the need for the hero to reach true maturity so that it can be achieved in the right way, then Hamlet is seen as unable to achieve it .
In “Part Four: Why We Tell Stories” (4 chapters), the author explains that stories first “tell us who we are,” through different versions of how the world came into being: the Judeo-Christian version, the “evolutionary” version “with the image of a single created object set in the primeval void,” and the ‘Big Bang’ theory, with its story of life seen as rather a succession of Rags to Riches stories . The chief archetypes—Mother, Father, animus and anima, Child and their negative aspects—“represent all the most basic roles that human beings can be called on to play in the central instinctive process whereby the life of the species is continued” . The most important archetype is the Self, which represents the sense of totality. The central purpose of storytelling is to show us how the state of balance between masculine and feminine elements in our personalities can be achieved (and how and why we fall short of achieving it). Each of the basic plots develops one particular aspect of this self-realisation. The subtlest message of the archetypal “rule of three” is that “the way of growth, allowing a story to reach a happy ending, lies not just in taking a middle way between two inadequate extremes; it lies in achieving that third state, transcending both, which alone can bring about the transformation necessary to reconnect with life” .
The real significance of our ability to tell stories is twofold. Firstly it provides a uniquely revealing mirror to the inner dynamics of human nature. But secondly, “by laying bare the unconscious foundations which underlie so much of the way we view the world, this can in turn cast an extraordinary revealing light on history, politics, religion, philosophy and almost every aspect of human thought and behaviour”  because there is an archetypal structure underlying all of them, particularly that of Tragedy, “the only archetypal plot which is not concerned with showing how its central figure or figures can eventually transcend egotism” . The Overcoming the Monster archetype has shaped human responses to real-life situations all through history, for example very recently in the way Saddam Hussein was built up in the West as an archetypal monster, as were Osama bin Laden but also President Bush across the Moslem world and elsewhere in a “perfect example of mutual projection, with each side projecting all the darkness in the world onto the other” .
The author then tackles “the most obvious of the ways in which, since far back into prehistory, human beings have tried to reconcile the psychic split which arose from the moment they began emerging from a state of nature” , through myths for example (The Epic of Gilgamesh). He then traces the evolution from religions with a multitude of deities to a form of One-ness, such as the Tao in China, Buddhism in India, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. While recognising the underlying archetypes in the story of Jesus, he nonetheless points out that ”in fact the image of God presented by Jesus had no real precedent, in that it combines in such perfect balance the four archetypal attributes of the Self” (strength, order, compassion, understanding ).
He then turns to another role of storytelling: explaining what happens to human beings when they die. There again the belief in a divine judgement and that human beings are rewarded or punished according to how they have lived on earth springs from “that archetypal pattern, coded into the unconscious, which tells us that to live by the ego must lead ultimately to destruction, whereas to live in accordance with the Self reconnects us with ‘the One’ which is eternal” (, shown in Dante’s The Divine Comedy). However, by the eighteenth century, as literature and painting were no longer capable of reaching the psychological and spiritual depths of the human psyche, it was up to music to express “that power by which great art harmonises consciousness with the Self” . Furthermore, in psychological terms folk tales provide “as perfect a reflection of the underlying archetypes of storytelling as anything we find in more self-consciously sophisticated forms of literature.” Even though there is nothing overtly religious or “Christian” about these stories, “they can be seen to reflect the same fundamental picture of human nature as what underlies Christianity or other religions, because they spring so directly from the same archetypal roots”.
The final chapter, “the Age of Loki,” from the Norse God who personifies ego-consciousness, looks at “how storytelling has reflected the evolving consciousness of Western civilization over the past 200 years” . The author associates the “Age of Romanticism,” which ended with World War I, with “cloudy sentimentality, the disintegration of form, the sensational striving for effect” , in literature as well as in music as he contrasts Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, whose music was “shaped by that instinctive harmony between conscious and unconscious” and Berlioz, Schumann, Litszt, Wagner. Then he sees periods of re-emergence of the Self (in Britain during World War II for example when each individual had its “part to play in the cosmic battle between the powers of darkness and those of light” , or the Thatcher years) alternating with periods of re-emergence of the ego (the 1920s, the 1980s-onward, where the first generation of “mother’s boys” leaders “whose coming to adulthood had been shaped by the values prevailing in the late 1960s and 1970s” came to power, conspicuously lacking in any firm moral “centre,” such as “the vain, promiscuous President Clinton,” and “the puer aeternus figure of Tony Blair who, as much as any politician before him, relied on projecting a fantasy-image of himself which bore scant relation to reality” . He ends with a chapter entitled “the story of mankind” where he concludes that what stories can tell us “much more profoundly than we have realised, is how our human nature works and why we think and behave in this world as we do” .
Finally, he starts his “Epilogue: The Light and the Shadows on the Wall,” with Plato’s parable of the Cave and concludes it on reflections on the origin of the words “hero” and “heroine,” which “must be closely related in some way to our word ‘heir’. In other words, the hero or the heroine is he or she who is born to inherit; who is worthy to succeed; who must grow up as fit to take on the torch of life from those who went before. Such is the task laid out on each of us as we come into this world. That is what stories are trying to tell us.” 
The Indexes are welcome, and so is the “Glossary of Terms,” as it provides summaries of the Jungian concepts used by the author. There are on the other hand almost no literary definitions.
This very long book is very ambitious since it purports to build up “a picture of something much deeper and more general than just a catalogue of story-types” and claims to uncover “the essential core of the way stories are made, how they work and what they are about” . To achieve this, it looks at all kinds of story telling (fairy-tales, plays, novels, films…) on the same level, without any hierarchy, because its main argument is that all stories are shaped by “the same archetypal rules” and “spun from the same universal language” . At the very beginning for example, we go from the 1970s film Jaws to a summary of Beowulf. So the literary qualities of the texts cited are never analysed or even mentioned. Moreover, even though there are indeed lots of references, it is often the same stories (Macbeth, Anna Karenina, The Odyssey, Jane Eyre…) that are re-told over and over again. Repetitions, inevitable in a book of that size, are also due to the chosen structure of the work, as in each part the author re-examines the seven basic plots he has identified from a different point of view. There are also a few inevitable mistakes, some of them trivial (Romeo’s first love is Rosalind and not Rosaline ; Poe’s detective is Dupin and not Dupuin, repeated three times ; the Moslems’s advance was halted by the Franks at Poitiers, not Tours ), some more serious: for example the reported ending of The Go-Between (“Marian, now an old woman who, after the scandal, had never married” )is in fact wrong (she had married Hugh Trimingham even though she was pregnant with Ted Burgess’ child);Meaulnes is not “left childless, loveless and alone”  at the end of Alain-Fournier’s novel as he leaves with the daughter he had with Yvonne; Hyde is not “a hideous, deformed monster” , he is a smaller and younger version of Jekyll.
The author also seems to mention the version of folk tales that fit in best with his theory: for example, in Little Riding Hood, the happy ending version, not the Perrault one where the disobedient little girl is eaten by the wolf. Moreover when Perrault’s version of Cinderalla does not agree with his “rule of three” (as in Perrault Cinderalla goes to the ball only twice), Christopher Booker dismisses Perrault’s version as “already corrupted” and adds that perhaps Perrault had decided to shorten the story “because he did not understand the significance of The Rule of Three” . Other celebrated writers are also somewhat presumptuously faulted, thus Joyce: “one puzzle raised by (Ulysses) is why Joyce should have been attracted to creating a modern rival to a story of which he seems to have had so little understanding” ; Freud, who “had recognised, correctly but without full understanding […] that in the pattern of human development, a man who has not fully realised his masculinity remains frozen under the spell of the ‘Dark Mother’” ; or even Jung, who “failed fully to appreciate” how profoundly this also applies to the whole process whereby we imagine stories . The systematic use of the Jungian archetypes to analyse all sorts of stories (Jung himself analysing only dreams) is interesting but this could be stretching them to the limit. The author also passes moral judgement on writers he obviously does not like, explaining their works by their miserable lives: “most Voyage and Return stories,” he says for example, “tell us more about the particular psychological shortcomings of their authors, such as Waugh or Salinger or Lewis Carroll or J. M. Barrie, than they do about the deeper levels of human nature” ; or “Cate (the heroine of the play Blasted by Sarah Kane, who wrote it when she was 23 and hanged herself at 28) is a projection of the authoress’ own repressed inner feminity […] It is a tragically familiar pattern in real life that, when such conflict develops in a woman’s personality, the aggression of her dark animus may eventually turn in on itself, driving her to suicide” ; or again with Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch: she wrote it because “she was the child of a weak, self-centred father and a domineering mother. She was thus not provided by either of her parents with a mature gender model” , or again, considering Stendhal’s Julien Sorel in Le Rouge et le noir as simply “a fantasy projection of the emotionally immature author himself” . This of course ties in with the obvious conservatism of the author, a self-confessed admirer of Mrs Thatcher [688-89] and a euro-skeptic denouncing “the increasingly technocratic nature of government, manifested, for instance, in the rise of the European Union”, who always writes ‘progressive’ between inverted commas as if it were a dirty word (“Penelope Gilliatt, a leading ‘progressive’ critic” ; “Kenneth Tynan, the leading ‘progressive’ critic” ) and deplores the aspirations of women to move beyond their perceived archetypal roles as wives and mothers. But perhaps the greatest problem I found with this book was its strictly plot-oriented approach to literary criticism: if we only take into account the “what happens” in novels, for instance, then works like Joyce’s Ulysses or Proust’s À la Recherche du temps perdu do not have very much to offer compared to action-packed (and much shorter) novels like King Solomon’s Mines or the James Bond stories. Of course as E.M. Forster reluctantly and “a little sadly” pointed out, “Yes – oh dear yes – the novel tells a story” (Aspects of the Novel,  Pelican: Harmondsworth, 1982, 53), but the attempts by great writers at going beyond “the tyranny of the plot” and invent new forms of storytelling surely deserve more than being casually dismissed as “essay(s) in self-absorbed futility,” as Christopher Booker calls Proust’s À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.