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I think today I’m going to nerd out just a little bit–but I’ll try to keep my literary-ness to a minimum!

Have you ever read a book–perhaps a fantasy book–and thought, hmmm, this is similar to such-and-such book?

Well, if you’ve thought that, you haven’t been wrong. Especially in the world of fantasy. When I talked about the definition of fantasy, I mentioned archetypes. In the world of English, (aka–nerd world) an archetype is a term thrown around in literary criticism from the psychology of this guy named Carl Jung who talks about a “collective unconscious of the human race.” Basically, his idea is that we all think alike in some way. So as a literary term, archetype applies to “an image, a descriptive detail, a plot pattern, or a character type that occurs frequently in literature, myth, religion, or folklore…” There’s more to the definition, but it’s boring.

What I’m trying to say is that fantasy relies heavily on archetypes. For instance–think of Gandolf from Lord of the Rings, Dumbledore from Harry Potter, and Merlin from King Arthur legends. Do they seem similar to you? Perhaps–wizard-y, older, a wise mentor to a young boy on an adventurous quest? They’re pretty much one-and-the same sometimes. Essentially, these characters are archetypal characters or characters all based on the same type of qualities.

Now, not only does fantasy rely heavily on these similar, standard characters, but on plot lines as well. In particularly, two specific plotlines: The Hero Quest and the Growth of Maturity of the Female “Hero”. (If you want to be super nerdy, read Joseph Cambell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He’s a theorist who explores how all myths share a fundamental structure–the hero journey.)

I’ve always found this journey/quest interesting because no matter what sort of story or myth I read, this pattern exists. At times it’s what makes stories great (think Harry Potter or Star Wars) but sometimes I just want something new. I had a professor tell me this year that she’s waiting for the day she reads a middle grade novel about a heroine who doesn’t follow this pattern–so that’s my new goal in book writing.

I’m about to reveal my nerdiness here in the breakdown of quests, so act excited with me…

First up is the hero quest pattern–or what happens when there’s a boy protagonist (main character) in a fantasy novel:


For some reason, a boy’s journey is much smaller than a girl’s. Ok, not just for some reason. If you really want to get all theory-like and analytical on these patterns, they have a lot to do with gender and ideology in the novel. (Ideology is a sociopolitical belief often about people’s status or how much power they have in society.) What I mean is–these patterns reveal a lot about how society views gender and power.

For instance, the hero pattern is a cultural pattern that focuses on triumph. There are notions of resiliency, the need to believe, and hope. In order to succeed in his quest to independence, the male hero often has to kill off the bad guy. There’s an sense of a home-away pattern in that the hero starts at home and ventures off on this quest only to find independence and make a life of his own.

The female quest pattern is slightly different because the heroine doesn’t necessarily go on quests. Instead of focusing on independence, her pattern focuses on emotions, home, relationships, and the growth of her maturity. It falls into a home-away-home pattern in that she leaves home but always returns because she didn’t find independence, only emotion. (I know. Kind of gross. Where are these strong girls???) But, the hero pattern can be applied to literature with heroines, it’s just that critics often overlook it.  It goes back to the idea of gender and ideology and what our society thinks of men and women. (Don’t worry–I won’t get into that.) Anyway, here it is:


Ok, enough with the boring! Here’s how The Hero Quest plays out in Harry Potter. SPOILERS if you haven’t read it.

  • Unusual birth = There is a prophecy when Harry is born
  • Finds a mentor = Dumbledore (who eventually dies so Harry can triumph)
  • Goes on quest = searches out horcruxes to defeat Voldemort to save humanity
  • Dies = Sort of in book 7 when he fights Volde (AND the scene takes place in the subway so he’s underground which is also symbolic)
  • Reborn = comes out of scene with Dumbledore and finally has power to defeat Volde

Granted, this hero pattern spans seven books but the crazy thing is, if you broke down the plotline of each Harry Potter novel there is evidence that this hero pattern exists in each book. I’m not giving it to you as homework or anything–but I challenge you to discover the quest pattern!

Here’s how the female pattern plays out in A Wrinkle in Time:

  • separation from family = Meg leaves her family and is whisked away through time
  • enters green world / has guide = the planet Uriel is Meg’s magical setting & her guides are the Mrs. W’s
  • meets a “lover” = a lover can just be someone who cares for the heroine and in this case it’s Calvin
  • confronts authority = goes against IT (fails and tesseracts away)
  • plunges into unconsciousness = is literally unconscious on Ixcel
  • finds strength internally = during this time discovers she can save her brother because she has LOVE which is her strength
  • reconfronts authority / succeeds = goes against IT again and saves her family
  • reunited with family = finds Dad again and they all go home

This is all probably much more than you ever wanted to know about archetypal plot lines in fantasy, but I think it’s interesting, important, and good to study if you’re either writing fantasy or teaching fantasy. Essentially, these archetypal plotlines make up the essence of fantasy stories, and without the quests and patterns, fantasy stories would not be the stories they are.

After all, if there wasn’t a Dark Side, who would Darth Vader be? Or without a quest to save all of humanity, Harry and good would never conquer. Or, if Bilbo and Frodo never left their hobbit hole, then the LOTR would be a super flat story.

Until next week it’s time to stop judging the plotlines of fantasy–have you ever picked up on these patterns before? Do you think they make the stories interesting or too repetitive? What heroine novel have you read that follows more closely to the hero quest than the growth to maturity? What’s your favorite hero quest?