Geoffrey Kirk has been reading the story about stories and wonders why so little of it is applied to the Bible
In a weighty volume of seven hundred and twenty-eight pages, which took thirty-four years to write, Christopher Booker claims that all the stories in the world – across geography and through time – have only seven basic plots.
A tall story? After reading the book [The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories, Continuum, 2004] I am not inclined to think so. But Bookers thesis raises questions, not least about the nature and texture of biblical narrative, which he probably wisely leaves the reader to address. Let me tell you first of all a little about the plots and about Bookers ways of dealing with them.
The seven are, in no particular order except the one he chooses:
1) Overcoming the Monster (Gilgamesh; Red Riding Hood; Hansel and Gretel; Beowulf; Dracula; The War of the Worlds; The Guns of Navarone; King Kong; Star Wars; Jack and the Beanstalk.)
2) Rags to Riches (Cinderella; Pygmalion; David Copperfield; Dick Whittington; The Ugly Duckling; Jane Eyre; Le Rouge et le Noir.)
3) The Quest (The Odyssey; The Aeneid; The Divine Comedy; Pilgrim’s Progress; The Lord of the Rings; Treasure Island; Watership Down; Raiders of the Lost Ark.)
4) Voyage and Return (Alice in Wonderland; The Time Machine; Peter Rabbit; Brideshead Revisited; Gone with the Wind; The Lord of the Flies.)
5) Comedy (apart from the obvious examples
– Pride and Prejudice; Middlemarch; War and Peace; A Night at the Opera; Four Weddings and a Funeral)
6) Tragedy (apart from the obvious examples
– Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde; Lolita; Bonnie and Clyde; Jules et Jim; Anna Karenina; Madame Bovary; The Devils.)
7) Rebirth (Sleeping Beauty; Snow White; The Snow Queen; A Christmas Carol; Crime and Punishment; Silas Marner; Peer Gynt.)
You have probably got the idea by now. The mind races on – inserting other familiar stories into the basic pattern. Booker bravely avoids Penguin psychology and the crasser modes of analysis which became popular in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead he analyses patterns and shapes in the stories themselves – allows them, if you like, to determine the emergence of a sense of design. The process is remarkably successful; but it reaches a most embarrassing conclusion. The stories themselves
(and why should we be surprised?) throw up some quite uncompromising stereotypes.
Booker faces the problem (a problem, of course, only to the modern mind) head on. ‘What we see thus emerging is a fundamental polarity which is crucial to the structure of storytelling. At one pole is the power of darkness, centred on the ego, limited consciousness and an inability to see the whole, making for confusion, division and untimely death. At the other is the power of the feminine, centred on selfless feeling and the ability to see the whole, making for connection, the healing of division and life.’
And again: ‘The true hero, if he is to succeed, must be fully a man. The way in which this is represented may seem straightforward enough in those types of story which require the hero to engage in physical conflict with the powers of darkness, in order to overpower or outwit the ‘monster’. Or to survive all the tests and ordeal of the Quest, he has to show such manly qualities as outstanding physical and mental strength and stamina… But what it is fully to be a man has rather more to it than just these qualities’
What comes out of Bookers analysis of the shape of stories is something more basic even than his seven basic plots. It is a pattern of archetypes which have their roots in human sexuality and which are the real subject of the stories which are told. Bookers thesis is not Freudian (it owes little or nothing to classic Freudian theory). But it does, in the end, see sexual character and differentiation as being at the heart of what it is to tell stories. We are not manipulating them, as C.S. Lewis once wisely said, they are manipulating us.
I confess that I have always been fascinated by the nature of story. Why have the folktale specialists come across the same tales in cultures which had no knowledge
of each other’s existence? Why are some themes and patterns persistent across cultural enmity and antipathy?
Moving from the English School to read Theology at the University I was shocked (appalled would be a better word) at the ham-fisted way in which the biblical stories were treated by those who made a living out of exegesis. No one seemed to treat stories as living stories! They were either an inert quarry for archaeological investigation or proof texts backing up some antecedent theological opinion. The fact that not a single archaeological find attests even to the existence of King David (a folk tale hero if ever there was one), and the fact that the fable of Adam and Eve does not remotely address the problem of the relationship of the sexes in the twenty-first century, never seemed enough to silence this factory of improbable explanations and a priori assertions.
Christopher Booker is cautious in the way in which he deals with Bible stories, and indeed religious tales in general. Perhaps it is from an unwillingness to give offence, perhaps from religious scruples of his own. But until the analysis of the biblical texts takes into account story theory in its many forms, it will never do justice to the Christian understanding of ‘the Word of God in words of men.
It is shameful that the books of the last fifty years which most vividly illuminate the biblical text have come from outside the faculties of theology. Northop Frye’s The Great Code sought to do what the academic theologians had not attempted for five hundred years: to examine the canon of Scripture as though it were one book by one author. With fascinating results, and some interesting conclusions. Frank Kermode (inspired, it has to be said, by Austin Farrer) wrote the most engaging and illuminating book about St Mark’s gospel in several generations.
It is shameful, too, that the theological professionals can still come up with claims which fly in the face of any understanding of the biblical narrative as story. Just consider what Christopher Booker would have to say to a man (or should I say woman) who told him that the male-ness of Jesus had no soteriological significance! \ND\