“The Seven Basic Plots”. The key is in how you react to it.
In a hefty tome that has gone through a head-spinning twenty reprints (as of 2011), Christopher Booker brings home one important message: To carry a story through to successful resolution is no easy task.
At heart, Booker’s magnum opus is an attempt to unearth the basic affective categories through which human beings parse the world for meaning. And he goes scavenging for them in the plots of the stories we tell. In the process, he ends up with seven cardinal structures that illustrate the dynamic interplay between the basic moral modes of apprehending the world. The orderly, rational properties that belong to the affective realm of the masculine and of the Father need to be complemented with the sense of relatedness and the attitude of selflessness that stems from the feminine and the Mother.
A Hero’s journey is precisely an allegory for the process of weaving together these two attitudes: separatedness and connectedness, order and chaos. The seven plots then stand out as a depiction of this basic process from a myriad different standpoints. I won’t go into all the different types of plot, but a few are worth mentioning. Overcoming the Monster stories, for example, depict precisely the process whereby, after an “old Kingdom” comes to be threatened by a lurking monster, a hero is required to restore order by undertaking a quest that has to be selfless and directed to benefit the community as a whole. On a deeper level, the Monster as a narrative device is just a projection of moral tendencies which can be seen at work inside the Hero himself. Often, in fact, the Overcoming that is required of him is ultimately a self-overcoming, of his own moral outlook that is, for some reason, not yet adequate to the task of restoring equilibrium.
When this process does not come to a complete resolution, then one is catapulted into the world of Tragedy. Tragedy shows what happens when the hero ultimately fails to weave together the dynamic qualities that are necessary for a successful resolution, a balance of centredness/self-discipline and empathy/selflessness of purpose. The heroes and heroines of Tragedy find their focus in a purpose that ultimately turns out to be one-sided and not appreciative of the needs of the wider set of relations of which they are a part. As such, tragic heroes turn into the Monsters of Overcoming the Monster stories. Their inflexibility overlooks fundamental aspects of the world around them, which are necessary to maintain a state of dynamic balance. As a consequence, a progressively larger front of opposition constellates against them, until they leave the stage vanquished.
What Booker’s book also shows is how the constitutive elements of affective experience which come under the Father (the wise king whose kingdom is threatened by a Monster), the Mother (from whom the hero parts, headed to free that other feminine element that is captive in the claws of the Monster) and the Hero are all – ultimately – double-sided figures. The Father can feature just as often as the inflexible ruler that prevents two lovers from marrying, as it occurs in the Comedy plot. The Mother, similarly, is both a source of nourishment as well as a character that can stunt the hero’s development by being overly protective. Last, but not least, the Hero’s quest is itself a teetering on the edge of that elusive balance of masculine and feminine traits, which – if unfulfilled – can have the hero star into yet another Tragedy.
Where this tussle between a light and a dark side is most evident, perhaps, is ultimately within Booker himself. “The Seven Basic Plots” was written over a period of thirty years, and – as such – it also ends up tracking the author’s own uneasy quest to harness the dynamism of the inner processes he has unearthed. So, on the one hand, he is cautious to remind readers that what stories really convey are metaphorical descriptions of inner processes of a fundamentally moral character. As such, it makes little sense to try and read archetypal processes into history. The risk, he says, is to be too quick in labelling something as invariably evil ‘without recognising that we may have the seeds of those same failings in ourselves’ (p. 584). And, yet, in the last part of the book he contradicts himself by engaging in a sort of mythologised retelling of history that makes him sound more like a nostalgic Tory than a mythologist: ‘In 1953, the ancient pageantry surrounding the Coronation of a new young Queen, attended by representatives from Britain’s Empire and Commonwealth, projected an extraordinary image of a worldwide ”family”, gathered together to pay homage to the archetypal symbols of its collective Self’ (p. 671). Contrast this to the attitude of that other famous mythologist, Joseph Campbell, who cautioned against too readily applying the moral categories emerging from the tapestry of stories to the historical plane.
In a similar fashion, too swiftly does Booker project what are ultimately affective categories, the masculine and the feminine, into actual gender roles that people should fulfil. Instead, these are better understood as a shorthand for particular moral modes of relating to the world. Indeed, after reading Booker’s book I am perhaps convinced of the opposite proposition, namely that it is precisely by withdrawing of our unconscious projections from others (so as to not try and force people in the simplistic straitjacket of ‘woman equals feminine’ and ‘man equals masculine’) and integrating them within ourselves that we can reach the balance which the Hero wins at the end of the quest.
That being said, the real value of “The Seven Basic Plots” lies in how you react to it. As although it does contain some politically shaky statements and failings, there is still much merit to be found for those interested in mythology, narrative and story-telling.