The idea that there are seven basic plots that recur in every kind of storytelling from myth to soap opera has long been accepted and indeed it was argued in depth by Christopher Booker in his book The Seven Basic Plots: Why we tell stories. But is plot really the essence of storytelling? Neil Philip challenges this premise and puts forward another way of thinking about the function of story.
In 2004, Christopher Booker published a book entitled The Seven Basic Plots. It has long been a truism that ‘there are only seven basic plots’. Christopher Booker decided to explore this idea, and spent 30 years researching and thinking before publishing his monumental thesis, which was very warmly received.
Booker’s seven plots are, for those wondering: Overcoming the Monster; Rags to Riches; the Quest; Voyage and Return; Comedy; Tragedy; and Rebirth. My own view is that this is a very reductive way of thinking about story. However, this article is not a belated review of The Seven Basic Plots, but an attempt, inspired by reading that book, to think around the subject enshrined in Christopher Booker’s subtitle: Why we tell stories.
Story has not been highly regarded over the last hundred years. ‘Story is just the spoiled child of art,’ wrote Henry James in his preface to The Ambassadors. Virginia Woolf’s manifesto for ‘Modern Fiction’ in The Common Reader allowed no room for story in the conventional sense: ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’
Ideas like this drove storytelling from the mainstream of literature. Authors who wanted to tell a story found themselves confined to genres – the thriller, the detective story, the romance, fantasy, and, of course, the children’s book. Literary types took to explaining the popular success of clumsy writers such as Jeffrey Archer or Dan Brown with the words, ‘Of course, he (or she) is a great storyteller.’
Not just base curiosity
I can’t begin to say how much this riles me. Great storytelling is not just about satisfying a base curiosity about what happens next in a yarn. Storytelling is about weaving a web that entraps the reader – or listener, or viewer – inside the tale, and then offers them a way out of it, enlarged and renewed. A true story furnishes its audience with meaning, with consolation, with insight, with vision.
The idea that pedestrian bestseller-writers such as Archer and Brown are in any way keeping faith with the historical task and importance of the oral storyteller is utterly absurd. It stems from the same misunderstanding of story that underpins Christopher Booker’s book. Booker thinks the essence of story is plot; but it is not. The essence of story is metaphor. As Mark Turner puts it in his extraordinary book The Literary Mind (1996), ‘Parable is the root of the human mind – of thinking, knowing, acting, creating, and plausibly even of speaking.’
Stories are made by the imagination, and the imagination works by using metaphor to transform one thing into another. This transforming power of the imagination is particularly evident in the fairy tale. When a girl fleeing an ogre in a fairy tale tosses a comb, or a mirror, behind her, it immediately transforms into a forest, or a lake. Thought itself has become magically potent.
To take an example, just look at the Romanian fairy tale ‘The Boys with the Golden Stars’. Published by Mite Kremnitz in Rumänische Märchen (1882), it was included by Andrew Lang in his Violet Fairy Book of 1901. In it, two enchanted brothers ‘with golden hair and stars on their foreheads’ are persecuted by their wicked stepmother. The two brothers are murdered and buried. From their graves spring two aspens, which are chopped down to make two beds. The beds are burned, leaving only ashes. These ashes are then scattered to the four winds. The two brightest sparks fall into the river, where they become two little fishes with golden scales. The fishes are caught and, when they have swum in the dew and been dried by the sun, turn once again into ‘two beautiful princes, with hair as golden as the stars on their foreheads.’
This is how – in what the folklorist Joseph Jacobs called ‘bright trains of images’ – fairy tales unfold their deep truths about human nature and human behaviour. They unfold like dreams, from image to image, rather than rationally from event to event. In this way, fairy tales retain their ambiguity, and their many levels of meaning.
Fairy tales are, of course, reducible to plot summaries, just like any story. They have even been usefully categorized into ‘tale types’ in Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson’s The Types of the Folktale (2nd revision, 1961), and further broken down into small narrative units known as ‘motifs’ in Thompson’s monumental Motif-Index of Folk Literature (1955). ‘The Boys with the Golden Stars’ conforms to the basic plot structure of AT 707, ‘The Three Golden Sons’, and includes motifs such as H71.1 ‘Star on forehead as sign of royalty’, and K2115 ‘Animal-birth slander’. To understand this enables us immediately to compare this story with others like it, not just from Romania but all over Europe, and wherever Europeans have taken their story traditions. But this does not explain what ‘The Boys with the Golden Stars’ is about, or how we construct meaning from it.
Narratives of suffering and desire
A motif such as the animal-birth slander – in which the empress is wrongly accused of having given birth to puppies instead of babies, and punished by being ‘buried in the earth up to her neck’ – may, however, give us pause for thought about our casual assumption that the natural audience of such fairy tales is young children.
Many of the concerns of the fairy tale don’t seem especially suitable for such an audience. It is true that the protagonists of fairy tales are generally young, but they are usually young adults rather than children. Fairy tales such as ‘Hansel and Gretel’ in which the protagonists are children are relatively rare; and even in ‘Hansel and Gretel’, the central theme of child neglect and abuse is not something that would immediately spring to mind when asked for a bedtime story.
Fairy tales are in fact often violent, erotic, and dark. When Angela Carter published her collection of short stories The Bloody Chamber in 1979, her revelation of what she called ‘the latent content of the traditional stories’ caused widespread shock. It wasn’t as if this latent content had been hidden – all of it, the incest, the child abuse, the transgressive sexuality, the violence, suffering, and retribution – had been on full public view in every collection of traditional tales. But readers, convinced that these were safe stories for children, had simply overlooked the darker subtexts.
It took Angela Carter to enquire just how had we got to the stage where stories in which a girl’s hands are cut off, or a child is served up in a pie, or a serial killer preys on a succession of masochistically-submissive wives, came to be regarded as the natural stories to tell to children. She found her answer in her concurrent reading of a previous master of the dark and twisted fairy tale, the Marquis de Sade. It was Sade, I believe, who helped her discern the narrative of suffering and desire in the fairy tale.
This is one of the areas where Christopher Booker’s reading of story seems hopelessly adrift. Although Booker recognizes that Sade’s Justine ‘begins almost like a folk tale’, he doesn’t see that it continues, and ends, like one too. He spends all his time tut-tutting like a maiden aunt about Sade’s sex and violence, as if the reader is in constant danger of being devoured completely by Sade’s monstrous negative energy.
Always a happy ending?
The reason for Booker’s disapproval is, he writes, that ‘in storytelling the underlying archetypal structures are so constituted that they must always work towards that concluding image which shows us everything in a story being satisfactorily resolved. The mark of a well-constructed story is that every detail in it is contributing in some way towards that final resolution.’
This notion of story as something that must always be neatly resolved is at the heart of the infantilized idea of story that so dismayed Henry James and Virginia Woolf. But part of the storyteller’s role throughout history has been to subvert what Christopher Booker regards as the immutable rules of storytelling.
All of the seeming innovations of modern fiction, from the stream of consciousness of Dorothy Richardson and James Joyce to the technical experiments of B S Johnson, or the determination of William Burroughs to ‘cut the Word Lines’, are prefigured or actively utilised in the folk and fairy tale.
The idea that all real stories end neatly and unambiguously is simply wrong. In the case of the fairy tale, an obvious exception to this rule is Hans Christian Andersen, whose story-endings are often unresolved, or unexpectedly sad or downbeat. Think of the last line of Andersen’s very last tale, ‘Aunty Toothache’: it is not, ‘And they all lived happily ever after’; it is, ‘Everything ends up in the rubbish.’ Andersen’s story ‘The Red Shoes’, in which he punishes his promiscuous half-sister Karen by making her namesake dance until she begs to have her feet cut off, is every bit as cruel as anything in Sade.
One of the greatest of all creators of fairy tales, Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav, who was performing his inspired deconstructions of traditional folktales at the same time as the Grimms were collecting their folktale texts, simply refuses to end two of his most important tales, ‘The Lost Princess’ and ‘The Seven Beggars’. In the latter, his masterpiece, Nahman leaves both the frame story and the final episode unfinished. ‘We shall not be worthy to hear it until the Messiah comes,’ he said.
What cases such as Andersen and Nahman tell us is that – even if we accept for the sake of argument the over-simplified Jungian theory of archetypes to which Christopher Booker is so devoted – the human mind will always rebel against constriction and defy expectation.
It does this by means of metaphorical thought. As George Lakoff and Mark Johnson write in Metaphors We Live By (1980), ‘Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.’ Or as Rabbi Nahman put it, in his subversive translation of Genesis 1:26, God resolved, ‘Let us make man with an imagination.’
Neil Philip is a writer and folklorist.
The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker is published by Continuum.