Readers of Middlemarch by George Eliot may recall the dry old scholar Rev Casaubon’s failed attempt to create a unifying ‘Key to all Mythologies’. (You may have briefly felt in passing, that Casaubon’s plan was irrelevant and futile.) But Booker has succeeded in doing this and much more – a quite remarkable analysis of the nature of story, in a project which took him 34 years. But do not be misled into thinking that this is a sterile academic book – it is highly readable! And for its 700 pages, remarkably cheap.
Booker’s highly convincing thesis is that almost all stories, from every culture or time in history, use only seven archetypal plots. Some stories may indeed contain more than one plot, occasionally all seven. Stories which try to subvert their natural archetype can seem unsatisfying, jarring, like an out-of-tune or incomplete piece of music. (And, incidentally, true events and biographies which also happen to conform to one or more of the archetypes, have special resonance with us. Consider for instance the sinking of the Titanic, or books such as The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom or When I Was a German, 1934-1945: An Englishwoman in Nazi Germany [originally published as The Past is Myself] by Christabel Beielenberg.)
And it is quite remarkable to see how moral cause and effect, and redemptive outcomes (or deserved punishment) are intrinsic to all these plots. Perhaps we should not be surprised, for God has created people with an inbuilt moral compass and sense of justice – as J. Budziszewski has illustrated in Written on the Heart: The Case for Natural Law (and also the out-of-print What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide); see also interview with Budziszewski. A revealing experiment with 6-month-old babies demonstrated that they can discern a story-line and make a moral judgment on the participants.
If this book only explained the seven plots (his ‘Part One’), it would be a vital read. Booker’s original plan was merely to cover this ground, “...foolishly thinking that I had almost finished the book.” But as he explains in a Personal Note at the end, he realised that the story did not stop there, and three more parts of the book were necessary! He goes on to explore history, the arts, religion and worldview in the light of archetypal story and human nature.
Booker is perhaps uniquely qualified to write such a book. As a journalist and book critic, his experience of books, films, art, music and opera, history and politics is vast and insightful. It is a regret that two great minds who would surely have enjoyed engaging with this book (and likely agreeing in large measure) – C S Lewis and Francis Schaeffer – are no longer with us.
Booker writes, “What we have been uncovering, in short, is the essential core of the way stories are made, how they work, and what they are about. In this sense the real value of examining the seven central plots is that, between them, they provide a comprehensive introduction to all the fundamental elements from which a story can be made up.
“The significance of this can hardly be exaggerated. For what it means is that whenever any of us tries to create a story in our own imagination, we will find that these are the basic figures and situations around which it takes shape. We cannot get away from them because they are archetypes. They are the elemental images around which the whole of the storytelling impulse in mankind is centered. And the reason for this is that these underlying patterns and images are somehow imprinted unconsciously in our minds, so that we cannot conceive stories in any other way.”
“...What this points to is something the implications of which are truly awesome. This is the extent to which stories emerge from some place in the human mind which functions autonomously, independent of any storyteller’s conscious control.”
Before you start this book, turn to the Glossary of Terms so that you can understand the sense in which Booker is using terms such as Self and Ego, light and dark. Although this vocabulary may not be immediately familiar to an evangelical, his underlying analysis resonates with a biblical understanding of human nature, folly, pride, and wholeness. In the Epilogue, Booker comes out clearly as a theist with a belief in Intelligent Design.
Why is this book so significant for Christians who wish to communicate the gospel?
Reference #5, a Scientific American article by Jeremy Hsu, echoes Christian professor Daniel Taylor’s explanation of the significance of story:
“‘If you’re training to be a pilot, you spend time in a flight simulator,’ says Keith Oatley, a professor of applied cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto. Preliminary research by Oatley and Mar suggests that stories may act as ‘flight simulators’ for social life. A 2006 study hinted at a connection between the enjoyment of stories and better social abilities. The researchers used both self-report and assessment tests to determine social ability and empathy among 94 students, whom they also surveyed for name recognition of authors who wrote narrative fiction and non-narrative non-fiction. They found that students who had had more exposure to fiction tended to perform better on social ability and empathy tests. Although the results are provocative, the authors caution that the study did not probe cause and effect – exposure to stories may hone social skills as the researchers suspect, but perhaps socially inclined individuals simply seek out more narrative fiction.”
When you have read the book, please discuss the many questions it raises.