Archetypes in the Classics

“Archetype: a recurrent symbol or motif in literature, art, or mythology.”

I love archetypes! It comes from the fact that I see the world through the lens of narrative, and so I love finding the themes and ties that bind the world together, and make stories possible.

Archetypes do just that! They present the basic ways in which we can and do relate to the world around us, and the ways that other individuals relate to us. And ultimately, they allow us to better understand the characters of classic literature, and identify the roles they play in stories.

These are not hackneyed or overplayed roles – every story, even those that try desperately to do away with all previous tropes and structures of storytelling (Last of the Jedi, anyone?) have these roles, though sometimes in confused and round-a-bout senses. But the stories that have lasted the test of time and appeal strongly to audiences are the ones that take these basic roles and apply them brilliantly, freshly, and fearlessly to their characters.

There are 8 basic archetypes:

  1. Hero
  2. Mentor
  3. Threshold Guardian
  4. Herald
  5. Shapeshifter
  6. Shadow
  7. Trickster
  8. Allies

Except for a few instances, I will be using Star Wars: A New Hope to give easily identifiable examples for each archetype

The Hero

The Hero is usually the character we most identify with, because we all want to be the best versions of ourselves, and we all strive to overcome the obstacles we face in life. The hero does not have to be physically fighting demons, although he usually does. He could, instead, be facing inner conflicts, or even be fighting the inner demons of a friend or romantic interest.

The Hero always begins the story on some sort of quest: for a physical object, an inner virtue, or an intangible good; and ends the story either having obtained it, or, by learning that that good was never really a good for him in the first place, and he has found something better: a different object, a new inner revelation, or a different intangible good.

Example Hero: Luke Skywalker in A New Hope

The Mentor

The Mentor is the positive guiding force behind the Hero. Usually, he is an older, wiser character, who understands life because he has already lived it, and so can pass on his wisdom. Sometimes, though, it can be an inner voice nudging the character along, and not a real person.

The Mentor’s role is to provide perspective, challenges, and encouragement to the Hero, to help him make the right decisions. He warns the Hero when he is starting down the wrong path, and he admonishes the Hero when he makes a mistake. Usually, the Hero will eventually surpass the Mentor, at which point the Mentor recedes into the background (if he hasn’t been killed off yet) to allow the Hero to shine on his own.

Example Mentor: Obi-Wan Kenobi in A New Hope

The Threshold Guardian

The Threshold Guardian is often embodied in many characters in any given story. It is a role, not a character, and its role is to make real to the Hero the dangers which he will encounter on his quest. The Threshold Guardian will do its best to deny the Hero entry to the quest, because it wants to test him and see if he is worthy to take on the challenges inherent within the journey.

The Threshold Guardian is usually a good presence, who cares deeply for the quest itself, but it suspicious of the hero’s worth. However, it can be a negative presence which, by the very fact that it exists at the entrance to the quest, signals and exemplifies the dangers that await the Hero further on.

Example Threshold Guardians: NEGATIVE – Stormtroopers who kill Luke’s Aunt and Uncle in A New Hope; POSITIVE – the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones and the Search for the Holy Grail

The Herald

Easily confused with The Threshold Guardian, the Herald is constantly focusing on the future. He tends to be the pessimist of the story – always predicting bad things that await the Hero further on, although he can also predict positive events on occasion. He is different from the Threshold Guardian in that he, himself, does not present an obstacle to the Hero; he merely predicts – he does not prevent.

The Herald is either good or bad, and can exist in many characters at different times. If someone guesses how the future will turn out, then he is acting in the role of the Herald in that moment. This role tends to shift around quite a bit.

Example Herald: C3PO in A New Hope

The Shapeshifter

I love this one! (Although Star Trek does use it in every. single. episode…) The Shapeshifter is the character which the Hero can never really be certain if he is for him or against him.

“Are you for us, or for our adversaries?”

Joshua, 5:13

The Hero may want to trust him, or even does trust him, only to find that he has been working for the enemy all along; or else has switched sides because he was never as fully invested in the quest as the Hero himself.

This betrayal often causes the Hero to doubt the quest, doubt everyone around him, and drive him into introspection and despair.

On rare occasions, a character can shapeshift from evil to good, which can be a huge moral boost to the Hero.

Example Shapeshifters: NEGATIVE – Han abandons Luke on Yavin to return to his life of smuggling in A New Hope; POSITIVE – Darth Vader kills the Emperor to save Luke in The Return of the Jedi.

The Shadow

The Shadow is the one you’ve been waiting for – the Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker; the President Snow to Katniss; the Thanos to Tony Stark. He is the force that pits himself against the hero and seeks to destroy everything that the Hero is desperately fighting to preserve.

As I said before, the Shadow does not have to be physically embodied in the story. In stories that delve into the inner life of the Hero instead of an outer quest, the Shadow could be his own faults, sins, and temptations, or else the inner demons of a friend or loved one. There will always be an opposing force to the Hero – even if that force is part of himself.

Example Shadow: You guessed it! Darth Vader in A New Hope

The Trickster

This is the fun one! The quintessential fool of Shakespeare or mythological god of mischief. The Trickster is a force for chaos: he is unpredictable; he is a thorn in the Hero’s side – and yet, he is the one who often makes the journey worthwhile. He can bring sunshine and unexpected laughter, and often, his bumbling about and mischievous behavior can find the exact solution to a puzzling problem. He seldom does anything good on purpose, but he can bring about good through his incessant tom-foolery and open heart.

However, don’t be fooled. The Trickster is fickle, and is just as likely to cause pain and suffering as healing and laughter. He is sometimes good-, and sometimes bad-intentioned, but seldom both at the same time. His bad moods are very bad, and his good moods very good, but the danger lies in his inconsistency.

Example Trickster: R2-D2 in A New Hope


This one’s basic: anyone who helps the Hero along the way!

Example Allies: Princess Leia, Chewbacca, General Nadeen, etc. in A New Hope

Identifying Them in the Classics

I love to find these archetypes in my favorite classics, so one day I sat down with my siblings and we mapped out a few of our favorites. Here they are briefly, and be sure to let me know in the comments below if you agree with our categorization. And also, if there are any other classics you’re wondering about and want me to tackle! I love figuring it out! 🙂

The Lord of the Rings

There’s a lot of them here!

  1. Hero – Frodo
  2. Mentors – Gandalf, Aragorn
  3. Threshold Guardians – Nazgul in Hobbiton, Caradhras, The Watcher in the Water
  4. Heralds – Gandalf, Council of Elrond, Galadriel, Elf on the way to Gray Havens, Gildor
  5. Shapeshifters – Boromir, Gollum, Denethor
  6. Shadows – Sauron, Saruman, Orcs, Black Riders/Nazgul, Smeagol, Bill Ferny
  7. Tricksters – Pippin, Orcs
  8. Allies – Sam, Legolas, Gimli, Aragorn, Merry, Pippin, Tom Bombadil, Elrond, Galadriel, Elves, Gandalf, Theoden, Eomer, Glorfindel, Eowen, Faramir

The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe

  1. Hero – Lucy
  2. Mentor – Aslan
  3. Threshold Guardian – Maugrim’s Letter in Mr. Tumnus’s house
  4. Heralds – Mr. and Mrs. Beaver
  5. Shapeshifter – Mr. Tumnus
  6. Shadow – White Witch
  7. Trickster – Edmund
  8. Allies – Peter, Susan, Mice, Edmund, other talking creatures

A Wrinkle in Time

  1. Hero – Meg
  2. Mentors – Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit; Mrs. Murry; Aunt Beast (apparently, Meg needs a lot of Mentors)
  3. Threshold Guardians – Mrs. Which, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Whatsit
  4. Herald – the Happy Medium
  5. Shapeshifter – The Man with Red Eyes, Charles Wallace
  6. Shadow – It
  7. Tricksters – The Twins
  8. Allies – Calvin, Charles Wallace, Mr. Murry

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

  1. Hero – Alice
  2. Mentors – The Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat
  3. Threshold Guardian – The Mouse with the Long Tail
  4. Herald – The White Rabbit
  5. Shapeshifters – the Baby into the Pig; the Duchess; Alice herself
  6. Shadow – The Queen of Hearts
  7. Tricksters – Everyone: The Mad Tea Party, The Birds and Creatures in the Pool of Tears; the Puppy, the King; etc. (The world itself is a Trickster world, which Alice tries to make sense of, but can only conclude that there is no sense to be had – it is purely chaos.)
  8. Allies – The Mock Turtle and the Griffin; her Sister; The Cheshire Cat

The Great Gatsby

  1. Hero – Gatsby
  2. Mentor – Dan Cody
  3. Threshold Guardian – [Daisy’s marriage to] Tom Buchanan
  4. Heralds – The women he ‘knew early’ and was contemptuous of
  5. Shapeshifter – Daisy
  6. Shadows – Society, Tom Buchanan, Daisy’s fickleness, timidity, and non-committal attitude
  7. Trickster – Jordan
  8. Ally – Nick

Peter Pan

  1. Hero – Wendy
  2. Mentor – Mrs. Darling
  3. Threshold Guardian – Liza the servant
  4. Herald – Nanna, Mrs. Darling
  5. Shapeshifter – Peter Pan
  6. Shadows – Hook, the pirates, the Indians, the mermaids
  7. Trickster – Tinker Bell
  8. Allies – The Lost Boys, John and Michael, Mr. and Mrs. Darling

Winnie the Pooh

  1. Hero – Pooh
  2. Mentor – Christopher Robin
  3. Threshold Guardian – Rabbit
  4. Heralds – Eeyore and Piglet
  5. Shapeshifter – Owl
  6. Shadows – Bees, Heffalumps, Woozles, Jagular, Backson
  7. Tricksters – Tigger and Roo
  8. Allies – Kanga; all of Rabbit’s friends and relations

2 thoughts on “Archetypes in the Classics”

  1. I think I will have to disagree with your classification of R2-D2 as a trickster, at least with your definition. I don’t think he ever has bad intentions and he definitely knows what’s going to result from his actions, even if poor C3PO hasn’t a clue!

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