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Christopher Booker is a journalist and author. He was the founding editor of
Private Eye, for which he still writes, notably as one of the creators
of “St Albion’s Parish News”, which parodies the Prime Minister and his
Government as a vicar and his PCC.
Booker is a longstanding observer of British culture, as is reflected in his
earlier book The Neophiliacs, and a critic of the European project,
which is regularly discussed in a weekly column for
The Sunday Telegraph, and in his last work The Great Deception
. However, this volume is undoubtedly his most ambitious work to date, as he
seeks to explain the nature of storytelling in more than 700 pages of closely
argued but entertaining prose.
His journey begins with the Epic of Gilgamesh, and proceeds through the
stories of the Bible and Shakespeare, fairy-tales and films, fables and
fantasy, ancient myth and modern fiction, to the present day.
The Seven Basic Plots is divided into four sections. Part One, “The Seven
Gateways to the Underworld”, sets out Booker’s typology of story. This consists
of: (i) overcoming the monster; (ii) rags to riches; (iii) the quest; (iv)
voyage and return; (v) comedy; (vi) tragedy; and (vii) rebirth. As he says
later in the book, these categories are not exhaustive, and he identifies at
least three other types of story; but these are the forms of narrative that
Booker sees as foundational to the human condition.
Part Two begins the process of addressing his subtitle, and explaining why
humanity has such a need for stories. Under the heading “The Complete Happy
Ending”, he starts to unpack his Freudian/Jungian thinking about archetypes and
their psychological significance. In essence, he sees the traditional happy
ending, in which a man and woman live happily ever after, as symbolic of
integrated personhood, in which an individual brings together his or her male
and female aspects in maturity and wholeness. The third part, “Missing the
Mark”, develops these ideas by exploring what he believes is the damaging part
played by the ego in much 19th- and 20th-century writing.
The final part, “Why We Tell Stories”, is probably the most stimulating.
Booker applies his ideas to our contemporary situation. He sees the unique
power of human ego-consciousness as separating us from each other and nature,
and as having broken down the natural state of integration between ego and
deeper unconsciousness. Stories “all originate in a desire to underpin or
re-establish that sense of unity which every animal enjoys without thinking”.
The penultimate chapter, “Of Gods and Men: Reconnection with ‘The One’”,
includes Booker’s psychological reading of the Bible, Jesus and Christianity.
Using “myth” in the technical sense, he argues that the story of Jesus works
within the archetype of tragedy, since “he acted out the pattern of how all
human beings imprisoned in egoconsciousness must die.” However, it also shows
how, “if only they can make contact with the selfless part of themselves which
lies beyond egoconsciousness, that state of ‘sin’ which only came into the
world with the ‘Fall’ and mankind’s emergence from unconscious unity with
nature, they can be reunited with that state of Oneness which cannot die
because it is eternal.”
Booker’s work is sweeping in its scope, and impressive in its appreciation
of story in all its many manifestations. Perhaps the most surprising omission
is any reference to the literary ideas of René Girard. Early on, Booker
observes that the love triangle is the “most incomprehensible form of
literature ever devised”; and at the conclusion of his reflections on tragedy
he notes briefly the importance of the scapegoat. Given the significance of the
tragic archetype in Booker’s understanding of Jesus and Christianity, Girard’s
approach to mimetic desire and the scapegoat mechanism would have significantly
extended this and other aspects of his analysis.
Nevertheless, this is a thought-provoking contribution to the part played by
classical and contemporary storytelling in human culture; and it will open up
the value of narrative to all who venture between its covers.
The Revd Dr Vaughan Roberts is Team Rector of Warwick.
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