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THE SEVEN BASIC PLOTS: Why we tell stories

02 November 2006


Continuum £25 (0-8264-5209-4) Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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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