Friday, December 3, 2010

Situational Archetype: The Little Engine's Quest

In blog posts from October 22 through November 26, I reviewed six of the most significant and basic conventional literary characters:

The Femme Fatale,
Father Figures, and
Mother Figures.

With this post, I shift from characters to situations in which these characters exist and in the next posts, I will take up archetypal symbols. In doing so, I will demonstrate that characters and situations and symbols weave together like strands in a multi-colored cloth, forming patterns that cohere in a single, unified whole. That whole is an overall meaning or theme.

First, is the quest, an archetypal situation. The protagonist begins at Point A in some emotional, physical, and/or spiritual state and arrives at Point Z, changed by his quest. Whether he has an assigned task or Fate simply forces him to move along, a protagonist grows and changes as a result of his journey. Some characters on a quest enjoy good fortune, leading to a good, satisfying outcome. Other characters have lousy luck, and they end tragically.

A classic children’s story, The Little Engine that Could, by Watty Piper is a paradigm for the archetypal quest situation in which a character must complete a task. The little engine’s task is to pull her load over a hill, but she cannot complete her task. She is too small. Fortunately, she perseveres and adds a second task to the first: she searches for another engine to help her. Big (male) engines refuse because they are tired or sidetracked by their own importance, but the little engine persists and finds another little engine that eagerly agrees. Together, the little engines pull the train of cars over the hill, chugging along to the rhythm of “I think I can, I think I can, I think I can.”

Once over the hill and on flat plains again, the first little engine continues alone, singing to herself, “I thought I could, I thought I could.” She achieved her task and more. She proved the power of teamwork, and she learned that perseverance has its own reward: a lasting belief in oneself. In those lessons, dear Readers, are overall meanings drawn from a simple, short tale. These themes include
• attitude is everything, and
• as long as time and will exist, little engines can do great things.

The Star Wars stories echo those themes, but the hills that must be overcome are much larger and metaphorical. In addition, the characters are more complex, and the consequences of failure more tragic because the Star Wars’ series is actually a story about whether good or evil will reign supreme in the hearts of men and therefore, in the universe.

One of the little engines in the complex train is Hans Solo, a man with a self-appointed task: earn money and prove his flying skills by delivering Princess Leia to Tatooine. He declares, without shame or remorse, that he is loyal to no cause except his own, but as the journey to Tatooine continues and Hans bears witness to the evils of the Empire as well as the courage and daring of the rebel forces, his task becomes secondary. Ultimately, his quest delivers him as a selfless, courageous rebel, willing to risk his life for the greater good in the universe.

The Little Engine and Hans Solo stories illustrate the situational archetype known as the quest. Each begins a journey to accomplish a task, but the task is secondary to the outcome in quest tales. What characters learn about themselves as they try to accomplish tasks and how their journey changes them are the true heart of the story; therein lie the overall meanings:

• The Little Engine that Could learns that she can persevere and triumph even when the task seems impossible.
• Hans Solo proves that adversity introduces a man to himself so that later, when Hans looks in a mirror, he finds a good man looking back, a risk-taker pursuing intangibles such as justice rather than a fistful of money.
• Even though the task itself does not begin as High Noon for good and evil, as the journey continues, good and evil forces divide and women and men must choose between them.

Reading Challenge:

Read Homer’s The Odyssey, a quest paradigm and a great story. As you read, observe the characters and identify them as one of the six basic character archetypes. In addition or instead, read Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, an extensive allusion to The Odyssey and an excellent tale of redemption set during the Civil War.

Writing Challenge:

Using The Little Engine that Could as a model, tell a quest story that your children would enjoy.

Grammar, Usage and Mechanics (GUM):

During the first oil crisis, way back in the 1970s, I watched the numbers scroll by as I filled my car with gasoline, and I watched my paycheck strain and stretch to meet the new cost of transportation. These are now cyclical as our oil supplies wax and wane, as we become more or less concerned about our dependence upon oil, but oil reserves have even affected usage, the comma in particular.

Newspapers began their slide into extinction in the 1970s because transportation costs were like a stone cast into a pool of water: ever widening circles emanate from the first splash, in this case, OPEC and the cost of oil. Fuels required to make and deliver products grew more expensive, adding to the costs of the products themselves. These products included paper and ink so publishers and editors sought ways to cut costs; the comma became one item in a long list of cost-cutting measures. Unnecessary commas such as the Oxford (Harvard or serial comma) could be omitted, and writers could say as much while using a little less space on the page.

Here are examples of the Oxford comma choice:
• If a list of items is simple, you may omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., Please stop at the grocery store to buy bread, orange juice and milk. A comma before the words and milk is unnecessary, but perfectly acceptable if you choose to use it.
• If a list of items is complicated, do not omit the comma before the conjunction; e.g., As you prepare for college, you must secure a PIN number from the federal government in order to complete the FAFSA before all the money are been distributed, submit applications with the correct application fee by the deadline specified by the college or university, request an application fee waiver prior to the application deadline if you cannot afford the cost of several application fees, and search for scholarships that match your personal criteria. A comma before the words and search is essential because this list is lengthy and each item in the list is lengthy.

Connye Griffin is My Writing and Editing Coach