The Shape of Stories
Much of what I know about literary criticism (and it isn’t very much) comes from having read Anatomy of Criticism, by Northrup Frye—well more than forty years ago. Frye invented (or borrowed from others) an easily remembered scheme for categorizing stories: the mythos of spring—comedy; the mythos of summer—romance; the mythos of autumn—tragedy; and the mythos of winter—irony and satire. Comedy/spring celebrates new beginnings, new life, and new possibilities. Romance/summer gives us an adventure, a contest between the hero and all that opposes him, a contest that ends happily. In tragedy/autumn, the forces that oppose the hero triumph, things end badly. Irony and satire, the voices of winter, protest the injustices of the world, the things that produces bad ends.
Within the four mythoi, differences in detail abound. Comedy can be farcical; new hopes emerging from silly coincidences; this is comedy on the border of satire. In other comedies, the protagonist triumphs at least in part by virtue; comedy on the border of romance. In romance proper, the hero is more completely heroic, overcoming multiple or great antagonists in a great contest. Sometimes the hero dies in battle and his triumph is to be celebrated by his comrades. And so on: there is infinite room for authors to innovate.
Popular storytelling in my lifetime has come to be dominated by movies. Since movies are expensive to produce, they cater to mass audiences, usually with happy endings. Love stories, musicals, adventures—we get lots of spring and summer stories, from Forrest Gump to Sleepless in Seattle to Star Wars. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List show how deadly serious a movie romance can be; their heroes’ triumphs are not fully complete and bought at high price.
Hollywood occasionally gives us popular winter tales of irony or satire; think of M.A.S.H. or Catch 22.
Tragedies? Well, we have horror films, with suitably bad outcomes for the protagonists, but too often we feel cheated; the story is just an excuse for mayhem. We don’t really care about the—often very young and vulnerable—protagonists, since we know from the start they will die. The television series Breaking Bad probably counts as a tragedy, so it’s not impossible for tragedy to gain a mass audience.
Nevertheless, I want to consider the mythos of tragedy. What should we think of stories that end badly for the hero? For serious tragedy we sometimes turn to Shakespeare or to ancient Greek writers like Aeschylus or Sophocles. Here the main characters are in many ways admirable and sympathetic. We want them to do well and be well. Yet disaster befalls them.
Aristotle wrote that we are attracted to tragedies—he was thinking of plays performed before an audience—because we experience through them deep emotions we would otherwise avoid. We admire the tragic hero, or at least we see he has good qualities. He has a flaw of some sort, a flaw which in some ways is admirable. Oedipus is determined to discover the truth—a good thing, surely! But his determination to find the truth at all costs destroys him. Creon wants to steer the ship of state through perilous waters, and to that end decrees what seems to him a sensible law. By ordering his law be obeyed, he loses his son and his wife and finds his life ruined.
Modern interpreters, such as Martha Nussbaum, give other readings of tragedy. Rather than a flaw in the hero, maybe a tragedy shows us the chanciness of the world. We want to live lives of meaningful activity (Aristotle would agree with that) in which we enjoy good relationships with others and experience good outcomes. In the typical word of modern philosophy, we want to “flourish.” But many things may undermine us, Nussbaum says. Perhaps, through no fault of hers, a woman’s business partner betrays her; she ends in poverty. Disease, war, or bad government may destroy one’s hopes. At a deeper level, the hero may be frustrated by contradictory impulses arising in her own heart. It is impossible to this good and that good in the same life. In Nussbaum’s phrase, tragic drama shows us the “fragility of goodness.” It is possible, with luck and skill, to reach old age and look back with satisfaction on one’s life. But no amount of skill can erase the danger of bad luck. Your life may turn out to be a tragedy no matter what you do.
I suspect J.R.R. Tolkien would reject Nussbaum’s philosophy. The Christian gospels are, in Northrup Frye’s terms, romances. Tolkien invented the word eucatastrophe to express what he saw as central to the Christian story. Jesus is presented as a cosmic figure—the eternal logos, the Son of Man, the lamb of God—in battle with the evil powers of the world. The stakes of his quest are the highest possible, the Kingdom of God and the redemption of humanity. At the climax of the story, demonic forces working through religion and the state crucify him. In a stunning about-face, the resurrection of Jesus transforms defeat into victory.
(Compare Frodo, in The Lord of the Ring. Lacking the necessary spiritual strength, Frodo failed in his quest to save Middle Earth. At the crucial moment, when all was lost, help came to Frodo in a way he would never have expected: eucatastrophe.)
Tolkien would aver, I think, that Jesus’ story is the fundamental story. All our stories and our personal histories are bits and pieces of the great story. Whether we see it or not, our stories weave into a romance, the triumph of the Christ. For Christians, hope is always appropriate.