The Shifting of the Story Meta-Structure

In this essay I will analyze four prominent and popular stories in our culture: The Hobbit, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Moana, and Wall-E. I will first explain the (Jungian) Archetypes prominent in stories like these and will take a look at the relation between them and how it shifted from the classic Hero stories such as the Hobbit and Harry Potter to Moana and Wall-E.

Order vs. Chaos

All different patterns in story can be distinguished by the level of analysis utilized. The broader the level of analysis, the more similarities we will probably find in different stories. The key then lies in applying different levels of analysis and find recurring patterns in all or most of these.
One of the largest non-trivial similarities we find in stories is the narrative of the interplay between Order and Chaos. Chaos here isn’t simply defined as a certain lack of order, like the room of most teenagers lacks order. Chaos is the Unknown. It is everything that is unknown to a character, in contrast to what is known.
Order then in contrast to the Unknown, ‘the Known’, manifests itself in the two more classic Hero-Stories (Hobbit, Harry Potter) as the starting place, as their home: The Shire and Privet Drive 4, respectively. Both are calm, structured, orderly.  Order is the place where the Hero knows what is what and lives in peace.
Simply describing Chaos as ‘the Unknown’ doesn’t do justice to the complexity of a   structureless space. Being unknown, Chaos isn’t emptiness: it is unlimited potential. Seeing as there is no structure yet, it can be made to be anything, whether good or bad. This is an important point to emphasize, Chaos being good and bad at the same time; life-giving and at the same time death. Chaos is unlimited potential, it is change.
This also brings us to the negative aspect of Order. Order in itself doesn’t evolve. It tries to stay the same at all costs, but if left alone it will eventually deteriorate into chaos. If Order does not change from within, it will not survive changes and it will not become even better than it is now. Order is static, not flexible. This is clearly seen in both the Shire and Privet Drive: seemingly timeless, orderly, and peaceful – but both wanting nothing to do with any sort of adventure whatsoever. Things have been good as they were, so the assumption is things will be as good as they were. The same is also seen in Moana: the Order on the island does not want to change, even as the island itself is crumbling into the ocean.

Symbols of Order and Chaos

Throughout mythology and fictions there is an abundance of symbols representing Order and Chaos. The recurring pattern seen in all of them however is the characterization of Order as masculine and the characterization of Chaos as feminine. This leads them to be often identified with a male and female respectively, but this is not necessarily the case. As I’ve mentioned, the Shire and Privet Drive 4 are perfect examples of manifestations of Order in a story – neither of them is male. The State is another example of a common symbol of Order. Order if often identified with daytime and the Sun.
Symbols for Chaos are feminine in nature, but this also does not mean that the manifestations of Chaos in stories are female. One of the most recurring symbols for the Unknown is the ocean, which is the way Chaos is represented in Moana most prominently. Dragons are also a symbol of Chaos, which in the Hobbit is Smaug but in many other mythologies it is the Dragon of Chaos that encircles the World (e.g. Jörmungandr in Norse mythology). Chaos is often identified with nighttime and the Moon.
As I’ve already mentioned, there are both positive and negative aspects to Order and Chaos. This differentiation leads us to the forming certain ‘archetypes’ in stories. These archetypes embody the positive and negative aspects of both Order and Chaos.

Mother, Father and Son Archetypes

The masculine and feminine nature has led Jung to label archetypes for Order and Chaos as the Father and the Mother, respectively. As they differentiate into their positive and negative sides we speak of the negative and positive Mother archetype and the negative and positive Father archetypes.
The Mother archetype is in most stories and myths closely correlated with Nature. Not surprisingly so, for through the eyes of culture, nature is full of unlimited possibilities. The positive side of the Mother archetype is a symbol for creativity, fertility, and creation (among many other things). The negative Mother archetype is a symbol for destruction, loss and death.
The Mother doesn’t have to be a literal mother to be a manifestation of the Mother archetype. Forests or caves can be identified with the Mother, especially if they hold something valuable for the hero. The ocean is also often identified with the Mother, for reasons I’ll explain later. Typical manifestations of the negative Mother in stories are examples as the Queen in Snow White, the Witch in Maleficent, and the Elephant Graveyard in the Lion King. The positive Mother is possibility and fertility, the negative Mother is deprivation and death.
The Father Archetype, because it is identified with Order, often manifests as the State or a King (in stories oftentimes being the same thing). Well known and clear examples of both sides of the Father archetype come from the Lion King. The positive Father is Mufasa: a just King, aware of the situation in his kingdom and caring for his subjects. As Mufasa died and Scar came to power, the Order in the kingdom deteriorated into a tyranny. The negative Father is the Tyrant.

Mother and Father archetypes in our 4 stories

All of these archetypes are present in the stories I’ve set out to analyze: Harry Potter, the Hobbit, Moana and Wall-E.
In Moana the archetypes are the most evident and the most literal. The island on which the story takes place represents Order and the ocean represents the Unknown, or Chaos. Moana’s father is, probably coming as no surprise to anyone, is a form of the Father archetype – both positive and negative. The negative Mother archetype is Te Kā, coming to destroy the Order they have on the island, while the positive Mother is Te Fiti, being the life giver to all things.
In Wall-E the archetypes overlap a great deal with Moana. The Space-ship, aptly named ‘Axiom’, represents Order, safety. The captain of the ship is the positive Father, while the Autopilot is the negative Father (the Tyrant). Earth in this story is the negative Mother, barren and desolate – once transformed it becomes the positive Mother, fertile and bountiful.
In the Hobbit the Shire is Order. Father archetypes in the Hobbit would (I think) be Gandalf as the positive and the Master of Lake-town being negative. I am not too sure of the Hobbit, for in the overall structure of the story the Father archetype is of minor importance. It is the negative Mother that the emphasis is placed on, undeniably manifesting as Smaug and his lair, Erebor.
The archetypes in Harry Potter are however pretty straightforward. Again, we have a starting place that is Order: Privet Drive 4. There is a negative Father there however, with Uncle Vernon filing in the role of the Tyrant. The positive Father is Dumbledore, and the Mother is the whole of Hogwarts both being a fertile ground for development but is also dangerous: certain areas are restricted for “those not wanting to die a painful death” (the exact quote is lost on me for I don’t have my copy with me at the moment).   

The Son or the Hero archetype

When we look at all these archetypes in the stories together, there is still a crucial archetype missing. This archetype is the Son (as Peterson calls it), or the Hero – which is the Jungian terminology I’ll use in order to avoid the problem of having to call Moana a ‘Son’. The Hero in our stories is of crucial importance. The Hero is the active agent, the intermediary force between Order and Chaos. In the Lion King, as the Order of Mufasa devolves into the Tyranny of Scar, it is Simba as the Hero that restores this Order.

The Hero and the Sun

I do not know if it was Carl Jung that proposed the relation between the course of the sun and the journey the Hero undertakes, but it is from his Symbols of Transformation I learned it (credit where credit is due). The relation is as follows: the sun rises in the morning from the ocean – as most cultures believed the Earth was surrounded by one great ocean. I’ve already discussed the archetypal significance of the ocean as being identified with the Mother; the sun is born from the Mother in the morning. It rises, then falls, then sinks back into the ocean – or re-enters the Mother. It then undertakes the so-called ‘night sea journey’, it goes underneath the Ocean and dies only to be reborn again in the morning. The ending of the ‘night sea journey’ is often signaled by the lighting of a fire, or the cutting out of the heart of the Beast (like Ra fighting the serpent Apep on his boat to return in the morning, or Pinocchio lighting a fire in the belly of Monstro the whale). The sun is then able to rise again – as immortal, a state many people reach for.¹
This returning to the Mother to find something precious, like immortality, is something we find very prominently in the two ‘classical’ stories I’m discussing: Harry Potter and the Hobbit.
In Harry Potter, as I’ve said, Hogwarts is the Mother archetype. Harry travels to the Mother via a lake (a clear sign of the Hero archetype as the sun passing over the water into the Mother) and once there travels deeper into the castle, down to the philosopher’s stone. He obtains the Stone, or immortality, and brings it back with him after a fight with Voldemort. He sleeps for three days (again a sign of the Hero as the sun, the sun being at it’s ‘lowest’ point at Easter, during the vernal equinox which marks the beginning of spring) wakes up and has become immortal – archetypically speaking.
In the Hobbit, Bilbo travels to the lair of Smaug – a symbol of Chaos and the Mother as I’ve discussed before. He enters the cave (or Erebor), confronts the Dragon and steals the Arkenstone from the Mother. The journey to the Lonely mountain is via Lake-town, and over a lake, in the same way Harry enters Hogwarts via a lake.

The Hero as active principle 

As I’ve already alluded to previously, without the Hero we have no story to tell. Or at least, it would be a story of an established order slowly deteriorating into Chaos. The Hero is the mediator between the established Order and the looming Chaos. The Hero saves the Father from being a Tyrant (like in the Lion King), or in even more extreme cases the Hero is saving the established Order from collapsing entirely. This is the case in Moana, which is the most explicit with its archetypes – Moana has to save the island from sinking into the ocean (Order sinking into Chaos).

Relations between Archetypes in story

Now that we have explored the major archetypes in most stories, we can look at our four stories and discuss in what relation these archetypes are used – how does the Hero mediate between the Father and the Mother, and what is the purpose or role of that particular relational quality in our stories?
First, the more classical-relational stories: The Hobbit and Harry Potter. These stories I’ve called ‘classical’ throughout this essay, meaning that the relation between archetypes is one which has been the same since the Epic of Gilgamesh, and most likely even before that. It is the structure that has been discussed previously in relation to the Hero: the Hero goes out of the established Order into Chaos to take something from that Chaos. Harry leaves Privet Drive 4, Bilbo leaves the Shire. They journey (over water) to enter and go down the Mother, Chaos. This is represented by Harry going down the castle of Hogwarts and Bilbo entering the Lonely Mountain. Here they face their respective challenges (Voldemort, Smaug), resulting in the ignition of a fire and the taking of something from Chaos for the better of themselves or for society – Harry leaves with the Philosopher’s Stone and thus becoming (archetypically speaking, not Harry Potter lore speaking) immortal, Bilbo takes the Arkenstone from Smaug in order to re-establish the fallen city (read: fallen Order) of Erebor.
Why is the classical story structured like this? Simple answer is, because it is a true structure – meaning that if one would confront the Unknown, one would gain something from it. This works for the singular person, but we can also view this structure from a societal level: it has always been the way humans have struggled with nature in order to maintain their families, tribes, villages and cities. On the coast, societies battle the sea – more inland, the draughts. Storms, earthquakes, floods, plagues are all well-known to most cultures and stories have presented them with the solutions to their problems. They had to take something from nature in order to remain ordered: build dikes to keep the sea at bay, channel rivers so they lose their fierceness. The pacification of natural forces has been one of the great victories of early humans (and our generation as well).
In both Moana and Wall-E, the relation between archetypes has shifted. In Moana, the Order on the island is threatened by the ocean. So far so good, classical structure seems present. But the reason for Chaos threatening Order is different from the classical story. In those stories, Chaos takes away simply because it is in its nature to take away – Smaug takes Erebor and its gold simply because Dragons love gold. In Moana the ocean is corrupted not because it is its nature to do so, but because humans have taken something from Nature – the Heart of Te Fiti, stolen by the demigod Maui. Nature doesn’t mindlessly take from Man, it attacks because Man attacked first and took something from nature. This Heart of Nature has to be returned to Nature in order for the Order to be rescued from Chaos. This is why Moana confronts Chaos: not, like Bilbo, to take from Nature but to give back to Nature. In order for the Father to be saved, Moana doesn’t take from the Mother but returns her Heart to her.
We can see a similar structure in Wall-E. Eve is tasked with searching a barren Earth for signs of life, to return this to the mothership for confirmation. She succeeds, but Auto (the Tyrant in the story) wants to keep everyone on the spaceship and tries to destroy organic life itself, by trying to destroy the only known living thing. Wall-E and the Captain stop him and return the plant, which archetypically speaking is the same as the Heart of Te Fiti Moana carries, to Chaos – here represented as a barren planet Earth, the negative Mother.
In both Wall-E and Moana the Mother archetype has been transformed into the negative Mother by the actions of humans, by taking the Heart of Nature out of Nature. This negative Mother then assaults the established Order and to save it, to regain fertility, the Hero needs to return the stolen Heart of Nature to the negative Mother to make her fertile again and thus transform her into the positive Mother.

The significance of this could be pretty big. If we accept stories as a window into the structure of the human mind (a thesis I haven’t argued for in this piece, but am wanting to write something on), this change in story-structure which wants us to sacrifice something to Chaos from Order (instead of taking from Chaos for Order) for the maintenance of Order itself could be signaling a big shift in the way society views its relationship with Nature. Of course, two films that have a different story meta-structure can hardly be called a trend. The fact however that both these films have been a tremendous success could be pointing to somethingchanging. I’ve laid out a broad but solid framework for interpreting stories: the active principle that mediates between Order and Chaos, both sides of the Father and the Mother. I’ve shown the classical relationship between these archetypes and how this has come to shift in more recent stories – and the possible significance of that.

I hope I’ve given readers a solid and broad framework for interpreting stories. I’m planning to study story structures and archetypes way more, so expect more pieces on topics like this in the future.



¹. The story of Jesus is by Jung identified as the same. His going on the cross is often depicted as Jesus being hung in the Tree of Life, a Mother archetype. He is dead for 3 days, after which he returns from the dead. Interesting note on Jesus: he is identified with fish, which is another sun symbol. The journey of the sun is often identified with the leap of a fish out of the water and back in.

Resources used:

The Hobbit – J.R.R. Tolkien
Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – J.K. Rowling
Moana – Disney
WALL-E – Disney Pixar
2017 Maps of Meaning: The Architecture of Belief lecture series – Jordan B. Peterson
The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories lecture series – Jordan B. Peterson
Symbols of Transformation – C.G. Jung

Edit October 8th 2018: ” This archetype is the Son, or the Hero. Carl Jung called it the Son, seeing as there weren’t as many female protagonists in stories back then – in his terminology, Moana would be a manifestation of the Son. To avoid this problem (having to call Moana a Son) I’ll refer to it as the Hero archetype.” I changed this into the following, because it is factually inaccurate. Peterson calls this archetype the Son, Jung called it the Hero: “This archetype is the Son (as Peterson calls it), or the Hero – which is the Jungian terminology I’ll use in order to avoid the problem of having to call Moana a ‘Son’.”


One thought on “The Shifting of the Story Meta-Structure

  1. Dank. Uiterst helder en to the point. En leerzaam voor mij.
    Herken ook de uitgangspunten van Jordan Peterson, waardoor ik Jung beter leer te begrijpen.
    Ben begonnen met zijn boek “Maps of Meaning. The architecture of belief”.
    Maar dat is nasty taai boek. Ik hoop dat ik er doorheen kom.

    Ik ga je volgen Sven, want dit vind ik mooi.


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