Guide and Pilgrim Archetypal Images in Dante’s Divine Comedy

Whether we are on a quest for animal photography in Africa, attempting to traverse the corporate maze, or maintain some semblance of equanimity in the demands of parenting who can we turn to for guidance? Too often in this journey we call life we begin the journey without a guide and rarely find one along the way.

Where is the guide we can turn to?

Image from thefedoralounge.com

image from thefedoralounge.com

Dante Alighieri in his The Divine Comedy: Inferno; Purgatorio; Paradiso shows us what the archetypal guide can be to the weary pilgrim. An example comes from Book One, Inferno. In Canto VIII we meet rebel angels who invite Dante’s guide, Virgil, to desert Dante. This is a significant point in the canto.

The overpowering fear of being abandoned in this horrific place of hell inflicts Dante with panic. He is vulnerable in this Inferno and this canto explicitly conveys his deep felt awareness of this fact. He relies heavily on his guide. Dante is forced to contemplate his situation.  Without Virgil, could he continue? Without Virgil could he return to his everyday world? The potential loss of his guide is devastating as well as frightening. Without Virgil, “returning here seemed so impossible.” Dante’s reliance on his guide is substantial throughout the entire work, but it is emphasized here.

Virgil is an honorable, trustworthy and competent guide. When Dante pleads, “do not desert me when I’m so undone,” Virgil reassures Dante by responding:

Forget your fear, no one can hinder/our passage; One so great has granted it. / . . .feed and comfort your tired spirit with good hope, for I / will not abandon you in this low world.

There is a two way connection between the one being guided and the one guiding, especially on a perilous track. The guide, having traveled this way before, has the responsibility to safely make progress to reach the end of the trek. He or she is also duty-bound to accommodate the reasonable needs of the traveler.

The one being guided also has responsibilities. The one on the quest should not falter in determination to gain the journey’s end nor hinder the guide. In great measure, the pilgrim should take to heart the guide’s instructions and counsel. Virgil says to Dante:

You—though I am vexed— /Must not be daunted; I shall win this contest.

Dante confesses that his confidence has repeatedly been given back to him by his “dear guide.” Dante seems to believe he is no match for this formidable journey. However, with his confidence restored, once again by his guide, he finds within himself what it takes to continue on and he fulfills his part of the guide-traveler relationship.

Guide, traveler, fear of abandonment, comfort and hope are all archetypal images. Dante taps into this archetypal force to affect his readers profoundly. What traveler in distress in an unknown land does not wish for a knowledgeable, competent guide? Who does not need hope in the face of despair? And, is there anyone who couldn’t use a little comfort and confidence in order to continue?

I do not envy Dante his journey, but, I am slightly envious of his remarkable guide. If, like Dante, we cannot complete the journey nor can we return to journey’s starting point without a guide, it’s no wonder that so many of us falter or even fail for lack of one. In a culture where guidance is often rejected in the name of independence, Dante’s image and commentary remind us of the value of this age-old companion.

The Titanic Role of Myth in Modern Scriptwriting

James Cameron said in a letter to the Los Angeles Times, March 28, 1998, the movie, Titanic, intentionally incorporates universals of human experience and emotion that are timeless and familiar because they reflect our basic emotional fabric. By dealing in archetypes, the film touches people in all cultures and of all ages. These archetypal patterns turn a chaotic event like the sinking of an ocean liner into a coherent design that asks questions and provides opinions about how life should be lived.

Image from filmquadposters.co.uk

Image from filmquadposters.co.uk

The Hero’s Journey is the foundation upon which the vast majority of successful stories and Hollywood blockbusters are based. Some successful writers subscribe to the notion that there is really only one story; what James Joyce named the “monomyth.” Every great story essentially alternates situations and superimposes them over the same structure. The Godfather, Slumdog Millionaire, Brokeback Mountain, Gladiator, Annie Hall, Shrek, The Fighter, The Shawshank Redemption and other successful stories are all one and the same – various situations built on the same foundation. Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese, Coppola, Nolan, Cameron all use this structure. Shakespeare used this structure. Stories in the Bible, the Vedas, the Torah and the Koran use this structure.

As the late great script writer Stewart Stern said: “Structure is inevitable.” William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, The Princess Bride, among others) says it even more strongly. He says: “Screenplays are structure.” Structure is more than simple three or four acts or plot points etc. Structure is a consistent, complex process through which your characters are led that results in their resolving their initial challenges; battling past their historical and personal limitations.

By familiarizing yourself with mythic narratives, you will see character archetypes in action and avoid making caricatures or stereotypes of archetypal images. You will be introduced to enduring mythic themes that showcase the human condition. You will see where these concepts that originated from the study of myths have been utilized in film and how to apply them to your story. Understanding myths helps writers better execute and deepen their stories.

Your story is uniquely yours.  The structure of the Hero’s Journey is a tool.  Tools in the hands of a master create art where the tool is transparent to the viewer. The toolbox then becomes a launchpad for freedom.  In the hands of a novice it can help get your hands around those random ideas and get them on the page. Structure is not a dirty word.  As quoted above “structure is inevitable.”  Your job is to harness it and utilize it to give voice to your story.