Over the course of around twenty years of analysing films, books and other media, I have often been struck at the ways in which storytellers keep telling the same kinds of tales over and over again. That’s not to say that the narratives they construct are inevitably wearied or hackneyed; far from it. There is extraordinary diversity in the way that the themes have been explored. Yet, it remains the case that, under the surface, most if not all stories are versions of a limited number of key themes.
Back in 2004, Christopher Booker wrote a large tome entitled The Seven Basic Plots, which he had worked on for 34 years. He wrote out of a conviction that every story was a retelling of one of seven fundamental storylines:
- Overcoming the Monster
- Rags to Riches
- The Quest
- Voyage and Return
While some writers praised him, others were highly critical as it led Booker to be critical of some classic works because they didn’t fit into his scheme. Some of his basic plots resonated with me more than others, but I didn’t ever make much effort to look at films through his grid as I wasn’t convinced it would help me in any particular way.
A Story of a Larger Kind
Long before Booker, J.R.R. Tolkien gave a lecture at the University of St Andrews which was later published as an essay, ‘On Fairy Stories’. Tolkien argued that the stories we tell (what he refers to as fairy stories are what we now generally call fantasy literature) are reflections in some way of the true story of the gospel – of God coming into our world in the person of Jesus Christ, dying and rising again to rescue us.
The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. . . . But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. . . . There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits. . . . But this story is supreme; and it is true. Art has been verified. God is the Lord, of angels, and of men—and of elves. Legend and History have met and fused.
C.S. Lewis wrote, in his essay ‘Is Theology Poetry?’, about the way that the story of Jesus’s incarnation, death and resurrection echoes, or is echoed by, old myths and legends:
Theology, while saying that a special illumination has been vouchsafed to Christians and (earlier) to Jews, also says that there is some divine illumination vouchsafed to all men. . . . We should, therefore, expect to find in the imagination of the great Pagan teachers and myth makers some glimpse of that theme which we believe to be the very plot of the whole cosmic story—the theme of incarnation, death, and rebirth.
Similarly, in a 1904 debate with an atheist newspaper editor Richard Blatchford, G.K. Chesterton said,
If the Christian God really made the human race, would not the human race tend to rumours and perversions of the Christian God? If the centre of our life is a certain fact, would not people far from the centre have a muddled version of that fact? If we are so made that a Son of God must deliver us, is it odd that Patagonians should dream of a Son of God?
What Tolkien, Lewis and Chesterton are saying is that human beings, made in the image of God for a relationship with God, have an intuitive sense of the shape of the most important story there is – the gospel story. While their focus was more on ancient myths, legends, and fairy tales, it seems to me that we should expect the same to be true of all powerful stories which human beings tell. Because God has ‘set eternity in the human heart’ (Ecclesiastes 3:11), we have a deep longing for God, though many people fail to recognise what this longing is. And somehow we have, hidden deep within us, an urge to tell stories that resonate to some extent with the true story of God’s rescue of lost people.