“The use of archetypal myth in the creation of fiction is the literary equivalent of peddling dope.” — David Eddings, introduction to The Rivan Codex.
I know I’m a day or so late to the party, but a TV show I spend too much time watching concluded its run the other night. It took place on a purgatorial island, and archetypal good and evil characters engaged in constant struggle, culminating in a somewhat ambiguous win for the forces of good. I’m referring, of course, to Law and Order — Mrs. Mondo watched the other one with the smoke monster and stuff.
A number of bloggers I like have been happy to point out the show’s overt political bias in recent years, and I’ve certainly noticed it as well. (If you haven’t, then it’s probably because you share those biases, so it just matches your pre-existing worldview.) Granted, if all I watched were shows that reflect my political stance, I’d pretty much be limited to the meritocracy that is televised sports, so I tend to disregard the propaganda aspects and enjoy the interplay of the familiar characters and the rhythms of the story.
And speaking of those characters, Jim Geraghty’s e-newsletter The Morning Jolt offered this today:
The show was great if you hate characters; any information beyond the archetypes — old cop, young cop, lieutenant, green young prosecutor, dashing older prosecutor, politically cautious district attorney — came out in dribs and drabs and was largely irrelevant to the story. It made for quick, easy viewing, but if you love memorable characters, the concept was rather . . . dumb-dumb.
Here, I have to disagree, and I’m going to use the quote from Eddings as a way into that disagreement. My usual literary theorist of choice is Northrop Frye, who argued (among other things) that literature operated rather like a tarot deck of archetypes — the author shuffles and deals, and the reader understands the arrangement of the “cards” based at least in part on a shared (though not necessarily conscious) understanding of how the cards have been dealt before. Conventionality per se isn’t a bad thing, as it is the avenue through which we approach the mythoi in their various displacements. Both author and audience share in conventions, placing a text in a context of an overall system of imaginative structures.
In short (“Too late!” you cry), I believe an argument can be made that what Geraghty dismisses as quick, easy and dumb is in fact something closer to literature in a pure, archetypal form. After all, we don’t really care about the specifics of a given Cinderella-figure (although we find her across cultures and with astonishing frequency.) We care about the power of the myth. In Law and Order, the specifics of a given crime or a particular character are fungible, as in fact are the particular politics of the authors. What matters is the structure and the patterns of the show. That highly conventionalized structure resonates with the audience, not least because it is conventionalized, and therefore traditional. As Eddings notes, a sure route to success for an author (and a twenty-year run on TV is certainly a successful one) is to tap into those larger conventions, drawing on a common mythic heritage.
Perhaps then, despite the authors’ intents at Law and Order, it was in fact an underlying narrative conservatism that made it work.