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Northrop Frye's Archetypal Criticism

An archetype is a recurring narrative design, character types, themes, or objects seen in the literature. Archetypes are used, reused, and at times overused. They have been passed from generation to generation, and even though they might be molded to fit the appropriate world, they have the same essence in their core.

There are three types of archetypes:

Character Archetype: In literature, the character archetype is a recurring character type that represents a specific set of recognizable traits. Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell mention some popular character archetypes. Let’s look at them with examples from literature.

Hero - King Arthur, Harry Potter

Ruler - Joffrey Baratheon

Lover - Romeo

Magician - Gandalf, Dumbledore

Caregiver - Samwell Gamgee

Rebel - Katniss

Character archetypes can be molded to fit the genres. What might have been an evil wizard in a medieval narrative can become a mad evil scientist in a science fiction novel. 

2. Narrative Archetype: The narrative archetype is a plotline that has been used over time in literature. It is said that there are seven basic plotlines used for all pieces of storytelling. These are:

Rags to Riches

The Quest


Overcoming the Monster



Voyage and return

As with the character archetype, narrative archetypes can be innovatively molded to fit the genre and times. A prince with a magical sword fighting monsters in a fantasy novel would become a policeman with a gun fighting the mafias of the underworld in crime fiction.

Northrop Frye, a Canadian academician, is known for his unique perspective on Archetypal Criticism. He compared human emotions and characteristics to the four seasons. He assigned each season with a literary genre that they best represent:

Comedy - Spring

Romance - Summer

Tragedy - Autumn

Satire - Winter


Spring represents comedy because of its lightness. Spring is the season of birth, and comedy is characterized by the birth of the hero, resurrection, and revival. Spring brings with it the hope of summer and the end of long winter.


Summer represents the Romance genre. Summer is the culmination of life and shows love in the best way. If narrative archetypes are to be followed, the protagonists always fall in love in the summer, or their love comes to fruition in the summer.


Autumn represents the genre of Tragedy. Leaves fall, and the year is almost at the end. It reflects the fate of the hero. That is why it forms such a good setting for Tragedy. The dull atmosphere runs parallel to the morose theme of the fall or demise of the protagonist.


Winter represents the genre of Satire because it best symbolizes dark themes. Winter is the month that symbolizes death and loss of hope. It is the defeat of the hero, and the order in the world is broken.

Some writers cyclically use Northrop’s theory for their plot. For example, a Romantic comedy starts in Spring when the two protagonists meet for the first time, and comedy ensues when they bicker because of their distinct personalities. In Summer, they fall in love. In Autumn, the two lovers are separated, and in Winter, they face loneliness. They reunite in Spring, and the narrative comes to a full circle.

Archetypes have been used for generations. Writers have used these archetypes with great innovation over the years and have created masterpieces. They are a great tool for writing and, when used with precision, can bring about the best in the writer’s work.

Written by Readers’ Favorite Reviewer Manik Chaturmutha