The Shadow in Fiction (Part II)

In the previous post, we identified the three major levels of the shadow complex:

1. The Personal Shadow
2. The Cultural Shadow
3. The Archetypal Shadow

Let’s go through them one by one to see how each of these levels might be useful in understanding (and therefore in writing) fictional narratives.

1. Manifestations of the Personal Shadow

In fiction, the most important manifestation of the Personal Shadow archetype is the special relationship that exists between protagonist and antagonist. A villain is a hero’s shadow in human form. A good hero has a shadow side, just as actual human beings do, and this shadow side should repel him or her as much as your own shadow side repels you. An effective villain will force the hero into the spotlight. An effective villain will find ways to magnify the very things the hero would most like to hide.

In Lord of the Rings, there are multiple Personal Shadow relationships: Golum and Frodo. Gandalf and Saruman. The Ring provides direct line to Frodo’s Personal Shadow – to everything the earnest young hobbit would most despise within his deepest self.

In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, it’s worth re-reading that classic early chapter where Edmund is tempted over to the dark side by the White Witch and her delicious Turkish delight. The White Witch represents the Shadow, right? Yes. But it's important to note that Edmund himself is also a manifestation of the Shadow, and in particular the Personal Shadow.

This becomes easier to perceive if you think of the four children as a single, divided protagonist. Edmund is Peter’s Personal Shadow – and Lucy’s, and Susan’s. He represents the side of themselves – greediness, ambition, cowardice, betrayal –  that they most despise and refuse to acknowledge. Edmund’s betrayal illuminates key aspects of the children’s collective character. They could be greedy and selfish, but they’re not. They’re noble, true, and willing to sacrifice themselves for their new friends. Edmund’s betrayal, and the others’ forgiveness of him, is a key point in the arc of the book. It is a major step in the children’s journey, just as for each of us, coming to terms with – and incorporating – the Personal Shadow is a key part of our personal growth.

In practical terms, the Personal Shadow gives you as a writer an excellent lens through which to understand your protagonist. Which aspects of his/her character does he/she find most shameful and unpleasant? What are his/her main limitations? What feelings does he/she deny?

2. Manifestations of the Cultural Shadow.

Think about a modern classic, The Hunger Games. I know many of you have read it recently. Can you think of any examples of the Cultural Shadow? That’s right, it's easy: The Arena. The yearly competition to the death, the blood sacrifice of youth. This is a formalized enactment of the Cultural Shadow, just like the Coliseum of Rome.

More examples of the Cultural Shadow: In Lord of the Rings, when the Sam and Frodo come back to the Shire to trees being cut down, and the most greedy and vulgar hobbits in charge.  In The Golden Compass, the Oblation Board is the dark underside of organized religion, literally severing children from their own souls. In Narnia, the White Witch is arguably a representation of the Cultural Shadow, although in her more evil moments she strays into the realm of the Archetypal. As you can see, the lines between these categories blur; it's probably better to envision them as belonging to a shadowy spectrum.

3. Manifestations of the Archetypal Shadow.

The Shadow in the broadest terms is probably of most use to us as writers, because of the abundant dramatic energy associated with the Dark Side. The Archetypal Shadow taps into our deepest, most primal fears, and those of our protagonists. It's the monster in the closet. It's our deeply rooted collective nightmares.

Here are two examples, taken virtually at random from The Fellowship of the Rings (also see my previous post on Shadow and Light in Tolkien):
In the dead of night, Frodo lay in a dream without light. Then he saw the young moon rising; under its thin light there loomed before him a black wall of rock, pierced by a dark arch like a great gate.
Frodo’s legs ached. He was chilled to the bone and hungry; and his head was dizzy as he thought of the long and painful march downhill. Black specks swam before his eyes. He rubbed them, but the black specks remained. In the distance below him, but still high above the lower foothills, dark dots were circling in the air.
Most novels, whether their authors have thought about it this way or not, are imbued with the Archetypal Shadow. It’s particularly obvious in YA literature, especially in the speculative and fantasy genres, where the entire story often hinges on a pervasive sense of dread, of frightening evil abroad in the world. (See Part I of my Game of Thrones analysis for more examples.) Keep in mind too that the stronger the Archetypal Shadow, the more possibilities exist for contrasting brushstrokes of joy and light, as I explored in that earlier post on Tolkien

But it's not only Tolkien or George RR Martin. Think of Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series. Think of Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, or U.K. LeGuin's Earthsea. The examples are far too numerous to list.

The Archetypal Shadow is a great arrow for writers to to keep in their quivers. If you feel your story is missing something, try infusing it with more Archetypal Shadow. Use the weather, the landscape, character descriptions, and other refractory details to portray the Shadow, and bring it into your story.