In 1976 I earned a bachelor’s degree from Brigham Young University in archaeology (historical emphasis) with a minor in French. In 1984 I received a master’s degree from BYU in humanities, with emphases in music and folklore. If ever I pursue a Ph.D., I would choose to study patterns.
Patterns are particularly important to those who, like me, come from a background of autism spectrum disorder. I am on the mild end of the spectrum, with a case of attention deficit disorder (ADD) that has never been formally diagnosed but is very evident to those familiar with the symptoms. The poor social skills and consequent shyness that characterized my childhood and youth were the least of my problems. The greatest were the unpredictability of the world and people around me due to my lack of understanding of cause and effect.
When—as is typical of those with ADD—all stimuli hit the brain with equal weight, all clamoring for equal notice, an adult finds it difficult to maintain the focus necessary to complete a sustained task. For a child, it is all but impossible. With a bright, inquisitive mind that loved to absorb new knowledge, I did well in all aspects of school except for those that involved listening attentively, following sets of directions accurately, and predicting likely outcomes—all part of what most people consider common sense. Instead, a written or spoken fact might send me on a tangent of thought to a different subject entirely. While I was processing and visualizing ways to fulfill step one of the instructions, steps two and three floated past me unheeded. As for the standard four pictures to order into a simple story of cause and effect, I could arrange them in any order to illustrate any number of highly imaginative stories, all of which I found equally plausible.
Identifying patterns became my means of preserving sanity. Letters in specific patterns stood for words, and words in specific patterns stood for ideas and forms of action. By studying ideas and actions in books, I could safely investigate the world and its inhabitants. Gradually, I learned from a combination of books, instruction from my ever-patient parents, and trial and error how to interact with others and how to sort my billions of bits of knowledge into usable experiences. The process has taken a long time; until I turned about twenty-five, I felt essentially as if I were a lost child still struggling to understand an alien world. Even now, as I pass my sixtieth birthday and can no longer skip down the sidewalk due to two total knee replacements, my acquaintances often place me considerably younger than my years due to my outlook and mannerisms. Perhaps I still adhere to the formative patterns of my youth.
My graduate studies in folklore first introduced me to the deep patterns dubbed archetypes by the pioneering psychologist Carl Jung. He defined them as the most fundamental patterns embedded in the human soul and postulated a “collective unconsciousness” that housed them within humanity. As evidence of their existence, he pointed out parallels in folk tales, religions, mythology, customs, traditions, and particularly symbols that spanned cultures around the globe. One such archetypal symbol is the mandala, or quartered circle, prominent in many traditional forms of folk art. Another is the tree of life. Archetypes also include characters, such as the “great father,” who may be a wise, kindly, nurturing mentor in his positive aspect and an evil, manipulating, destructive magician in his negative aspect. They also take the form of themes, such as the story of the earth’s miraculous creation and the common descent of all human beings from the same set of parents.
Being patterns, archetypes immediately attracted my attention. Much of what I learned about them from my teachers rang true and solidified my impression that they were of eternal significance. The fact that they had endured for millennia in all parts of the world testified that they held great power and meaning for human beings in general. On the other hand, they seemed too powerful to be comfortable. The austerely formalized archetypes of Greek mythology seemed abstract enough to deal with. But I found them totally repulsive when exposed in their primeval near-nakedness in the stories of modern writers such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and Federico García Lorca. Even when barbarically costumed in the elaborate trappings of nineteenth-century Wagnerian operas such as Der Ring des Nibelungen, I could barely tolerate them. They seemed inexorable, unyielding, oppressive, hopeless. After completing my thesis on the archetypal characters and themes in Richard Wagner’s Ring saga, I let my study of archetypes lapse and pursued a satisfying career in editing scholarly books and articles.
However, archetypes are everywhere and are not so easily escaped. Movies ranging from David Puttnam’s Chariots of Fire through George Lucas’s ever-popular Star Wars to Pixar’s Brave are full of them. So are all the classic novels, whose lasting appeal stems directly from their adept use of archetypes. So, to some extent, are the more forgettable movies and books, whose clumsy attempts to subvert these powerful patterns for the sake of novelty are precisely what make them forgettable. Archetypes underlie the raw, untamed wilderness settings of Jack London; the brooding, emotional tales woven by the Brontës; the stark, semimythical works of Herman Melville. But it was when I discovered them buried deep within the placid, enlightened, ultracivilized world of Jane Austen that I truly came to understand them.
All archetypes have both a positive and a negative side, usually characterized by light and darkness. For the instruction of children, most folklore embodies both sides of an archetype by bringing the main character into life-threatening brushes with dark forces but allowing him or her to escape, with help from positive sources, into a “happily-ever-after” of safety. In a world where adults are expected to have adopted the principles of morality and integrity representing the valued way of life, stories that illustrate the dark side of an archetype may seem to wield more power. As in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, they illustrate what can happen when one is enticed by the dark side of an archetype to abandon these principles. The fear factor thus serves to keep adults from straying. Far fewer stories for adults deal as powerfully with the positive side of an archetype by illustrating what happens to those who reject the dark side and embrace the light.
Jane Austen’s novels, I eventually realized, are full of both negative and strongly positive archetypes—so positive and so intrinsic to her portraits of young rural Englishwomen and their associates that many fail to recognize them as archetypal patterns. Her characters seem utterly true-to-life and very distant from the formalized savagery of mythology, folklore, and certain genres of fiction. Nevertheless, they include animus and anima figures, great fathers, great mothers, enemy brothers, saviors, traitors, and archetypal figures of many other kinds. Her novels obviously specialize in the coming together of animus and anima but explore other themes as well, including fall and redemption, betrayal, and—my personal favorite—the hero journey. If her orderly, domesticated world was built upon the beams of archetypes, I wondered, was mine? To my delight, I found that it was—thanks to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Although archetypes appear in human art, literature, and mythology, they are not human creations. They come directly from a loving and provident Heavenly Father and are an essential part of his divine purposes. This assessment is by no means considered academically correct. I once broached to Joseph Campbell, the great name in scholarship concerning the archetypal hero journey, the possibility that one of the many hero-savior stories that he considered near-parallels might be true. He laughed, made a polite joke, and turned away dismissively. Even at Brigham Young University, my teachers remained safely within the traditional academic parameters and never so much as speculated beyond them for their eternal source or purpose. I still see plainly every day that people of all academic levels live unheedingly among archetypes, unaware of the power and love that they represent.
While the physical creation of the earth unfolded, we, our Father’s children, underwent an intensive period of schooling to prepare to inhabit it. With so much at stake for our future, our Father did not release us into an earthly garden of pleasures, temptations, and consequences with nothing to help us. He established careful plans to disseminate and redisseminate His truths among his children on earth (the various dispensations of the gospel), directed the writing of a “book of remembrance” (the scriptures), and appointed messengers (the prophets) to remind us constantly of these things. And for the benefit of those who might never encounter the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Bible, or a prophet during their mortal lives, He schooled us well in the crucial archetypal patterns: a great father and mother who love us, creation of this earth expressly for our well-being, our enemy brother who betrays us for his own ends, our Savior and loving brother who sacrifices all to redeem us, and our own hero journey through the dark mists of mortality back into the light of our eternal home (see Mosiah 3:15; Moses 6:63).
So what has the Great Father provided for His children born into Jewish homes? The example of Moses, an archetypal hero who answered the call to adventure and brought his people the elixir of one God, His law, freedom, and a promised land. What has He provided for those born into Muslim homes? The sunnah (example) of Muhammad, who answered the call and brought his people the knowledge that “there is no god but the God,” who will always extend mercy to those who obey him. For those born into Confucian or Taoist homes? The models of Confucius and Lao Tzu, who, in their disparate ways, taught adherence to the order of heaven. Into Buddhist homes? The pattern of the Buddha, who developed the Eightfold Middle Path to an enlightened life. Into Hindu or Jain homes? A myriad of avatars of Krishna, bearing a myriad of elixirs, all meant to better the human condition. Into unchurched or pagan homes? Prometheus, Beowulf, Maui, and other mythological heroes of all kinds, all answering calls and retrieving elixirs for humanity. Into agnostic or atheistic homes? Superman, Batman, the Avengers, the Lone Ranger, Luke Skywalker—all human heroes after the divine model.
Is Jesus Christ just another human creation, then? Absolutely not. He was and is the pattern after which all the others are modeled, however imperfectly (see 2 Nephi 11:4). Human beings have an intrinsic need for heroes and savior figures; if none are available, we will create them after the example deeply engrained within us. We are all heroes currently engaged in the cycle, having answered the greatest call to adventure: to emulate our Savior. Jung’s “collective unconscious” was our Heavenly Father’s very conscious effort engineered to guide us, using threads of folklore that, if followed, would lead us to the more substantial “iron rod” of truth, whether in this life or the life beyond it. “Happily ever after” is no cop-out from reality; it is reality of the highest kind and is the preprogrammed destination for all of us, if we will only follow the many guides that lead to it (see Alma 33:19–20).
Are all seeming archetypes equally sound? No. Like any other medium, they can be distorted and counterfeited. Satan has been doing so from the beginning. He has proliferated mythologies of superhuman beings without principle who subvert their own rules of conduct and strike down at whim any who displease them, who contend with each other for power and use human beings as pawns in gigantic, meaningless games of chance. In other words, he projects his own warped agenda onto his Father and ours. And for the time being, he may seem to have the upper hand, since God’s plan depends entirely upon our freedom to choose. All Satan needs to do is multiply the poor choices and use them to obscure the truth until we run out of time in our probation period. Even if he cannot corrupt us entirely, he can cause us to waste our resources in useless or harmful worldly pursuits.
But he cannot obliterate the truth. It is there; and for those who hark back to their premortal training, it shines like a gold thread in a multicolored fabric. We were all taught to recognize it. If we let the other colors in the fabric distract us from it or choose to ignore it, it is not because we lacked the background, the opportunity, or many spirit helpers to guide and exhort us. Above all stands the example of the Savior, who in every way precisely emulated the divine pattern while in His mortal state, bearing His own burdens and all of ours in the process. Look among all the other savior figures on earth for another who accomplished this overwhelming task, and you will look in vain. Of all those heroes who tried to return from the jaws of death bearing the elixir of eternal life in the presence of God the Father, Jesus the Christ is the only one who succeeded. He offers it to us freely, asking only that we exert the faith necessary to receive and act upon it.
Is it possible, then, for ordinary mortals to emulate the Savior of the world? Emphatically, resoundingly yes. It may well take longer than a lifetime for most of us, but it is possible. If a lost, flawed, chronically confused child such as I can find, amid the chaotic tangle of mortal existence, the fine gold threads that lead to the iron rod, so can anyone else. Years of investigation have convinced me that there is no easier or surer route to eternal life than the rod, which is open for all of humankind to use. I pray that we may all use it steadfastly so that we may each complete our journey successfully and return as heroes to our heavenly home.
Elizabeth Wilkinson Watkins received a B.A. in archaeology and an M.A. in humanities from Brigham Young University. She entered a career in scholarly publications at the age of nineteen and has been involved with that work ever since, with the exception of a year and a half spent on an LDS mission in France and French-speaking Switzerland and eight years spent as a full-time mom. She has edited books in a large number of fields, including music, art, biography, comparative religions, law, politics, medieval Arabic philosophy and medicine, and especially history—United States, western, and Mormon. She has also written and published articles on United States and world history, essays on scholarly publishing, and several novels.
Elizabeth has worked in publishing at Brigham Young University with the former BYU Press, Scholarly Publications, BYU Studies, and the Neal A. Maxwell Institute’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative. She has written and edited for the National Center of Constitutional Studies and the newly founded James Madison Institute in Provo, Utah. She has also had the opportunity to work as a researcher and writer on the Joseph Smith Papers biographical project and on Brigham Young University’s Education in Zion project. And she has enjoyed the remarkable blessing of loving her profession and the increased knowledge and understanding it has always given her.