Archetypal Antagonists for the King Arc: Cataclysm and Rebel

The King Arc begins the second half of the life cycle of archetypal character arcs. This placement as the fourth of six arcs necessarily makes it a turning point within the overarching “story structure” of life. We can recognize this particularly in the King’s relationship to his archetypal antagonists.

The first three arcs—those of Maiden, Hero, and Queen—are primarily concerned with gaining power. The final three arcs—those of King, Crone, and Mage—are primarily concerned with surrendering power. As such, the early arcs often demonstrate comparatively narrow and dualistic views of the antagonistic forces that oppose them. For the young Maiden, the entire thrust of her transformation is that of individuating from Authority and becoming a separate person. The Hero then faces a dehumanized antagonistic force represented by the Dragon. And the Queen, although beginning to recognize her antagonist of Invader as her equal, still pushes back with an “us versus them” mindset.

By the time we reach the challenges of the King Arc, however, this relationship to the antagonist begins to dramatically shift. The central challenge of the King Arc is that of recognizing a larger realm of power and potential, beyond the physical sphere on which he has so far spent all his focus. As the successful Ruler of a vast Kingdom—and indeed perhaps even an Empire—he has necessarily moved beyond the Queen’s small “us versus them” mindset to recognize the interconnectedness of all the subjects within his realm—and indeed himself with them.

In King, Warrior, Magician, Lover, Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette note:

The good king always mirrored and affirmed others who deserved it. He did this by seeing them—in a literal sense, in his audiences at the palace, and in the psychological sense of noticing them, knowing them, in their true worth. The good king delighted in noticing and promoting good men to positions of responsibility within his kingdom. He held audience, primarily, not to be seen (although this was important to the extent that he carried people’s own projected inner King energy), but to see, admire, and delight in his subjects, to reward them and to bestow honors upon them.

Therefore, it is interesting to observe that the King’s archetypal antagonists are much more “connected” to him, and that indeed much of his arc is about recognizing and even consecrating this connection.

The King faces the archetypal antagonists of Cataclysm and Rebel, both of which present challenges that ask him to culminate his rule in a way that blesses his Kingdom—even as he himself must journey on into the misty and liminal spaces of the Third Act of Elderhood.

The King’s Antagonists: Practical and Thematic

As ever, the entire concept of archetypal antagonists is rooted in deeply symbolic language. In an equally symbolic story—such as those in the fantasy genre—these antagonists may be realized literally. But in more realistic stories, such as those set in our modern world, these antagonistic forces can be recognized as just that—forces.

The Cataclysm, particularly, is a force. It represents a supernatural power descending upon the Kingdom and demanding the King evolve his tactics. Up to this point, the King has successfully defended his Kingdom from any number of “natural” enemies. In essence, he began his career back when he was the Queen staving off the threat of Invaders from without. Up to now, his “strong right arm” and the “sword of his mind” have proven more than capable of dealing with all comers.

But the advent of the Cataclysm signals that he is being called into his next arc. Much like the Invaders in the previous Queen Arc, the Cataclysm represents a threat from “beyond” and therefore one that creates the external conflict within the plot. Meanwhile, it is the King’s own subjects who represent the threat from within the Kingdom, as the Rebels—disgruntled by the changing times, still lacking in maturity, and frightened of this Cataclysm which they are as yet even less equipped to comprehend.

Cataclysm as Archetypal Antagonist

As with all of the primary and external antagonists within these arcs, the Cataclysm is foundationally the reason the protagonist is being challenged to undertake this stage in his evolution. If this challenge were never to arrive and alter the status quo, there would be no reason (and arguably no ability) for the character to change.

The Cataclysm represents a particularly powerful antagonistic force. Partly, this is due to its awesomely destructive nature. As the first of the “spiritual” antagonists (followed by the Death Blight in the Crone Arc and Evil in the Mage Arc), the Cataclysm inevitably feels a bit apocalyptic. Mostly, this is due to its unprecedented and therefore unknown nature. This is like nothing the protagonist has faced before; or, more practically, it is something against which all the old successful methods will not work.

More personally to the King, the Cataclysm simply represents the turning of the tide within his own life. He is growing older. He is approaching the end of his physical vigor. And even though old age and death may yet be decades in the future, he is now closer to his death than to his birth.

And so, although the Cataclysm may indeed be represented as a supernatural force, it may also be represented in a quieter or more realistic story as simply the character’s need to grapple with the end of an era within his job or family life.

In the beginning of the story, the King will see the Cataclysm as an enemy, perhaps even accepting a narrative in which this force is malignant and deliberately “out to get him” or his subjects. Because his story is one in which he is being asked to leave his throne (willingly or not), he will have to acknowledge and deal with feelings of resistance and resentment.

But if he succeeds in facing this antagonist, he will come to realize its antagonism is not personal. Indeed, the Cataclysm is a supernatural force. Even though its consequences are frightening, it is in fact a messenger warning the King of changes that must be made if the balance of his own and his subjects’ health is to be maintained.

Symbolically, the only way to defeat the Cataclysm and protect the Kingdom from its threatened apocalypse is for the King to sacrifice himself to restore balance. The Cataclysm is not “out to get him”; rather, it is offering him the opportunity to avoid destruction. As such, the King will come to realize the Cataclysm is less an enemy than a strange friend.

Rebel as Archetypal Antagonist

So why does the King have to give up his throne anyway? A true King is a good King. Seems like we should keep him on his throne as long as possible, right?

First of all, keep in mind that just because someone reaches the true and archetypal stage of Ruler (in the positive sense) does not mean he will ever be called to take the King Arc. Many people will spend their elder years as Ruler, never taking the Crone or Mage Arcs (and some people never make it to the King Arc at all). This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since whether or not someone is called to take these archetypal arcs can depend largely on contextual social needs. No one person’s archetypal journeys take place within a vacuum.

But if the King is indeed called upon this transformative journey, in which the Cataclysm signals an impending and destructive imbalance within the Kingdom, it is likely because it is time for his young subjects to rise into their own roles of leadership. If the King were to refuse to step aside to make way for the new Queens and, by extension, if he were to refuse to take his own initiations into Elderhood and therefore be incapable of further initiating the younger Maidens and Heroes—he would block the growth of the overall Kingdom. Stagnation and rot would set in: cataclysm.

We can see the results of this failure on the King’s part in that he often shows up in the negative shadow aspect of Tyrant in Queen stories. But we also see his inner conflict with this reality even within his own successful arc.

In any King Arc, younger characters will be prominent and important. If the King’s story is about leaving the throne, then there must be someone to whom he passes the crown—worthy Heroes and Queens who will benefit from his stalwart legacy.

But there will also be Rebels. These characters represent an antagonistic force within the Kingdom. Catalyzed by the fearsome Cataclysm—which they, unlike the true King, lack the wisdom to understand—they distrust the King’s responses to this emergency. The Rebels ultimately represent that part of the King’s psyche that also wants to rebel against this new reality, that seeks power by any means.

Externalized, the Rebels deepen the complexity of the narrative by providing a convincing argument for the King not to abandon his throne and sacrifice himself to the Cataclysm. After all, these rowdy upstarts are clearly unready to replace him in all his wisdom and experience.

Depending on the nature of the story, the Rebels may be redeemed into worthy successors—or they may be defeated by those among the King’s subjects who are worthy to take up his crown.

How the Cataclysm and Rebels Operate in the Conflict and the Climactic Moment

Usually, the Cataclysm will represent the outer conflict—the main problem the protagonist is trying to solve. This could be a literal apocalypse or it could be the dissolution of the character’s business, or it could be an illness such as cancer or Alzheimer’s that is threatening the character’s previous mode of life.

Almost always, the Cataclysm will be presented as something abstract. The enemy will not be human even if it employs a human army. Alternatively, the “mastermind” might be a mortal who unwittingly wields a supernatural power he does not fully understand and which escapes the “leash.” The Cataclysm is a deep existential problem, but it is not a person or group of people who can be easily “vilified.”

By contrast, the Rebels are almost human characters who are close to the King. While the Cataclysm represents the Antagonist, the Rebels are more likely to represent the Contagonist—a force that is not directly opposed to the King, but which starts out seemingly aligned with him only to try to tempt him off his true path.

The Rebels offer much opportunity for thematic complexity and depth, since they can be represented by both shadow archetypes as well as positive-but-simply-immature archetypes. Although the Rebels may indeed be aggressive shadow archetypes—Bullies and Sorceresses—who wish to usurp the power of the throne for their own means, they may also simply be young upstarts who don’t yet “know that that they don’t know.”

Ultimately, all varieties of Rebels are the King’s subjects, and he will feel an alignment with them and a call to protect and serve them. It is very possible for even far-gone Rebels to be redeemed by the King’s sacrifice in the end, such as seen with the character of Edmund in C.S. Lewis’s allegory The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.

The Climactic Moment in a King story will be his sacrifice—that moment when he surrenders himself to the warning of the Cataclysm and gives his life to right the balance of his Kingdom. Depending on how the Rebels are represented within the story, this sacrifice on the King’s part may instantly redeem them—or defeat them. But it’s also possible the Rebels will be dealt with in the Climax by those of the King’s younger subjects who have remained faithful—his Heroes and Queens. It’s also possible the Rebels will not be dealt with until after the Climactic Moment, as more of a loose end in the Resolution. This may especially be true if the King literally dies, and the new Queen/King must deal with the Rebels in the aftermath.

Although the more dualistic and simplistic relationship between the younger archetypes of Maiden, Hero and Queen and their antagonists is valid and important, the King Arc can be a good choice if you’re wanting to explore a different take on “good versus evil” in your stories. The King’s increasingly complex relationship with his antagonists offers much grist for thematic exploration.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the archetypal antagonists of the Crone: Death Blight and Tempter.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any examples of the Cataclysm and the Rebel as archetypal antagonists in King-Arc stories? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I watched the movie Best Sellers recently, starring Michael Caine and Aubrey Plaza. Definitely a King arc. Aubrey’s character is a publisher who is in massive debt, and Michael Caine plays an old writer who owes her a book, according to an old contract. He’s also in massive debt. She’s the King. The Cataclysm for them both is the debt, and the Rebel is her rich ex-boyfriend that wants to buy the company. She makes a sacrifice that saves something more important than her company, and is rewarded for it in ways that connects her to a more meaningful life.

  2. Fascinating. I do like stories with more nuanced views of good vs evil. I’ll have to keep the King arc in mind. I imagine all the remaining arcs will have more nuanced views of good and evil.

  3. The fascinating thing for me in these studies of archetypes is how recognizable they are in historical examples. Fiction is a plausible anticipation of history yet to happen. Non-fiction tells the story of history that has already happened, replete with biases in the retelling. Somewhere, sometime, somehow the characters are going to behave the way someone has already behaved. For what for many of you might be a very off-the-wall parallel about archetypes, see https://thesystemsthinker.com/topics/archetypes/ .

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hey, thanks for this! I’ve been wanting to study systems thinking more.

      • You’re very open-minded, or have a dry sense of humor. I was just discussing your use of the word archetype with my systems thinking guru friend and he seemed to accept the relevance. Even with all this open-mindedness and relevance floating around Covid will probably continue. Ha!

  4. Thank you for this post. Understanding the Cataclysm, what it is, makes so much more sense the sacrifice the King makes: “The Cataclysm is not “out to get him”; rather, it is offering him the opportunity to avoid destruction.” That really clicked for me. It was also very helpful seeing the different ways Cataclysm and Rebel might play out.

    So in a sense, it is something within the King that is pulling the kingdom out of balance – age, infirmity, a bad decision in a moment of weakness, or perhaps even the actions of those under his authority for which he accepts full responsibility – and as the source of the imbalance, this is why he is called to make the sacrifice. Is that fair to say?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, totally fair to say. The more realistic the story, the more likely the Cataclysm (and perhaps even the Rebel) will be internalized aspects of the King character himself. But the more metaphoric the story, the more literal the representation of the antagonists as outer forces will be.

  5. Grace Dvorachek says

    Hmm… now I’m beginning to wonder if my MC, Prince Orwyn, is a King arc. The Cataclysm is definitely there, as his father’s death sets off the confrontation between the peasants and the nobles. While conflict between the two people groups has always been there, it comes to a head when their leader dies.

    The Rebels are also most definitely present. In fact, Orwyn spends much of the story among them—first as a captive, then as a reluctant ally. His disinherited older brother, the rebel leader, has the right mindset, but most of the rebels do not. Among these contagonists are the other MC, Eris, and a minor character named Wulf. These two embark on their own Positive Change Arcs within their stories. Much of the scene conflict in Orwyn’s POV, as well as some of the overall conflict, comes from these two characters.

    However, there’s also another antagonistic force that adds a deeper layer to the conflict. These are some of the nobles—namely, Duke Sorik and Sir Lachlan. Sir Lachlan is basically like a father to Orwyn, but is very misguided and loyal to his Lie. In the end, it is shown that, while he cared about Orwyn, his loyalty to the Lie wins when he is forced to choose between them. Duke Sorik, while he technically works for Lachlan, takes the Lie even further. He represents more physical danger to Orwyn, as he doesn’t care at all about him.

    Is the above scenario possible? Would the story work with both archetypal antagonists as well as another antagonistic force?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      At first glance, what you’re describing strikes me as a Queen Arc. The easiest way to tell between a Queen Arc and a King Arc is whether the protagonist’s growth arc is more concerned with claiming power or surrendering it.

      • Grace Dvorachek says

        Okay, thank you! As of right now, the 1st draft is done, so I can examine all the arcs in their entirety. I’ll take a closer look at the archetypes and compare them to my MC’s arc. Probably what threw me off is the similarity between my minor antagonistic forces and the King’s archetypal antagonists. Especially since I have real life rebels in the book…
        Thanks again for clarifying!

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          @Grace: And don’t forget that it’s absolutely possible for multiple successive archetypes to show up in one story, if that’s what you want.

      • “The easiest way to tell between a Queen Arc and a King Arc is whether the protagonist’s growth arc is more concerned with claiming power or surrendering it.”

        What a clear and insightful test. Thanks for adding this.

  6. Continuing the Mahabharata theme…

    I scratched my head a bit over what the Cataclysm in the Mahabharata is, but then I realized its obvious. The Kurukshetra War itself, and by extension the Cycle of the Yugas, is the Cataclysm. Nobody really wanted a war which would kill over 3 million warriors (based on number given in the Mahabharata), but it happened anyway. It triggered the end of the Dvapara Yuga and the beginning of the Kali Yuga, a loss of morality in the world which would last 432,000 years (I had to look up that number). In this case, the King is Yudhishthira. During the Dvapara Yuga, all the Pandavas upheld dharma (the Hindu notion of good conduct/morality/divine law), but in the Kali Yuga, Yudhishthira was the only Pandava who ~barely~ stayed true to dharma. The Rebel would be Duryodhana, the main human antagonist in the Mahabharata, though in some retellings he’s cast as a tragic hero rather than a villain. Duryodhana challenges Yudhishthira’s kingship, and their inability to agree on who should be king is the nominal cause of the Kurukshetra War (the cosmic cause is the Cycle of the Yugas). The thing is, Yudhishthira could have prevented the war by simply yielding the throne and following his person inclination towards asceticism and renunciation. Even if Yudhishthira was the ‘rightful’ rule, Duryodhana was also a good ruler and the people/kingdom did not suffer under rule. Even within the Mahabharata itself, to say nothing of the zillion commentaries, there’s debate about whether it was better for Yudhishthira to ‘turn the other cheek’ and yield in order to avoid war, or for him to stand up for his rights as a Kshatriya.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although Rebels can certainly be cast in objectively “bad” roles, in opposition to a King archetype, I think it’s actually very enlightening to look at them through the lens of what you’re calling “tragic heroes.” In their own sagas, the young Rebels are really possible Heroes trying to take down a leader who could very easily become a Sick King, hanging onto power, should he fail in his own life arc.

  7. I am re-reading `Dreamlander.’ I had assumed the book followed a heroic arc, but the imbalance between the words fits a cataclysm, and while Mactaled and Rotoss could count as either dragons or rebels, Stedman and his group are definitely rebels. Does that mean Cris has a king’s arc? Or just that I read WAY too much into things? (I hope I don’t give you an existential crisis with this question or anything, I just found it an interesting thought, especially considering the book’s ending.)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Haha. I didn’t consciously use any of these archetypes when writing the book, but in examining it retrospectively, I think there’s evidence of perhaps a progression through from Hero, Queen, and King. Still, I view that particular book as primarily concerned with Hero Arc dilemmas.

  8. Every King faces at least one cataclysm, be the good or bad, old age. Arguably that lurks behind every archetype after hero.

    I’m thinking of a very twisted example. In the Asimov’s classic Foundation series (and I’m talking about the initial trilogy, not any of the follow ons), the Foundation rulers faced various cataclysms and internal revolutions through the trilogy, which I think follows the King Archetype as well as any other as its based on a series of wise leaders building up and passing the baton to a new hero. The most notable cataclysm was the Mule, who they eventually made part of the plan. I hope I’ve got this right. It’s been a long time since I read these.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I actually have that on my TBR pile right now. I haven’t read it yet, so can’t comment myself–but it sounds right!

  9. William Harm says

    By the way… In the “Related Posts” list, the all text list, the links for the Hero Antagonists and Queen Antagonists are broken… unless 404 was intended. In the subsequent “Related Posts” row of images, the links work.

    Just thought you’d like to know.

  10. Great to see King, Warrior, Magician, Lover get a mention – very underrated as a storytelling (and human nature) resource. I remember devouring it a couple of years ago!

  11. David Snyder says

    Katie,

    I have been studying the blog of a spiritual practitioner who speaks of the devastating impact of a “false teacher” in her life.

    Short version: this highly charismatic guy promised to solve all of her problems and make her more “spiritual” and seemed genuine, but in fact he was slippery and evil and came close to destroying everything good about her, slowly ripping her spirituality to shreds until she finally realized what was going on.

    I am fascinated by this, because of my own development of a character I am working on, and many things I see at play in the world.

    Have you written about the “false teacher” previously and/or are there any arcs that explain this phenomenon?

    Is there any new stuff coming that will delve into this if you have not already addressed it?

    I am loving this series and thanks for any links if you have them!

    🙂

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This cycle of archetypes does not directly address the False Teacher, but many of the “older” aggressive shadow archetypes (particularly the Tyrant and Sorcerer) can be seen in this guise, due their need to control and take away the free will of the younger archetypes who support them.

  12. “Two riders were approaching and the wind began to howl!”

    I have to say of the archetypical antagonists so far, the combination of Cataclysm and Rebel fascinates me the most. I can think of more benign “rebel as the immature hero” examples like Po from Kung Fu Panda or Merry and Pippin from LOTR at points in their journey when they’re testing authority figures. I also can think of really dark Rebels like Loki, Kylo Ren, or Edmund in King Lear. The Rebel is usually at least *somewhat* sympathetic because he or she is right about one thing- that the King can’t hold the power of the King forever without becoming a Puppet or Tyrant. And sometimes the Rebel comes across as tragically harmed by authority or neglected in terms of mentorship. If the Hero also has a complex experience with authority, this can create a really striking conflict between Rebel and Hero characters.

    Maybe I’m especially taken by these archetypes since I’m a millennial and the struggle between millennial generation people and boomer generation people is infamously (if somewhat stereotypically) about what to do when a lot of older people seem convinced they can remain young forever and when the young people are emboldened by new technological powers but have less assess to traditional adult roles- is there a way to progress to adulthood without assuming a burn-it-all-down attitude towards the institutions you grew up with? Perhaps every generation faces this problem, but for mine it feels like a real pressure point.

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