Archetypal Antagonists for the Mage Arc: Evil and the Weakness of Humankind

It is appropriate that the final archetypal character arc of the life cycle—the Mage Arc—should be the one to finally confront the ultimate antagonist within the human experience. This is, of course, Evil—in all its abstraction.

As the final arc, the Mage symbolizes the end of life and, presumably, its fulfillment. Because the Mage is such a powerful—and rare—personage, the mysteries of his arc are ones few writers ever personally embody, but still ones we instinctively speculate about. It is in the speculating that we sometimes are fortunate enough to offer to ourselves and perhaps to our readers a glimpse into greater truths and possibilities.

By its very numinosity and mysteriousness, the Mage Arc offers the opportunity for its archetypal antagonists to be personified in many different ways. As we’ve noted throughout this supplementary series, the archetypal antagonists faced within the successive life arcs grow increasingly less dualistic and more abstract as we go. In the First Act of life, the Maidens and the Heroes necessarily define “evil” as “the other” whom they are resisting and from whom they need to individuate. Indeed, they are therefore inclined to then insist that the very nature of “otherness” must indicate evil.

By the time the Crone makes peace with Death, it rather seems there is no concept of Evil left to confront. But the wisdom of the Mage sees a bigger picture that could only be instinctively and incompletely grasped in the earlier arcs. Perhaps most surprisingly, what the Mage recognizes is less Evil as a vast and primal entity, but rather as something comparatively “small”—the evil that is the destruction and unhealth in the hearts of humankind.

And so the antagonist the Mage faces, whether portrayed in metaphor or not, is ultimately one he himself cannot defeat. Indeed, the larger part of his arc is centered around the struggle of realizing that to exert his great power in taking control of the situation—and therefore robbing autonomy and choice from the younger denizens of the Kingdom—would be perhaps the greatest evil of all.

The Mage’s Archetypal Antagonists: Practical and Thematic

More than any of the preceding archetypal character arcs, that of the Mage can be seen as a “passing of the torch.” As the final life arc, the Mage’s story ends, whether literally or symbolically, with the Mage’s departure from this world. In future, he won’t be around, in any guise, to give the younger arcs a helping hand. From now on, they’re going to be on their own.

And so the great need represented by the Mage Arc is that of his somehow making sure the Kingdom will be okay in his absence—that the cycle of life will roll on, hopefully in health and goodness. His great challenge—his final challenge—is that of resisting the temptation to control this outcome, knowing that to do so would be to intrinsically destroy that natural cycle anyway: he would, in those poignant words, “meet his destiny on the road he took to avoid it.”

Evil as Archetypal Antagonist

Is there any antagonistic force so archetypal as that of Evil? However much symbolic nuance resides within archetypes, they are, by their very nature, simplistic. They are black and white, without shades of gray or even moral complexity per se (unless, of course, the archetype represents moral complexity, as in, say, the Trickster). And Evil, of course, always seems very black indeed.

By its very starkness, the concept of Evil can sometimes be difficult to write about. These days, our post-modern minds may argue with one another about what constitutes Evil or even if it really exists. And yet conceptually it continues to show up in our fictional dreamscapes, over and over again, with varying degrees of resonance and applicability.

Although Evil can be and often is personified through the undeniably destructive and imbalanced actions of certain individuals, we see it portrayed most explicitly in fiction as nameless, faceless monstrosities. For example, the horror genre (although not often featuring Mage Arcs) is designed around representing faceless Evil in various guises. Serial killers are often masked, and monsters are often mindless and soulless. There is no explanation for Evil’s actions; it is beyond reason or even motive sometimes.

Within the younger archetypal arcs, antagonists may often be seen as Evil (and indeed may truly be so), but they are still usually personified in some way. These arcs are more concerned with simple conflicts that offer clear winners and losers. Whatever the antagonistic manifestation, it will be defeated in the form of the protagonist’s current “Lie.” The end. All is well. The Kingdom can exist happily ever after.

But the very nature of the life-arc cycle indicates that this happily ever after is only true until a new antagonistic force interrupts the character’s life in the form of a new “Lie” he or she must overcome.

Theoretically within this model of archetypal arcs, the Mage represents the finality of this cycle. Naturally, this is not literally true, both because this cycle is but one possible archetypal exploration of life and also because infinite concepts such as archetypes can have no truly finite ends (no matter how much fiction would like to make it so). Nevertheless, within this model, the Mage represents the “fulfillment” of the cycle and therefore an ultimate showdown with the single great Antagonist who has, in fact, been represented in all of the limited mindsets overcome throughout previous arcs.

The Evil the Mage faces may, of course, be represented as a great force that threatens the Kingdom—such as we find in so many fantasies and most notably with the Great Eye of Sauron in The Lord of the Rings.

Even if this force employs a mortal army (as with Sauron’s legions of orcs), the force itself represent an infinitude of some kind. More specifically, in its effects, it is usually recognized by the fact that it would eliminate free choice. In fantasy it may literally do this by mind-slaving people, or more practically it may either exert a powerful tyranny and/or kill people—thereby robbing them of any choice at all.

Therefore, we can see how Evil need not always be presented on a grand scale. If your Mage character is Gandalf, he will of course require a grand theater of metaphor in which to operate.

But if your character is to appear in realistic fiction, then the Evil he faces can be as realistically “small” as simply the potential corruption infecting the heart of one single being—such as Will Smith’s Bagger Vance faces in the heart of Matt Damon’s character.

Human Weakness as an Archetypal Antagonist

“Evil” is a very big word—and a very big antagonist. But in many Mage stories, this Evil manifests in the smallest of ways—not even in an obviously “evil” person, but simply in an ordinary person’s weakness (or what Mage character Queenie in Larkrise to Candleford calls “human frailty”).

This weakness is most poignantly obvious not in the hearts of the Mage’s “enemies,” but in the hearts of those very youngsters he loves and would mentor—the Maidens, Heroes, Queens, Kings, and even Crones whom he is about to leave behind. The Mage’s great challenge is not to use his accumulated life’s power to destroy the Evil, but rather to gather his wisdom to avoid the temptation of turning himself into that very Evil by taking away control—and free will—from these younger, weaker characters.

In a triumphant Mage Arc, his very example and his great wisdom will be enough to inspire positive and necessary change in his wards. It is not the Mage who defeats the Evil in the end, but those in the Kingdom who have overcome the weakness in their own hearts. To the degree the Mage tries to protect the younger characters from facing the full conflict, or to the degree he attempts to control or manipulate their choices, he becomes Evil. And because he is a supremely advanced and powerful archetype, this fatal weakness in his own human heart will prove more dangerous than whatever Evil he resisted in the beginning.

How Evil and the Weakness of Humankind Operate in the Conflict and the Climactic Moment

Depending on how you choose to represent Evil as an antagonist within your story, you may emphasize it either as a huge and overwhelming “force” or as a much smaller conflict within a single relationship. There is the opportunity within the Mage Arc to either go really big and epic or really microscopic and intimate.

In a story that emphasizes Evil as a supernatural force, this force will usually motivate the external conflict. It may even create a great war in which forces of Good and Evil oppose each other. But even within the forces of “Good,” the Evil will creep in on a more personal and interrelational level, as the Mage witnesses the weakness and temptation encountered by younger characters.

By contrast, a story that starts out emphasizing this potential for weakness within younger characters (and indeed the Mage himself) will usually focus more intimately on the consequences of the human characters’ choices and actions. To the degree the Mage’s influence fails—or to the degree the Mage himself manipulates outcome—Evil will result in ways both large and small, creating plot obstacles and conflict.

For the Mage protagonist, the Climactic encounter is less about defeating an enemy and more about surrendering to the end of life. Whether literally or metaphorically, he steps out of this mortal theater, leaving the younger archetypes to fight the battles they are meant to fight as they continue to progress through their own life cycles.

Although not a protagonist, Master Oogway in the animated film Kung-Fu Panda offers a beautiful example of a character who fulfills all the best qualities of a true and positive Mage. With utter love but absolutely no attempt at control, he recognizes when it is time to leave the challenges of this life to those whom he has trained up behind him.

In many ways, the Evil represented by antagonistic forces in a Mage Arc is simply “the Lie the Characters Believe.” If the younger characters are able to manifest their own Positive-Change Arcs and overcome their individual Lies from whatever stage of their journeys, the Evil will be both defeated and transmuted. In exemplifying this, the Mage may not directly determine the end of the story’s conflict, but he will at least initiate his beloved others to do so.

***

And so we come to the end of our exploration of archetypal antagonists in association with the life-arc cycle. Naturally, the twelve archetypal antagonists presented here are but a tiny fraction of possible archetypes to choose from in portraying your antagonist characters. However, these archetypal forces—whether depicted literally or abstractly—are the ones that create the practical and thematic conflicts for each of the archetypal character arcs. Even if you choose to use other archetypal antagonists in your stories, understanding how these forces integrally interact with life progressions can be helpful in crafting deeply resonant and cohesive fiction.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of Evil and the Weakness of Humankind as archetypal antagonists in Mage-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 was having an online discussion about the proliferation of antiheroes in popular media and how tiresome they are becoming. Some are done well and worth exploring while others are so predictable that they are downright boring. I suggested that their attraction may rest on an innate desire for redemption. One of my friends asked if antiheroes represent a redemptive arc, why then is there all the fascination with zombies then? I had no answer.

    Until I read your blog post.

    Zombies represent nameless faceless evil that is insidious, embedded, and seemingly impossible to eradicate. I thought at first that zombies were like a force of nature – impersonal and implacable and uninterested in the human condition. But on reading your post, zombies may more likely represent an infective evil that opposes those with even the best of intentions, threatening to suck even the most virtuous and heroic into the morass of lost identity and uncaring, unfeeling sameness possessed only of a relentless cupidity.

    Thank you for this whole series and today’s post in particular.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve thought a lot about the zombie trend myself, and I definitely see a correlation with both the Evil of the Mage Arc and the Death Blight of the previous Crone Arc.

  2. Grace Dvorachek says

    What a great post! The last few archetypes are the hardest for me to grasp, I think, but I understand them much better after learning their archetypal antagonists. This has been an incredibly helpful series… thank you!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Great! I felt like I personally gained a lot more nuance in writing about the antagonists as well. So win-win! 😀

  3. Eric Troyer says

    Thanks so much for this series, Katie. Illuminating, interesting, thought provoking! When you write your book, I hope you will have sections at the end that again list examples and how they apply to the particular archetype you are illustrating. You weave them in the story, but it would be great to reinforce how these lessons can apply to stories.

  4. Martha Sue Galliano says

    Thank you for your series. It has been just what I needed to define and build my characters
    in a logical fashion. Hope the book comes out soon.

  5. Yep, once again, there is an example of this in the Mahabharata, and yes, it’s at the end. How can I explain without spoiling the ending… Yudhishthira is the ‘Mage’, the only one in the Pandavas who continued (barely) to stick to dharma (morality as understood in Hinduism) even after the onset of the Kali Yuga (an era in which dharma diminishes in the world). He notices, partially, how his brothers (the Pandavas) and his wife Draupadi are slipping away from dharma, but doesn’t face the full consequences of that until the end. But the true evil which lurks within him is that, even after ‘winning’ the Kurukshetra war and the passing of many years, he still has not let go of his hostility towards the Kauvaras, his enemies, who he defeated (IIRC Duryodhana, the leader of the Kauvaras and the Rebel/Tragic Hero, says just before his death something like ‘I have lost but nobody has won’). The ‘Lie’ he must overcome is the idea that the Pandavas were virtuous/righteous and the Kauvaras were evil/wrong. He must accept that, in their own way, the Kauvaras were themselves righteous and more virtuous than the Pandavas. If he doesn’t accept that, then bad stuff happens.

    I think I managed to explain that without giving away the Mahabharata’s most shocking (to me, at least) plot twist.

    The Pandavas and Kauvaras are cousins, and commentators have said that they are two sides of the same coin, the Pandavas and the Kauvaras are actually the same, and that the Mahabharata’s message is that the true enemy is yourself.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Thanks so much for keeping up with this example throughout the series! Never ceases to fascinate me how the patterns bear out.

  6. Sorry for the double comment, I forgot to say this in the prior comment. It is said that everything in the Mahabharata can be found elsewhere, but anything which is not in the Mahabharata can be found nowhere. I disagree with that, I’ve read an unabridged translation (Ganguli) and some stories really aren’t there. But I did find examples of every kind of arc described in this series, and every type of antagonist archetype. At the highest symbolic/archetype level of storytelling, maybe the Mahabharata does have everything. It would’ve been much harder for me to find all these archetypes in any other single work of literature (maybe I could have done it with the Iliad, but it would’ve been harder and I might’ve had to go into mythological sources beyond the Iliad itself).

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s uncommon to find the entire life cycle of arcs in anything beyond generational fiction.

  7. Joan Kessler says

    This one was really fascinating. To protect and take charge so often seems the right thing to do, but it takes the wisdom of a mage to understand why that isn’t always the best solution. Thanks for this series!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I think I mentioned this in my original post about the Mage, but I am always put in mind of the story about the man who tried to “help” a butterfly by clipping its cocoon, only to realize the butterfly needed the struggle of extricating itself in order to force blood into its wings. It died because of the man’s “help.”

  8. Well, since we’re coming to the end, I feel moved to come up with an odd example. In “Remember the Titans,” the two coaches can be seen as mages, particularly Denzel Washington, and their struggle is against racism. Again, the Denzel character is on board from the start but his defensive coach eventually becomes a full partner.

    I also wonder if Clarence in “It’s a Wonderful Life” doesn’t qualify as an odd sort of Mage, struggling to show Jimmy Stewart the value of a life of decency and helping him return to the path that involves going home to Donna Reed.

    Thank you again for this wonderful series, and please don’t be concerned by the several hundred brain cells that jumped out of my head rather than dig into the depth of your material. They really didn’t make much of a mess at all.

    May the muse greet you in the morning and walk by your side throughout the day.

    Andy

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Remember the Titans is one of those movies I’m always meaning to watch and somehow never do. But based on what you’re saying, I think the possibility of a Mage archetype (or possibly Mentor if Denzel’s character doesn’t arc) sounds very likely.

      As for Clarence, he’s interesting. He definitely typifies the “Holy Fool” that Carol Pearson talks about in her books and which she does view as the end of the cycle and equivalent to the Mage/Magician in some ways.

      • You’re right, I don’t think the Denzel Washington character really arcs other than by building a partnership with Will Patton, the other coach, who does actually arc in the movie, and is probably a better example (he has to face up to his attitudes about race and in the course of the season sacrifices his dreams of a type of immortality for the players). it’s a movie worth seeing, even if I sense you aren’t much of a sports person. I think that Sports movies are actually pretty good locations for Mage arcs, because there’s almost always a coach who needs to succeed through the younger players, and often sports movies are about more than sports.

        I think that sports may be an underutilized writing arena. Coming up with conflict is never an issue, and the relationships between the players can be leveraged for probably any archetype you choose. The settings may be a given, but the fan base can provide a touch of spice there as well.

        Enough of that already! I’ve got a fantasy book and it’s sequel to finish.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          It’s definitely on my list. I kept getting it confused with We Are Marshall, which I did finally see recently.

  9. Best example of a Mage Arc in a protagonist is the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson. The prior two series are King and Crone arcs, I believe. Bit exhausting a read these books but rich and epic.

  10. Many thanks for this really interesting series, Katie. Greetings from Italy, Giovanni – writer and translator

  11. Other examples I just thought of: Doctor Who. And Hari Seldon in the The Foundation novels as well as the new tv series. All Mage Arcs. They are set up as a series of crises that the Foundation must solve, and like Doctor Who, it usually involves a change of perspective.

  12. Hi KM Weiland,

    This series has been so profound and fascinating!

    Reviewing all the character arcs has made me realize that Buffy the Vampire Slayer contains all 6 Positive Character Arcs over the course of Season 2 to Season 7.

    Season 2: Maiden Arc. Buffy loses her “innocence” when she loses her virginity to her vampire boyfriend Angel. Angel transforms from a protector into a predator who she much kill. Buffy stops keeping her Slayer identity a secret and “comes out” about it to her mother in a scene reminiscent of a child declaring her sexual identity to a parent.

    Season 3: Hero Arc. Buffy and her friends face senior year and graduation from high school. Buffy fights many dragons/bullies who are the minions of the corrupt town major. Buffy’s positive use of her power to help others is contrasted with the selfish use of these same powers by the shadow slayer Faith. the end of the season, Buffy fights a giant snake. She is also recognized as the Class Protector during a Prom ceremony.

    Season 4: Queen Arc: Buffy’s friends become more and more restless in their roles as “team sidekicks.” Post-High School, her allies develop their own powers and identities and mature socially and romantically. The final battle rests on the collaboration of these previously less-empowered characters who become mythic heroes in their own right.

    Season 5: King Arc: Buffy faces Glory, a Goddess from another dimension. When Buffy realizes that Glory is more powerful than any previous entity she has faced and will not be defeated by standard means, Buffy embarks on a journey to learn about the true nature of her power. Ultimately, she realizes that the only way to stop Glory is by sacrificing her own life. During this season, Buffy’s mother also dies and Buffy must leave the last of her childhood behind to become a parental figure to her sister Dawn.

    Season 6: Crone Arc: In this notoriously dark season, Buffy is dragged back from the dead but is too exhausted from her previous battles and too grieved from her losses to care about living. Even singing show tunes and sleeping with James Marsters doesn’t help much with her jaded outlook on life. Eventually, Buffy rediscovers the motivation to continue living and commits herself to mentoring her younger sister.

    Season 7: Mage Arc: Buffy is the mentor for a group of young potential slayers and a school guidance counsellor at her old high school. She helps the younger characters encountering similar challenges and demons to the ones she battled in previous seasons. Her final battle is against The First Evil, a personification of Evil itself. In the final battle, she decides to share her power with other new slayers, breaking the rule that there can only be one Slayer at a time.

    With the exception of the mostly “monster of the week” first season, this series grafts so well onto your model that I feel like Joss Wedon could have travelled to the future to read your series before writing it. Either that, or this archetypical journey is really *that much* of a recurring pattern.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Crazy cool! I’ve only watched the first few episodes, but this sounds like an amazing example of the entire life cycle within one series.

  13. So…. what about antagonistic forces for Flat Arcs? 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Generally, I’d say that will be reflected in the type of change arc being undergone by the supporting Change-Arc character.

  14. Merve Karaduman says

    I think the Wheel of Time series might be a good example here. The series generally use all the arcs mentioned in life-arc cycle, and the Evil described in the series and the Mage’s dilemma are exactly the same, especially in the last book.

  15. What happens to someone who has their life arcs paradigm shifted out of order?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There will be “lessons” from previous arcs that will need to be retrieved in order to fully embody a later transformation.

      • Do you think it’s possible for someone to do that? On their own?
        I can fathom how narratively an author can solve such a riddle in fiction, being in the all-seeing-eye position as a writer, but what about real life where one is the protagonist of their own story and therefore prone to all the plot blindness any protagonist might have?
        How would an author efficiently go about sussing out which arcs to retrieve and in which order – would repairing them in “chronological” order still be best or since things in this scenario are already muddled, would an unconventional order work just as well or better?
        And how would a protagonist “on the ground” go about uncovering their missing pieces, what they are and how to fill them in?
        I am deeply intrigued by and appreciative of how relevant the vast majority of what I learn from your podcasts/articles on story theory and craft also applies to general life and well being.
        Thank you.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          My own preference and mode would definitely be for chronological order, since I think that makes sense on a number of levels (and I have, so far, found that to ring true in my own life experience). However, I think there is a lot of instinct and intuition that can be applied in these situations.

          • I find myself in agreement with that. I feel like general instinct would want chronological as well. Whereas intuition might find wisdom in a different order to account for individual differences or needs.
            This has been my most savored food for thought yet. Thank you again for the additional replies as I ponder it all!

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