Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 13: The Crone’s Shadow Archetypes

The final two archetypal character arcs within the life cycle signal a distinct departure from the realm of the known. After sacrificing herself for the Kingdom at the end of the King Arc, the seemingly diminished Crone, leaves behind the “real” world of Kingdom and throne and enters instead the spooky forests and liminal hinterlands of Elderhood. Symbolically, the final two positive arcs—Crone and Mage—are decidedly more supernatural than those that preceded.

In archetypal and mythic stories, we see this shift represented by these characters’ ability to perform “magic.” This magic can be seen to represent the potential for a deeper spirituality, but it also certainly represents the accumulated life experience, knowledge, and wisdom of the characters’ arcs up until this point. The two arcs prior to that of the Crone—the Queen and the King—were focused on issues of power. As such, a character who has successfully completed those arcs will have a wily understanding of power that outstrips even the physically powerful youths of the earlier arcs. (We see this delightfully represented in the film Secondhand Lions, in which Robert Duvall’s Crone character handily beats up a gang of Bullies—then takes them home and offers them his initiatory speech about “how to be a man.”)

As we’ve already discussed, the Crone offers the potential for a profound arc into the deeper mysteries of Life and Death. But it is also a deeply fraught archetype. As the structural representation of life’s Third Plot Point (often called the “Low Moment” or the “Dark Night of the Soul” or simply “Death/Rebirth”), the Crone successfully completes her King Arc only to be faced with the most frightening existential challenge of her long life.

The Crone, all alone in her hut in the woods, represents a time of withdrawal from the world. This is so she can integrate the great losses and lessons she has taken away from her life’s Second Act period. That she can successfully mourn and integrate these lessons is not a given. If she cannot come to peace with the life she has so far lived, her regrets about what she might not have done or what she can no longer do, and her inevitably encroaching death—she may easily slide into one or both of her negative counter-archetypes of Hermit and Wicked Witch. The Hermit represents the passive polarity within the Crone’s shadow; the Witch represents the aggressive polarity.

The Hermit and the Witch can arise at this time for any number of reasons, but often it is because, as T.S. Eliot writes:

We had the experience but missed the meaning.

Once again with our series-wide reminder: The arcs and their related archetypes are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together all six primary life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I will use feminine pronouns in relation to the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns in relation to the masculine arcs, archetypal representations within these journeys can be of any gender.

The Hermit: A Passive Rejection of Both Life and Death

In many ways, the Hermit is an almost inevitable beat within the Crone’s “resurrection” after dying for the Kingdom and departing it in her previous arc. It is symbolically important that the Crone lives alone in a hut in the woods—and often scares away (intentionally or unintentionally) anyone who might disturb her. This is because her first steps are those of healing, processing, and integrating. The Death symbolized in the end of the King Arc is profound, both in itself (represented perhaps by a person’s forced retirement from a beloved occupation) and in its foreshadowing of literal Death. That’s a lot. If the Crone is to have any chance of truly maturing into her full positive potential, she must first make peace with what she has lost. And she will likely do this best in solitude.

However, the danger (especially if she is indeed chronologically in the Third Act of her life) is that she may stay there. The struggle to rise once more from her warm bed or her sunny rocking chair may be too great. Her grief over the life she has lost may seem insurmountable. This may be even more true if she has struggled with passive archetypes all her life and therefore must now not only mourn the youth she has lost but confront regrets for a life that now seems unlived.

The Hermit’s central challenge is that simply of … giving up. Although she may have thirty or more years yet to live, she can know with certainty that the greater part of her life is now behind her. In the face of her waning physical power, she may succumb to the question: “What’s the point?” Even when her next “Call to Adventure” arrives in the form of a Maiden or Hero needing her guidance, she may choose simply to roll over, turn her face to the wall, and refuse to reintegrate with a Kingdom that desperately needs her wisdom and her capacity to initiate the young.

The Hermit’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

As stated, the Hermit is almost inevitably inherent within the beginning stages of the Crone herself. In many ways, the Crone is about rising above the somnolent lure of the Hermit. There is a great triumph in stories of characters overcoming what is, in many ways, the greatest antagonist any of us will ever face in the actual living of our lives. But to do so the Hermit must be willing to surrender many of her old identities and viewpoints.

She can no longer fixate on the future as she did in younger arcs. Now, she must ground herself in the present. In the twelve-archetype system Carol S. Pearson presents in Awakening the Heroes Within, she names the Fool as the “definitive” archetype. She considers the “Holy Fool” as a full-circle return to the Innocent archetype of childhood, but now with all the wisdom of a fully-lived life:

…in old age, we are also challenged to go beyond the need to find meaning through taking care of others, through achievement, through changing the world and making a difference. We need to learn to simply love life for its own sake, day by day. This is also the time when we have the license to be eccentric, irrational, and even a bit childish if we want. Indeed, we may feel foolish because our memories fail, our wits are not so clear as they used to be, and we feel at the mercy of our bodies, which embarrass us by their frailty and incapacity. This is the challenge of the Fool—to love life for life’s sake and ourselves just as we are.

Within this deep self-acceptance and love, the Crone may then also find the capacity for an even deeper love of the Kingdom and its young occupants.

If, however, the Hermit cannot rise from her bed of self-pity, regret, and lethargy, she may find her life-force simply fading out. She may not live out the full remainder of her life expectancy, or if she does she may, as they say, no longer “live” but simply “exist.”

Another potential shadow arc is that from Hermit to Wicked Witch. In some ways, this is a positive transition, since it at least signals a revival of purpose and liveliness. But in others, it is deeply destructive, since it signals that she has not overcome her resentment or bitterness about her fate—and will turn upon the very young people she is meant to guide and protect.

The Wicked Witch: An Aggressive Rejection of Both Life and Death

Someone willing to fully embody the positive Crone Arc is one who will come to fully align herself with Life—and to use her great wisdom and experience to help guide the youths into their own archetypal life journeys. But if the archetype turns into the aggressive polarity of the Wicked Witch, she will instead align herself with Death—and not in a natural way. Since she has failed to visit and return from the Underworld as the fulfillment of her Crone Arc, she will also fail to possess a full and generative understanding of Death. To her, Death is something to be feared—and she wields this fear against others.

Prosaically, the Witch is simply an older person who refuses the responsibilities of Elderhood and instead manipulates and bullies those around her in order to get her needs met. More metaphorically, the Witch is a frequent symbolic antagonist in many types of stories. We recognize her by her hatred for life—especially the life that is represented by the young of the Kingdom.

As in Snow White, the Witch may often be presented as an initially beautiful Queen—only to reveal her true hideousness in that she is feeding off the life force of the Kingdom’s young and beautiful Maidens.

Snow White and the Huntsman Evil Queen Ravenna Charlize Theron

In some ways, the Witch seems to be far more powerful than the Crone (at least at the beginning of the Crone Arc), but this can be because in claiming her aggressive power she has “gotten ahead of herself.” In The Hero Within, Pearson notes the similarities that aggressive shadow archetypes often share with the subsequent positive archetype:

The roles they play often are varieties of the archetypes that inform the next stages of the journey; however, they may get form right, but not the substance.

This is because the aggressive archetypes are always grasping for more power. They have the advantage over the passive archetypes of at least wanting to progress, but they are unwilling and/or have not understood how to do so from a place of health and centeredness.

The Witch’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

If the character has not fully entrenched herself in the Witch’s bitterness and hatred of life—that is, become “possessed” by the archetype—she may yet integrate her massive transition from the mature arcs of her life’s Second Act into the elder arcs of her life’s Third Act. This is a tricky space, since once a character fully inhabits her bitterness—especially in the face of the fact that she now has comparatively little time left in which to resolve it—she may not be able to pull herself out.

Within film and literature, we don’t often see redemptive ends for characters who have fully embodied the Witch archetype (which, it should go without saying by this point in the series, is distinct from a character who may be a witch—such as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz). This is because the aggressive negative archetypes grow successively more aggressive and more negative as they go. It’s hard enough to redeem a full-blown Tyrant (as mentioned last week, “redeemed” Tyrants almost always die in the end), but it grows even harder to redeem the aggressive archetypes of the Third Act.

Therefore, on the less happy side, the Witch may end her story unchanged—having wreaked varying degrees of havoc upon the world around her. If her children and grandchildren—her Maidens, Heroes, Queens, and Kings—cannot escape her influence, they may well be doomed (as shown in Meryl Streep’s role in August: Osage County).

It is also possible the Witch may summon enough power (and longevity) to “advance” one more time into the pinnacle of aggressive power—the Mage’s aggressive counter-archetype of Sorcerer. This most mystical of all aggressive archetypes isn’t represented too often in realistic literature, but is almost inevitably personified in fantasy as evil incarnate. It’s not a good way to go out!

Key Points of the Crone’s Regressive Archetypes

For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:

Passive Shadow Archetype: Hermit is Misanthropic (to protect from consequences of Insight)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Witch is Punitive (aggressive use of Insight)

Positive Crone Arc: Elder to Sage (Uncanny World to Underworld)

Crone’s Story: A Pilgrimage.

Crone’s Symbolic Setting: Underworld

Crones Lie vs. Truth: Death vs. Life

“All life ends in death.” versus “Life is Death and Death is Life.”

Crones Initial Motto: “We, the accepting.”

Crone’s Archetypal Antagonist: Death

Crones Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Hermit finally accepts her Perception in order to grow into Wisdom.

Or Witch learns to submit her Perception to the truths of greater Wisdom.

Examples of the Hermit and Witch Archetypes

Examples of the Hermit and Witch archetypes include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

Hermit

  • Elderly Margaret Thatcher in beginning of The Iron Lady
  • Matthew and Marilla Cuthbert in beginning of Anne of Green Gables
  • Silas Marner in beginning of Silas Marner
  • Aunt March in Little Women
  • Mrs. Snow in Pollyanna

 Witch

  • Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz
  • Witch of the Waste in Howl’s Moving Castle
  • Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard
  • Fagin in Oliver Twist
  • Violet Weston in August: Osage County
  • Sister Aloysius Beauvier in Doubt
  • Yubaba in Spirited Away
  • Captain Ahab in Moby Dick
  • Mr. Dorrit in Little Dorrit

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the shadow archetypes of the Mage: Miser and Sorcerer.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Hermit or the Wicked Witch? 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. Cliff Farris says

    Darn, Kate. You caught me. Characters in my writing engage in adventure and travel the world. I personally am becoming the essence of a hermit. My aunt, RIP, became the perfect witch.

    I do like the baseball cap that says, “I like dogs and maybe three people.”

    This series on character arcs is the most useful insight in a long time. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Ha. I have a shirt that says almost the same thing. :p It makes sense to me that introverts are more likely to struggle with the passive shadow archetypes.

  2. Julie Wilkinson says

    Will you, or do you have all the archetypal characters together in a booklet or webpage? Would love to see them all in one place!

  3. Hi, Katie! I’ve learned so much during this series on Archetypes. There’s an elegance to these posts. I haven’t read the source materials you’ve been referring to but was wondering — is there a pictorial representation of the relationship of these that you’re aware of? If not, maybe I’ll try to create one …. 😉

    • Usvaldo de Leon says

      You mentioned the supernatural as being the predominant setting for the final arcs. I take it this is because these characters can “see around the corner” so to speak at what is coming?

      It reminds me of a quiet scene in the middle of The Godfather where Vito matter of factly tells Michael after his death that Michael will be betrayed and that this is the sign to look for. I think this kind of prediction based on life experience can appear supernatural to younger archetypes who have not been through it.

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        @Usvaldo: Yes, exactly! The “supernatural” can be seen as symbolic, of course, but it has to do with that liminal space as we approach the end of life and begin to seriously confront Death.

        Vito, even though a morally questionable person, is a good example of a healthy Crone, I think, in that he successfully sacrificed his power by completing a King Arc and faced Death willingly “as a friend.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Not sure if this is what you’re looking forward, but Wordplayer Sydney Watkins made this graphic a few weeks ago:

      • Thanks, these drawings from Sidney are great. I was thinking of trying to combine them into a single graphic, according to the Act, kind of the way you portrayed the chiastic plot points circularly as the points of a compass. I don’t know that I can pull that off satisfactorily, but I’ll send it to you if I’m successful.

  4. I suppose, as we draw closer to the end of the six archetypes, it should not be a surprise that there are fewer who successfully complete the challenges of each journey, and that it is harder to escape from the black-hole of the Shadows.

    As I look at world-building in my writing, but also as I look at real life as a teacher, I wonder what it is that leads to failure later in life after having been successful before. Will the lack of Crones and Mages now lead to an even greater dearth of Wise Elders in the next generation? And will that also result in fewer Kings and Queens? I’m trying to think through how a once great kingdom falls into bad days under ruthless rulers. And how would such a land return from this wretched state? Thanks for the great posts that get my mind thinking deeply.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Without the initiatory force of true Elders, we all just kind of muddle along, trying to find the path for ourselves. Obviously, many of us do—sometimes initiating ourselves via the archetypal wisdom we read about through Elder characters in excellent fiction. 🙂

      And the Elders *are* out there; they’re just not ritually honored in society in the same way, which means the younger archetypes have to go looking for their influence and guidance. In fact, I think it’s significant that, in the Crone Arc, it is the young person who comes to her for help, rather than the other way around (as in the Mage Arc). In a sense, they initiate each other.

      • Oh! I had missed that idea about the young person seeking out the Crone for help. Of course they would, since she is hiding in the forest. I could see how having the motivated student would draw her out of her dumps. Nothing like teaching those who really want to learn. Or if she tries to ignore them, that these motivated kids would keep pestering her until she finally answers 🙂

  5. David A Benoit says

    I can see the hermit in Star Wars. Specifically Obi Wan in episode 4, Yoda in Episode 5 and 6, then Luke in Episodes 8 and 9

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Luke’s pretty Hermit-y in the recent movies. But I’d class Obi-Wan and Yoda more as Elders or Crones, since I don’t see their seclusion as unhealthy. They haven’t withdrawn from the world; they’re just waiting until their young ward is ready for them.

  6. Grace Dvorachek says

    Would the elder Mr. Laurence from “Little Women” be a Hermit? (I know there are several different movies, and they all portray them slightly differently.) It seems like he kind of shuts himself—and his grandson—up from the world at first.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I’d say he’s a good example! And it’s significant that he is pulled out of his funk by young Beth, who dares to creep into his sanctuary.

  7. The contents of your article is more profound than anything I’ve read before and I’ve searched my whole life for understanding.

  8. Thank you for this gift. I want to push back a little at the thought the Crone arises from the King or Queen arc, and I’m thinking about real life. Volunteer organizations are filled with people giving of themselves who have otherwise lived commonplace lives. Particularly in churches, you find people who have lived lives of quiet desperation, but who retire and give greatly of themselves. Sometimes these people are the best teachers and mentors to youth, approaching opportunities with humility and with the lessons of failure as powerful as success.

    One of the great truths stories can tell is the possibility for lives of love and magic at any age and from any background. A person can fail, or fail to act, a thousand times, yet still have much to offer, as the lines of failure etched across their face hint at the valleys of understanding they have to offer. Indeed, such people may be the best suited to point toward the road of courageous giving demanded by the positive arcs because of their understanding of the walls built by cowardice.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I agree. As ever, the idea of the “King” or any of the archetypes is both symbolic and general. Very few people rise to significant temporal power, but I don’t think this means we don’t still undergo our own version of a King Arc. And even if we struggled with that archetype in the Second Act, I still think we can do a form of “catch up” to positively manifest the appropriate healthy archetype at the appropriate chronological time.

  9. I’d like to add Terry Pratchett’s witches, particularly Granny Esmerelda Weatherwax, Nanny Gytha Ogg, and young Tiffany Aching. Pratchett’s witches are those who work in the edges, dealing with birth, death, and ministering to those who need help, especially medical help.

    Granny is the crone, thin, virginal, capable of mind magic, more concerned with what is right rather than what is “nice.” She is the head witch, first among equals, and both feared and respected. At one point she sacrifices her silver tea service so that the local blacksmith can shoe a unicorn–a slap at the fairies.

    Her best friend, Nanny Ogg is the opposite, fat, loving of life, booze and her many children. Nanny is much more world wise than Granny, but is smart enough not to tell her so.

    Both become mentors to a young girl, Tiffany, who at nine, defeats the Fairy Queen with a frying pan. Tiffany works through her archetypal arcs through several books, with both advice and challenges from Granny and Nanny.

    The opposite shadow archetype, Granny’s sister Lilith, (Witches Abroad) chooses to be a fairy godmother, claiming power over others and forcing them to follow the fairy stories, fulfilling HER wishes, rather than theirs. Granny must defeat her on her own ground, in her own seat of power. Both sisters face DEATH (one of Pratchett’s best characters) and his one question.

  10. This week’s cover picture is awesome. The eyes are sooooo creepy.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. :p I was surprised how hard it was to find images for this series. I thought archetypes would be super easy to represent, but it was actually really hard to find anything appropriate.

  11. I love a good Crone character, probably because I enjoy writing jadedness and snark that eventually has to reach towards wisdom.

    Given that the arcs can happen at different ages, what do you make at characters who made Kingdom-saving sacrifices and then become grief-stricken and cranky before they’re actually chronically old? I think you see this more often in dystopian and fantasy stories in which young characters have to sacrifice so much that they’re all sacrificed out before they’re really out of their teens or twenties.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Although the archetypes in this series do represent particular periods of life, I definitely think we can see younger (or older) characters representing the various archetypes.

      I also think people tend to go through the archetypes, on a smaller scale, multiple times throughout life. Any period or chapter in life that can be seen as a full “story” may encompass a full passage through all six archetypes. After all, the archetypes are aligned with story structure itself (with the Crone, for instance, representing the Third Plot Point), so whenever a “plot point” is present in some chapter of someone’s life, regardless of age, so is the corresponding archetype to at least some extent.

      Really, I think a lot of us are going through a Crone phase right now, regardless our age or primary chronological archetype, due to the massive changes we are experiencing and mourning in the world around us. 2020 was an Underworld kind of a year!

  12. Lila Diller says

    You mentioned here the difficulty of redeeming the Tyrant. I just read Hannah Currie’s Heart of the Crown which does redeem the Tyrant, the King, without a physical death, just a voluntary loss of his power in repentance. Really well done.

  13. Joan Kessler says

    Thanks once again for this wealth of information. I would think it would be a relief for the Crone to, as you said, stop fixating on the future and just be grounded in the present, but shadows will linger. Also, as an introvert, I’m drawn to the passive, so I appreciate the heads-up!

  14. Jack Nicholson in ‘as good as it gets’ I think is a hermit. As .probably are a number of curmudgeonly old people in stories who aren’t actually evil, they are just repressed and want to be left alone. Often seem to have a young person (or youthful old person) whose and cheerfulness provides the forces of antagonism. the the young person leads them to take on the role of mentor (mage) the youthful old person, may provide an autumn romance, or buddy relationship.

  15. note: another common example of the hermit is where the hero is trying to persuade someone to become their mentor and that person is not what they were, they are retired or ill disposed or alcoholic etc.
    Hero tackles the hermit’s refusal to become a mage.
    Mel Gibson in Man without a Face.
    Sean Connery in Finding Forrester

  16. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the obvious Hermit character – Yoda, in “The Empire Strikes Back”. He’s literally hiding in a swamp on a deserted planet. Even when Luke turns up asking for help, he’s looking for excuses not to (“he’s too old to begin the training…”). It takes a lot more persuasion from Obi-Wan’s ghost to get him to agree.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Katharine Grubb shares 4 ways your characters could be sabotaging themselves (and how that’s good for your story!), Stavros Halvatzis explores the presence of epiphany in the character arc, and K.M. Weiland delves into the Crone’s shadow archetypes. […]

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