Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 14: The Mage’s Shadow Archetypes

Structurally speaking, it is always the end of a story—its Climactic Moment—that tells us what it is about. The Climactic Moment ends the external plot by telling us who “wins.” But it also, implicitly, ends the protagonist’s arc by showing us whether the character succeeded in arcing positively and helping others to do the same, or if the character failed to overcome inner challenges and “level up.” This also holds true within the overarching cycle of archetypal character arcs, which can be seen to make up the “story structure” of a human life.

The Mage Arc is the final moment in the story. It is the Climactic Moment, and as such it tells what the overall story of a single life has been about. Will the character complete the final arc positively, die a “good death,” and leave a powerful legacy to the descendants? Or will the character succumb in the end to the powerful temptations and struggles of either of the potential negative shadow archetypes—the Miser or the Sorcerer? The Miser, of course, represents the passive polarity within the Mage’s shadow; the Sorcerer represents the aggressive polarity.

If we think (rightfully) that the challenges of the Maiden and Hero Arcs are hard, these challenges look small indeed in comparison to the stakes of the Mage Arc. There is a reason so few people reach this arc much less fulfill it. As Robert Moore and Douglas Gillette point out in King, Warrior, Magician, Lover:

It is enormously difficult for a human being to develop to full potential.

The good news for the Mage, however, is that by this point in his long and full life, he has gained a treasure trove of resources. He could not have advanced so far had he not proven himself strong enough to push through previous arcs and learn at least some of their lessons.

Moore and Gillette remind us of the deep skill set available to the true Mage:

The energies of the Magician archetype, wherever and whenever we encounter them, are twofold. The Magician is the knower and he is the master of technology. Furthermore, the man who is guided by the power of the Magician is able to fulfill these Magician functions in part by his use of ritual initiatory process. He is the “ritual elder” who guides the processes of transformation, both within and without.

But, as always, whether or not the Mage will fulfill a beneficial role in relationship to society is a choice. And depending in large part on how well he managed the resources won in his previous arcs, he may find himself prone to slipping into his negative forms as either a reclusive and selfish Miser who hordes his life’s wisdom or a megalomaniacal despot who not only has the power to rule (as does a Tyrant) but also the power to obscenely manipulate others via his deep understanding of reality.

The heart of a positive Mage Arc is the ability to surrender not just power, but ultimately life itself. If he cannot master this, he will forfeit his responsibilities of guiding and initiating the young and end instead by trying to control the fate of the Kingdom according to his personal pleasure.

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 Miser: A Passive Hoarding of Power

As a natural progression of the Crone’s passive counter-archetype of Hermit, the Miser is one who has not overcome the Third Act’s central challenge of relinquishing bitterness over his fate. His bitterness has only grown with the years, and he sees himself as unjustly “banished” from the Kingdom in spite of his long years of good service. He has evolved from being antisocial to being truly misanthropic. He disdains society and therefore young life itself, believing no one is any longer worthy of him and his gifts.

Although he may feel a deep and personal bitterness that he should be so treated, in actuality his fate is probably not specifically worse than anyone else’s at this stage in life. Whether he realizes it or not, what he is really angry about is the fact of his own mortality. He has amassed so much wisdom and power; he has done so “well” at life. And yet he will not be able to buy off Death in the end.

And so he “punishes” the Kingdom—which is always in desperate need of healthy Elders and Mentors—by withdrawing and hoarding everything he has spent his life to gain.

In Sacred Contracts, Caroline Myss talks generally about the Miser archetype (i.e., not just specifically as the counter-archetype of the Mage):

The … Miser creates wealth by hoarding money and emotions at the expense of others, and refusing to share them. Although the desire to earn a living or become wealthy is not negative, this archetype also represents a need to control the forces around you for fear of losing your wealth.

The Miser’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

The Miser can be seen to represent the foundational trial of the Mage Arc: the need to surrender. As Yoda, one of our culture’s most popular Mage characters, says:

You must give up everything you fear to lose.

If a Miser can learn to do this, he still has the opportunity to return to center as a healthy Mage and complete his final arc in a positive and life-giving way (literally). As ever, the shadow versions of a positive archetype are always present within the arcs. The passive archetype is active in the First Act of any specific arc, at the point when the protagonist is wrestling with the Call to Adventure and deciding whether he can overcome his own passive and cowardly tendencies in order to take one more journey of the soul.

Archetypally, the Mage/Mentor character is often seen to be either roaming about the Kingdom on his own (like Mary Poppins), or still more or less living in the Crone’s hut (like Yoda). Although he has somewhat reintegrated with the Kingdom in his previous arc, he is still separate from it. He lives in the liminal space of Elderhood, no longer enmeshed in the wheels of commerce and survival, although still interacting with it.

The Mage’s challenge arrives when the Kingdom comes under a supernatural threat (or a natural threat that only the Mage recognizes as also having a supernatural aspect), which requires him to embark on one last mission to mentor the young. If he chooses to accept that challenge, he will rise out of the temptation of the Miser and advance positively.

If he does not, he may remain the Miser by turning his back on the Kingdom and passively enabling its ultimate destruction (which, less symbolically, is always the result even if all he’s refusing is to initiate the young).

Worse yet, he may indeed yet rise up into his full power—only to egoically turn it upon his own Kingdom. Instead of acting the Mentor and using his great power to help the Kingdom learn to fight its battles and continue the life cycle, he instead seizes the Kingdom and its inhabitants as playthings by right of his own power.

The Sorcerer: An Aggressive Abuse of Power

As the final positive arc, the Mage’s journey is not about “gaining” anything, as in previous arcs. It is entirely about “letting go.” But if he refuses to let go and instead seeks to keep gaining power, he soon finds himself in the excessive and aggressive form of his shadow archetype—the Sorcerer.

In The Hero Within, Carol Pearson cautions:

Too much Magician, and we lack any sense of limits: we think we can transform everyone and everything.

Like the Mage, the Sorcerer’s final antagonist is that of Death itself. But in seeking to have “power over life,” he becomes instead possessed by the death-force, as Pearson describes in her commentary of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy The Farthest Shore (adapted, in part, into Studio Ghibli’s Tales of Earthsea film):

[The Mage Sparrowhawk] explains that what has caused [the Kingdom to become by possessed by death’s shadow] is that people desire “power over life,” which he calls “greed.” The only power worth having, he notes, is not “power over,” but “power to” accept life, to allow it in. The desire to control life and death in order to attain immortality creates a void within and throws the cosmos out of balance. Sparrowhawk explains to [the Sorcerer] Cob that “Not all the songs of earth, not all the stars of heaven could fill your emptiness,” for Cob, in going for “power over,” has lost himself and his true name. Magicians, then, give up the illusion of control to allow life in themselves and in others. When they do so, they right the balance of the universe.

Our other great fantasies of the age also offer us this same powerful contrast between the life-giving balance of the true Mage and the selfish destruction of the Sorcerer. We see Yoda contrasting Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, Dumbledore contrasting Voldemort in Harry Potter, and perhaps most precisely Gandalf contrasting Saruman in Lord of the Rings. The latter characters are all death-dealers, determined to amass dark power to themselves at the cost of “lesser” beings.

Myss notes that the shadow sides of the Mage are found in:

…the misuse of the power and knowledge that comes through them. Seduction and trickery brought about through magic and wizardry play on the desires of many people to transform their lives.

This emphasizes the point that the Sorcerer not only coerces submission from the Kingdom through his actual power, but he also convinces people to willingly follow his wishes by seducing them into their own shadow archetypes. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell references Goethe’s famous “devil” character:

Goethe presents the masculine guide in Faust as Mephistopheles—and not infrequently the dangerous aspect of the “mercurial” figure is stressed; for he is the lurer of the innocent soul into realms of trial.

The Sorcerer’s Potential Arcs: Positive and Negative

In many ways, the Sorcerer represents the ultimate “low” to which a human being can fall. If he truly embodies this archetype (or, in the potent phrase, is truly “possessed” by this archetype), he is unlikely to find within himself the ability to return to the light. Indeed, he will probably find it difficult to find within himself the desire to return to the light.

In part because he has advanced so far in his dark power, and also in part because his time on earth is running out, he has little to no chance of returning to a final positive arc. Only if, miraculously, he can return to what Pearson describes (below) will he be able to reclaim a glimmer of light:

Magicians, believing that nothing essential ever is lost, may welcome the organic and gentle letting go of the old to make way for new growth, new life.

But neither is he likely to arc negatively—because, again, he’s out of time. At worst, his story is likely to end with the total destruction of the Kingdom and himself with it. At best, he will either destroy himself through his own hubristic overreach, or the Heroes, Queens, Kings, and Mages will rise up to overthrow him.

The cycle of life wants always to continue. Even if a terrible Sorcerer rises up, wields great power, and does everything he can (whether consciously or unconsciously) to destroy that cycle by breaking out of his own sacred role of Mage and Mentor, new life and new growth will return to the Kingdom once more—like new green grass after a bitter winter.

Key Points of the Mage’s Regressive Archetypes

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

Passive Shadow Archetype: Miser is Selfish (to protect from consequences of Enlightenment)

Aggressive Shadow Archetype: Sorcerer is Evil (aggressive use of Enlightenment)

Positive Mage Arc: Sage to Saint (Liminal World to Yonder World)

Mage’s Story: A Mission.

Mage’s Symbolic Setting: Cosmos

Mages Lie vs. Truth: Attachment vs. Transcendence

“Love must protect others from the journey of life.” versus “True love is transcendent and allows life to unfold.”

Mages Initial Motto: “I, the knowing.”

Mage’s Archetypal Antagonist: Evil

Mages Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Miser finally opens himself up through his Wisdom to gain Transcendence.

Or Sorcerer learns to surrender his worldly wisdom in exchange for true Transcendence.

Examples of the Miser and Sorcerer Archetypes

Examples of the Miser and Sorcerer archetypes include the following. Click on the links for available structural analyses.

Miser

 Sorcerer

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will begin the final part of the series with an introduction to the flat or “resting” archetypes.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature either the Miser or the Sorcerer? Tell me in the comments!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

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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. Great article, KM. Over the weekend, I watched Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix. It has an end-of-life story arc or rather, later-in-life story arc that you’ve said throughout this series were fewer in number. I think it has an interesting take on the struggle of traditional values in a modern society.

    If you’ve had a chance to watch it, could you share your thoughts? Do you think Sheldon (The Utopian) trending toward one of the negative Mage archetypes or is he still in the King Arc? Is Fitz Small (The Flare) a flat/resting archetype?

    Thanks once again for sharing your wisdom. I am benefiting greatly from it.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Afraid I haven’t seen it, so can’t comment at this point. Glad you’re enjoying the series!

  2. Absolutely brilliant series, you have changed the way I view stories, archetypes and dreams. Thank you.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      They’re all dreams in the end, aren’t they? 😉 Thanks for reading.

      • Very much so, and thats quite a surprise to realise! 🙂

        Do you think its possible to mix the plots? ie Howls moving castle?
        Like a hero feeling heartbroken by man’s suffering (mage 2nd plot point)

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          Definitely. Howl is brilliant that way.

          Also, one thing that’s cool to realize that is that the entire life cycle of archetypes *is* present in any story, simply because each archetype inherently represents a different aspect of story structure itself:

          Inciting Event: Maiden
          First Plot Point: Hero
          Midpoint: Queen
          Third Plot Point “False Victory”: King
          Third Plot Point “Low Moment”: Crone
          Climax: Mage

  3. Eric Troyer says

    This is an interesting concept: “It is the Climactic Moment, and as such it tells what the overall story of a single life has been about.”

    So, if a person has lived a mostly negative life but then turns about at the end and does good, does that mean the person’s life has been good? Alternatively, if a person has lived a mostly good life but at the end turns negative, does this mean the person’s life has been bad?

    Obviously, either rarely if ever happens, but it is interesting to take the concept to the extreme to see how it plays out. We may “feel” a person can redeem a miserable life by doing good in the end, but it doesn’t work out “mathematically.”

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In terms of using the Climactic Moment to identify the “point” of a story, I think viewing it simply in terms of “good” and “bad” is too limiting. It’s more about whatever ultimate “theme” comes through once we finally see the entire big picture. The Climactic Moment *isn’t* the entire story, just the final piece that allows the larger mosaic to reveal its meaning.

  4. This is such a great series. I will be sad to see it end. It has already aided me in crafting my current WIP significantly.

    Archetypes are just so interesting. It’s so easy for people to confuse them with stereotypes but as your series shows, they run much deeper.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      So glad you’re enjoying it! We’ve still got one more section in this series (on Flat archetypes). Then later this fall I’m going to do a short follow-up about archetypal antagonists.

  5. I was surprised to see John Hammond on your list of Sorcerers. His character is so soft-spoken and affable. He doesn’t raise a hand to anyone or issue any overt threat (that I remember anyway).
    But. He is all about power OVER life and has the illusion of control. And he does convince quite a number of people to follow him into that beautiful vision of possibility that ultimately leads to the death of all but a handful of people on the island. Fascinating to think that not every sorcerer is a version of Snidely Whiplash with obviously evil intentions.
    But a John Hammond type Sorcerer would be the most fun to write. All the Heroes would know to be on guard against a sorcerer who looks like Saruman or Emperor Palpatine. But the one who looks like a sweet, jolly, little grandfather (or grandmother), who honestly believes in the righteousness of his vision of conquering death, he could bring in a whole host of unsuspecting young Heroes, and even experienced Queens and Kings who should know better, to help bring his vision into being. And oh how dreadful is their fall.

    Love it!

    Can’t wait to see the insights you bring to the flat archs!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I debated about Hammond. I think he shows obvious Sorcerer traits, as you’ve elaborated. I don’t know that he’s a *full-on* Sorcerer, since he’s not intentional about the havoc he creates. But I liked that he was a more “realistic” example.

  6. there are lots of negative mentors in stories that induct heroes into a life of crime or selfishness by passing on their know how and warped outlook.

    Gordon Gecko in Wall Street
    Fagin in Oliver Twist.
    Also in many political stories where the character learns to behave in Machiavellian ways

    There is also the tyrannical or toxic mentor/teacher (who the hero nevertheless idolises)
    Eg The teacher in Whiplash

    In romantic stories the romantic lead has teachers who teach them the wrong way to get a relationship through playing games. Often it is a cynical friend who gives comical advice or more formerly being coached by a player.

    Will Smith in Hitch
    Emma in Emma
    The friends in 40 year old Virgin.

  7. Ryan Gosling in Crazy Stupid Love, teaches the hero how to be a player, manipulate and charm, but doesn’t know anything about love.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Due to his age as much as anything, I’d probably say he’s more of a “Sorceress” (aggressive shadow of the Queen) than a “Sorcerer.”

  8. lots of questionable teachers, a good one for writers:
    Robert McKee in Adaptation who teaches conventional ways of writing screenplays.
    Jean Brodie – loves Mussolini and tries to prescribe the life path and roles of the different girls in her class.

    Tyler Durdan in Fight Club.

    Mrs Haversham in Great Expectations has many aspects of the Shadow Crone she is a hermit and curmudgeonly but she also teaches Estelle to destroy men.

    The two brothers in Trading Places who make a bet for one dollar that they can teach a homeless black man to be a trader and turn a silver spoon prodigy into a bum.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      All great negative archetypes, although I do think a lot of them represent younger shadow versions.

  9. Grace Dvorachek says

    Another great post! Thank you, KM!

  10. Joan Kessler says

    Wonderful post! I love exploring the underpinnings of these archetypes. Thank you for sharing all of this.

  11. I’m loving this series and am looking forward to your take on the flat archetypes.

    For me, the Shadow Magician character that comes first to mind is Prospero from the Tempest. I’m imaging Shakespeare in a tavern somewhere, being like “Hold my ale, I’m going to write a Sorcerer with a Positive Change Arc!” 😀

  12. Aly Clark says

    This has been such an excellent series so far! I’m definitely looking forward to the flat archetypes next week. The Crone archetype in particular has me fascinated…one of my relatively younger characters is turning out to fit this one well. Anyway, I’ll be back next week!

Trackbacks

  1. […] As Kristen Lamb reminds us, characters are the emotional touchstones for our readers. September Fawkes looks at balancing our cast of characters, Janice Hardy has 5 ways to keep your protagonist active, and Diana Souhami reveals how to inhabit the character you write about. Anne R. Allen explores the unsympathetic character, while K.M. Weiland investigates the Mage’s shadow archetypes. […]

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