The Archetypal Quartet – A Generational Tool?

ArchetypeWe know that behaviorally modern humans (i.e., we) appeared in Africa 50 thousand years ago and spread throughout the world. But, we did not live long enough for grandparents to be part of the picture until about 30 thousand years ago.

The unique multi-generational social environment spawned by the presence of grandparents is thought to have created remarkable opportunities for human beings, allowing cultural knowledge to survive longer in the brains of individuals to be spread to more new humans.

This event in human evolutionary history has been used to explain why women survive beyond menopause, beyond when they can pass their genes on to new offspring, the very compelling Grandmother Hypothesis. Of course, although men do not experience a similar loss of fertility, grandfathers can be put to many of the same extended parenthood purposes after they are no longer fit for their classic evolutionary roles as hunters and warriors.

This development brought great benefits, but it also must have posed problems, complicating the simple, dichotomous relationship between children and parents that had existed (as far as my limited knowledge extends) among all creatures throughout the history of life.

I believe this generational tension is the source of a common four-character scheme in story-telling I’ve been exploring in my Writing Archetypes series. It started with ancient myth and continues onto the modern page and screen.

It’s a cultural solution to a unique evolutionary situation, the multi-generational community. Each archetype can be seen to represent a different generation: the Companion, the Hero, the Rough, and the Guru. You might say, “But, John! That’s four generations and grandparents only result in three generations.”

Therein lies the tricky part.

(You can skip this part, if you like)

Scholars of Indo-European culture and language have uncovered a three-part system—wise rulers, strong warriors, and creative producers—that matches well to a three-generation human community. We first gain the ability to produce children, then we grow into our adult capacity to participate in the protection of those children, then our experience carries us out of that direct participation as our own children have children.

This scheme has been reflected not only in the family, but in society as a whole, various Indo-European societies being divided among three castes. (I don’t mean to absolve these societies of their caste systems, or of the overt masculinity—albeit often with covert feminine expressions—of the main trio of deities representing these castes.)

The classic trifunctional scheme found in Indo-European cultures from Ireland to Assam, examined by mythographers like Georges Dumézil and backed up by linguists, disguises a four-part system. The rulership role is often divided into rough and smooth aspects, each representing an aspect of wisdom yet nevertheless complementing each other in a sort of yin-and-yang relationship.

In Rome, the ruling god Jupiter had two key aspects: Summanus, the mysterious god of night thunder, and Dius Fidius, the god of oaths. Dumézil linked this duality to the Indic gods Mitra and Varuna. Varuna was god of the mysterious ocean, Mitra the protector of treaties. The Norse gods Odin and Tyr form a similar duality. One is a wild force, the other a taming force. Tyr, for example, tamed Fenris by keeping an oath to let the wolf eat his hand.

Those who’ve had mischievous and conservative grandparents can recognize this duality. My own maternal grandparents fit this pattern well. It reflects the ultimate expression of the adage that opposites attract. Some old folks become staunch protectors of order and some return to a child-like playfulness, tempered by the wicked wit of long experience.

And, I believe this four-part system isn’t peculiar to Indo-European culture. A similar four-god system exists in Polynesian cultures. The Hawaiian version consists of Kanaloa, god of the sea; Káne, god of society; Kú, god of war; and Lono, the god of agriculture.

Intriguingly, Káne and Kanaloa are said to have walked together. (Check out Martha Beckwith’s excellent research on Hawaiian mythology for this connection.) Like Varuna, Kanaloa was a god of the sea. Like Mitra, Káne was a god of order, the first Hawaiian god to separate himself from primordial chaos. His Máori counterpart, Táne, separated the sky from the earth, creating order in the universe.

My take is that both the Indo-Europeans and Polynesians created similar cultural technologies to deal with identical generational problems. What patent lawyers call “independent invention” and biologists call “convergent evolution.”

(Okay, maybe you shouldn’t have skipped that last part)

At this point, you might see where I’m going with this. But you might also be saying, “How does the Companion fill the other Guru role? Isn’t the Companion a young character? Younger than the Hero?” Yes, but he or she is also an ironically wise character.

Think about Samwise Gamgee and the way he keeps Frodo on point with emotional appeals to life in their homeland among their own people. A very raw, animal way to drive someone forward, as contrasted with Guru Gandalf’s measured ambition to bring order to the world. Gandalf is always warning about death and despair, while Sam is always talking about life and hope. Two sides of the same wisdom.

Or, consider how R2D2’s simplistic and alien insight (he’s a droid!)—not only in carrying the raw blueprints for the Death Star but in beepingly expressing worry when Luke is giving in to hubris—forms a counterpart to Guru Obi Wan’s conservative dedication to the ancient Jedi.

Or, consider how Elizabeth Swann’s fierce emotionality contrasts with her Hero Will Turner’s insistent propriety and loyalty to his father and to doing the right thing. (The Guru role in Pirates of the Caribbean is a bit complex; more on that later.)

Also, note how all three of the Companions I’ve used as examples get dunked in water. Samwise in the lake of Nen Hithoel, R2 on Dagobah, and Elizabeth when she falls from the precipice at Port Royal. How better to link them to the gods of the waters, Kanaloa and Varuna?

I believe the young-yet-adult Hero, the middle-aged Rough, and the aged Guru represent the basic generational tension faced by our ancestors, 30 thousand years ago. It took us a few millennia to organize our thoughts (we were few, and widespread, and without the informational marvels of the Internet) but we eventually figured out some common cultural tactics.

The Companion, which I feel is a late archetypal development, represents the generational cycle turning in on itself. That youthful wisdom that some grandparents rediscover finds its expression in a character somewhat more childlike than the Hero, and often better represented by a youthful character.


Dumézil saw the Mitra-Varuna duality reflected by cultic orders in Indo-European societies.

In Rome, the priestly Flamines who protected the state were contrasted against the wild Luperci, youths who dressed as beasts or ran naked through the streets bringing chaos. In India, the priestly Brahmins who again protected the state were contrasted against the wild Gandharvas, a mythical half-animal race who burst into the human world with music, dancing, and sensuality.

In Tahiti, the tafunga (wise priests equivalent to the kahunas of Hawai’i) were offset by the Arioi, an initiate order somewhat outside the the structure of society, who enjoyed sexual freedom and were responsible for providing dance and singing for celebrations.

Despite that these wild cults were paired with aspects of the ruling, elder function, they were themselves associated with youth. There’s your wickedly youthful grandmother and that younger cousin who always her favorite, all wrapped up in one.

And, this is the key to understanding how the Companion fits into the four-part scheme. The Guru’s link to the Companion is what brings the Companion into the Hero’s adventure.

Remember how Gandalf was the one who demanded Samwise go with Frodo on his Hero’s quest? Remember how R2D2 was Obi Wan’s droid, which brought him together with Luke’s quest? Remember how it was Barbossa’s pirate raid that brought Elizabeth Swann and Will Turner together when they were children?

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention. Barbossa was both the Villain and the Guru in that flick. He dies in the first episode of the trilogy, just like the Gurus Gandalf and Obi Wan. Then later comes back as a better Guru, just like Gandalf and… well, I think you get it.

Notice how, in each case, you could hardly call the Guru and Companion allies.

Gandalf is often very gruff with Samwise, Obi Wan is not a big fan of electronics (the Force is explicitly contrasted as better than Luke’s X-Wing targeting computer, driven by R2’s astromech abilities), and Barbossa’s antagonism toward Elizabeth Swann hardly needs mention. They are intimately linked, but still represent a dualistic tension. The same tension that existed between the orderly priests and chaos cults of ancient society. The same tension we often see in real-world grandparents, as mentioned above: the serious and traditional vs. the emotive and impulsive.

In short, the Companion gets to be a young character precisely because there’s something in the elderly that resonates with youth, connects to it, and sees the value in it for the young adult Hero.


So, this explains how a four-part scheme of literary tropes can be derived from a supposedly three-part archetypal system. The arising of grandparents created a tension in our ancestors’ societies, and they responded with a set of myths that helped people navigate this novel, inter-generational dynamic. Specifically, helped people derive the greatest benefit from having grandparents sticking around long after they could directly participate in the protection of the tribe.

And, it helped navigate the reality that release from the survival stresses of midlife frees some elders to relate to the impulsive whimsy (and life-oriented wisdom) of youth, inspiring the fourth archetype of the Companion.

I’ve tried to link literary analysis to solid anthropology, because I believe that any human phenomenon must have a valid scientific basis. Surely, the origin of the common four-part scheme of Companions, Heroes, Roughs, and Gurus must be more complex than inter-generational tension, but I’m convinced that this is as good a place to start as any.

You may also like...