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How Fiction Can Calm Your Worries and Fears

Try a positive escape into fun-scary fiction.

Key points

  • Analyzing archetypal images can be fun and psychologically instructive.
  • The experience of engaging deeply with stories can help us release our fears.
  • Deborah Harkness' "All Souls" trilogy takes a stand against prejudice through its use of the lover, warrior, and sage archetypes.

I love to track what is going on in the inner life of people around me by reading best-selling fiction with attention to archetypal patterns, particularly by thinking about those archetypal patterns that people are showing the world and those they keep private. [1]

When a colleague told me to check out the All Souls Trilogy by a notable historian, Deborah Harkness, I was intrigued. The heroine of these books is Diana Bishop, an academic hiding the fact that she is a witch. She just studies alchemy, she doesn’t practice it. Then she falls in love with Mathew Clairmont, a researcher who studies the DNA of humans, vampires, witches, and daemons, himself hiding the fact that he is a vampire. In the daylight world, they both pass as human. Both show the world their Sage archetype in their academic pursuits.

Their basic love story (Lover) is a more sophisticated and literary version of the usual, stereotypical, Cinderella romance fiction narrative, where a struggling woman falls in love with a rich, powerful, handsome man who rescues her from her fate. In this one, both have lessons to learn, through which they transform one another.

If you feel, as do many people today (especially women), that you have to suppress your personal power to avoid threatening the powers that be, Diana’s story may be for you. Her challenge is to develop the courage to realize her potential, even if others come after her to steal her power. The witch, although a culturally devalued image of dangerous feminine power, can be a healer or transformer as well as a destroyer, releasing the repressed anger of the oppressed. Diana’s challenge (to express her hidden Magician archetype witch potential) is to hold her own boundaries, to stand up for herself, and, as she embraces her magic, to take the energy around her and re-weave it into something positive and transformational.

 Arcaion/Pixabay/Free For Commercial Use
Source: Arcaion/Pixabay/Free For Commercial Use

If you believe, as Matthew does, that you must take advantage of others or defeat them to survive or thrive, Matthew’s predatory and secret Warrior plotline might be a model for you. Since it is unlikely that you hunt down animals and people, kill them, and drink their blood, it is good to remember that blood in dreams is often a symbol of life energy or money. Dreams frequently reveal meanings hidden from daylight consciousness as a comment on them, as unconscious metaphors also do. The world of business and economics today is often still referred to as a “jungle,” with beings who strive to “make a killing” and set goals to “destroy” the opposition/competition.

Matthew’s challenge is to control his predatory, wolf-like desires, his temper, and his patriarchal belief that he must be in charge and learn to partner with Diana and eventually support her taking the lead. In this process, his Warrior archetype is expressed less as a predator and increasingly as an activist or crusader who is willing to risk everything for the greater good.

Matthew has justifiable fears about how rules/laws against creature (witch, vampire, or daemon) intermarriage lead to inbreeding and weakness. He finds that creatures that hide their positive traits are less likely to pass them on to the next generation. He thus predicts that, eventually, the creatures might die out as species. His research findings, however, demonstrate that creatures are just humans, so there is no need for all this hiding and separate social roles.

You do not have to be a genius to recognize that a subtheme of this book is racism, and all the other “isms.” Matthew’s fictional findings can remind us of research by contemporary scientists who now report that the DNA of all our races, sexes, and sexual orientations is fundamentally the same.

At one point, Diana and Matthew time travel from the modern world to Tudor England, during the period when the Enlightenment ideas of rational thinking, science, and progress were formulated. The notions of whiteness as superior and blackness as inferior were invented in this same era. During the Early Modern period, witch hunts were also returning in England and Europe, as well as in the American colonies. We learn that Diana is a descendant of the first woman to be tried and hanged as a witch in the Salem witch trials.

 Geralt/Pixabay/Free for Commercial Use
Source: Geralt/Pixabay/Free for Commercial Use

All the isms leave their imprint. Even today, when many laws have changed, it can be difficult for members of historically subordinate groups to embrace the qualities that have been denied them. Diana is afraid of developing her powers because, if they are revealed, someone might murder her, as happened to her parents. But short of that, she would lose her job. Then there is Matthew. Diana trusts him, although he warns her that he may be unable to control his desire to drink her blood. Because she does not seem afraid, empathic readers will feel that fear for her. I know I did. Today, many of us already unconsciously experience fear much of the time, just from reading the news. And, many of us fear stepping out of our assigned roles, whatever these might be, or, conversely, fear being inadvertently racist, sexist, or otherwise harmful.

But reading fun-scary fiction, such as this trilogy, is like being on a roller coaster, enjoying the ride. You can use the characters’ terrifying experiences as proxies for your own fears, so that your psyche can process them as you read.

As I wondered how conscious Harkness was of writing a book that might accomplish this, I got to a passage in it where Diana finds the treasure of a longed-for but lost alchemical book. She opens it and recognizes an image of the union of the king and queen that symbolizes the achievement of an androgynous consciousness, so necessary for alchemical accomplishment. She notices that beneath the images and text are older texts, perhaps ones that were quickly erased, the traces of which start moving about. Then, in a very bizarre scene, that strange writing begins to crawl into her body. When it does, she gains its knowledge and power.

 Fluf/Pixabay/Free for Commercial Use
Source: Fluf/Pixabay/Free for Commercial Use

Words creeping into us can be viewed as a metaphor for a positive human ability we all have. When you imaginatively experience living a story, that story is added to your brain’s synapse networks, specifically the imagination network, [2] which houses images, characters, and narratives available to you. In this way, reading makes you smarter and opens new possibilities for how you might respond to new situations. In many eras, and even now, people have sought to ban books, some out of a fear of the persistence of old ideas and some to resist the attraction of new ones.

The stories of Diana the witch and Matthew the vampire highlight exaggerated forms of fears that are common today: a fear of threatening others if we fulfill our potential and a fear of losing our souls to satisfy the pull of our desires. Whatever your fears, reading fun-scary fantasy fiction like the All Souls Trilogy may well help you to conquer them.

[1] The archetypal names utilized in this blog come from a 12-archetype system described in my book What Stories Are You Living? Discover Your Archetypes – Transform Your Life (CAPT, 2021). The book shows how some archetypes may be active in a person at most or all times in their lives, while others awaken to face different life stages, situations, or relationships. People may show some parts of themselves to the world and keep others private. Moreover, archetypes evolve in their expressions as individual humans grow and develop. You might find it interesting to notice in the world around you where predatory and witchy motivations are peeking out underneath cool Sage archetypes and hot Lover ones. You might also celebrate the positive sides of the Warrior and the Magician if you notice these, too.

[2] The technical term is the dorsal attention network.


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