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

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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