Into the Woods With Jung

the egg

Why does Harry Potter battle spiders? And Wilbur, the pig, befriend one? Why does Odysseus sail the sea and that girl go down in the basement in every horror film?

There are lots of reasons for these creative choices, but I think chief among them is the fact that these are all “charged” symbols, characters and events. They carry more than their literal weight when it comes to creating emotional and psychological effects in the reader or viewer. And as a creator it’s worth your while to learn more about deep symbolism.

Carl Jung is a great place to start. The early-20th century psychologist was one of the first people to explore the human unconscious to try to codify the powerful symbols and images that arise from there.

Recently I checked out Jung’s The Red Book from the public library. It’s Jung’s fascinating exploration of his own unconscious through symbolic writing and his own illustrations. (All the illustrations in this post are from “The Red Book.”)

The writing can be hard to work through. Some is reasonably accessible:

Christmas has come. The God is in the egg.

I have prepared a rug for my Lord, an expensive red rug from the land

Of morning…

I am the mother, the simple maiden who gave birth and did not

Know how.

I am the careful father, who protected the maiden.

I am the shepherd who received his message as he guarded his herd at

Night on the dark fields.

Some of the writing not so much:

However, I am not ready, since I have still not accepted that which chokes my heart. That fearful thing is the enclosing of the God in the egg. I am happy that the great endeavor has been successful, but my fear made me forget the hazards involved. I love and admire the powerful. No one is greater than he with the bull’s horns, and yet I lamed, carried, and made him smaller with ease.

But his paintings are powerful and evocative. It’s hard to say exactly how. I don’t know why I keep coming back to study this dragon slayer, but I do.


Of course, most of his paintings are deliberately symbolic and as, Jung notes, a symbol has “a wider ‘unconscious’ aspect that is never precisely defined or fully explained. Nor can one hope to define or explain it. As the mind explores the symbol, it is led to ideas that lie beyond the grasp of reason.”

Jung goes on to say: “Because there are innumerable things beyond the range of human understanding, we constantly use symbolic terms to represent concepts that we cannot define or fully comprehend.”

In The Red Book, Jung was exploring his own mind, but he believed that many of our symbols (or archetypes, as he called them) were universal coming from the “collective unconscious” of humanity.

One of my writing friends is very aware of Jungian archetypes and other mythic materials such as Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. And she consciously works these ideas into her stories. The result is often images or characters or events that are supercharged. Somehow they are more evocative or disturbing than their obvious elements would suggest.

mosaic face

But even if you aren’t that conscious of universal symbols, there’s a good chance you’ll hit on them if you let your thoughts and emotions go deep. What scares you more than it seems it should? What naturally comes to mind as you take your character on an adventure? Does she end up in a cave? Does he travel by water? Meet a monster? Climb mountains? Explore attics and basements?

boatWater is often a symbol of the unconscious. And it’s not simply by chance that heroes on a quest for self-knowledge will often cross something watery. We see it in some of our most powerful fiction from The Odyssey to Moby Dick to Ursula LeGuin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. Monsters are constantly rising up from water–the serpent thing in the trash masher in “Star Wars”, the Loch Ness monster, the Swamp Thing.

For some reason there seems to be an almost universal fear of spiders (why do we find the swastika so creepy? Is it just contemporary cultural association or does it go deeper.) Yet, EB White makes Wilbur’s friend a spider. White says  that’s because he became interested in spiders after watching them on his farm. But it’s hard to believe Charlotte’s Web would have the power it does if Wilbur had befriended a less symbolically charged creature. And I suspect EB White was deliberately playing against type and stirring unconscious emotions with this choice of hero.

Jung believed houses and other buildings are symbolic of our own psyches. Tower rooms may represent our conscious intellect. Dark basement our subconscious and every maker of horror films knows that nothing is more frightening than the idea of going down into the dark unknown that lingers there.

I’m betting most of these creators–from JK Rowling to John Carpenter to Ursula LeGuin–were well aware of the symbolic charge of their choices. And you can be to. If you’re interested in exploring archetypes and symbols more, some good books include Man and his Symbols, a book featuring an essay by Jung and then commentary by others on his ideas. There’s Joseph Campbell’s A Hero with a Thousand Faces, Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey and Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment and authors like Clarissa Pinkola Estés who writes extensively about women and their particular symbolic needs and expressions.

red sun








7 responses to “Into the Woods With Jung

  1. Bonnie, what an interesting post! I think these things are often culturally specific, which is why I have long had trouble with Campbell’s ideas. Some images do carry meaning to all human beings–water, for example, or mountains, although even there the subtexts will vary. I personally do not find the swastika itself to be creepy or reminiscent of spiders–it’s an ancient Hindu symbol. Rather, it makes me angry that it has been coopted and corrupted in so many ways that its early spiritual meanings have been snatched away. Dark interior spaces might represent temple sanctums to some people. Bright sunlight might represent drought and starvation rather than cheer and comfort as it does across temperate climates. These things are powerful, yes. Potent even. It is when we can think of them as something other than universal, when they can be opened up to re-envisioning and reinterpretation, that the world of story will itself open up.

    • Uma, I’m kind of with you on this. I agree it’s not a perfect match. I don’t know enough about other cultures to be sure about Campbell. Certainly as the Hero’s Journey has been popularized (in books like The Writers Journey by Christopher Vogler), I’m less and less sure that this model fits stories like native American tales. Some of these stories are being retold in a way that fits the hero’s journey better, but the originals often seem rather endless rather than a circle and it often feels that maybe the hero didn’t do much of anything–life just sort of happened to him or her.

  2. Deirdre O'Sullivan from Australia

    Brilliant musings in your post, Bonnie – so thought-provoking. Childhood is a time of intense emotions, I seem to recall, and we still feel strong echoes of these feelings till the end of our days. Our adult emotions are rather feeble and faded by comparison! I’ve always suspected the reason The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is such a powerful story, is due to the potent symbolism behind the opening of the wardrobe door into another world…through C.S. Lewis’ glorious imaginings, we open a door in our minds, into our subconscious yearnings for a richer experience of life. I remember actually aching with sorrow as a kid, when the children in this story had to return to the real world and close the wardrobe door behind them. I still remember how vividly Lewis wrote about going through that door – the way the bristles of the snowy pine branches pricked against their faces, and then suddenly, the bristling faded and they felt the warm caress of fur coats that hung in the wardrobe, softly brushing against their cheeks. That description sent a shiver up the back of my 10 year old neck – and it still does, 40 years later! When the children later decided to stay in Narnia forever, it was as if they had defeated and rejected the dull realities of adulthood that lurked on the other side of the wardrobe door. Hmmm…very Jungian!

  3. Thanks, Deirdre. The “portal” is one of the classic steps in the hero’s journey–a crossing of some kind–like Dorothy being whirled away by the tornado or Harry Potter getting on the train. But I agree with you that the wardrobe is one of the best, most potent for some reason. It’s hard not to think of it when I open a coat closet.

  4. Bonny, this post was just fascinating. Thank you for the book recommendations. And I need to dig out my copy of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe & reread it.

  5. Pingback: Into the Woods With Jung — Books Around The Table – VIRTUAL BORSCHT

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