My chief reason for setting up this website is to give people coming after me a chance to think about what I have been trying to do since I began my research on narrative texts in 1971.
How did I come to do such extraordinary research in the first place?
Why has my approach to my texts changed so much over time?
Why don’t I base my work on the publications of other scholars?
What explanations have I arrived at for my ritual narratives?
Why do I give less attention to magic in my latest work?
Why do I think my work is important?
1. How did I come to do such extraordinary research in the first place?
My research arose from questions which people have often asked but never pursued. They were good questions which couldn’t be answered in the light of anything we knew at the time. I was working on a large number of medieval narrative texts in pursuit of another topic, and turned aside to take a closer look at these questions. It took time to realise that there were no quick answers, but I did realise the prime importance of the questions and was soon to devote my whole attention to them. One of my tasks throughout my project was to refine the questions as I learnt from the texts.
The questions pointed to how much detail in particular texts didn’t fit. I remember the physicist Richard Feynman saying, in 1981, that what is really interesting is the thing which doesn’t fit, and that comment supported me through the remaining years of my research. My first move forward was when I decided to experiment with how these texts should be approached: would their details fit better if they were approached from another point of view? Dreams and day-dreams have only one point of view, the dreamer’s, while a good story would give a point of view to other characters too. So I tried out the notion that the plot in each text should be viewed as the creation of its hero, with whom audiences would identify: this hero, as the dreamer, would move the other characters about like pawns. Immediately, remarkable narrative structures became visible. They were to show the unique advance of these plots in a step-by-step sequence of replays and reversals, and to explain the problems of motive in the texts. My study of these structures was to take my project forward from dreams to quite different answers. Unlike dreams, they were very highly organised material, ideal in fact for research.
When setting out on this research, I had the advantage that I had already been introduced to my own unconscious thought and had experience of interpreting my dreams. I was no longer afraid of the unconscious and no longer dismissive of it. I could also see how different my plots were from dreams: these plots were strategic, tightly organised and purposeful. What was it that was producing such organisation if it wasn’t art? Why was dealing with fear and guilt so important in these plots? My questions concentrated my mind on the importance of accuracy and firm avoidance of rationalisation. The texts which taught me most were those which turned out to contain two distinguished levels of narrative, the author’s conscious level and the unconscious level, using the same plot for quite different purposes, and without showing awareness of each other.
Learning how to follow the thought in a text was the whole thing: I needed to concentrate on what the unconscious thought was doing with the characters and adventures in the text. What it was doing was to prove entirely different from what a conscious author did with them. My plots have turned out to be pristine unconscious thought structures, which, far from being the progress towards sanity psychoanalysis would have expected, could end seeming madder than they began.
2. Why has my approach to my texts changed so much over time?
The reason for this is that I’ve been engaged on an investigation into an unexplored area and could not predict where it was leading. I’ve been trying to gain information about a group of narrative plots which have turned out to be the products of an unknown system. This has meant finding a way of investigating plot structure without involving interpretation; interpretation based on what is known already has not been able to address these structures. I made a good start by experimenting with the notion of the single point of view, having the plot the invention of its hero or heroine: this instantly revealed an interesting sequence of repetitions in each plot – in fact, a unique kind of move structure. These move structures were then to teach me a rigorous discipline, enabling me to explore the possible relationships between the details of each move. From the beginning, I was helped by the fact that the plots turned out to be very highly organised and I could use several of them as models, altering them as I learnt from the texts. It was a process of refining my methods as I worked on text after text, until I could offer solutions making good – irrational – sense. I also had the additional help of the conflicts between two levels of narrative in many texts, the author’s overlay and the totally different concerns of the plot.
3. Why don’t I base my work on the publications of other scholars?
These publications have none of them identified the narrative plots concerned as belonging to an unknown system. An unknown system cannot be interpreted until we have found out how the system works, and to find out how it works we have to describe it in terms of the structures it creates in as many relevant texts as we can find. This involves a particular kind of decipherment, learning how to read the close relationships between the details in the order in which they appear. Decipherment doesn’t lead to our finding obvious solutions: these structures are highly purposeful in entirely irrational ways, and only experience of work on a great many relevant texts gives us the judgement we need to find a solution. This is the work I have been engaged on since the 1970s. The great merit of my early work – which was full of errors – was that it offered a view of the move structure, and I was surprised that no one followed me in studying this fascinating glimpse of an unconscious structure.
People have imagined that I’ve been using psychoanalysis, making interpretations on the basis of that theory, but I realised in the 1970s that that would not be possible. My analysis of each text has had to arise out of the questions raised by the text concerned and then become an investigation of an unconscious plot structure. Psychoanalysis has had little to offer the literary specialist needing to address structure in unconscious activity, rather than meaning and motive. One thing I owe to psychoanalysis is the single point of view, on analogy with Freud’s theory of dreams: it enabled me to see the move structure and has proved an essential discipline for my work. The Oedipal material appearing in my plots I found a tedious, repetitive presence until I grasped that it belonged to the deeper levels of the mind – it was part of our emotional history – and that that was where my plots belonged too.
But, of course, I owe a great deal to the editors of texts I have studied, and also to scholars who have advised me. I also owe much to those who have pointed out particular absurdities in texts, and I’ve acknowledged their questions gratefully. While vexed by the absurdities they find, scholars have made little attempt to pursue them, and I can hardly blame them, knowing as I do that the pursuit can consume an entire career.
4. What explanations have I arrived at for my ritual narratives?
I think the genres of romance and folktale can sometimes trigger the emergence of narration belonging to a deeper level of the mind. There are linkages between the levels of the mind, and thought from deeper levels could surface under a strong stimulus: the feeling aroused in some kinds of storytelling situations would be such a stimulus. The exceptional popularity of the texts in which I have found them suggests to me that audiences would tune in at the level of the unconscious narrative, where primal concerns with desire and fear are effectively dealt with.
I think the origin of these narrative structures will prove to be a lifelong automatic storytelling process essential for the balance of the mind – probably to cope with stress. The extent of their organisation suggests to me that they have a function in the brain, and the primitive character of their thought might arise from their being regular re-runs of long-past mental stages.
As the human brain evolved, our ancestors would have ceased to live only in the present, as do their fellow animals, and begun to anticipate the future. They would have experienced more fear, and mounting stress could have prevented further development. The narrative structures might have been one of the adaptations the brain resorted to, enabling our evolution to continue.
5. Why do I give less attention to magic in my latest work?
Using the expression ‘magical plot’ has proved to be misleading. Literary people are used to thinking of magic as a creation of the conscious imagination, and are unaware of its unconscious storytelling presence in the mind. Magic is a resource humankind has depended on during the long, steep development from primate cognition to theoretic thought. Our acquiring the ability to reflect, imagine and reason must have had its price in degrees of stress, fear and guilt unknown to fellow animals. Magic has played healing roles at deep levels in the mind and certainly still does. Many people wouldn’t want to dissect it even now: it is part of us and we would prefer to discuss magic in its lighter, conscious aspects.
Meanwhile, magic in its conscious aspects also tends to be misunderstood. The source of all magic is the individual human mind: the power desired has to be invested in something by the people who will use that power on the spot. Magic cannot be a property of anything – it has to be invested for instant use. People can invest power in anything; outward appearance is no guide to the identification of a magical object. When we think we have found a use of magic in a text, we have to be able to explain what it is doing there: how does its magic work? Real magic is functional.
In the case of a ‘magical plot’, the entire plot is magic. It is created by a magical system well below consciousness, entirely designed to bring about desires and dispel fear. There is no frivolity in this form of magic: it was probably an evolutionary adaptation. It takes the form of a sequence of narrative rituals, moving forward in very highly organised, repetitive steps which I call ‘moves’, or sometimes it concentrates on building up narrative defences around its adventures. In its outward appearance the magical plot is very hard to distinguish from other kinds of narrative, because it uses stock material. It becomes most visible when an ambitious author employs it for a new work, adding moral themes and characterisation as such an author will. The author cannot know that the plot is already in use, employed by an automatic system with an amoral agenda using the characters as pawns. The author will be responsible for the presence of this magical plot, but the whole phenomenon is evidently beyond an author’s control. Of the two levels of narrative resulting, the plot is always dominant and the author’s work a subordinate overlay. The two entirely separate levels of narrative conflict with each other without this affecting the popularity of the text: in fact, a magnificent text can be the result.
6. Why do I think my work is important?
I think my work solves particular problems which have troubled us in many narrative texts, most of which have enjoyed long popularity. It offers a methodology worked out during investigation of these texts, which can be tested, altered and extended by users engaged on similar work. The methodology also firmly detects texts which are not relevant to such an investigation. My work demonstrates that literary people can work independently with an unknown system of thought in a practical, exploratory way.
Outside the literary field, my work offers studies of structure in unconscious activity, opening up a new area for investigators. Earlier approaches to the unconscious have concentrated on identifying motives as they intrude on our social lives. Narrative texts offer an opportunity not offered elsewhere for the study of unconscious structures, because the unconscious uses narrative thought and texts present abundant detail for study.
My investigation enlarges our ideas of the role of narrative in human life. It also demonstrates that answers to human problems sometimes lie outside the arena of our conscious, moral universe.