All the books in all the world could not contain all there is to know.
Benevolent mentors and custodians of wisdom are some of the hallmark characters of fantasy. Part mystic, part genius, the Sage is an essential driver of the Hero’s Journey, delegating the task of changing the world to their often younger, more naive and eager fellows. The Sage differs from the Creator in that they do not always use their knowledge to change the world, and very rarely do they desire to create something new––in this, the Sage might be closer to the Explorer. While the Explorer’s goals are outward, the Sage’s are inward.
As I have mentioned in prior posts in this series, this collection of posts deals with the archetypes first put forth by psychiatrist Carl Jung, and the use of these archetypes in fiction. Every post deals with the motivations, character profiles, and Shadows (or negatives) of each archetype. This week we continue looking at the group known as the Soul types, which are defined by goals related to personal development, or agendas that serve to improve their spiritual, mental, or physical standing with the world. The Sage, driven by a need for knowledge, is next.
THE TWELVE ARCHETYPES
Also known as the scholar, expert, detective, thinker, teacher, mentor, savant, and philosopher, the Sage seeks to understand the world in analytical ways, processing reality with logic and the wisdom of their often long life.
The Sage seeks nothing but the truth. Whether that truth is uncomfortable or heart-rendering, it will be accepted, as the only meaningful path in life is one that pursues truth.
Personal truth based on falsehood is one of the great fears of the Sage, and so they are always questioning what they know to be true. This eagerness to find contradiction sometimes leads the Sage to be misled, or even manipulated by others who are aware of their weakness. In addition, the Sage can be addicted to learning, spending so much time pouring over books and information that they never actively engage in the threat facing their world. One of the most easily recognized representations of this fault is Morla, the giant turtle from the Neverending Story, who is so trapped by her knowledge that she will not even pull herself out of the mud she is in, even to help save her world.
The Sage, being one of the pillars the Hero can depend on, is not easily corruptible. Though the Sage can function in ignorance, when the wool is removed, they often more easily accept that change than the other archetypes. But a shadow Sage is not impossible. A Sage surrounded by profound ignorance may become fed up with such an unenlightened world, and would be happily engage in its political, religious, moral, and spiritual sabotage. A Sage can also become overly critical, impractical, or even unsympathetic to those not on their intellectual plane. Due to the nature of genius, a Sage may also become addicted to mind-numbing substances.
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It takes a great deal of finagling to get Yoda to come out of retirement and train Luke Skywalker, but Yoda is perhaps the most incorruptible of the Sages listed here. His wisdom and carriage suggest constant thought and patience as facts are deliberated. He is a mentor to many, but the peerlessness he faces also gives him an aura of profound loneliness.
Uncle Iroh, while certainly jolly, is the level head within the Fire Nation, guiding his nephew, and even the other side towards a revolution of peace. His wisdom is so sought after, in fact, that even after his death, he is sought out by the avatars for advice.
Morpheus, perhaps a Sage-in-Training, wants to free the world from untruths. His desire to see Neo succeed are in part tainted by his knowledge that only Neo will be imparted with some of the information he wishes to know about the world, and his paranoia about what is “real” and what is “not,” as well as the reality that he was ultimately misled, make Morpheus a tragic case of the Sage in Shadow.
What to do when you are simply too intelligent for this world? Cannibalism aside, Hannibal is a fascinating look at what happens to a genius who needs mental help. Hannibal is in the unique and terrifying position of being smarter than everyone in the room, but also desperately desiring to find someone with which he can relate, on the most base levels of communication. Hannibal is definitely the Sage in Shadow, unsympathetic, and even desiring, the world to burn.
When you think of the Cheshire Cat, you don’t really think of a Sage. But, factor in the laws of reality in Wonderland, and the Cheshire Cat is in fact the benevolent mentor to Alice, offering advice and wisdom on how to progress through the world and eventually return home. Even further than that, take into account Lewis Carroll’s designs in the structure of the novel, and the Cheshire Cat is the only voice of reason.
Advisor to the line of kings, Rafiki is a bit eccentric and at the best of times, not all that influential. His wisdom is overshadowed by the day-to-day struggles of the Sahara, but it is his eventual confrontation with Simba that sends the young lion back to save his pride.
Haymitch, an alcoholic and survivor of the Hunger Games, is a reluctant Sage — he carries in him all of the knowledge and wisdom Katniss will need to survive her obstacles, but is hesitant to give them and act without being begged. He is a Sage purposefully being misled, because in this case, the truth is too hard to stomach.
Katniss is a good example of one archetype turning into another. While I mentioned her originally in my Outlaw post, by the end of her character arc, she is on track to become the Sage, a seeker of truth, and an almost violent exposer of hypocrisy and falsehood. Katniss’s arc is also interesting in that the Sage rarely makes an interesting main character, but the circumstances of her story propel the Sage’s motives into the realm of requirement for freedom.
Ask any long-time reader of the X-Men comic universe, and it makes sense why Professor X makes this list. While in general a humanitarian and benevolent figure, there are many cases of Professor X’s desire for knowledge and the to test the limits of his mind leading the world into chaos and destruction.
Wan Shi Tong, the great owl that keeps a library of all the world’s knowledge, is a simplistic character, following the archetype’s desires almost perfectly. In his simplicity he is also a powerful message, showing, like the Great Sphynx, that knowledge can also be a gilded cage to those who acquire it.
For Spock, logic and reason are the key to everything. His level-headedness keeps his fleet balanced with the heroic tendencies of Kirk, while his rational way of looking at the world is constantly challenged by the erratic and incomprehensible decisions made by the people he interacts with.
Athena, muse and benefactor to men, is the Sage in Action – defying her father, weedling the other gods to give the humans favor, and fighting herself when all else fails, Athena remains a strong example of this archetype in its perfect form: knowledge and wisdom, with the desire to actively do good with it.
Oracle, from the Matrix, like many other oracles and diviners across Earth’s cache of stories, is an example of the Sage Entrapped. Similar to Wan Shi Tong, oracles are nearly stereotyped by their forward-seeing knowledge; knowledge that they can not share with anyone even if they wanted to. To share would be to change, and to change would have far-reaching, unexpected effects. As a story device, oracles run the risk of being deus ex machina, providing only the information the author needs the character to know to progress the story further, without warning that same character of the consequences awaiting him or her.
Rufus is a Sage-as-Time-Traveler, a device that separates this Sage from Oracle–the time traveler’s knowledge is limited, and once the past begins to change, their future knowledge is no longer relevant. In general, whenever a person comes back from the future with the intent to educate key players in a way to change the future, they can be called a Sage.
While Gandalf later transforms himself into the Magician by becoming Gandalf the White, he very much starts as a Sage. Addicted to pipe weed and inconsequential knowledge, Gandalf languishes his talents in the Shire, and in general, putting others in danger before himself, and even doing so knowingly. Like many sages, he does not tell his younger cohorts the true motives behind his actions or theirs, to deadly consequence.
Other Posts in this Series:
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