There are many archetypes in literature and movies. Experts have boiled them down to several main archetypes, sometimes known as heroes and heroines. A couple of examples include the boss, the bad boy, the seductress, the warrior, the free spirit, the wise man/woman, and depending on who you ask, the list goes on. These archetypes provide a framework for heroes and heroines and reappear in literature, movies, and TV.
One archetype that can be found profusely scattered throughout literature is the Savior archetype, also known as the Messianic archetype or Christ/Savior figure. The definitions of the Savior archetype vary, but according to the all-knowing Wikipedia, a Christ figure should have several of the following qualities: dies and is resurrected (often martyred), morally upright and advocates for justice, guided by the spirit of his or her father, power to heal, kind and forgiving, performs miracles, unmarried, and self-sacrificing.
The Savior figure appears throughout history in literature, but it is still found everywhere in American pop culture, which is where I would like to focus. Some examples include Gandalf from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia, Doctor Who from Doctor Who, Jack Bauer from 24, Neo from The Matrix, Harry Stamper from Armageddon, and Superman (not to mention the plethora of other superheroes). All of these characters are very different, but there are common threads among them. There are several key characteristics that I’d like to look at in relation to these characters: a self-sacrificing nature, death and resurrection, and morally upright and advocating for justice.
All of the characters listed above are self-sacrificing with a willingness to do what needs to be done with no regard for personal safety and well-being. Gandalf stands between the Fellowship and the Balrog in the Mines of Moria, and he continually stands between the hobbits and those who would do them harm. Aslan stands between the Pevensie children and the White Witch. Doctor Who protects the world against many enemies. Jack Bauer positions himself between numerous enemies and the people he loves and sometimes those he doesn’t. Neo stands between humanity and the architects of The Matrix, Harry Stamper against the asteroid, and Superman between humanity and its many foes.
Several of these characters are killed protecting and saving others and some come back to life. Gandalf, Aslan, Doctor Who, Neo, Superman (in some versions), and Harry are all killed. Out of these, Gandalf, Aslan, and Doctor Who are resurrected to continue their lives saving others.
Being morally upright and advocating for justice is a frequent characteristic of Savior figures. They often have a code that they live by, which is often not the code of the society in which they live. Gandalf and Jack Bauer were forced to defy their superiors in order to follow what they believed was right. Whatever code they follow is adhered to strictly even if it requires personal sacrifice, but it always includes the sanctity of life and the ability to make free and independent decisions about one’s life.
So why is this important, and what does it say about our culture? As a whole, we Americans are very independent. We want to believe that we can save ourselves and that we don’t need anyone else, human or otherwise to help us. In general, we’re of the opinion that we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep on going. Most people would not admit that they want and are waiting for someone to come save them—from their boring job, a hellish relationship, or the inevitable fact of death. I think the prevalence of this archetype says otherwise. We are inundated with these images of being saved and whether we admit it or not, we often hope that someone wiser and more powerful will come in at the last moment when all hope is lost and save us.
My question is whether these images are pointing people to Jesus, the true Savior, or if they’re providing us with an alternative belief, that someone else can save us instead of Jesus. Some authors have created these stories with the intention of providing a Christ-like figure that would illustrate the story of Jesus and point us to him, but I would wager that was not the intention of the majority of these authors. Can they still serve the same purpose as the stories created with that intention?
Or are they pointing us in a completely different direction?
By Melissa Blakely
Images from FreeDigitalPhotos.net. Image credits in order of appearance: Janaka Dharmasena, xedos4, Grant Cochrane.