Friday, July 25, 2003

Narrative is a Pattern Language

So my closing insight in this series of musings about narrative is that narrative, exactly as Campbell set it out in Hero with a Thousand Faces is an Alexandrian pattern language. (A reference to architect Christopher Alexander, if you're not in the software patterns field.) In fact, the parallels are quite remarkable. Each element of the Hero's Journey has certain elements, some of which are constant, some can vary. These elements have relationships to other stages, just like A Pattern Language of Design sets out relationships between the patterns, and describes the problems that they are meant to solve. And both Alexander and Campbell distilled their lists from extensive surveys of the field, picking up only what was universal and fundamental. He might as well have called his book A Pattern Language of Myth, except of course that he published twenty-five years before Alexander.

What good is this insight? It means we can apply a whole body of knowledge of pattern languages, mostly developed in the software field, to narrative arc. Narrative elements -- the patterns -- exist on fractal scales, have certain structural or behavioral relationships with other elements. And taken as a whole, the language is generative; it doesn't describe a single story, or myth, any more than Alexander's pattern language described a single, ideal building. While Campbell meant Hero to be a distillation of the world's mythic knowledge and wisdom, we can use it in precisely the opposite sense, to create an infinite number of new myths.

Next week, I'll talk about something different.