Motif in Literature

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Motif in Literature

George Steiner has described culture as a matrix of recurrent and interrelated elements, a motor fueled by revolving constants. Broadly speaking, cultural literacy relies on our ability to recognize these constantsin literature, music, painting, or any other form of cultural productionand to work out relationships between them, to translate and recycle the meaning we inherit from them. Thus, the single word Roncevaux, voiced offhandedly by one man to another in Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, can echo for the reader with large themes of betrayal, ambush, rivalry, and national lossbut only if the word is recognized as an allusion to the death trap set treacherously for Charlemagne's twelve peers in the early-twelfth-century Chanson de Roland. The tone of Steiner's short reflection on cultural literacy is dire, his main point being that "elementary" allusions and "implicit motifs"such as Roncevauxgo unrecognized even by today's most "privileged students and readers." A small literary element like Roncevaux, reused over time in various languages and genres, provides a useful example of a cultural "constant," and recognizing the rich depth afforded by such recycled bits of meaning is in fact a method of comparative literary analysis. Motif is one word that can be used to delimit and distinguish an element like Roncevaux. But our options are many, and terms prove in practice frequently interchangeable. Steiner writes generally of topologies, a term that lumps together and encompasses such overlapping concepts as topos, archetype, motif, and genre. Our focus here is on the motif and limits the cultural field to literature. And yet Steiner's more expansive notion of culture as a network of recurring, interrelated constants provides one of the more helpful and lucid introductions to the movement and persistence associated with literary motif, an otherwise ambiguous element in comparative analysis.


Let us start with the ambiguity that has characterized motif since the term first appearedused in reference to a musical rather than a literary workin Denis Diderot's Encyclopédie of 1765. Even now, defining exactly what constitutes a single motif or a motif sequence in literature continues to be a thorny task for students and scholars alike, in large part because published definitions as well as general use in literary criticism offer very little agreement as to its nature (excepting a general agreement that there is no common agreement). Dictionaries, encyclopedias, and handbooks have defined motif variously as myth, theme, subject, central recurring idea, image, characteristic, symbol, archetype, leitmotiv, or outstanding trait. Adding to the confusion, theme and motif potentially incompatible terms to Horst Daemmrichtend to be used interchangeably, strings of motifs often made synonymous with legend and myth. The recurring narrative constant of the insatiable artist, for instance, analyzed as integral to and mutually dependent on the literary tradition of Faust, has been described by Stuart Atkins, without clear distinction of terms, as "motif," "theme," and "myth." General character types (holy hermit, evil dwarf, seer-hag, calumniated wife, warrior king, "flower" or "candle" of knighthood), objects (hero's sword, poet's pen, lover's ring, the Holy Grail), settings (paradise, hell, deserted wasteland, the otherworld, the city), situations (spilled wine, physical blow, quest, game or test, war, marriage), psychological states (madness, hysteria, paranoia), and general attributes (red hair, black eyes, hairy mole, hunchback) can all be traced over time and across genre and discussed as recurring literary motifs. Such lists are potentially endless and not necessarily new (see the Medieval Welsh Triads as well as Stith Thompson's motif-index and Daemmrich's handbook). We might even speak of instructional, didactic, or homiletic motifs, as has David F. Johnson; in a study that seeks ultimately to identify the origin of a narrative tradition, Johnson has culled medieval British manuscripts for references to the rewards and punishments of the afterlife, concluding that both the Seven Joys of Heaven motif and its reverse, the Five Horrors of Hell, are Irish (rather than English) homilies. Theorists and scholars have used motif to identify narrative elements such as detail, metaphor, image, symbol, idea, and subject matter. The term need not refer exclusively to content elements but can apply to formal elements as well, and motif sequences have been identified as structuring devices, integral to a text's configuration. Helen Vendler's study of "key words" in Shakespeare's sonnets, for instance, demonstrates how motifs provide structural coherence by "firmly connecting" the four units of a sonnet (three quatrains and a couplet); in Vindler's analysis, motifs prove equally essential to the form of a sonnet as to its meaning. (The semiotician A. J. Greimas, as well as two of the most significant modern indexers of literary motifs, Stith Thompson and Elisabeth Frenzel, restrict motifs to content units; Wolpers, Daemmrich, and others extend the term's scope into form and structure.) A literary motif, in other words, can beand has beendefined with great fluidity: as an element of both narrative content and structural form, as a general literary theme, or as a question of the discrete units that make up that theme.


And yet, however frequently equated with larger terms, motifs are invariably "small," autonomous units of meaning. With Werner Sollors, we might consider theme to be a text's "aboutness" and motifs the discrete elements that make up its "treatment." Motifs are the "basic components" of literary texts, "small substantial content units," or the "details out of which full-fledged narratives are composed." Theme is a structured group of motifs, and "wider thematic potential" is the result of recurring motifs. Thus, the two broken, failed swords of Beowulf can be said to add essential, thematic force to the sense of loss that pervades the poem: Hrunting and Naegling are not in and of themselves what Beowulf is about, but as object motifs, in failing the hero in a time of need, they function as distinct elements in the poet's elaboration of cyclical violence and social disintegration. Likewise, character and setting motifs reverberate throughout the poetry of Charles Baudelaire in ways that build an overall sense of anxiety about mechanized modernity: the idle dawdler (flâneur ), for one, and the contrasting "traumatophile type"a man propelled both by irrational fear and by sudden, nervous tics of the bodyare both lost in the faceless, phantom masses of Baudelaire's big-city crowd. While not interchangeable, then, (small) motif and (larger) theme are nonetheless "mutually dependent" aspects of all literatureboth integral "constants" that contribute to the intertextual matrix of literary culture.

Etymology: Dynamism

The fluidity of the term motif, and its conflation with other concepts, help emphasize the movement, mutability, and persistence that return us both to Steiner's cultural "motor" and to the root of the word itself. Derived from the Latin verb movere, "to move," and the Medieval Latin noun motivum, "cause" or "incitement," motif implies movement, stimulus, and dynamism; a recurring pattern or rhythm of motifs in effect propels narrative action. Motifs move in different ways: they are "mobile sequences" that conduct narrative action within individual texts, and they are also "translingual," "intertextual migrations" that move between texts and genres through time. Motifs moreover persistconstantly migrating and recycling, but surviving. Thus, George Steiner traces the combined motifs of poet's death, springtime, and resurrection from Horace, via the early modern poets William Dunbar, Thomas Carew, and John Milton, to Percy Bysshe Shelley and W. H. Audentracking how diverse writers inherited and adapted meaning from classical antiquity into the twentieth century.

King Motifs in the Medieval Arthurian Tradition

Kingship, along with issues of powerwho wields it, and howcan be said to obsess literature in general and medieval literature in particular. Take the weak king of Arthurian traditiondiscussed by Edward Peters as an example of rex inutilis (the useless king) and frequently defined as exemplary of the roi fainéant (idle king) of medieval romance. Together with his Knights of the Round Table, he is already lost in decline, sliding toward the betrayal and civil war that will annihilate the Arthurian world. The Arthur of late medieval literature is himself largely absent from narrative action and almost always silenthis court a place of contention; his knights cowardly and his champions far away; his queen physically threatened, kidnapped, and ultimately unfaithful; his servants and realm vulnerable to violence and attack (as, for instance, in the works of Chrétien de Troyes [fl. c. 1170]). Exemplifying the character motif of weak, ineffectual king, this Arthur has persisted in literature, a king who is familiar today through Alfred, Lord Tennyson (Idylls of the King ), T. H. White (The Once and Future King ), and John Steinbeck (The Acts of King Arthur and his Noble Knights ), or via the cinematic creations of Robert Bresson (Lancelot du Lac, 1974), John Boorman (Excalibur, 1981), or Jerry Zucker (First Knight, 1995).

Stith Thompson's Motif-Index of Folk-Literature

The "alphabetical" organization of Thompson's six-volume motif-index may at first seem counterintuitive. Thompson arranges material into twenty-three index categoriesA to Z (excluding I, O, and Y)but the category headings themselves are not arranged alphabetically. There is no correspondence, in other words, between a category's letter and its topiccategory A collects Mythological Motifs; category B, Animal Motifs; category C, Motifs of Tabu; D, Magic; E, the Dead; F, Marvels; G, Ogres; H, Tests; J, the Wise and the Foolish; K, Deceptions; L, Reversals of Fortune; M, Ordaining the Future; N, Chance and Fate; P, Society; Q, Rewards and Punishments; R, Captives and Fugitives; S, Unnatural Cruelty; T, Sex; U, the Nature of Life; V, Religion; W, Traits of Character; X, Humor; and Z, Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs. Each index category is subdivided, some much more so than others. For a detailed list of the categories and their divisions, see the beginning of volume one: "General Synopsis of the Index," 2935.

And yet, far from first appearing on the literary scene as weak, Arthur is initially an impressive heir to the warrior kings of early medieval epic. The earliest and most complete literary version of King Arthur, that of Geoffrey of Monmouth, proves to be almost indistinguishable from the likes of Beowulf 's Shield Sheafson, a king whose name defines his role as defensive armament to his people, and whose violent leadership is praised in such terms as (in Seamus Heaney's translation) "scourge of many tribes," "wrecker of mean-benches," and "terror of the hall-troops." As encapsulated by the Beowulf poet, Shield Sheafson "was one good king." Arthur, too, conquers, and with similar abandon: in the early years of his reign, the fifteen-year-old king defeats all of Britainexterminating (in Lewis Thorpe's translation) "without mercy" and with "unparalleled severity" the Saxons, Scots, Picts, and Irishbefore expanding his realm with the subjection of Iceland, Gotland, the Orkneys, Norway, Denmark, and Gaul. Moreover, this Arthur delights in close combat and general slaughter. "White hot in the fierceness of his rage," he laughs as he singlehandedly slays the monster of Mont-Saint-Michel, "driving the whole length of the blade into his head just where his brain was protected by his skull." Though not explicitly named his nation's armament, as is Shield Sheafson, Geoffrey's Arthur is nonetheless memorable both for his sword, Caliburn (the Excalibur of later tradition), and for his shield, on which "was painted a likeness of the Blessed Mary, Mother of God, which forced [Arthur] to be thinking perpetually of her." When Arthur invokes the Virgin's name as his battle cry, her apparent blessing enables "unheard of slaughter." Thus, the savage violence of Beowulf 's kingship gains in Geoffrey's History divine sanction and favor.

Interestingly, the sword and shield of Arthurin Geoffrey's History such forceful sources of the king's warrior mightare parceled out to knights in later tradition: in Chrétien de Troyes's Story of the Grail, Excalibur is wielded by Gawain rather than by Arthur, and by the end of the fourteenth century it is Gawain rather than Arthur who carries the Virgin Mary emblazoned on his shield. The literary Arthur and the objects that help define his kingship demonstrate how motifs can transform even while persisting; such character and object motifs contribute to and elaborate a changing thematic of kingship, one that moves from praise of the warrior king to general neglect, to a new emphasis on knights and their quests.

What is the point of tracking literary change in a character motif, or of conducting motif-based analysis in the first place? Motifs in and of themselves, after all, are not what literature is about; if we recall Sollor's distinction made above, they are merely the small elements that treat what literature is about. What exactly gives motif-based analysis methodological force? Even our brief consideration of the figure of King Arthur, of his transformation from inimitable warrior king to weak and inactive ruler in need of knights, allows us to raise much larger thematic questions about the nature of royal power. We can begin, for instance, to chart a literary trend away from the king as heroic conqueror toward a focus on the exploits of champion knightstoward a kind of redistribution and redefinition of power that in fact coincides with actual, historical change. Such wider thematic potential is arguably what makes motif so integral to literary criticismand so useful to readers, students, and scholars.


It is precisely the persistence through tradition of motif that made motif-based classification such a fundamental aspect of the structural criticism of the mid-twentieth century: discrete, shared units of literature were collected, alphabetized, numbered, and indexed, and relationships between literary genres and periods catalogued by type. A cursory glance at Stith Thompson's six-volume Motif-Index of Folk-Literature, in which Western literature is reduced to twenty-three motif categories organized alphabetically from A ("Mythological Motifs") to Z ("Miscellaneous Groups of Motifs"), may strike any reader as a vestige of the classification impulse that marked literary methodology of the past. And yet a quick keyword search on WorldCat will yield nearly one hundred "motif-indexes" of literature, very many of them published in the 1990s. Current trends in literary criticism and analysis, even if no longer explicitly indebted to formalist or structuralist vocabularyand even if the term motif is not usedcontinue to illuminate connections and relationships between texts in ways identifiable as motif-based. Consider Werner Sollors's discussion of recent "thematic" studies as well as the great number of "treatment of" titles published annually in the bibliography of the Modern Language Association, or the ongoing series issued by the publisher Peter Lang, titled Studies in Themes and Motifs in Literature. Although it was in 1993 that Sollors called attention to "the return of thematic criticism," motif-based analysis, inherently intertextual, interdisciplinary, and comparative, has arguably never gone out of style.

See also Structuralism and Poststructuralism .



Chrétien de Troyes. The Complete Romances of Chrétien de Troyes. Translated by David Staines. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1990.

Geoffrey of Monmouth. The History of the Kings of Britain. Translated by Lewis Thorpe. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1966.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2000.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Translated by Brian Stone. 2nd ed. Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1974.

Trioedd Ynys Prydein, the Welsh Triads. Edited by Rachel Bromwich. 2nd ed. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1978.


Atkins, Stuart. "Motif in Literature: The Faust Theme." In Dictionary of the History of Ideas: Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas, edited by Philip P. Wiener. New York: Scribners, 1973.

Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire." In Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, edited by Hannah Arendt. Translated by Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1985.

Daemmrich, Horst S., and Ingrid G. Daemmrich. Themes and Motifs in Western Literature: A Handbook. Tübingen: Francke, 1987.

Frenzel, Elisabeth. Motive der Weltliteratur. 3rd ed. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1988.

. Stoffe der Weltliteratur. 7th ed. Stuttgart: Kröner, 1988.

Johnson, David F. "The Five Horrors of Hell: An Insular Homiletic Motif." English Studies 5 (1993): 414431.

Peters, Edward. The Shadow King: Rex Inutilis in Medieval Law and Literature, 7511327. New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1970.

Steiner, George. "Roncevaux." In The Return of Thematic Criticism, edited by Werner Sollors. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Thompson, Stith. Motif-Index of Folk-Literature: A Classification of Narrative Elements in Folktales, Ballads, Myths, Fables, Mediaeval Romances, Exempla, Fabliaux, Jest-Books, and Local Legends. Rev. ed. 6 vols. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 19551958.

Vendler, Helen. The Art of Shakespeare's Sonnets. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Kristen Lee Over