Archetypes in MYST: Catherine and Atrus

archetype, n. [Fr. Greek "archaios", ancient, original, and "typos", model, shape, form, mold, or stamp.] An abstract symbol or idea, usually a character, whose elements match a pattern commonly found in literature, myth, and dreams. I am drawn to the figure of Katran/Catherine as a kindred spirit. She stands out as a figure to respect, revere, and protect, according to the mythical "knightly" code of behavior which is familiar to us from Arthurian legends and pseudo-medieval fantasy. In these tales, the hero takes a lady or queen as inspiration for all his deeds. In RIVEN, Catherine fits the closely related role of damsel in distress, but now this archetype is re-inscribed as a powerfully self-contained individual who creates her own castles, her own garden, and serves as spirit-guide, inspiration and lure to those who encounter her. The princess archetype often holds up a focussing mirror to those for whom she is a foil, so Catherine inspires Atrus' writing, stokes Gehn's dreams for empire-building and heir-making, and fulfills the Moiety's expectations of a Messiah in spite of her distaste for being placed in that role. Not to mention the fact that she gives us a chance to play the part of a hero! As so often in portrayals of the female, she eschews rational construction in favor of intuitive creation. The two Ages of hers which we have seen share certain characteristics: organic, unexpected shapes, animal life, smoke, mist, shadow and darkness. All these things, for good or ill, have often been assigned to the feminine. My first impression of Edanna was that it must be one of Catherine's, although later I decided all the Ages in EXILE still show the hand of Atrus, the thinker; but in them I can see her influence too.

    Her name's dichotomy may be accidental: the first MYST game appeared before the full story was worked out. I'm not certain that the Millers had considered the English name "Catherine" in the context of what turned out to be a very alien culture. They explained this by asserting that Atrus, raised on Earth, could not pronounce "Katran", and the name stuck. This is unlikely; he can pronounce "Anna" and "devokan" and many words with the same vowel-sounds as "Katran". But it solves the paradox of an English name for a non-English person.

    In doing so, it creates an interesting layer of symbolism. She is on the one hand the mysterious and incomprehensible "Katran" whose Ages defy reason, a goddess-like figure who can bewilder and bewitch, defined by her "otherness". She is also the familiar, loving partner "Catherine", named by the man by whom she chooses to be reined in, defined, and limited. (Her Age-making seems to disappear once she's married, one of the few parts of the story that troubles me). Now she is wife, mother, and friend: comprehensible, no stranger than the woman whose face one sees on the next pillow over first thing in the morning. However, probably inadvertantly, Atrus gives her an English name which has echoes of her primal, virginal "Katran" state. For "Catherine" comes from Greek "Katharos", the adjective for pure, undefiled, clear, and free.

     I loved the fact that in MYST, I felt like I might be this mysterious, ever-present but never-seen Catherine, reading messages left for her by husband. Later it became that clear that Catherine was a missing factor. At the end of MYST the thing that moved me most profoundly was not that which was contained within the story-- the thread of sons against father, and the burden of a father's punishment-- but what was left out. Where was Catherine? That question hammered at me for years, and I was relieved when it was finally answered. However, her absence in the second game contributed powerfully to its pull as the story progressed. Who was she? Where was she? She is the mystery of both MYST and RIVEN.

    Juxtapoised perfectly against her right-brained persona is the analytical and kindly Atrus, an updated knight-figure for our own day. He fights dragons with the pen, not the sword. Compassion, patience, curiosity, humility, objectivity, stoicism, and precision are his seven virtues. Notice how easily I fall into the pattern of definition and category the moment I speak of him! The scientist as knight is an interestingly new premise. Partly as a side effect of the gaming environment, he is guide and delegator rather than a doer, whose agent you must become. But he is guide in a very different sense from Katran, who inspired Atrus in The Book of Atrus at a gut level, who acted as Messiah for the Moiety, and whose journal roused my emotions and engaged me more fully in RIVEN. Atrus, like his Ages, leaves clues, puzzles, miscellaneous notes and parcels of information for you to discover and stitch together so that you can arrive at an understanding of the Whole. He gives you a set task, a mission, parameters, limits to provide boundaries on what otherwise could be endless exploration of infinite worlds. He tries to offer reason and system and structure to both the D'ni and Terahnee following the collapse of their former civilizations. He writes an Age for the D'ni which he hopes will give them a framework, a foundation, upon which to create and make their world. Love and wonder and a need to do what's right are integrated fully into his methodical character, unlike his father and sons. This is obvious, but consider the experimentation of Gehn to see what happens when these traits are lacking.

    We would find Atrus' tendency to send others to do his work irritating if we did not see that he assumes the mythical role of old guide and teacher, like Gandalf to Frodo. His job is not to fulfill the mission himself, but to provide the player with the minimal training and guidance needed to become a hero-- minimal, because that way, the player feels more sense of self-achievement than if he were simply completing a grocery list of instructions. Of course, there is really only one time when Atrus recruits the player for a task; the rest of the time we stumble into these adventures accidentally. Those who complain that Atrus uses the player to do his dirty work-- an artifact of the game-playing environment-- have missed the point.

    In the games and novels, Atrus stands as an exemplar of what it means to be a "good man", demonstrating three basic characteristics which ennoble him: love for his family and compassion for others, wonder and humility at the Ages he links to, and the desire to serve justice. These are the commendable virtues of a modern-day hero, but conveyed through the subtle use of understatement: his writings are not self-aggrandizing, his manner is quiet, and he takes backstage to the player. It seems to me that those who have dismissed the character of Atrus in favor of more assertive characters like Gehn do not see the Whole: who Atrus is, what he stands for, and why he does as he does.