By Dori Koehler
If it’s true that myths and archetypes are alive and well and, as Barbra Streisand once said in The Mirror Has Two Faces,“living in my apartment,” then it’s also true that the material that constellates them is found in our stories, most notably the stories that hook the soul of a culture and become wildly influential as mytho-cultural icons. These mythic icons are present in the stories of popular culture. A popular story reaches into the collective soul, creating a shared narrative experience and allowing poignant symbols to rise.
With that in mind, let’s talk about Diana Gabaldon’s series, Outlander. I’ve been obsessed with the alchemical power of this story for several years. I’ve written several blogs about it. I’ve discussed the resonance of the myths of Eleusis, Jung’s concept of the sacred marriage, and the significance of this series as an erotic epic. This time, I want to discuss the resonance of the myth of Psyche and Eros alive in this story. What we see in Outlander is not a narrative retelling of the myth, but a living mosaic of the motifs related to it. And when myths are constellated, humans engage.
Let’s start with a pretty significant question: Why is this series culturally relevant? It’s significant because stories are portals through which we actualize our lives. The more I study this particular one, the more I’m convinced it’s relevant because it occupies the mythic space of epic, a tradition central to human history with psychological heft that is currently (let’s just say) not appreciated as it should be, even though it’s everywhere in contemporary popular culture. Film franchises, book series, video games, television series—all of these currently fulfil our need for epic.
This particular epic focuses on two central relationships: Jamie and Claire Fraser—the sacred marriage from whom all other aspects of the story flow, and Brianna and Roger MacKenzie—the daughter and son-in-law of Jamie and Claire whose connection is equally deep if more easily shaken, at least early on. It features kaleidoscopic presence of archetypal characters that rise to be viewed like messages from a Magic 8 Ball. But unlike epics of the past, these heroes are in service to love and the beauty of a connection as it grows and develops over the course of a lifetime. It follows the tradition of epic as narrative healer through a powerful dose of erotic narrative.
A Short Aside on Psyche and Eros
The myth of Psyche and Eros can be found in The Golden Ass, a 2nd century novel by a writer named Apuleius—the only novel written in Latin to have survived in its entirety. It’s the story of a character named Lucius who, in desiring to become a shape shifter, turns himself into a donkey before going on a journey to connect with Isis, a goddess ruling over love, beauty, sexuality, and magic. This story comes about one-third of the way through the novel, a tale within a tale, reminding us how important storytelling is to psychological transformation and wholeness. It tells of a young human woman, Psyche, who is cursed by Aphrodite to be sacrificed because humans have begun to worship her beauty. Aphrodite sends her son Eros to sacrifice Psyche to a monster. But Eros falls in love with her at first sight. Instead, he takes her home and marries her in secret—the only proviso being that she cannot see him. Psyche is convinced by her sisters that she must see him—that she must know what she is wed to.
Armed with a knife and lamp (alchemical symbols of knowledge,) she goes to find Eros. When she comes across him, she sees the most beautiful man she has ever seen. As she admires him, she leans forward to gaze on him and a drop of oil falls out of the lamp. The burn wakes him and he flies away. Injured and betrayed, Eros flies home to his mother, who sends a now pregnant Psyche out on a quest to fulfill four labors, which, once completed allow her to reunite with Eros. She completes these labors and returns to Eros. Happy times. The end.
This myth, which explores the relationship between Love and Soul, or, etymologically speaking, the connection between the cosmic force that creates desire and the cosmic essence that creates breath, is one of the most commonly analyzed myths in the discipline known as archetypal psychology. Psychologist James Hillman[i] suggests that the work of engaging with creativity is the work of falling in love with (and healing) the soul. When a story is alive with archetypal energy, it becomes a narrative cauldron that nurtures an alchemical process. This process is by nature erotic. It is driven by impulse to create life. This happens in Outlander. Roger is captivated by Brianna. But, he is also initially captivated by his overwhelming experience of passion. She becomes Eros for him. And if she is Eros, then he becomes Psyche. He creates a projection, that is, he tells himself a story of what he thinks is—he creates a life for them—and kind of by accident, he doesn’t include her in the creation of the story.
These kinds of projections are dangerous. They keep us fascinated within the confines of the story we’ve told ourselves. They stunt our psychological growth. As part of her narrative style, Diana Gabaldon uses what she refers to “the rule of three,” that is, tapping an archetypal narrative and layering it multiple times.[ii] As her characters travel through the structure of the narrative, they relive that mythic dynamic, with each subsequent experience becoming more intense than the one before. Roger and Brianna’s story follows this narrative path. Until he is able to see through the projection he has created, (that is, until he does the labors of Psyche), their relationship remains stunted in a conflict of his own making. This pattern is present in three central motifs of the myth:
- the erotic gaze,
- the burn of betrayal
- the separation that triggers Psyche to complete Aphrodite’s labors.
Captivated by Eros
The myth is activated the moment Roger sees Brianna for the first time, in episode 213, “Dragonfly in Amber.” He’s grieving the loss of the only father he’s ever known, a liminal state that makes him particularly vulnerable to projection.
When Brianna flies home to Boston, he’s brokenhearted. In season 3, he becomes convinced (like a self-professed “dog with a bone”) that if he helps Claire find her lost love Jamie, Brianna will love him back. He keeps trying to return to her, but it just doesn’t work in the way he expects; Brianna doesn’t respond with the certainty he expects.
“I love you a little, a lot, passionately, not at all….”[iii]
A second encounter with the myth occurs in episode 403, “The False Bride,” when Roger flies to Boston to attend a Scottish festival. They banter playfully as they drive to North Carolina. He sings to her, a talent be previously kept hidden. She invites him into her room.
He’s convinced they are living the same story as he offers Brianna a question—“Will you marry me?” She says no. She’s not ready. She has reservations that have nothing to do with him. But he doesn’t understand her. He flies off the handle, quipping “if you don’t care enough to marry me, then I don’t care enough to have you in my bed….” Ultimately, Brianna comes to the ritual calling of the clans to make amends. But thir relationship has sustained an erotic burn that won’t be easily healed, and after a thwarted attempt to communicate, she disappears.
“You have Danu. I have Eros.”[iv]
A third encounter with this myth is present in episode 408, “Wilmington,” when Roger and Brianna are reunited in 18thcentury North Carolina. They gaze at each other. She tells him she loves him and that she wants to marry him.
They marry in secret, have a deeply intimate encounter, and fight again almost immediately. This occurs when Roger reveals that he withheld important information about her mother. At this point, they separate and begin their long, traumatic journey back to each other.
The Story of the Idiot Hut, or How Roger Finally Sees Through His Projection
Ultimately, it isn’t until after months of living in the realness of the Mohawk prison that Roger refers to as the “idiot hut” that he finally comes to realize how much of what has happened Is his own fault. And for a minute, he thinks he doesn’t want it. He runs away. But as he does, as he hears the cries of his friend, a priest he has befriended in the idiot hut. He tells himself, “There’s nothing you can do. Don’t be an idiot. Be smart. For once in your stupid idiotic life, be smart….” But he returns to end the suffering of his friend. He learns that true connection will bring pain as often as it brings joy. But he knows what he wants. He realizes that he no longer wants to fight the inevitable messiness of true connection. He submits to it, even if it means returning to the idiot hut. When he is rescued by Jamie and Claire and confronted with the facts of what has happened—Brianna’s rape, her pregnancy, and having to stay in the 18th century—he is forced to reflect more deeply than he has at any other time in his life. He chooses his desire to create a life with Brianna. He chooses Eros. He returns with the hard-won knowledge of who he really is, what he desires, and how he wants to love, and although Brianna’s story has gone another way, taken an equally painful turn, she makes the same choice.
All’s Well that Ends Well? Nope.
It only gets messier and more painful from here on in for our poor Roger. So again, why is this relevant? It’s relevant because learning how to connect—with our own desires, with the messy process of falling in love with our own souls, and with the labor of intimacy never goes out of style. And guess what: the lesson that comes from Roger and the tale of the idiot hut is that it’s not going to be what you think it’s going to be. It won’t be the story you’ve told yourself. And it’s not going to end where you think it’s going to end. But, as Brené Brown tells us in her recent Netflix special, life’s worth it only if we get into the arena and start allowing love to knock us down. That is the resonance of the myth of Psyche and Eros in Outlander. Roger Mac’s love for Brianna teaches us that true intimacy requires a willingness to engage the labors of Psyche—it requires that we learn to make peace with our time in the idiot hut.
Dori Koehler, Ph.D. is a cultural mythologist and scholar of American popular culture. She is a professor of Humanities and Popular Culture at Southern New Hampshire University. Her book The Mouse and the Myth: Sacred Art and Secular Ritualis available on Amazon. Her latest article on Walt Disney as a manifestation of the trickster archetype is published in a collection of essays titled Discussing Disney. She lives in Santa Barbara with her husband Bruce and their cocker spaniel Sorcha.
[i] The Myth of Analysis.
[ii] Gabaldon uses this term in her book The Outlandish Companion Volume 1 to refer specifically to Jamie’s narrative journey in book one of the series, but whether it is conscious or not, it’s a pattern that is present across the series.
[iii] This saying is inscribed on the bracelet Roger gives Brianna as a gift. It reflects the dynamic cycle of their relationship.
[iv] This is a quote from Roger, episode 409. He makes this remark to the villainous character Stephen Bonnet in reference to his devotion to Brianna.