There Are Only Four Stories: The Siege of the City, the Return Home, the Quest, and the Sacrifice of a God

Jorge Luis Borges? Paulo Coelho? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The famous Argentinian short-story writer Jorge Luis Borges apparently believed that there were only four archetypal tales. Would you please explore this topic and identify the four tales?

Quote Investigator: In 1972 Jorge Luis Borges published a collection titled “El Oro de los Tigres” (“The Gold of the Tigers”). Most of the pieces were poems, but one piece was an essay titled “Los Cuatro Ciclos” (“The Four Cycles”) which described four fundamental stories that have been told and retold throughout the history of humankind. The following excerpts in Spanish are followed by English translations. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Una, la más antigua, es la de una fuerte ciudad que cercan y defienden hombres valientes. Los defensores saben que la ciudad será entregada al hierro y al fuego y que su batalla es inútil . . .

One, the oldest, is that of a strong city surrounded and defended by brave men. The defenders know that the city will be handed over to iron and fire and that their battle is futile . . .

Borges used the siege of Troy to illustrate this story type.

Otra, que se vincula a la primera, es la de un regreso.
Another, which is linked to the first, is that of a return.

Borges used the return of Odysseus to Ithaca as an example.

La tercera historia es la de una busca.
The third story is that of a search.

Borges used Jason and the Argonauts search for the Golden Fleece as an example of a successful quest, and he used Captain Ahab’s search for Moby Dick as an example of a calamitous quest.

La última historia es la del sacrificio de un dios.
The last story is that of the sacrifice of a god.

Borges used the mutilation and death of Attis as an example. He also used the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

The QI website has a separate article about the following related saying: There are only two plots: (1) A person goes on a journey (2) A stranger comes to town.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1988 Jaime Alazraki published “Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry” which included the following summary of Borges ‘s viewpoint: 2

In the brief prose “The Four Cycles” he reviews four stories: one about a city sieged and defended by brave men (the Troy of the Homeric poems); another, the story of a return (Ulysses comes back to Ithaca); the third, a variation of the last, is about a search (Jason and the Golden Fleece, the thirty birds and the Simurg, Ahab and the whale, the heroes of James and Kafka); and the last one about a sacrifice of a god (Attis, Odin, Christ). Borges then concludes: “Four are the stories. During the time left to us we will continue telling them, transformed.”

In 2005 by Victor Pelevin wrote “The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur” which included the following commentary: 3

A long time ago Jorge Luis Borges wrote that there are only four stories that are told and re-told: the siege of the city, the return home, the quest, and the (self-) sacrifice of God. It is notable that the same story could he placed into different categories by different viewers: what is a quest/return home for Theseus is a brutal God’s sacrifice for Minotaur.

When Pelevin’s book was reviewed in “The Times” of London the remark about Borges was reiterated: 4

He quotes Borges again, saying that there are only four recurring myths — the siege of the city, the return home, the quest, and the (self)-sacrifice of God. Then he embodies all these ideas in a new form of his own; witty, anarchic, mazy and profound.

In 2008 author Paulo Coelho wrote a piece for his website that presented different descriptions for the four tales: 5

Jorge Luis Borges once said that there are only four stories to be told:

A] a love story involving two people
B] a love story involving three people
C] the struggle for power
D] a journey.

Even so, throughout the centuries men and women have continued to retell these stories, and it’s time you did the same.

In 2011 the journal “Variaciones Borges” from the Borges Center of the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania published an article by Daniel Balderston that referred to the four story types: 6

. . . the 1972 brief prose piece “Los cuatro ciclos,” which claims that there are four fundamental stories: the siege of Troy, the travels of Odysseus, the search for the Golden Fleece, and the sacrifice of a god (whether Attis or Odin or Christ).

In 2017 “Borges and Kafka: Sons and Writers” by Sarah Roger referred to “Los Cuatro Ciclos” (“The Four Cycles”) and said the following: 7

Borges identifies four main plots in literature: a valiant fight, a journey, a quest, and a sacrifice. Borges says Kafka’s stories are exemplary of the third type of story—the quest—and he says that Kafka’s quests never end happily.

In conclusion, Jorge Luis Borges did discuss four basic story types in the 1972 essay “Los Cuatro Ciclos” (“The Four Cycles”). The story types encompassed a wide variety of narratives.

Image Notes: This image was derived from an image created by Mysticsartdesign at Pixabay. The picture has been cropped, modified, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to Sandro Santos whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Santos pointed to the post by Paulo Coelho and wished to know more.)

Update History: On September 13, 2021 the translated excerpts from the 1972 citation were added.

Notes:

  1. 1972, El Oro De Los Tigres by Jorge Luis Borges, Essay: Los Cuatro Ciclos, Start Page 127, End Page 130, Emecé, Buenos Aires, Argentina. (Verified with scans)
  2. 2009 (1988 Copyright), Borges and the Kabbalah: And Other Essays on His Fiction and Poetry by Jaime Alazraki, Chapter 13: Epilogue: On Borge’s Death, Start Page 176, Quote Page 184, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 2007 (2005 Copyright), The Helmet of Horror: The Myth of Theseus and the Minotaur by Victor Pelevin, Translated from the Russian by Andrew Broomfield, Section: Mythcellaneous, Quote Page ix, Vintage Canada: A Division of Random House Canada Limited, Toronto. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 2006 February 18, The Times, Inside a virtual maze of meanings by A. S. Byatt (Book review of “The Helmet of Horror” by Victor Pelevin with Translation by Andrew Bromfield), Quote Page 15, Column 1 and 2, London, England. (The Times Digital Archive of Gale Cengage)
  5. Website: Paulo Coelho Writer Official Site, Article title: The act of writing – the text (the end), Article author: Paulo Coelho, Date on website: April 30, 2008, Website description: Official blog of prominent author Paulo Coelho. (Accessed paulocoelhoblog.com on February 10, 2020; also excerpt does match text in Wayback Machine snapshot dated December 14, 2009) link
  6. 2011, Variaciones Borges, Number 32, The Rag-and-Bone Shop: On Borges, Yeats and Ireland by Daniel Balderston Start Page 41, Quote Page 45 and 46, Published by Borges Center, University of Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (JSTOR) link
  7. 2017, Borges and Kafka: Sons and Writers by Sarah Roger, Annotated Bibliography: Works by Borges the Mention Kafka, Quote Page 141, Oxford University Press, Oxford, England. (Google Books Preview)