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.

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

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)