Doppelgängers and Shadows: Exploring the Power of the Inverted Foil in Narrative Design

  • 23 December 2021
  • Nick Jones

Let's talk about two folkloric concepts that have become integrated into the literature of today and how they can be used to strengthen story in unique and original ways. These are the Shadow and the Doppelgänger.

The Shadow, as we know it, has been popularized as a literary archetype by the famed psychiatrist Carl Jung, who spent a good amount of time exploring it as a psychological archetype. In Psychology and Religion he writes of the shadow as the suppressed, animalistic nature of mankind. He states that “Everyone carries a shadow and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is… …if it is repressed and isolated from consciousness, it never gets corrected. It is, moreover, liable to burst forth in a moment of unawareness. At all events, it forms an unconscious snag, blocking the most well-meant attempts. We carry our past with us, to wit, the primitive and inferior man with his desires and emotions, and it is only by a considerable effort that we can detach ourselves from this burden. If it comes to a neurosis, we have invariably to deal with a considerably intensified shadow. And if such a case wants to be cured it is necessary to find a way in which man’s conscious personality and his shadow can live together.”  [1]

Jung is perhaps most famous for his concept of the collective unconsciousness and the human archetypes that exist there - of which, the shadow is but one. He found that these archetypes existed through various cultures in the form of fairy tales, myths and legends – in other words, folklore.[2] However, it was the concept of the Shadow that was most readily picked up on by writers of literature, such as Bram Stoker, Henry James, and Robert Louis Stevenson. In literature, the Shadow took on the definition of being a “darker part…” of the character’s “…humanity that must be faced and dealt with”. We still see the use of the Shadow in this way in literature today. The wildly successful USA Network series Mr Robot (which just finished up its final season in 2019), for example, revolved heavily around this inner battle between the protagonist Elliot and his shadow – the aforementioned Mr Robot.

While the Shadow as a literary theory is a fairly new concept – Jung having written about it in the 20th Century - we can see traces of the Shadow, as he suggested, in folklore.

“In the Middle Ages a certain Gonzalo of Berceo rewrote the legend of Theophilus, the archetype of Doctor Faustus, and took the trouble to specify that, once the pact is signed with the devil, Theophilus loses his healthy color and even his shadow, though thanks to the intercession of the Virgin Mary, his shadow is returned to him. This refers to the merging of the shadow and the soul, which is the origin of the notion that the dead, sorcerers and witches do not have a shadow at all.” [3]

In fact, there has seemingly always been this tradition, this idea that the shadow is somehow the visible form of the soul or the hidden aspect of man. “It is not simply the silhouette projected when the body intercepts rays of light, but another self who has all the physical and psychic qualities of the self, enjoys all the same pre-rogatives, and at the death of its possessor goes away into the other world so aptly named the Kingdom of Shadows.” [4]

While Jung and modern literature suggests that the shadow is representative for the darker parts of mankind, in the lore, it's not as simple. The shadow is a manifestation of a person’s double, just like the fylgja and hamr in Germanic traditions. In particular, the Shadow is thought to straddle the line between the world of the living and the world of the dead and is therefore an omen of ill fate in particular circumstances.

“Quite generally known in all of Germany, Austria and Yugoslavia is a test made on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve: whoever casts no shadow on the wall of the room by lamplight, or whose shadow is headless, must die inside of a year. There is a similar belief among the Jews that whoever walks by moonlight in the seventh night of Whitsuntide, and whose shadow is headless, will die the same year. There is a saying in the German provinces that stepping upon one’s own shadow is a sign of death. Contrasting with the belief that whoever casts no shadow must die is a German belief that whoever sees his shadow as a duple during the epiphany must die.” [5]

And this last belief, that of one’s shadow being represented as a “duple” brings us to our second archetype in this article: The doppelgänger, which translates to “double goer” in German. The term doppelgänger is a relatively new one, coined by the German Romantic author Jean Paul in the 1800s. However, the concept itself, comes back, of course to  a set of very old pagan traditions. The doppelgänger, called a fetch in Irish folklore or sometimes a changeling, was thought to be a perfect physical look-alike of a person, usually seen as an ill omen, bad luck, or in some cases an evil twin. This enduring tradition, like the Shadow, made its way into literature through texts like: Titan (Jean Paul), The Double (Fyodor Dostoevsky), The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson) and William Wilson (Edgar Allen Poe). In most of these examples, the doppelgänger is a villainous counterpart to the hero, however a doppelgänger does not always need to be represented in this way.

The doppelgänger is also present in the archetype of the foil found throughout literature. The foil is thought by some to be named after Shakespeare’s penchant to use the crossing of swords in his plays to create excitement. Alternatively, it could derive from the practice in jewelry of using foil as a backdrop to precious gems so that they shines more brightly. Whichever the case, the foil in the context of our study is a kind of doppelgänger. It describes a physical counterpart character to the protagonist – the foil can be their equal, their match or their opponent. The foil as a character exists in contrast to the protagonist. They are a means of highlighting the qualities of the character. Often in fiction, the foil is expressed as the converse, that is, the polar opposite of the character, however I would argue that this is the weakest way to express the archetype. A far more interesting representation is in what is called the inverted foil. Rather than representing the opposite of a protagonist, the inverted foil reveals the hero’s shadow to them as a corruption of their own soul. The inverted foil causes the protagonist to look inside themselves and forces them to confront what they see.

An example of this play between the inverted foil and the shadow is expertly put on display in the classic film Casablanca (1942).

In Casablanca, the protagonist, Rick (portrayed by Humphrey Bogart) is a morally destitute café owner in Morocco during world war 2. Once a brave freedom fighter, Rick has suppressed his better self after being deeply wounded by Illsa Lund, the woman he once loved. Now, Rick only cares about himself. He’s selfish and hardened, unwilling to stick his neck out for anyone. This is his new status quo. Then one night, who should walk into his café, but his ex-lover and her husband Victor Laszlo, a Czech resistance leader (and Rick’s inverted foil). Illsa and Victor are looking for Rick’s help in procuring letters of transit out of the neutral zone of Casablanca to America, where Victor can continue his fight against the Nazis. Rick is placed in a conundrum. He has the power to seduce Illsa, who, as it turns out, still loves him. But doing so will destroy Victor and have a serious effect on the war. In this set up, Victor is not the villain, and neither is Rick. They are simply inversions of each other. The true villain of Casablanca is not even the Nazi general trying to capture Victor. The true villain is Rick’s shadow – that desire within him to seduce Illsa for himself. If Rick indulges his shadow, he’ll get what he wants. Illsa will come back to him, and they’ll live happily ever after. Rick will be okay if he does this, as he thrives in chaos. However, his exposure to her exposes him to the plight of her husband, and in the end, he knows, that if he does seduce her, he will lose his soul. He will fall to his shadow - his shadow, which would rather let the Nazi’s rule the earth if it meant he could be with Illsa again. Without her, Victor simply will not make it. She is his muse, his inspiration, his reason to keep fighting. With her gone, he will be crushed. In the end, Rick decides to sacrifice himself by helping both Illsa and Victor escape, thus defeating his shadow. He sacrifices his love, his happiness and his desires because he recognizes that he has to be better than what he has been. He helps the two get on a plane, risking his own life in the process. This is a far more interesting story than it would be if he were fighting Victor for Illsa’s affections, or bombastically fighting the Nazi’s themselves!

We can see this same sort of set up in Santa Monica Studio’s 2018 Masterpiece God of War – particularly if we consider it in the context of the previous iteration of the series.

In God of War, we follow Kratos, an aging spartan warrior who, seeking to escape the demons of his past has fled Greece and relocated to Scandinavia, where he marries and has a young son named Atreus. In this soft reboot of the original series, Kratos’ shadow is really, the violent, angry, hateful memory of who he was in his past. A persona which threatens to return after his wife passes away. In this story, Kratos’ inverted foil is his son, Atreus. Whereas Kratos is jaded and bitter, his son is bright-eyed and adoring. Atreus wants nothing more than to be like his Dad. In this story, Kratos’ shadow not only threatens to consume him, but his son as well. To save his Atreus from this fate, Kratos must do what he fears the most – make himself vulnerable to Atreus and let him in, like he once did for the boys’ mother. Like Rick from Casablanca, Kratos will be mostly fine if he remains stoic and staunch – he can take on whatever comes at him, but also like Rick, giving in to this, giving in to his shadow, will mean not only the ruin of his inverted foil, but the destruction of his own soul. At first, Kratos tries to hide the truth of his past and their shared godhood from Atreus, but as events grow darker and things worsen, Atreus descends rapidly down a similar path to his dad. All this builds over the course of the game until we reach a tear-jerking moment of catharsis between father and son.

After saving the goddess Freya from being strangled by her own child, Baldur, Kratos sees finally the end destination of their journey if he allows his shadow to win:

“You are just an animal!” snaps Freya, leaning over the cooling body of her son. “Passing on your cruelty and rage. You will never change!” she cries, tears running down her cheeks.

Kratos listens somberly, before responding:

“Then you do not know me.” He says.

Venom in her eyes, Freya retorts: “I know enough,” then, glancing over at the shaken face of Atreus, she asks: “Does he?”

Kratos pauses, the time has come. He’s a at a crossroads. He can continue along the same path of violence or take the plunge. He can let his child, his last link to his beloved wife, truly know him.

“Boy.” He addresses Atreus, “Listen close. I am from a land called Sparta.”

We see Atreus behind Kratos’ back, already shaken by the fight, becoming increasingly unsure as his father steers them towards unfamiliar territory.

“I made a deal with a god that cost me my soul.” Kratos continues.

“I killed many that were deserving…” he almost winces, “…and many that were not.”

The battle-scarred warrior takes a deep breath before revealing:

“I killed my father.”

Stunned, Atreus stutters: “That was your father in Hel!” and then… “Is this what it is to be a god? Is this how it always ends? Sons killing their mothers,” he motions at Baldur’s body, now in Freya’s arms, “…their fathers?”

His voice is strong, Kratos has taught him not to express his emotions, but in his face, we can see it – a desperation, a pleading to be told that this is wrong, that the dark heritage of gods will not prevail with them.

Kratos turns and kneels before his son, looking him in the eyes.

“No.” he tells Atreus, placing his hands around the child’s solemn face.

“We will be the gods we choose to be. Not those who have been.”

He puts his arms around his son, gripping the boys’ shoulders tight.

“Who I was is not who you will be… We must be better.

It’s in this moment that Kratos sacrifices a version of himself. He kills his shadow. The safe haven he spent years hiding within. Vulnerability, which he once viewed as a weakness, he now realizes is strength. He sees for perhaps the first time in his life, that intimacy is the way forward for him and his son. He lets Atreus in, breaking for the first time, the cycle of violence that has ruled their family in every previous entry of the series.

Kratos now sees the inversion of himself in his boy. An inversion that has forced him into a confrontation with the true villain of the franchise – the darkness in his own heart.


[1] Psychology and Religion, Carl Jung, p.93

[2] The Influence of Carl Jung’s Archetype of the Sahdow on Early 20th Century Literature, Dana Brook Thurmond

[3] Witches, Werewolves and fairies: Shapeshifters and astral doubles in the middle ages

[4] Ibid

[5] The Double, Otto Rank p. 50 (translation of Der Doppelgänger by Harry Tucker Jr.)

Share this post