The End of the Innocence? The Archetype of the Child as Redeemer


 In the aftermath of the unspeakable massacre of innocent children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut on December 14, 2012, President Obama gave an impassioned address to the nation. He said, in part

The majority of those who died today were children — beautiful little kids between the ages of 5 and 10 years old…They had their entire lives ahead of them — birthdays, graduations, weddings, kids of their own.

…So our hearts are broken today for both the families who lost loved ones as well as those whose children survived but had their innocence torn away from them too early…There are no words that will ease their pain.

Reflecting upon what seems to be an “end of the innocence,” I recalled an essay that I wrote following the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Towers in New York City. It seems ironic that, today, the very child whose innocence has been snatched away may, perhaps, redeem our troubled world.

The Archetype of the Child as Redeemer

 The archetypal image of the child appears often in dreams, myth, and fairy tales.  Of the many representations of the Self, the child can symbolize “the transcendence of life as it is now and the potential for future growth”(1).  C.G. Jung describes the archetype of the child as “the symbol of the future. He explains that “(t)he child is of the soul—the product of the coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness”(2). Coniunctio is an alchemical term meaning a union of unlike substances; a marrying of opposites. “The child manifests potential for greater wholeness by recombining attributes of both the opposing natures” (3).   The child is often depicted as the harbinger of some great spiritual change (4) and is the part of the human personality that wants to develop and become whole (5).

Though there are many aspects of the child archetype, I will explore three: the Innocent, the Magical Child, and the Orphan.  I will examine the role of the Child in two films and in one poignant image captured on video.  I suggest that the Child has the redemptive power to overcome life’s darkest moments and to facilitate the individuation process.

The archetype of the Innocent child as redeemer is depicted beautifully in the film, Schildler’s List (6).  In the story, Oskar Schindler, the protagonist, has an encounter with a child that seems to mark the beginning of his transformation from a self-centered mercenary into the savior of 1200 Jews.

The film opens in 1939, Cracow, Poland, during the Holocaust.  Nazis are persecuting the Jewish community.  Oskar Schindler, a Nazi businessman, capitalizes on the fate of Jews by hiring them as cheap labor in his factory.

At first, Schindler shows no interest in the Jews as individuals, or of their plight as a people.  His only aim is to “do something extraordinary” by becoming a wealthy factory owner.   He seems to be out of touch with humanity and insensitive to the needs of others.

Schindler ingratiates himself to the Nazi commander, Amon Goeth, and is soon manufacturing pots for the German army.  Goeth, “evil personified,” teeters on the brink of madness, killing Jews for sport.  Jung asserts that “touching evil brings with it the grave peril of succumbing to it” (7).  He goes on to say that “The wickedness of others becomes our own wickedness because it kindles something evil in our own hearts” (8).

Schindler could have been carried along by the collective madness, persecuting and exploiting Jews for the remainder of his life.  Yet, “where sin is great, grace doth much more abound”.  When inner or outer events are particularly stark, threatening or powerful, archetypal images often spontaneously appear (10). In a pivotal moment in the film, Schindler, on horseback atop a hill, impassively looks over throngs of Jews fleeing the ghetto. Suddenly, in the stark, black and white scene, his eyes become riveted to a little Jewish girl in a red coat. He begins to see the world differently. Until his encounter with the girl in the red coat, Schindler has been “above it all,” viewing the world as a mass of humanity. His vantage point—from above—is akin to his position of power over others. Deifelt suggests that “to look into the eyes of another human being is to occupy the same space and to stand as equals” (11). Jung insists that “(w)here love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there, love is lacking ” (12).

In another poignant scene in the film, Schindler looks over mass graves of Jews who have been exterminated in the concentration camp. Amidst the horrific scene, he spies the red coat—the coat upon the body of little girl. Schindler is filled with grief.  In that moment, he confronts the horror of that to which he has been blind. His eyes are opened to the atrocities of the Holocaust and his complicity in them. He sees, for the first time, not a faceless mass, but individuals with lives and families and dreams—like himself.  Deifelt describes metanoia as “conversion to otherness”(13).  Schindler’s metanoia—his moment of repentance—changes his heart and soul forever. He dedicates his life to saving the Jews and eliminating the Nazi Regime.

We each have the capacity for goodness, generosity, and love.  When we open our eyes to the plight of the Innocents, we become aware of the fragility of the human condition.  And, as we care for “the least of these,” (14) we reach a higher level of consciousness and morality.

Like Schindler, we are also called to consciously combat evil. Jung asserts that this requires a personal moral inventory wherein we examine our own shadow and acknowledge our own potential to perpetrate evil (15). Self-awareness can be a powerful moral stimulus. Zweig  says, “When we embrace our own dark side we become bearers of light.  We open to the other parts of ourselves—the strange, the weak, the sinful, the despised—and simply through including it, we transmute it.  In so doing, we move ourselves toward wholeness” (16).

In the end, Oskar Schindler did, indeed, do something extraordinary: he gave up everything to save the lives of others; he was, thereby, redeemed.  Jungsays that, “(f)rom that sacrifice we gain ourselves—our “self”—for we have only what we give” (17).

Like Schindler, we, too, may be called to forsake our earthly strivings, to sacrifice that which we held dear. In the process, we may be humbled, stripped of our former identity, and become like children, pure, to receive something much more precious:  our inner divine Child. “Whosoever shall not receive the kingdom of heaven as a little child, he shall in no wise enter therein”  (18).

The redemptive power of the Magical Child is touchingly depicted in another film about the Holocaust, Life is Beautiful. (La Vita e Bella) (19).  The film opens with a voice-over, “Life is full of wonder and happiness.”  Guido, the protagonist, is a hapless fool with a rich imagination.  Though he is an adult, Guido carries aspects of the Magical Child.  Baudelaire says that “genius is childhood recaptured”(20). Guido demonstrates his genius by solving riddles and imparting wisdom in the most inauspicious situations. He is both enchanted and enchanting to Dora, the girl he woos and marries.  Shortly thereafter, they have a son, Giosue.

When the Nazis occupy Italy five years later, Jewish Italians, including Guido and his family, are persecuted and interred in a concentration camp.  Though he is aware of their plight, Guido spares his son the horrors of the death camp by suggesting that it is all a game.

The Magical Child “has the power of imagination and the belief that everything is possible” (21).  Although Guido is killed in the end, there is a sense of joy and wonder when Giosue is rescued by the Allied troops. He believes that he has won the game as he is hoisted onto an American tank.   By carrying the message of hope and inspiration to his son through fantasy and imagination, Guido frees Giosue from the nightmare of the Holocaust experience.  Such is the archetype of the heroic Magical Child who “liberates the world from monsters “(22).

The Magical Child teaches us that, no matter what evil befalls us, we can respond in productive and uplifting ways.  Viktor Frankl, recounting his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp, learned that he could not be responsible for where he was or what was happening around him.  But he could be responsible for his response to those events. “The last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (23).  Anne Frank’s diary of her Holocaust experiences has inspired people of all ages.  A Magical Child, she, despite dire circumstances, finds sacredness and beauty in all things, and trusts that humanity is basically good. Rumi, the Sufi poet, says that we should “sell our cleverness and purchase bewilderment.” When we awaken the Magical Child within, we can believe that  life is beautiful! 

The tragedy of September 11 2001 brought unspeakable horror to our shores.  And, once again, the archetype of the Child brings a beacon of hope and light to a dark moment captured on video. Doyle reports:

“A couple leaped from the South Tower, hand in hand. They reached for  each other and their hands met and they jumped.  It is the most powerful prayer I can imagine, the most eloquent, the most graceful.  It is everything that we are capable of against horror and loss and tragedy.  It is what makes me believe that we are not fools to believe in God, to believe that human beings have greatness and holiness within them like seeds that open only under great fire, to believe that who we are persists past what we were, to believe against evil evidences hourly that love is why we are here.  The gesture, this holding of hands in the midst of horror, it embodies what Sept 11 was all about.  The image is an affirmation of a greatness within our humanity itself that somehow shines in the midst of  that darkness and contains the hint of a possibility, a power greater than death itself” (24)

In this image, the couple seems to represent the archetype of the Orphan.  The Orphan aspect of the Child “wisely and courageously faces difficult circumstances “ (25).   Like Hansel and Gretel, the couple meet their fate and leap, hand in hand, into the great unknown.  This gesture characterizes the redemptive power of the archetype of the Orphan. Abandoned and neglected, the Orphan must summon inner strength rather than rely on collective influences to approach the unknown. In the journey to wholeness, we, like the Orphan, must often veer off the collective path and leap into the depths of the soul.  There, we encounter a power wiser than our own—call it God or the Self—which will cary us safely to higher consciousness.

The Innocent, the Magical Child, and the Orphan are each aspects of the Divine Child, a symbol of the Self.  The atrocities of the Holocaust, the terror of September 11, and the recent slaughter of young children in Connecticut, and elsewhere are some of the darkest monents in recent history.  Yet the Divine Child is born within the darkness.  Frankl reminds us that, “(w)hat is to give light must endure burning”(26).  Marie-Louise von Franz in her work, Alchemy adds:

Within the catastrophe, in the midst of depression and confusion, the new symbol of the Self (is) born (27)… When the divine child is born, there is always an outburst of the destructive powers.  The divine child naturally always escapes; it is a past outbreak of darkness against something already so powerful that, though newly born, it cannot be suppressed anymore.  It is the light born in darkness (28).

Jung  concludes that “(t)he soul has a desire for light and an irrepressible urge to rise out of primal darkness; the moment in which the life becomes is God bringing redemption and release” (29). Though we may be adults, we must hold fast to the redemptive power of the Child within.  For “such is the kingdom of heaven” (30).


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(1)       Whitmont, (1969).  The symbolic quest: basic concepts of analytical psychology.

(2)       Jung, (1969a)., The collected   works of C.G. Jung (Vol 11).  Princeton, NJ:            Princeton University Press.  p. 169.

(3)       Samuels, et al. A Critical Dictionary of Jungian Analysis, p. 35

(4)       Cirlot, (1982). A dictionary of symbols (2nd ed.).

(5)       Jung, C.G. (1970a). The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 17).  Princeton, NJ:     Princeton University Press.  p 186

(6)       Spielberg, S.  et al. (1993) Schindler’s List.

(7)       Jung, C. G. (1968). The collected works of  C.G. Jung, (Vol. 9, Part 2).  Princeton,             NJ: Princeton University Press. p. 212.

(8)       Jung, C.G. (1970b). The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10).  Princeton, NJ:     Princeton University Press.  p. 196).

(9)       Ibid. , p. 216.

(10)     The symbolic quest: basic concepts of analytical psycholog..

(11)     Deifelt, (1990). Together on the way.

(12)     Jung, C.G. (1966b). The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol.16). Princeton, NJ:       Princeton University Press.  p. 178.

(13)     Together on the Way.

(14)     Matthew 25:40, Bible, King James Version.

(15)     The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10).  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

(16)     Zweig, et al. (1991). Meeting the shadow p. 273.

(17)     The collected works of C.G. Jung (Vol. 10).  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.   p. 398.

(18)     Matthew 18:3, Bible, King James Version.

(19)     Benigni, R. et al. (1997). Life is beautiful.

(20)     In Myss, C.M. (2001). Sacred contracts:Awakening your divine potential, p. 373.

(21)      Ibid., p. 373.

(22)     Cirlot, p. 45.

(23)     Frankl, V.E. (1984). Man’s search for meaning, p.9.

(24)     Doyle, B. (2002) The leap.

(25)      Sacred contracts:Awakening your divine potential p. 373.

(26)     Man’s search for meaning p. 86.

(27)     von Franz, M.L. (1980) Alchemy: An introduction to the symbolism and the            psychology, p. 225.

(28)     Ibid, p. 227.

(29)     Jung, C. G. (1963). Memories, dreams, reflections, p. 299.

(30)     Matthew 19:14, Bible, King James Version.