The Lighthouse: the myths and archetypes behind the movie explained

Director Robert Eggers tells us some of the classical and literary inspirations behind The Lighthouse - we try to unpick their meaning...

Robert Pattinson and Willem Dafoe in The Lighthouse

This article contains spoilers for The Lighthouse, you can read our spoiler free review instead.

The Lighthouse is a salty tale of two men driving each other mad in a lighthouse on an island in New England at the end of the 19th Century, but it’s also a film dense with literary and historical references. Director Robert Eggers has said some of the dialect was inspired by the work of Maine writer Sarah Orne Jewett while other literary inspirations came from Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herman Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson.

Eggers and his brother Max, with whom he wrote the screenplay, are evidently clever so-and-sos and the movie is packed with nods and hints to other bits of source material.

We sat down with Eggers to talk about his bravura second feature and to try to pick apart some of its density. While he gives us some clues to begin with, Eggers is adamant that the film is meant to be open to interpretation.

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“It’s intended to be ambiguous. It’s intended to raise more questions than to provide any answers. I know that some people don’t find satisfaction with that, and I’m comfortable with it. But that’s what my brother and I were after,” he says.

“At times like there are lines of dialogue that are just as important to understanding what’s going on as ‘bad luck to kill a seabird’, that are said and photographed in passing and with the intention that the audience is then going ‘Wait, wait, wait, wait, what did I just miss?’”

Well what did you just miss? With the help of Eggers we’ll have a go at explaining.

Bad luck to kill a seabird

Thomas Wake (Willem Dafoe) explains to Ephraim Winslow aka Thomas Howard (Robert Pattinson) that it’s considered very unlucky to kill a sea bird as they are thought to carry the souls of dead sailors. Howard is tormented by one and eventually kills it, perhaps bringing on the storm that keeps the two men trapped on the island. At the end of the film Howard is seen being tortured by sea birds.

It’s a nautical tradition that it’s unlucky to kill seabirds – and specifically an Albatross. The best known description of this in literature is in Coleridge’s The Rime Of The Ancient Mariner where the offing of such a bird spells disaster for the whole crew of a ship with the Mariner forced to wear the Albatross around his neck as a sign of his guilt.

“The idea was, we would have certain genre tropes that were like so big and on the nose: ‘bad luck to kill a seabird’. We photographed that in such an over-the-top way. I mean, it’s written in the scene over-the-top but we take it even further. And then that pays off,” Eggers explains.  

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“We have these things that you can hold on to, as an audience member, and [help you] stay with us, we hope, so that then we can knock you around with ambiguities.” 

It’s based on a true story. Sort of.

There was a real case that acted as inspiration for The Lighthouse but Eggers is keen to point out how very loose that basis is…

“So loose that it’s hard to impress how loose….” he laughs.

“Basically, there is a well known story about two lighthouse keepers in Wales, who, at the beginning of the 19th century, got stuck on their lighthouse station during a storm. One was older, one was younger. They were both named Thomas. The younger one had a sordid past. The older one dies and the younger one goes insane. And that is where the similarities end. I mean, that’s so bare bones.”

It’s actually quite a grim tale.

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The story goes that the older Thomas died but the younger Thomas didn’t want to throw his body into the sea for fear of being accused of murder. So instead he fashioned a coffin for his former colleague and lashed it outside. But rough weather tore the coffin apart and the younger man could supposedly see from his window the corpse’s arm moving in the wind in a fashion which looked as if the rotting body was beckoning to him… By the time young Thomas was relieved of duty he’d been driven quite mad by it all. It’s known as The Smalls Lighthouse Tragedy and led to reform in policy that meant lighthouses subsequently had to be tended by teams of three… And of course it’s a cool idea for a film.

“I thought that the fact that they’re both named Thomas was interesting,” says Eggers. “And that I could make a cool two-hander about identity that can devolve into something obscure because of that.”

Proteus and Prometheus

The Lighthouse is packed with strange imagery and dense dialogue, particularly from Willem Dafoe’s Thomas Wake, and there are definite references both in speech and imagery to two classic Greek myths.

“Early on we realised that there is going to be some classical mythology along with the New English and generally British imported folklore into New England,” Eggers explains. 

“I think originally we thought it would just kind of be like hypothetical stuff in Willem’s sea curses in passing, and not become as prominent as it became. But once we had created a story we were like, well, what myth or myths does this most closely resemble?

“The lighthouse takes us to the Isle of Pharos and Proteus and Prometheus – and Proteus and Prometheus never hang out in any Greek classical texts that I’ve read at but you know it seemed to make sense for us.”

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Prometheus is best known as the Titan who stole fire from the gods to give to humanity and in doing so was punished by Zeus – he’s often seen to represent over-reaching knowledge, or the dangers of hubris, in science particularly, (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is subtitled The Modern Prometheus for example). In The Lighthouse Howard represents Prometheus – against the older (wiser?) Thomas Wake’s instruction he stares into the lantern at the centre of the lighthouse and is imparted with some sort of forbidden vision or wisdom. 

Prometheus’ punishment was that he was chained to rocks and every day an eagle would peck out his liver, which would grow back the next day ready for a new pecking. Howard is of course tormented by sea birds in double retribution for the one he killed earlier.

Proteus was a sea god, the son of Poseidon and the brother of Triton, and sometimes known as ‘The Old Man Of The Sea’. In one of his salty sea rants (when Howard won’t admit he likes Wake’s cooking) Wake actually acknowledges this relationship saying:

“Hark Triton, hark! Bellow, bid our father the Sea King rise from the depths full foul in his fury!”

Proteus (according to Homer’s Odyssey) lived on the island of Pharos – most famous for housing the Lighthouse Of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. He’s best known as a shape-shifter – if something is described as Protean it means it’s mutable, or capable of assuming different forms.

We see Wake (in Howard’s imagination at the very least) taking on various forms including that of the sea god. Proteus has the power to see the future but would only reveal the truth to those who capture him.

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And finally psychologist Carl Jung (more on him in a bit) saw Proteus as the “personification of the unconscious” because of his shifting nature and compulsion to tell the truth. This allows for further ambiguity in what happened between the two men. Is Wake really the devil, torturing Howard for his past crimes? Or is he just the embodiment of Howard’s subconscious driving himself mad?

Jung and archetypes

Eggers and his brother are self-confessed Jungians and some of the famed psychoanalyst’s theory has made it into the movie.

“Both of us… for better or worse are Jungian leaning. So when we’re looking at the archetype of the lighthouse, the tower, the phallus, that takes us to a lot of different topics and subjects,” Eggers says,  “And when we’re looking at the archetype of the hermit and the magician, or the fool and the thief, these are taking us to a lot of different places.” 

The symbolism of the tower as the phallus is fairly straightforward – indeed Eggers has said The Lighthouse is the masculine, phallic answer to The Witch’s more feminine story – The Lighthouse certainly explores masculinity in close proximity, with each man trying to dominate the other at various points.

Jung identified 12 ‘archetypes’ that represent our unconscious motivations. Unfortunately not all of Eggers’ examples fit neatly, or indeed obviously, into the archetypes that Jung identified but we can at least see some themes emerging. But certainly identity – the one we construct, and our true nature – is a big theme in The Lighthouse

As Willem Dafoe pointed out when we spoke to him about the film, “you got these guys that are put in this situation that’s like a purgatory and then the little personality, the little sense of self that they’ve created for themselves starts to get stripped away. You see what their real nature is and that points them into a kind of desperation.”

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That desperation echoes Jung’s idea of the Shadow – the unknown dark side of everyone’s personality. There are definitely shades of this in The Lighthouse, beginning with both men sharing the same name, which obviously appealed to Eggers. The way the pair embody wisdom and foolishness, hedonism and inspiration, honesty and trickery and play with masculine and feminine roles (Howard is forced into various domestic duties and at one point says he did not come here to be anyone’s wife) seems to support the idea that one is the shadow of the other on some level and speaks further to Jung’s theories.

Finally, consider this bit of dialogue from Wake:

“O what Protean forms swim up from men’s minds, and melt in hot Promethean plunder, scorching eyes, with divine shames and horror… And casting them down to Davy Jones. The others, still blind, yet in it see all the divine graces and to Fiddler’s Green sent, where no man is suffered to want or toil, but is… Ancient… Mutable and unchanging as the she who girdles ’round the globe. Them’s truth.”

Davy Jones’ Locker being the bottom of the sea where drowned sailors go, while Fiddler’s Green is a blissful Maritime afterlife of perpetual joy. It’s all in men’s minds, he seems to be saying. And if you stare into that lamplight beware of what you might see.

The Lighthouse is in UK cinemas now.