Monday, August 23, 2010

Symbolism in Literature: 3

This is my final segment on symbolism, at least for now. I just want to touch on a last idea to consider as we craft our stories.

I’m quoting Thomas C. Foster, who postulates, “There’s no such thing as a wholly original work of literature.” Everything is a rearranging of old ideas into something new and exciting. With that in mind, we can use these old ideas to heighten our reader’s imaginations by drawing from works of the past.

Take John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. To be east of Eden is to be outside of Eden, in a fallen and imperfect world. As children’s writers we should recognize that every story about the loss of innocence is a reenactment (on a personal level) of the fall from grace.

According to Geneses, after the fall “cherubim and a flaming sword” were placed to insure there could be no return. And that’s the poignant part of all loss of innocence stories—it’s permanent, there’s no going back. When it’s gone, it’s gone.

Whether a religious person or not, most readers are familiar with biblical symbolism. It’s a type of myth. There is a wealth of symbolism in Greek and Roman mythology, as well as legends of native cultures—such as the Celtic legend of the Fisher King or the Native American legend of the White Buffalo Woman, and other types of fairy-tales. (It didn’t take me long into Juliet Marillier’s Heart’s Blood to recognize another Beauty and the Beast. Did that lessen my enjoyment of the book? Not at all. I thoroughly enjoyed reading her marriage of the famous fairy tale with ancient Celtic myth.)

And let’s not forget Shakespeare. I recently read an article where a guy set out to list all the book titles pilfered from Shakespeare. He gave up after five hundred! Including Aldous Huxley, Charles Dickens, and John Steinbeck.

These are all wells of symbolism we can draw from. Mr. Thomas states, when we use this type of symbolism, the story resonates with the richness of distant antecedents, with the power of accumulated myth. The story ceases to be locked in the middle of the twentieth century and becomes timeless.

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