Unlatching the Door: Myth and Symbol as Agents of
How does a writer gain access to an inexhaustible well of ideas? By looking to mythology in a creative way, Beck will demonstrate the power of myth and symbol to inspire writing which both integrates themes fundamental to the human experience and enlightens the individual journey of the writer.
When I was asked to speak, it was suggested that my topic be the short story, my chosen genre. But when I thought about how I would approach this huge subject, I didn’t know where to start. Instead, I kept my ears open for a more specific theme, even though it might not pertain exclusively to the short story form. I realised that a big issue with all creative writers—be they poets, novelists, or short story writers—is and always has been sourcing ideas.
I attended the writing course at TAFE and it was a big issue back then. I was encouraged to carry a notebook everywhere I went, to keep a paper and pen by the bed at night so that I could scrawl down that elusive idea before it floated away. My classmates and I were given writing exercises to spark inspiration, and advice on different writing cues—anything from cutting out articles, pictures, newspaper clippings and keeping an ‘ideas’ scrapbook, to listening in on people’s conversations. There was a certain anxiety I developed around sourcing ideas which, ironically, I hadn’t had before attending the writing course. Writer’s block was the great fear of everyone. I soon learnt why. When you’re expected to write twenty poems in the space of two weeks, you soon find yourself writing odes to your pets! And then, after your study, you’re out on your own with no guidance or stimulation and it’s even worse.
I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go on to do humanities at LaTrobe, to study literature, art, religion, and philosophy. I found after completing my course that I no longer experienced anxiety when it came to sourcing ideas because I was never short of them. I believe that this has something to do with the concepts I was studying, in particular those pertaining to mythology and art.
I would like to talk about the significance of mythology to us as writers—both as a source of inspiration and as a form which gives definition to our role as storytellers and poets. I will start by explaining the traditional significance of myth, and then I’ll go on to show why this understanding is still important to us today. Then I’ll talk about symbols as ‘keys’ to integrating mythological themes into your work. Later you’ll have a go at accessing the same inspiration that informs myth by using symbols creatively.
In the modern sense, a myth is ‘a fictitious person, story or thing’. But traditionally a myth represented the essence of truth itself. While it may not have been manifestly true—as a story that unfolded in a concrete place during a particular time, adhering to the laws of nature—it was ‘true’ in the message it related. For instance, if we look at the myth of The Fall for its essential message, we see the idea that our human condition is one of exile, or of being ‘outcast’ from our true selves. The eating of the forbidden fruit is symbolic of humanity’s tendency towards self-direction—the turning away from a higher power towards selfhood. The expulsion from the garden, or the exile from our true selves and the suffering it brings, is the result. This is, of course, a truncated, simplified interpretation, but it is, nevertheless, one of the main themes. And so, in myth we find multiple layers—we have the story as it is told by the storyteller or shaman or poet and we have the symbolic meaning, or truth which lies behind it.
I would like to make a distinction between the ‘moral’ reading and the ‘symbolic’ reading of a myth. The moral relates to personal conduct—to rights and wrongs, shoulds and should-nots—and most myths can also be read in this way. For instance, we can read into The Fall the moral that it is wrong to disobey God and that people are fundamentally sinful, disobedient creatures. But this is not the kind of reading that I’m talking about when I refer to the symbolic reading of a myth.
Another myth: that of Daedalus and Icarus. Father and son are imprisoned in a labyrinth. To escape, Daedalus, who is a talented artisan, fashions wings from gull feathers and wax so that they might flee by air to Sicily.
‘My son [says Daedalus to Icarus], ‘I caution you to keep the middle way, for if your pinions dip too low the waters may impede your flight; and if they soar too high the sun may scorch them. Fly midway. Gaze not at the boundless sky, far Ursa Major and Bootes next. Nor on Orion with his flashing brand, but follow my safe guidance.’ (1)
Icarus, overwhelmed by the thrill of flying, ignores his father’s advice and soars towards the sun. When the wax melts and his feathers come loose, he plunges into the sea.
What is the symbolic reading of the Icarus myth? It speaks of youth’s inclination towards instant gratification, of our tendency to become lost in exuberance, forgetting all else. This is distinct from the moral of the story: the middle way is best and it is wise to heed the advice of one’s elders.
So of what significance are myths and their meanings to us as creative writers?
We are able to incorporate these ideas and truths into our work and, in so doing, create powerful stories and poems, work which deals with those themes fundamental to human experience. The American anthropologist, Joseph Campbell, who dedicated his thought to the psychological function of mythology, wrote extensively on this subject. He acknowledged a crisis in the modern tendency to disregard myth as fictitious and irrelevant. Without these stories to guide and inform us, he argued, we are devoid of the fundamental means of personal growth and transformation and bereft of symbolic examples in times of crisis. He says of this:‘I think where we need to look now is to the same source that the people of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries did when their civilization was foundering: to the poets and artists. These people can look past the broken symbols of the present and begin to forge new working images…Not all poets and artists can do this, of course, because many…have no interest in mythic themes, and some who have an interest don’t know much about them, and some who even know quite a bit about them mistake their own personal life for human life…Yet there have been great artists among us who have read the contemporary scene in ways that allow the great elementary ideas to come shining through…portraying and inspiring the individual journey.’ (2)
The great elementary ideas. These are what we are after; these are what we expose ourselves to when we read myths. Campbell’s argument is that it is our job as artists to imbue the symbols of our time with meaning through our work. This is how we illuminate in people’s consciousness those questions and ideas that would otherwise remain repressed, thereby instilling a sense of meaning and purpose in life—a sense of Providence. Myth confronts questions like, ‘What does it mean to be a father, a mother, a man, or a woman? How does a youth make the transition to adulthood? What is the nature of death? Campbell asserts that we need to address these very questions in our work.
And how do we access the great elementary ideas when we, as writers, set pen to paper? Through symbols. If we look at myth as a doorway to these great themes of humanity, the symbol might be seen as the key to this door. Symbols stand for an idea bigger than themselves; they are repositories of meaning. Take one example: the cross. Two straight lines, one intersecting the other and all over the world this symbol holds a wealth of significance. Totality, the axis, Heaven and Earth conjoined, ascension, redemption, resurrection, Christ, suffering, sacrifice—I could go on—such is the potency of symbol.
I would like to make a distinction between personal and universal symbols and point out how each might be used in your work. Personal symbols (also called contextual symbols) are those that are instilled with meaning within the context—the created universe—of the text itself. The writer usually develops the significance of the symbol in relation to the protagonist or the characters, and we as readers learn its meaning through their associations with it. Here is an extract from the Sean O’Faolain story, The Sugawn Chair, which provides a clear example of how a personal symbol is developed.
Every autumn I am reminded of an abandoned sugawn chair that languished for years, without a seat, in the attic of my old home. It is associated in my mind with an enormous sack which the carter used to dump with a thud on the kitchen floor around every October. I was a small kid then, and it was as high as myself. This sack had come ‘up from the country’, a sort of diplomatic messenger from the fields to the city. It smelled of dust and hay and apples, for the top half of it always bulged with potatoes, and, under a layer of hay, the bottom half bulged with apples. Its arrival always gave my mother great joy and a little sorrow, because it came from the farm where she had been born. Immediately she saw it she glowed with pride in having a ‘back’, as she called it—meaning something behind her more solid and permanent than city streets, though she was also saddened by the memories that choked her with this smell of hay and potatoes from the home farm, and apples from the little orchard near the farmhouse. My father, who had also been born on a farm, also took pleasure in these country fruits, and as the two of them stood over the sack, in the kitchen, in the middle of the humming city, everything that their youth had meant to them used to make them smile and laugh and use words that they had never used during the rest of the year, and which I thought magical: words likelate sowing, clover crop, inch field, marl bottom, headlands, tubers and the names of potatoes, British Queens or Arran Banners, that sounded to me like the names of regiments. For those moments my father and mother became a young, courting couple again. As they stood over that sack, as you might say warming their hands to it, they were intensely happy, close to each other, in love again. (3)
The protagonist reminisces about a phase of his childhood, and for him, the symbol of that time is the sack that arrived every October in his city home. He develops the meaning of this symbol by recalling what it meant to his parents—youth, the constancy and beauty of country life, romance, and loss—and its significance to him as a child—magic, adventure, and love. The sack in this story is a classic example of a personal symbol—one instilled with meaning by the writer himself.
A universal symbol (also known as a cultural symbol) holds similar significance either universally, or to those within a particular culture. The cross in the sense that I mentioned it before is an example of a universal symbol. These are the symbols that appear in myths; the ones we read about in our dictionaries of symbols—they often crop up in completely different cultures with similar significance. Incorporating these symbols into your work not only instils it with universal themes like those I mentioned before; it can also suffuse your writing with cultural associations. The example I am going to show you comes from C.S. Lewis’ novel, ‘The Voyage of the Dawntreader’. It follows the story of an opinionated, opportunistic, cowardly boy named Eustace who stumbles on the cave of a dead dragon. There he finds a pile of treasure and, after stuffing his pockets with diamonds, he falls asleep. Upon awakening, he discovers he has transformed into a dragon.
Eustace relates the story of how he was restored to his human self. A glowing lion came to him in the night, lead him to the top of a great mountain, through a garden to a well:
‘The water was as clear as anything and I thought if I could get in there and bathe it would ease the pain in my leg. But the lion told me I must undress first. Mind you, I don’t know if he said any words out loud or not.
‘I was just going to say that I couldn’t undress because I hadn’t any clothes on when I suddenly thought that dragons are snaky sort of things and snakes can cast their skins. Oh, of course, thought I, that’s what the lion means. So I started scratching myself and my scales began coming off all over the place. And then I scratched a little deeper and instead of just scales coming off here and there, my whole skin started peeling off beautifully, like it does after an illness, or as if I was a banana. In a minute or two I just stepped out of it. I could see it lying there beside me, looking rather nasty. It was the most lovely feeing. So I started to go down into the well for my bathe.
‘But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that’s all right, said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I’ll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.’ (4)
Eustace found that exactly the same thing happened again—there was another scaly skin beneath the second. He scratched away a third time with the same result.
And then the lion said, ‘You will have to let me undress you.’When Eustace emerged from the well, he was a boy again.
‘The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt…’
‘Then he caught hold of me—I didn’t like that much for I was very tender underneath now that I’d no skin on—and threw me into the water.’ (5)
Here are a number of symbols used in the universal sense. We have a dragon—symbol of diabolical tendencies to be overcome if the treasure is to be won (6). There is a lion, embodiment of power, wisdom and justice (7). And lastly, we have a well. In all traditions wells are places of sacredness (8). They are centres of purification, life, knowledge, wisdom, truth, and there is, of course, their association with baptism. We can see how, using these symbols, Lewis creates a powerful subtext. Not only does he deepen his story through these symbols, transforming it into a ‘rite of passage’ that the boy, Eustace, undergoes in order to become ‘whole’; with its allusions to baptism, Lewis also instils it with the substance of its cultural significance, brought to bear by two thousand years of Christianity.
All this may sound very intimidating when you think about incorporating symbols into your own work. You may never have considered them in this way before, let alone thought about creating an intricate vocabulary with allusions to myth, as Lewis does. But this does not mean that they are beyond you; in fact, they are so much a part of your consciousness that you have an innate sense of them. Everyone does—otherwise they wouldn’t work. We are going to try consciously incorporating symbolism into a piece of prose or poetry. But I’d like to share my thoughts about this approach before I explain how we begin.
I came up with this exercise when considering the elements that contribute to my own inspiration—not that inspiration can be formulated or even understood. But I find that most of the time, at least for me, there are three things that form the first germs of a story.
Recently a friend told me a story about her father—a man of Jewish descent—who was a child during the Second World War. He, his sister and mother were smuggled across to Belgium when trouble started to break out in Germany. There they were taken in by an elderly couple who hid them in their attic. For about six years they stayed here, unable even to set foot outside the house for fear that someone—even a neighbour—might turn them in. One day some German soldiers arrived at the door, and the little family huddled fearfully in the attic, staring down at the soldiers while the elderly man spoke to them. Fortunately, they were not discovered. This little incident quickened my imagination; I was struck by the horror of it, of people—especially children—being cooped for years in a house. I began to think about the psychological effect this might have had on them. My friend’s anecdote provided the setting of a story that was soon to come.
One evening soon afterwards I was out walking the dogs on my own. It was such a beautiful time—the sun setting behind the trees and the darkness rising, the warm twilight—and quite spontaneously I wondered what it would be like to wander through it naked, feeling the warm breeze on my skin and the freedom of unencumbered limbs. These thoughts reminded me of an escapade my friend and I had gone on one night as girls—jumping a fence and crossing a paddock to skinny-dip in an unknown farmer’s dam. And all of a sudden the elements of story came together—I had a setting (as mentioned above), a protagonist (a girl), and the symbol of nakedness, which lent my story its main theme.
For me, setting, protagonist, and symbol are the three main elements that bring a story to life. No narrative that I write can begin its germination without these three, but where these three exist, there sparks imagination and inspiration.
My exercise involves writing down, on separate pieces of paper, three or four settings; for example, a church, a zoo, a rainforest; three or four protagonists—a doctor, a mother, a poet; and three or four symbols—a bicycle, the sun, a snail. We then randomly choose one from each category and use these three prompts to begin a story or poem.
Your exercise is to instil the symbol with meaning using the emotions and associations of your protagonist. Even if your symbol or your protagonist or both are incongruous—even humorous—within your setting, you should see this as a worthy challenge. You never know what might come out of it!
It is important to remember that a symbol is used differently in a narrative to a thing. A thing serves to further the plot but it has no meaning in and of itself. To use a rather crude example, it is the car that runs over the child. The symbol, however, stands for something other than itself. It is the teddy the child drops on the tarmac—a symbol of the vulnerability of childhood and the tragedy of an early death.
Symbols, particularly universal symbols, allow us to tap into those themes fundamental to our humanity. Through a symbolic reading of myth, we can see that these themes form the very bedrock of traditional narratives. But they also appear in great literature, and I believe that these are the poems, novels and stories that endure, that remain relevant to every age because they share something common to all—they explore the triumph, tragedy, and humour of the human story.
This workshop presented at the Bendigo Writers’ Council meeting, Monday May 10th, 2010
(1) Ovid (1999)Ovid’s Metamorphoses[online].Available: http://hompi.sogang.ac.kr/anthony/Classics/OvidIcarus.htm [Accessed 29 Apr. 10].
(2) Campbell, J. Pathways to Bliss. California: New World Library, 2004, p. 20.
(3) O’Faolain, S. The Sugawn Chair. From: Burton, S. H. ed. Modern Short Stories, London: Longmans, Green & Co, 1965. p.p. 179-180.
(4) Lewis, C. S. The Voyage of the Dawntreader, London: Lions, 1980. p.p. 85-86.
(6) Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. tr. Buchanan-Brown, J. London: Penguin Books, 1996, p. 307.
(7) Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. p. 611.
(8) Chevalier, J., Gheerbrant, A. p.1095.