Monday, December 31, 2012

After a Long Hiatus, Symbol Systems

Sorry for the long empty space there. School, while being inspirational, doesn't always leave me with enough time to type out these musings.

My subject for today could take up several posts, but I'm going to keep it brief. This semester, I read John Granger's How Harry Cast His Spell, a book on the alchemical and Christian imagery and symbolism in the Harry Potter books. In the last few weeks, I've been reading Michael Ward's book Planet Narnia, in which he examines the use of medieval cosmology (specifically the seven planets) in the Narniad. Both of these books have sparked my imagination and introduced me to systems of symbols and images that I hadn't encountered in such detail, if at all, before. One of Ward's sentences particularly grabbed my attention: "Imaginative writers are allowed—indeed, expected— to adopt symbol systems..."* By symbol system Ward seems to mean an overarching groups of symbols which pervade an author's works, remaining symbolic of the same things whenever mentioned, though the symbols may be both positive and negative based on the context (for instance, the Queen of Underland in The Silver Chair is a negative Lunar character, while Aslan is a positive, so while they may both have silver symbols associated with them, the two aspects of the Moon's characteristics are still represented by a Lunar symbol, silver).

Obviously, these two authors (Ward and Granger) are dealing with specific systems when they examine Lewis' and Rowling's works, but this statement that imaginative writers are expected to adopt symbol systems made me begin to ask whether I had already selected a system or whether I ought to think about one yet. Admittedly, I have already appropriated bits of the alchemical and planetary imagery in these two series, partially through reading them and partially through reading books like Ward's and Granger's. I've also taken to using systems like the four classic elements (fire, earth, water, air), which is a favorite system in fantasy. Yet, although I have come to the conclusion that all of my stories and novels are set within the same multiverse, I cannot say that even one branch of my work operates within the same symbol system. Perhaps this is because my understanding of symbols and their use on the author's side of the book is still developing, in no small part due to books like Ward's and Granger's and to my classes on creative writing these last few semesters. After thinking about this sort of overarching system the last few days, I have come to the conclusion that (for some of my works) there needs to be a separation in symbol systems, if only for the sake of differentiating the different worlds I write about. Yet, there must always be some kind of unity within any author's body of work due to its being written by the same person. Even Ward's well-defended thesis about Lewis's planetary imagery only deals with part of his work, but the imagery extends throughout Lewis' career as a writer.

Another question that occurred to me while thinking over Ward's statement was whether such expansive and inclusive symbol systems as the ones he and Granger discuss are exclusive to fantastic works of fiction. After all, the use of imagery based on alchemical experiments and planetary spheres seems predisposed to fantasy and science fiction. Yet Granger, in his book Harry Potter's Bookshelf, argues that alchemical imagery has been used by authors writing fiction which is not supernaturally or scientifically driven. Authors such as Shakespeare and Dickens have used this imagery to great effect, he argues; I can attest that Shakespeare has used alchemical imagery in The Tempest, though I'm not sure I completely agree with Granger's alchemical reading of Romeo and Juliet, and I've yet to read A Tale of Two Cities, the Dickensian work that Granger says is alchemically driven. Still, the possibility for realistic writers to make use of this sort of symbol system seems open.

Does anyone have a system of symbols that you have seen used and felt drawn to? One that you plan to use or have looked into?

* Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia:The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis. Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition. 47.

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