Symbolism in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

OceanEndOfLaneI purchased this book almost as soon as it came out, but since I was deep into other books, it sat atop the pile on my dresser. Last week I had to travel for work, so I packed the book, and since I spent a lot of time sitting around airports, I managed to finish it. It’s a short book, right around 175 pages, so I’m going to go on the assumption that you will read it and hence I will not summarize the story. Instead, I’ll focus on some of the symbolism that struck me in the book and my interpretations.

Early in the book, the protagonist states: “I liked myths. They weren’t adult stories and they weren’t children’s stories. They were better than that. They just were.” (p. 53) I completely agree. The power the myths is that they transcend normal narrative storytelling and express truths that cannot be expressed in ordinary language. There used to be a television version of Witchblade some years back and one of the characters said: “Gods come and go, but the myth is eternal.”

One of the prevalent symbols in creation mythology is that of using words to create. I have read books that assert that there are divine languages or words which have an effect on reality and can even be used to create existence from the void. This use of language is referred to in the book:

I have dreamed of that song, of the strange words to that simple rhyme-song, and on several occasions I understood what she was saying, in my dreams. In those dreams I spoke that language too, the first language, and I had dominion over the nature of all that was real. In my dream, it was the tongue of what is, and anything spoken in it becomes real, because nothing said in that language can be a lie. It is the most basic building block of everything. In my dreams I have used that language to heal the sick and to fly; once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed-and-breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, “Be Whole,” and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer, because I had spoken the language of shaping. (p. 43)

Another common symbol in mythology is the quest. In all hero myths that I can think of, the hero must undertake a quest and face incredible challenges, but the hero takes on the quest because of a longing, a void within that cannot be fulfilled within the realm of the ordinary. Gaiman incorporates the quest symbol into the story, including the deep longing that drives the hero forward on his or her quest.

How can you be happy in this world? You have a hole in your heart. You have a gateway inside you to lands beyond the world you know. They will call you, as you grow. There can never be a time when you forget them, when you are not, in your heart, questing after something you cannot have, something you cannot even properly imagine, the lack of which will spoil your sleep and your day and your life, until you close your eyes for the final time… (p. 139)

The symbol of the ocean is the one that appears the most throughout the book. For me, the ocean symbolizes the divine source and cosmic consciousness. There is a great passage where the protagonist is submerged into the ocean, or the divine consciousness, and the symbols of the egg and the rose are incorporated, the egg symbolizing the birth of all existence and the rose the continual unfolding of reality.

The second thing I thought was that I knew everything, Lettie Hempstock’s ocean flowed inside me, and it filled the entire universe, from Egg to Rose. I knew that. I knew what Egg was–where the universe began, to the sound of uncreated voices singing in the void–and I knew where Rose was–the particular crinkling of space on space into dimensions that fold like origami and blossom like strange orchids, and which mark the last good time before the eventual end of everything and the next Big Bang, which would be, I knew now, nothing of the kind. (p. 143)

There are many more myths and symbols woven into this short book, such as the Triple Goddess (maiden, matron, crone), but I will leave the rest of those for you to discover on your own. Half the fun of reading a book such as this is discovering which symbols and myths resonate most with you. There is a lot here. Feel free to share any symbolism that struck you. Enjoy!!



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15 responses to “Symbolism in “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

  1. Looks like I will like that book too.

  2. May I ask for the mythology books/sites you have read and referred to upon making this review? I badly need it. I am about to make a library research paper about this book. Thank you.

    • Hi Nicole. I’ll do the best I can, but my interpretation is the result of years of reading books on this type of subject. Regarding the hero myth, I suggest you read Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces.” As far as the triple goddess goes, there are tons of books on goddess worship and you can find info in any of them, or just do a web search. There are plenty of sites out there, I’m sure. Finally, consider reading Carl Jung’s “Man and his Symbols” for some general info on symbols and archetypes. Hope that helps. Good luck on your paper.

  3. I loved this book. Beautifully written and a good story. I also think it transcends ages. After I finished reading it, I picked it up and read it to my 6 and 9 year olds. They may not have gotten all of the points but they enjoyed it as well.

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the book. I totally agree with you about the story transcending ages. On the other end, my mother-in-law also enjoyed the book. Cheers!

  4. urthstripeiscool

    I like how at the very end you brought up the Triple Goddess thing. Reminded me of Madeline L’engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and all the trinity (“There really was only one”) symbolism there (espescially with how Lettie’s character turns out at the end).

    • Hey. Thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you mentioned “A Wrinkle in Time.” I recently picked up a copy of the new graphic novel version of the book interpreted by Hope Larson, so that is on my short list of books to read. It’s probably been close to 40 years since I originally read the book, so I don’t remember much of it. I’m very much looking forward to reading it again. Have a great day!!

  5. susan

    so, I just picked this book up from my mom’s dresser and started reading…so glad a did! Books should take the reader on a journey, and this book certainly took me on one…beautiful language.

    • Hi Susan. Thanks for visiting my blog and for commenting on my post. I’m glad you are enjoying the book. It is a wonderful story and I agree with you 100%, the language is beautiful. Have a great weekend!!

  6. Martha Lahey

    I love your blog! I found it when looking up the poem Stars by Robert Frost. Your analysis was excellent. Also, your shelf looks like mine- Herman Melville, Cervantes- great stuff! Ocean was a wonderful read, I agree. I found much symbolism in the colors: black, blue-green and orange.

    • Hi Martha! Thanks for your comment and for signing up to follow my blog. I hope you enjoy the posts. It’s always great to meet others who share a love for reading. I hope you have a wonderful day!

  7. Glad you mentioned the Triple Goddesses at the end. Female archetypes are definitely the stuff of myths and there was no shortage of female archetypes in Gaiman’s story. Loved this book and really enjoyed this analysis of his work. Following!

    • Thanks! The divine feminine is such a powerful symbol and I am always intrigued when I encounter it in art and literature. If that is a topic that interests you, check out “The White Goddess” by Robert Graves. Truly powerful book.

      PS – Thanks for following my blog. I checked yours out also and really liked it. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your artwork.

      • Thanks and I’ll check it out. I really enjoyed Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment in graduate school. It goes into the symbolism and psychology of fairy tales.