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Mythological Cycles in “Library of Souls” by Ransom Riggs

LibraryOfSouls

If you follow my blog, you probably know how I feel about trilogies. They are not my favorite and I am frequently annoyed by stories that start out great and then seem to drag on in an attempt to fill three volumes. Thankfully, this book is one of the exceptions. In fact, this is as great if not better than the first book in the Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children trilogy. Not only is it very well written and illustrated with “found” vintage photographs that add to the overall surreal weirdness of the book, but the text is rich in symbolism and mythology. I was so engrossed in this book that I found it difficult to put down.

I want to focus my post on the allusions to mythology that permeate this book. For those of you who have not read this yet, fear not, I will not include any spoilers, and hopefully this will help you enjoy the richness of this novel.

On the whole, this book is a classic example of the hero’s journey. We have all the motifs that make up the hero myth, and early in the book we are clued in to the fact that we are going along on the epic adventure.

The present seemed suddenly strange to me, so trivial and distracted. I felt like one of those mythical heroes who fights his way back from the underworld only to realize that the world above is every bit as damned as the one below.

(p. 47)

There is a beautiful scene where three of the peculiars encounter Sharon, the boatman. He is a spectral figure and clearly a representation of Charon, the mythical boatman who ferries souls across the river Styx.

“STOP!” came a booming voice from inside the boat.

Emma squealed, Addison yelped, and I nearly leapt out of my skin. A man who’d been sitting in the boat—how had we not seen him until now?!—rose slowly to his feet, straightening himself inch by inch until he towered over us. He was seven feet tall, at least, his massive frame draped in a cloak and his face hidden beneath a dark hood.

“I’m—I’m so sorry!” Emma stammered. “It’s—we thought the boat was—“

“Many have tried to steal from Sharon!” the man thundered. “Now their skulls make homes for sea creatures!”

“I swear we weren’t trying to—“

“We’ll just be going,” squeaked Addison, backing away, “so sorry to bother you, milord.”

“SILENCE!” the boatman roared, stepping onto the creaking dock with one enormous stride. “Anyone who comes for my boat must PAY THE PRICE!”

(pp. 50 – 51)

A common theme among myths is the classic battle waged by the gods, the proverbial “clash of the titans.”

“… There dawned a dark time, in which the power-mad waged epic battles against one another for control of Abaton and the Library of Souls. Many lives were lost. The land was scorched. Famine and pestilence reigned while peculiars with power beyond imagination murdered one another with floods and lightning bolts. This is where normals got their tales of gods fighting for supremacy of the sky. Their Clash of the Titans was our battle for the Library of Souls.”

(p. 194)

I had read in a book by Umberto Eco how legendary and mythological lands occupy a unique place. We cannot say for sure that they never existed, but through the retelling of the stories, they become places that also exist in our collective consciousness, a place that is the source of our imagination and creativity.

“We may never know for certain if Abaton is a real place,” Bentham said, his lips spreading into a sphinx’s smile. “That’s what makes it a legend. But like rumors of buried treasure, the legendariness of the story has not stopped people, over the centuries, from searching for it. It is said that Perplexus Anomalous  himself committed years to the hunt for the lost loop of Abaton—which is how he began to discover so many of the loops that appear in his famous maps.”

(p. 195)

But in the end, what makes a story a myth is that it is more than just a story. It is a story that contains universal truths that convey what it is to be divine, sentient beings living in this realm of existence. The myth expresses parts of us that cannot be told other than through the rich symbols and metaphors that comprise the myth.

Just a story. It had become one of the defining truths of my life that, no matter how I tried to keep them flattened, two-dimensional, jailed in paper and ink, there would always be stories that refused to stay bound in books. It was never just a story. I would know: a story had swallowed my whole life.

(p. 371)

I confess that I felt sad when I finished this book. I felt really invested in the story and connected with the characters. I didn’t want it to end. But isn’t that the thing with stories like this? They never really end. They just cycle around again, waiting in our collective consciousness for the next great writer to resurrect the mythical beings that have inspired us since time immemorial.

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“Hollow City” by Ransom Riggs: Myth and the Subconscious

HollowCity

Hollow City is the second book in Ransom Riggs’ “Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children” series (see my review of the first book: Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs). This novel picks up where the first on left off and follows the adventures of the peculiar children as they race through World War II London in an attempt to save their ymbryne, Miss Peregrine (an ymbryne is a person who can shape-shift into a bird and has the ability to create and maintain time loops). They are hunted by wights and hollows. Wights are amoral beings who seek to exploit peculiars to gain their strengths, while hollows are Lovecraftian creatures who feed on peculiars.

As with the first book, this novel’s greatest strength is the inclusion of abundant photographs. These photos drive the story and augment the mental imagery that the writing evokes. They are all black-and-white photos and could easily be included in a surrealist art exhibit. While I appreciate vivid colors in art and photography, there is something eerily evocative about black-and-white pictures. Maybe it’s the shadowy texture or the dreamlike quality. It’s also very likely that they tap into memories of watching old black-and-white sci-fi and horror films on Saturday mornings as a kid. Regardless, the illustrations in this book work really well for me and I think the story would suffer if it did not have the pictures.

There are two other topics that are explored in this book which I found interesting: myth and the subconscious. They are both subjects that fascinate me and are incorporated into the story in a creative and engaging manner.

“Do you realize what this means?” Millard squealed. He was splashing around, turning in circles, out of breathe with excitement. “It means there’s secret knowledge embedded in the Tales!”

(p. 64)

Great art and literature often seeks to express things that cannot be conveyed through traditional communication, hence the use of symbols and metaphor to express the ineffable. The use of symbolism is also a way to mask ideas that may be dangerous to either the writer or the reader. Hence, our literary history is filled with works that contain knowledge which is not visible on the surface, but requires decoding on the part of the reader. In fact, as one of the characters in the book points out, there are some things that can only be expressed through myth and symbolism.

“Yes,” said Addison. “Some truths are expressed best in the form of myth.”

(p. 98)

The book also explores the subconscious in some creative ways. One part that stood out for me is when Jacob was having a dream, which in and of itself draws on the symbolism associated with Jacob’s dream in the Bible, where he ascends to Heaven and wrestles with God. In this story, Jacob also wrestles in his dream, but with his personal fears. What I found most intriguing, though, was that while Jacob is dreaming, he is talking in his sleep. His words are incomprehensible to his friends, because the language of dreams is all symbol and taps directly into the subconscious. There is no way to adequately express in words the realm of dreams.

I bolted upright, suddenly awake, my mouth dry as paper. Emma was next to me, hands on my shoulders. “Jacob! Thank God—you gave us a scare!”

“I did?”

“You were having a nightmare,” said Millard. He was seated across from us, looking like an empty suit of clothes starched into position. “Talking in your sleep, too.”

“I was?”

Emma dabbed the sweat from my forehead with one of the first-class napkins. (Real cloth!) “You were,” she said. “But it sounded like gobbledygook. I couldn’t understand a word.”

(p. 189)

A shift into the subconscious, or any altered state of consciousness, is often symbolized by a descent into a dark place. In this book, the characters descend into a crypt using a ladder, which again ties in to the biblical myth of Jacob. This entry into a dark and subterranean space represents a shift to the shadowy realm of one’s consciousness.

The ladder descended into a tunnel. The tunnel dead-ended to one side, and in the other direction disappeared into blackness. The air was cold and suffused with a strange odor, like clothes left to rot in a flooded basement. The rough stone walls beaded and dripped with moisture of mysterious origin.

(p. 240)

Overall, I liked this book a lot. It was exciting, fun, and it also contains “secret knowledge” that one can discover if one reads carefully. I look forward to the third book. Hopefully I won’t have to wait too long.

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Symbolism in “Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children” by Ransom Riggs

MissPeregrine

So I decided to take a break from reading Joyce’s Ulysses and read something more fun. Also, I was taking a short beach trip and was afraid I’d look awfully pretentious lying on the beach reading James Joyce. So this book was on my shelf and it seemed like a good choice for a beach read. I have to say that it was the perfect book, a quick read and enjoyable.

The book is kind of a dark fantasy novel, dealing with time loops, Lovecraftian monsters, mystical powers, and psychological trauma. While it sounds pretty morbid, it’s not quite as dark as it sounds. But what makes this book so cool, in my opinion, are the photographs included in the book. Riggs incorporates black-and-white pictures as part of the story, and there are quite a lot of them. It works really well. It is almost like a hybrid between a graphic novel and a “normal” book. It also sometimes feels like one of those old films that project a series of images to tell the story.

There is a lot of great symbolism in this book. So while it is a plot-driven story, there is much that you can think about if you choose. The first symbol worth considering is the island, where most of the story takes place. The island is a symbol for an isolated part of the psyche, a fixed point in the rippling sea of consciousness. And like our subconscious, the island is shrouded in mystery.

It was my grandfather’s island. Looming and bleak, folded in mist, guarded by a million screeching birds, it looked like some ancient fortress constructed by giants. As I gazed up at its sheer cliffs, tops disappearing in a reef of ghostly clouds, the idea that this was a magical place didn’t seem so ridiculous.

(p. 70)

The island has a bog, which is a point of transition between two dimensions. This represents a part of the psyche where it is possible to shift between states of consciousness. The bog is neither solid nor fluid, but a combination of the both, like a threshold. It symbolizes the psychic membrane which one must pass through when altering states of consciousness.

And as doors to the next world go, a bog ain’t a bad choice. It’s not quite water and not quite land—it’s an in-between place.

(p. 94)

There is one scene where sheep on the island were killed and mutilated. This is symbolic of the sacrificial lamb archetype. In this book, the sheep represent the Jews that were killed by the Nazis in World War II, and they also represent the peculiars, who are being hunted down.

The violence inside was almost cartoonish, like the work of some mad impressionist who painted only in red. The tramped grass was bathed in blood, as were the pen’s weathered posts and the stiff white bodies of the sheep themselves, flung about in attitudes of sheepish agony. One had tried to climb the fence and got its spindly legs caught between the slats. It hung before me at an odd angle, clam-shelled open from throat to crotch, as if it had been unzipped.

(p. 204)

The last symbol I want to mention is the homunculus. One of the peculiars is able to create homunculi out of clay. This draws on the golem mythology and the Frankenstein parable, of one who plays god and creates man from the earth. In the book, Enoch, the peculiar who makes the clay beings, takes on the characteristics of the cruel god, torturing and punishing his creations for not doing his will.

The clay soldier I’d returned began wandering again. With his foot, Enoch nudged it back toward the group. They seemed to be going haywire, colliding with one another like excited atoms. “Fight, you nancies!” he commanded, which is when I realized they weren’t simply bumping into one another, but hitting and kicking. The errant clay man wasn’t interested in fighting, however, and when he began to totter away once more, Enoch snatched him up and snapped off his legs.

“That’s what happens to deserters in my army!” he cried, and tossed the crippled figure into the grass, where it writhed grotesquely as the others fell upon it.

(p. 217)

As I said, I really liked this book. The only complaint I have about it is that it is the first book in a series, so it has an open ending that anticipates the next book, which is Hollow City. I will certainly read the next book, but I am just getting a little tired of serialized books. It seems to have become the norm in publishing, kind of a way to ensure future book sales. Other than that, great book and I totally recommend reading it. Cheers!!

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Why Were We So Surprised?

WiredCoverNSAThis morning I read an article in Wired magazine about the NSA and how it nearly destroyed the Internet. (Click here to read the article online; or better yet, subscribe—it’s a great publication.) As I was reading the article, all I could think about was “why were we so surprised?” I mean, seriously. The Internet was originally Department of Defense technology. Did we really expect that information we post online would be kept secret? I never did. I fully expect that each online petition I sign, each article I read, every site I visit, each “like” on Facebook, is tracked in a database somewhere. If companies are doing this with cookies, you can be sure that the government is doing the same.

I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be upset about it—we should be. But we should not be surprised. I’m a dork, so I love the Internet and I love the abundance of information that the technology brings to my fingertips. I love that I can stream movies, download digital copies of arcane texts, instantly share pictures with my friends and family, and that I can discuss topics of interest with people like myself around the world. It’s awesome! But I also expect that the government will be able to access this information and that they will be able to construct a profile of the type of person I am, my interests, and my ideologies. That’s fine. I’m not concerned.

For those of you who are concerned, there are some amazing new technologies you can consider:

  • Postal Service—This service allows you to write your thoughts on a piece of paper, hermetically seal it in an envelope, and send that to a specific individual and only that person can read it.
  • Bookstores—These places allow you to buy printed material, no matter how subversive, and read it in the privacy of your own home. And if you use something called “money,” there is no record that you ever purchased or read it.
  • Printed Photos—Who knew you could actually print out pictures and create your own book with them? You could call it, I don’t know, how about a photo album. Then, you can invite your friends over to your house, have a nice dinner, and look at them together.

Pretty cool, huh? 🙂

 

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Don’t Ban a Book By Its Cover

I read an article this morning on the Huffington Post concerning Apple’s banning of a book because the cover was deemed too “erotic” (click here to read the article). As I look at the cover, shown here, I can’t for the life of me figure out why this cover would be deemed inappropriate. In fact, I find the photograph to be very artistic. With all the questionable images on the internet that are only a click away, you’re going to ban this? I don’t get it.

While I found this was annoying, the rest of the article made me furious. The article points out that Apple has been censoring their e-books for a while now. It appears that Apple feels it’s appropriate to remove sections from such classic works as Ulysses, Moby Dick, and the Kama Sutra. I find this offensive on a very deep level. In a modern society, censorship of art is something that should not be tolerated. And please spare me the argument that it might get into the hands of an underage child. Really? Ulysses? If a child is that precocious that he or she can read Ulysses, then you really don’t have to worry about that child being exposed to sexually explicit material. Your concern should be how to intellectually challenge that child.

I’m not going to get into the debate here about whether e-books are better than printed copies, or vice versa, but I will say this, that electronic publication certainly makes censorship much easier. When all you have to do is select and click Delete to eliminate “offensive” material, you are increasing the likelihood that this will occur. That said, maybe I need to buy a new copy of Ulysses to keep on my shelf, just in case.

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