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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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