Tag Archives: symbol

Thoughts on “The Alchemist” by Paulo Coelho

I had always heard good things about this book, so when I saw it on sale at the bookstore, I grabbed a copy and moved it up to the top of the pile. I actually read most of it while traveling to California. On one of the flights, a woman next to me commented that this was her favorite book of all time. As Coelho would say, “It was an omen.”

The book is short, and a deceptively easy read. While it is not a difficult text, it is rich in imagery and spiritual insight. So my problem is, there is so much here, I’m not sure what to write about in a short blog post. I guess I’ll offer a couple examples that illustrate some of the central themes in the book.

Early in the story, the importance of dreams is established.

“You came so that you could learn about your dreams,” said the old woman. “And dreams are the language of God. When he speaks in our language, I can interpret what he has said. But when he speaks the language of the soul, it is only you who can understand. But, whichever it is, I’m going to charge you for the consultation.”

(p. 15)

If dreams are the language of God and the soul, then that is the way that the human psyche can communicate with the ineffable. Interpreting the messages that come in the form of dreams is always a challenge, because of the symbolic nature of the communication. But through contemplation and deep meditation, we can get a sense of what the dreams are trying to convey to us.

Another theme that stood out for me is how the divine is manifest in the material world.

“The wise men understood that this natural world is only an image and a copy of paradise. The existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. God created the world so that, through the visible objects, men could understand his spiritual teachings and the marvels of his wisdom. That’s what I mean by action.”

(p. 131)

When I am out in nature, that is the time I am most aware of the divine presence in the world. On my recent trip to California, as I stood among the redwoods and gazed at their magnificence, I was overcome with awe at the grandeur of God in nature. Even a blade of grass, when you slow down and look at it closely, you can see perfection and beauty within. For me, that is my strongest connection with the divine.

One of my favorite archetypal symbols is the quest, which is presented nicely in this book.

“Every second of the search is an encounter with God,” the boy told his heart. “When I have been truly searching for my treasure, every day has been luminous, because I’ve know that every hour was a part was a part of the dream that I would find it. When I have been truly searching for my treasure, I’ve discovered things along the way that I never would have seen had I not had the courage to try things that seemed impossible for a shepherd to achieve.”

(p. 135)

For me, this conveys the most important truth about a quest: It is not the achievement of a goal that is important, it is what you learn and experience along the way. The joy and wonder is in the journey, not in the acquisition.

This post truly only scratches the surface of this book. There are so many wonderful passages and ideas and insights to explore and contemplate. This book has earned its place beside The Prophet on my shelf, as one of those books that I will read again and again.

Thanks for stopping by, and if you have read this book, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Magician’s Land” by Lev Grossman

This is the final book of Grossman’s trilogy, and he manages to maintain the power and intensity of the previous books. While part of me wishes the saga would continue, this really is the right place to stop.

I took a couple pages of notes while reading, so I could ramble on about this, but since brevity is the soul of wit, I’ll keep this post short and focused. I’ll focus on how the book corresponds to the biblical books of Genesis and Revelation.

So there are two big themes in this book: the creation of a world, and the destruction of a world. These are also the themes that are the focuses of Genesis and Revelation, respectively. In addition, Grossman also weaves in the symbolism of the death and rebirth of a god, which connects the two central themes and hearkens to Frazer’s work, The Golden Bough.

Quentin comes into possession of an ancient spell, and it takes him a while to decipher it. But once he does, he realizes it is a spell to create a small world, essentially speaking a world into being. This is the magick of God in Genesis, but on a smaller scale. Yet even though this is on a smaller scale, Quentin is taking a step toward becoming godlike through his ability to create.

This was a spell that created something. It was a spell for making a land.

He actually laughed out loud when he thought of it. It was too funny—too insane. But now that he saw it he couldn’t un-see it. He could follow it like a story that wound crookedly through the various sections and paragraphs and subclauses of the spell like a thread of DNA. This thing was intended to make a little world.

(p. 249)

Contrasting Quentin’s creation of a new world, we see the apocalyptic end to another world, with imagery and direct references to Revelation.

The chaos itself was momentarily, unfairly beautiful. The thrashing sun, the spinning, looping moon. Fillory half light and half shadow, dotted with flashes of fire, lava and flame and magical strikes from magical beings. Ignorant armies clashing by night.

It’s like Revelation, she thought. It’s Revelation, and I’m the Scarlet Woman.

(p. 339)

But the deeper mysticism here is that dying worlds can be reborn, but this cosmic rebirth requires the ultimate sacrifice: the death of a god. This is the mythology that Frazer explores in his masterwork, and Grossman makes reference to this mythology as the world of Fillory is about to die.

It was the oldest story there was, the deepest of all the deeper magicks. Fillory didn’t have to die, it could be renewed and live again, but there was a price, and the price was holy blood. It was the same in all mythologies: for a dying land to be reborn, its god must die for it. There was power in that divine paradox, the death of an immortal, enough power to restart the stopped heart of a world.

(pp. 377 – 378)

And with the death of the old god, the world is renewed, ushering in the new age.

“… Things are different now. It’s a new age.”

(p. 394)

These books have definitely earned their place in the upper echelon of the fantasy genre. I suspect that I may read them again someday, hence they now have a prominent spot on my bookshelf. In the meantime, I’ll indulge myself by watching the TV adaptation of the trilogy.

Thanks for stopping by, and keep reading cool stuff!

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“Song of Saul Before His Last Battle” by Lord Byron

“Suicide of Saul” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Warriors and chiefs! should the shaft or the sword
Pierce me in leading the host of the Lord,
Heed not the corse, though a king’s in your path:
Bury your steel in the bosoms of Gath!

Thou who art bearing my buckler and bow,
Should the soldiers of Saul look away from the foe,
Stretch me that moment in blood at thy feet!
Mine be the doom which they dared not to meet.

Farewell to others, but never we part,
Heir to my royalty, son of my heart!
Bright is the diadem, boundless the sway,
Or kingly the death, which awaits us today!

To understand this poem, you should be familiar with the biblical story of the death of Saul, as told in I Samuel 31. Saul is leading a battle against the Philistines, and things do not go well for the Israelites. Saul’s sons are slain, and the warriors flee. So Saul decides to take his own life, rather than be abused and killed by the “uncircumcised.”

Byron sees this as the ultimate heroic act, to sacrifice yourself rather than compromise your ideals. There is nothing weak about Saul’s decision to take his own life. It is totally an act of courage and bravery.

So why would this be so important to Byron? There are a couple possibilities. He could be expressing his unwavering commitment to a romantic love, vowing to die rather than allow another to pierce his heart. But I think a more plausible interpretation is that Byron is asserting his staunch adherence to his artistic ideals. Byron has a clear vision of his poetry and what he wishes to convey through his works. He would rather die than compromise his artistic integrity and create baser works intended for the Philistine masses.

I confess I looked online to see what others thought about this poem, and really did not find any out there, so these are just my personal thoughts on the poem. Feel free to let me know if you have a different impression of what Byron was trying to express. I would love to hear your thoughts. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “Don Juan in Hell” by Charles Baudelaire

Painting by Carlos Schwabe

The night Don Juan came to pay his fees
To Charon, by the caverned water’s shore,
A beggar, proud-eyed as Antisthenes,
Stretched out his knotted fingers on the oar.

Mournful, with drooping breasts and robes unsewn
The shapes of women swayed in ebon skies,
Trailing behind him with a restless moan
Like cattle herded for a sacrifice.

Here, grinning for his wage, stood Sganarelle,
And here Don Luis pointed, bent and dim,
To show the dead who lined the holes of Hell,
This was that impious son who mocked at him.

The hollow-eyed, the chaste Elvira came,
Trembling and veiled, to view her traitor spouse.
Was it one last bright smile she thought to claim,
Such as made sweet the morning of his vows?

A great stone man rose like a tower on board,
Stood at the helm and cleft the flood profound:
But the calm hero, leaning on his sword,
Gazed back, and would not offer one look round.

(translation by James Elroy Flecker)

So I read this poem through a couple times, and had no sense on what Baudelaire was expressing. Mainly, because I did not understand all the references within the text. So I systematically went through and looked up all the references, and then the meaning became clear. So before I provide my interpretation of the poem as a whole, let me quickly share what I found regarding all the names mentioned in the text.

Charon was easy enough—the ferryman who brings the souls of the dead across the River Styx to the Underworld. Antisthenes, I discovered, was a pupil of Socrates and was known for being very ethical and “advocating an ascetic life lived in accordance with virtue.” (Source) Sganarelle is a one-act play by Moliere, also coined “The Imaginary Cuckold.” “The story deals with the consequences of jealously and hasty assumptions in a farcical series of quarrels and misunderstandings involving Sganarelle (the imagined cuckold of the title), his wife, and the young lovers, Célie and Lélie.” (Source) Don Luis had a bet with Don Juan to see who could “conquer more women and kill more men than the other,” a bet which Don Juan won. (Source) And finally, Elvira is a reference to Donna Elvira, a lady of Burgos abandoned by Don Giovanni in the Mozart opera. (Source)

So, now that all the references are cleared up, we can look at the poem as a whole.

Don Juan is the antithesis of Antisthenes. He is an unrepentant womanizer and someone ruled by his baser desires. On his journey into Hell, he looks around at the souls of those he destroyed and used, and feels no remorse whatsoever. In fact, one gets the sense that he almost feels a sense of pride in regard to his past exploits.

So how does Baudelaire feel about Don Juan? This is less clear. I suspect that Baudelaire wishes he could be more like Don Juan, trampling through life ruled solely by his passions and not caring about people who he may use and hurt along the way. But my impression is that Baudelaire is not as void of feelings for others as he may appear. While it may make things easier for him to not harbor emotions for others, he does, and even though he is prone to giving in to his desires, he feels remorse, unlike his anti-hero Don Juan.

These are just my thoughts on the poem. If you have other thoughts or insights, I’d love to hear them. Feel free to share in the comments section. Cheers!

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Thoughts on “The Magician King” by Lev Grossman

As I am drafting this post on Grossman’s second installment in the trilogy, I am already well into the third and final book. These books are like crack for nerds who are into reading. I suspect that my thoughts on the third book will follow hot on the heels of this post.

This book is another version of the archetypal hero’s journey, but not at all hackneyed. It is full of current references to popular culture and it reads very well. Reading a page in this book is like eating one Dorito chip. You read it, and the next thing you know, a quarter of the book is gone.

“You wish to be a hero, but you do not know what a hero is. You think a hero is one who wins. But a hero must be prepared to lose, Quentin. Are you? Are you prepared to lose everything?”

(p. 179)

This quote really had a visceral effect on me. When I think back on the literature I’ve read regarding the hero myths, every hero loses something, and most of them lose a part of themselves. You cannot head out on a quest and expect to return the same person you were at the onset. Every hero must sacrifice in order to attain their goal. And even those who choose not to make the sacrifice after stepping on the path, they have still lost something, and likely that something is a more painful loss that that sacrifice which was asked for.

The hero’s quest is symbolic for a deep, often spiritual, transformation. And all transformations require the sloughing of the outer shell of the self to reveal the deeper aspects of the individual.

At one point in the book, Quentin discusses his quest with Ember, a god of the realm of Fillory. While it is a common trope in the hero myth for the hero to seek guidance from a divine being, what is interesting about this interaction is that the god Ember provides insight into the role of an individual on a quest, and how the quest ultimately transforms that person.

“I do not think you understand, my child. There are things a man must do, that a god may not. He who completes a quest does not merely find something. He becomes something.”

Quentin stopped, blowing, hands on hips. The horizon to the east was a solid band of orange now. The stars were going out.

“What’s that? What does he become?”

“A hero, Quentin.”

(p. 251)

Reading into what is implied here, the god is letting Quentin know that by pursuing the quest, something which he must do, that he will suffer a great loss. It is inevitable. No transformation can be complete unless the individual lets go of something important, whether by choice or by circumstance.

I’m intentionally keeping this post short, so as not to include any spoilers. I definitely recommend this book, and the entire trilogy.

Click here to read my review of the first book in the series: The Magicians.

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Thoughts on “Into the Twilight” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

Out-worn heart, in a time out-worn,
Come clear of the nets of wrong and right;
Laugh heart again in the gray twilight,
Sigh, heart, again in the dew of the morn.

Your mother Eire is always young,
Dew ever shining and twilight gray;
Though hope fall from you and love decay,
Burning in fires of a slanderous tongue.

Come, heart, where hill is heaped upon hill:
For there the mystical brotherhood
Of sun and moon and hollow and wood
And river and stream work out their will;

And God stands winding His lonely horn,
And time and the world are ever in flight;
And love is less kind than the gray twilight,
And hope is less dear than the dew of the morn.

This is a deeply mystical poem, in which Yeats envisions the world as being at the threshold of a new age of magic and mysticism. As with Yeats’ great works, there are layers and layers of meaning woven in to this short poem. In this post, I will highlight the general meaning of each stanza, and allow you to explore the deeper symbolism on your own.

The first stanza sets the overall tone of the poem. Twilight can either be the transition from night to day, or from day to night. The last line of this stanza lets the reader know that Yeats is using twilight as a symbol for dawn. What Yeats is conveying here is that humanity is currently in a state of darkness, which means that we have lost our connection to the divine light. But we are on the brink of moving back into a period of enlightenment, where humanity will again embrace the mystic.

In the second stanza, Yeats asserts that Ireland will be the source of this spiritual reawakening. He sees himself as being right in the midst of this paradigm shift, a shift in the collective consciousness, where all humanity will become aware of the divine essence sleeping within.

In the third stanza, Yeats builds upon the symbol of Ireland as the birthplace for the new spiritual renaissance by evoking images of the ancient Druids (the “mystical brotherhood”). The first line describes the Druid burial mounds in Ireland (see image). Yeats uses this to symbolize that the power and knowledge of the Druids is still buried within Ireland, waiting to be reborn. The last two lines describe Druid mystical ceremonies, practiced outside and calling upon the elements to help manifest their will. The importance of the will in magic and the occult is something Yeats would have been very familiar with.

In the fourth and final stanza, we are presented with an image of an old god, blowing a horn to call forth the mystical beings that have slipped into the mists of time. One gets the sense of Druids, faeries, and such, rising and gathering in the presence of the old god, reborn, to help return humanity to its original state of divine power.

Again, I am just scratching the surface of this beautiful and powerful poem. I encourage you to read and re-read this many times, since you will discover more each time you do.

Blessings!

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Thoughts on “There There” by Tommy Orange

This was the latest selection for the book club to which I belong. It’s a novel written by a Native American author that explores what it is like to be a Native American living in an urban environment. The book is set in Oakland, and follows the paths of multiple characters leading up to a big pow wow.

For me, the strength of this book is in the way Orange uses different voices and narrative styles for each of the characters’ stories. He does manage to give each one a unique voice, which is tough to pull off well, especially with the number of threads and stories that are woven together into the larger tale.

The structure of this book reminds me of a Quentin Tarantino film. There are all these story lines that wind together, bringing the characters together in unexpected ways. Maybe a better analogy would be that the story resembles a Native American dream catcher, with all the stories knotted together; and yet somehow the nightmare is not caught, but slips through, a symbol of how the American Dream just doesn’t exist for so many people of indigenous cultures.

While the title of the book seems conciliatory, it is actually a reference to a Gertrude Stein quote, about how the lives and places we knew from our pasts are no longer there.

“Do you know what Gertrude Stein said about Oakland?” Rob says.

Dene shakes his head no but actually he knows, actually googled quotes about Oakland when researching for his project. He knows exactly what the guy is about to say.

“There is no there there,” he says in a kind of a whisper, with this goofy openmouthed smile Dene wants to punch. Dene wants to tell him he’d looked up the quote in its original context, in her Everybody’s Autobiography, and found that she was talking about how the place where she’d grown up in Oakland had changed so much, that so much development had happened there, that the there of her childhood, the there there, was gone, there was no there there anymore.

(pp. 38 – 39)

I think of the various times and places of my past, and those are just snapshots in time. They no longer exist. On a recent trip back to a city where I had lived for over 20 years, it was almost unrecognizable from what I remembered. There were shadows of what once was, almost like a distant echo that sparks a nostalgic memory, but the place itself is gone, changed beyond recognition. I can only imagine that this feeling must be magnified 100 fold for Native Americans, who were displaced and stripped of their homes.

The book is unsettling, and might be disturbing for some readers. But it is worth reading. We should not avoid reading about topics because they make us uncomfortable.

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