Tag Archives: symbolism

Symbolism in “The Hollow of the Three Hills” by Nathaniel Hawthorne

This is a very short tale, but rich in symbolism. In the opening paragraph, which is a little long, Hawthorne manages to lay the foundation for all the symbols that manifest in the story.

In those strange old times, when fantastic dreams and madmen’s reveries were realized among the actual circumstances of life, two persons met together at an appointed hour and place. One was a lady, graceful in form and fair of feature, though pale and troubled, and smitten with an untimely blight in what should have been the fullest bloom of her years; the other was an ancient and meanly-dressed woman, of ill-favored aspect, and so withered, shrunken, and decrepit, that even the space since she began to decay must have exceeded the ordinary term of human existence. In the spot where they encountered, no mortal could observe them. Three little hills stood near each other, and down in the midst of them sunk a hollow basin, almost mathematically circular, two or three hundred feet in breadth, and of such depth that a stately cedar might but just be visible above the sides. Dwarf pines were numerous upon the hills, and partly fringed the outer verge of the intermediate hollow, within which there was nothing but the brown grass of October, and here and there a tree trunk that had fallen long ago, and lay mouldering with no green successor from its roots. One of these masses of decaying wood, formerly a majestic oak, rested close beside a pool of green and sluggish water at the bottom of the basin. Such scenes as this (so gray tradition tells) were once the resort of the Power of Evil and his plighted subjects; and here, at midnight or on the dim verge of evening, they were said to stand round the mantling pool, disturbing its putrid waters in the performance of an impious baptismal rite. The chill beauty of an autumnal sunset was now gilding the three hill-tops, whence a paler tint stole down their sides into the hollow.

So let’s go through the paragraph and look at the various symbols that will come into play during this story.

First are the two women, one young and one old. They represent the maid and crone aspects of the triple goddess. But also, they represent the past and present for the older woman. The younger woman symbolizes the memories of the older. The choices that were made when the woman was young led her to her place now. So when the crone conjures dark memories of the young woman’s past, she is essentially reliving her own memories, which will lead to her liberation from the bonds of guilt and shame.

The next symbol we encounter is the three hills. The three hills represent the three memories which the crone conjures for the young woman. Each of the hills is a painful memory and represents separation, symbolic death (think grave mound). The young woman severed connections with parents, then with husband, and finally with child. In Hawthorne’s time, the only way a woman could be free was to shake off all bonds to family.

Next, we see that the setting of the story is in October. This represents the time of reaping. We all must reap what we sow, and the young woman must face up to the decisions that she made.

Finally, we have the symbol of the fallen tree. This represents the woman’s lineage, or family tree. When Hawthorne writes that there is “no green successor from its roots,” it is a metaphor for the fact that the woman no longer has any family or children to carry on her bloodline. Like the tree, she will just get old and decay.

While this is not a horror story, per se, it is certainly dark and eerie, and a great short read for an October evening.

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“Pickman’s Model” by H. P. Lovecraft: An Exploration of Art and Horror

Art has the ability to express that which standard forms of communication are unable to convey. This is particularly true when it come to the expression of the deeper regions of the subconscious. Often, these recesses contain our darkest thoughts, the fodder from which our nightmares take shape. It is this realm that the artist in this tale by Lovecraft delves into for inspiration.

You know, it takes profound art and profound insight into Nature to turn out stuff like Pickman’s. Any magazine-cover hack can splash paint around wildly and call it a nightmare or a Witches’ Sabbath or a portrait of the devil, but only a great painter can make such a thing really scare or ring true. That’s because only a real artist knows the actual anatomy of the terrible or the physiology of fear—the exact sort of lines and proportions that connect up with latent instincts or hereditary memories of fright, and the proper colour contrasts and lighting effects to stir the dormant sense of strangeness. I don’t have to tell you why a Fuseli really brings a shiver while a cheap ghost-story frontispiece merely makes us laugh. There’s something those fellows catch—beyond life—that they’re able to make us catch for a second. Doré had it. Sime has it. Angarola of Chicago has it. And Pickman had it as no man ever had it before or—I hope to heaven—ever will again.

Artists who explore these darker regions of the psyche are skirting the fringes of insanity. But often, an artist must temporarily let go of sanity in order to glimpse the internal landscapes which provide inspiration for truly powerful creations.

He shewed me all the paintings and drawings he had about; including some pen-and-ink sketches that would, I verily believe, have got him kicked out of the club if many of the members had seen them. Before long I was pretty nearly a devotee, and would listen for hours like a schoolboy to art theories and philosophic speculations wild enough to qualify him for the Danvers asylum.

Lovecraft uses tunnels and wells as symbols for the entry and exploration of the buried realms of the subconscious. When the characters enter the cellar and uncover the well, leading down into the tunnels below Boston, they are symbolically letting go of their fragile sanity and opening themselves to the darker mysteries of the psyche.

My host was now leading the way down cellar to his actual studio, and I braced myself for some hellish effects among the unfinished canvases. As we reached the bottom of the damp stairs he turned his flashlight to a corner of the large open space at hand, revealing the circular brick curb of what was evidently a great well in the earthen floor. We walked nearer, and I saw that it must be five feet across, with walls a good foot thick and some six inches above the ground level—solid work of the seventeenth century, or I was much mistaken. That, Pickman said, was the kind of thing he had been talking about—an aperture of the network of tunnels that used to undermine the hill. I noticed idly that it did not seem to be bricked up, and that a heavy disc of wood formed the apparent cover. Thinking of the things this well must have been connected with if Pickman’s wild hints had not been mere rhetoric, I shivered slightly; then turned to follow him up a step and through a narrow door into a room of fair size, provided with a wooden floor and furnished as a studio. An acetylene gas outfit gave the light necessary for work.

The danger that artists face when exploring the subconscious is that they may ultimately plummet into insanity, losing all touch with the world of light and getting lost forever in the realm of shadows.

Richard Upton Pickman, the greatest artist I have ever known—and the foulest being that ever leaped the bounds of life into the pits of myth and madness. Eliot—old Reid was right. He wasn’t strictly human. Either he was born in strange shadow, or he’d found a way to unlock the forbidden gate. It’s all the same now, for he’s gone—back into the fabulous darkness he loved to haunt.

Creative people should never shy away from looking into the depths of the soul for inspiration. But they should do so with care. It’s important to stay grounded when unlocking the forbidden gates of the mind.

Thanks for stopping by. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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Thoughts on “The Valley of Unrest” by Edgar Allan Poe

Gustave Dore

Once it smiled a silent dell
Where the people did not dwell;
They had gone unto the wars,
Trusting to the mild-eyed stars,
Nightly, from their azure towers,
To keep watch above the flowers,
In the midst of which all day
The red sun-light lazily lay.
Now each visitor shall confess
The sad valley’s restlessness.
Nothing there is motionless—
Nothing save the airs that brood
Over the magic solitude.
Ah, by no wind are stirred those trees
That palpitate like the chill seas
Around the misty Hebrides!
Ah, by no wind those clouds are driven
That rustle through the unquiet Heaven
Uneasily, from morn till even,
Over the violets there that lie
In myriad types of the human eye—
Over the lilies there that wave
And weep above a nameless grave!
They wave:—from out their fragrant tops
External dews come down in drops.
They weep:—from off their delicate stems
Perennial tears descend in gems.

As I read this poem, I felt like I was in a graveyard, where restless spirits were moving amid the leafless trees, gliding between gravestones. This is classic American gothic romanticism. It’s impossible to read this and not sense the “rustle through the unquiet Heaven.”

One of the first things that struck me about this poem is its connection to Psalm 23:

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Considering this, the speaker of the poem may be experiencing fear and dread at the thought of his mortality. He feels that, like the people buried in the cemetery, that he may die any day, unexpectedly, and become nothing more than a nameless stone, completely forgotten by later generations.

In addition to a fear of death, I also get a sense that the speaker is mourning a personal loss. There is some memory that is tormenting the person. The restless spirits represent memories that refuse to sleep quietly in his psyche. While the speaker does not provide any tangible clues as to who it is that is troubling his mind, I suspect that it is the loss of a loved one, probably a lover.

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“The Invisible Man” by H. G. Wells: Belief in the Unseen

I figured I would start out the October spooky reading with the classic sci-fi tale from H.G. Wells. Not surprising, Wells weaves some thought-provoking social commentary into his story. While I discovered a lot of philosophical ideas within the text, the one that really stood out for me was the question of whether things unseen (such as God and the spirit) can exist.

My sense is that during the time Wells was writing, the dominant scientific belief was that if something truly existed in the universe, then it could be scientifically observed and studied. There was skepticism that unseen phenomena, such as God, could exist.

After the first gusty panic had spent itself Iping became argumentative. Scepticism suddenly reared its head—rather nervous scepticism, not at all assured of its back, but scepticism nevertheless. It was so much easier not to believe in an invisible man; and those who had actually seen him dissolve into thin air, or felt the strength of his arm, could be counted on the fingers of two hands.

(H. G. Wells: Seven Novels; p. 197)

I addition to a skepticism of the existence of things unseen, there is also social stigma attached to those individuals who do perceive beings that are invisible (angels, demons, spirits, gods, etc.). These people are often considered delusional or mentally ill, and that the unseen entities with which they are conversing are just creations of a diseased mind.

This stranger, to the perceptions of the proprietor of the cocoanut shy, appeared to be talking to himself, and Mr. Huxter remarked the same thing. He stopped at the foot of the Coach and Horses steps, and, according to Mr. Huxter, appeared to undergo a severe internal struggle before he could induce himself to enter the house.

(p. 198)

After Kemp, who symbolizes the scientific thinker, encounters the invisible man, he begins to ponder the existence of invisible entities. Essentially, he is contemplating whether the existence of God is a possibility.

“Invisible!” he said.

“Is there such a thing as an invisible animal? In the sea, yes. Thousands! millions. All the larvae, all the little nauplii and tornarias, all the microscopic things, the jelly-fish. In the sea there are more things invisible than visible! I never thought of that before. And in the ponds too! All those little pond-life things—specks of colourless translucent jelly! But in the air? No!

“It can’t be.

“But after all—why not?

(p. 223)

Another interesting point about this passage is that Kemp claims that the sea has more things invisible than visible. The sea is a common metaphor for the subconscious mind. Psychologically speaking, there is so much happening in the mind that is beyond the grasp of our ordinary consciousness. Science has not even scratched the surface of the deeper realms of consciousness. There is much there that is still invisible to us.

For me, the most powerful passage in the entire text is when the invisible man reveals to Kemp his plans for establishing a “Reign of Terror.”

“Not wanton killing, but a judicious slaying. The point is they know there is an Invisible Man—as well as we know there is an Invisible Man. And that Invisible Man, Kemp, must now establish a Reign of Terror. Yes—no doubt it’s startling. But I mean it. A Reign of Terror. He must take some town like your Burdock and terrify and dominate it. He must issue his orders. He can do that in a thousand ways—scraps of paper thrust under doors would suffice. And all who disobey his orders he must kill, and kill all who would defend the disobedient.”

(p. 251)

Here Wells is making a dual criticism. On one level, the passage expresses his views on the concept of a vengeful God, one that hands down orders “on scraps of paper” (symbolizing scriptures) and then doles out severe punishment to the people who fail to heed the word of God. Additionally, Wells is criticizing the concept of divine rule as embodied in an absolute monarchy. These rulers live in palaces, unseen by the common folk, and hand down laws (more scraps of paper) and decree punishment upon those villagers who fail to obey the laws.

What makes this book such a masterpiece is that it is a great story, and it also has deeper meaning if you look beneath the surface. As always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section. Have a great day, and keep reading cool stuff.

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Thoughts on the Bhagavad Gita (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

I’ve been wanting to read the Bhagavad Gita for a while, but the copy that I had (provided to me by the Hare Krishnas at a Dead concert) seemed very long, so I was reluctant to start. But recently I did give it a shot and quickly realized that it was about 90% commentary, so I put it back and made the decision to find a different translation. So when I was perusing books at a bookstore recently, I discovered a translation by the poet Stephen Mitchell. I figured this would be a good version for me to delve into, and I was correct. The text flowed beautifully, and it was very easy to follow and digest the text.

As with all spiritual texts, there is such a wealth of wisdom that it is impossible to do it justice in a short blog post. With that in mind, I will share a few quotes that I connected with, as well as my thoughts regarding those passages.

Driven by desire for pleasure
and power, caught up in ritual,
they strive to gain heaven; but rebirth
is the only result of their striving.

They are lured by their desires,
besotted by the scriptures’ words;
their minds have not been made clear
by the practice of meditation.

The scriptures dwell in duality.
Be beyond all opposites, Arjuna:
anchored in the real, and free
from all thoughts of wealth and comfort.

(p. 54)

While mystical and spiritual texts are great sources of wisdom and inspiration, Lord Krishna points out the issue—they fall short of the wisdom and freedom gained from active spiritual pursuits. Scripture uses symbolic language to try to express the ineffable experience of direct connection with the Divine which is gained through yoga and meditation. Those who seek the Divine solely in text will never find what they seek. It is only through actively engaging in practices that one may catch a momentary glimpse of the Divine.

As fire is obscured by smoke,
as a mirror is covered by dust,
as a fetus is wrapped in a membrane,
so wisdom is obscured by desire.

Wisdom is destroyed, Arjuna,
by the constant enemy of the wise,
which, flaring up as desire,
blazes with insatiable flames.

(p. 69)

This made me think a lot about our current society. Social media, advertising, and even the news to some extent, all feed the human desire for what they don’t have, or what they don’t have enough of, or what will keep them safe, and on and on and on. This desire, this constant striving, is manifesting much of our current social and political problems right now. People are prone to react rather than think and respond carefully. I have made a conscious effort to minimize the amount of social media and advertising information that I am exposed to, and as a result, I have become much happier and calmer.

I am the father of the universe
and its mother, essence and goal
of all knowledge, the refiner, the sacred
Om, and the threefold Vedas.

I am the beginning and the end,
origin and dissolution,
refuge, home, true lover,
womb and imperishable seed.

I am the heat of the sun,
I hold back the rain and release it,
I am death, and the deathless,
and all that is or is not.

(pp. 116 – 117)

What I like about this passage where Lord Krishna is describing himself to Arjuna is that he uses a series of opposites to describe his essence. It is like a balancing of light and dark, yin and yang, life and death. The Divine must surly encompass all, for everything emanates from the Source and, therefore, everything must exist within the Source. This kind of echoes Revelation 22:13 where Christ says: “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.”

This is the soul-destroying
threefold entrance to hell:
desire, anger, and greed.
Every man should avoid them.

The man who refuses to enter
these three gates into darkness
does what is best for himself
and attains the ultimate goal.

(p. 173)

This is so true. If more people would replace desire with acceptance, anger with love and forgiveness, and greed with charity, what a different world this would be. How much happier we would be as a global society. There is still hope for us. Although I sometimes despair, I remember that humans have an incredible capacity to change. I will do my best to help promote change for the better.

Thanks for stopping by, and many blessings!

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Thoughts on “Sandman: The Dream Hunters” by Neil Gaiman

This book feels like an adaptation of a Japanese fairy tale, but as artist P. Craig Russell points out in the Afterward, it was all a creation of Gaiman’s imagination, so well executed that even Russell believed it was a traditional Japanese tale when working on the illustrations.

The story is about a fox who falls in love with a monk, and while it is not possible for them to consummate their love, their feelings for each other cause each of them to make sacrifices for the other. It is a wonderful and moving story, and one can read it without knowing the background mythology of the Sandman. So without spoiling the story for those who want to read it, I figured I’d share a few passages that stood out for me.

The monk unfolded his token to show it to them, and it was then that he knew for certain he was dreaming, for he could read the characters on the paper he carried. They were simple characters and they described one who transmuted things from formlessness and shapelessness into that-which-was-not-real, but without which the real world would have no meaning.

(p. 72)

This is the way in which art is created, particularly stories and poetry. The mind taps into the vast sea of the subconscious and draws from the wellspring of inspiration. As the story takes shape and becomes an expression of the collective consciousness, it evolves into something that is not “real,” but expresses what is real about the human experience. In other words, stories provide life with meaning. A world without stories would be meaningless.

I serve the king of dreams … and I do his bidding. But you are correct … once I was a poet … and like all poets … I spent too long in the kingdom of dreams.

(p. 79)

I totally relate to this passage. As someone who has written poetry, I know that, for me, poetic inspiration comes from going deep into my subconscious, to draw on the symbols and metaphors that express that which is impossible to convey through plain language. But, there is a risk of spending too long in the realm of inspiration. One can become ungrounded, and that can lead to its own set of personal difficulties.

But dreams are strange things. And none of us but the king of all night’s dreaming can say if they are true or not, nor of what they are able to tell any of us about the times that are still to come.

(p. 125)

Dreams are strange things, but what would life be without them? Our dreams and stories and creative expressions are what define us.

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“The Sandman: Endless Nights” by Neil Gaiman

This book is comprised of seven vignettes, each featuring one of the Endless, Gaiman’s archetypal beings that are beyond even mere gods. As such, you should only approach this book if you have a good understanding of the Sandman mythology.

There is a great scene in this book where Gaiman elaborates on the essence of the Endless, and how they differ from gods and goddesses.

Killalla: Look, you seem nice enough. Will you answer some questions for me? Just give me some straight answers?

Sto-oa: Certainly.

Killalla: Why was everyone afraid of his older sister? The pretty one? They wouldn’t talk to her or anything.

Sto-oa: Because in the end, each sun, each world, every galaxy, will collapse and end, either into flame, or into darkness. And when that happens, she will be there, for each of us. Now do you understand?

Killalla: Not really.

Sto-oa: She is Death.

Killalla: Oh. You mean . . . she’s the Goddess of Death, or the incarnation, or . . .

Sto-oa: No. She is Death. Just as that one is Desire. Or your lover is Dream.

Killalla: Of course he is Dream. I met him in the Kingdom of Dreams, and he followed me back. He’s the king there . . .

Sto-oa: No, Killalla. He is not the king. He is Dream. Just as I am Sto-oa.

(p. 73)

So what is important and revealing in this passage is the differentiation between the gods and the Endless. Gods and goddesses have to be gods of something. But not the Endless. The Endless represent the seven aspects of existence, which every sentient being must face at some point in his or her existence. Our dreams, desires, despair, delight/delusion, destruction, destiny, and death are not dependent upon any supernal entity. They exist in spite of divine beings. In fact, even divine beings must face each of the seven.

Now his path takes him into his dwelling, a place of corridors and halls.

The paintings in Destiny’s hall show his brothers and sisters as they might wish to be seen (although the wish and the thing are so close in the realm of the Endless that you cannot get a thin-bladed knife between them).

You will spend time in the realm of each of his siblings – you will dream, despair, desire, destroy, delight and otherwise, and, eventually, die – but you were his from the very first page, and only he will read how your story comes out, a long time from now.

(p. 147)

I feel like I have personally visited with all the Endless. I know, I am still alive, but I came close to death a couple times and feel like I have met the sister that most fear. I’m not quite sure what Destiny still has in his book regarding my story, but obviously, it is not finished yet, since I am still here.

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