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Symbolism in “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

This book was a selection for the book club to which I belong. The friend who suggested the book only said it was about collective memory. Since that is a subject I find interesting, I was eager to read it.

The tale is set in post-Arthurian Britain and depicts a country suffering from a form of mass amnesia, where a strange mist has caused everyone to forget much of their collective past. The story follows the quest of five individuals seeking to restore memory by slaying a dragon responsible for causing the collective forgetting.

What I love the most about this book is the abundance of symbols that Ishiguro uses to explore memory. Hence, I figured I would focus this post on some of the more prominent symbolic representations of memory.

The first memory symbol I would like to explore is a village. The specific village is described as labyrinthine, and reminded me of the city of Siena in Italy, which had strange streets that were confusing to walk.

Axl was puzzled that a village which from a distance looked to be two orderly rings of houses could turn out to be such a chaotic labyrinth now they were walking through its narrow lanes. Admittedly the light was fading, but as he followed Beatrice, he could discern no logic or pattern to the place. Buildings would loom unexpectedly in front of them, blocking their way and forcing them down baffling side alleys. They were obliged, moreover, to walk with even more caution than out on the roads: not only was the ground pitted and full of puddles from the earlier storm, the Saxons seemed to find it acceptable to leave random objects, even pieces of rubble, lying in the middle of the path.

(pp. 49 – 50)

In this passage, the city represents the way memories are stored in the mind and how one struggles in the search for forgotten memories. When trying to remember something that has been forgotten, it feels like you are wandering aimlessly through streets, trying to recognize patterns which will spark and illuminate the fragment of memory which the mind is trying to bring to the surface. As is often the case, the longer we wander the streets of the mind, the more difficult it becomes to find the lost fragment of memory. Other fragments seem to jut out from nowhere, adding to the frustration.

Trees are often used as symbols for memory, and Ishiguro makes use of that symbol also.

For a moment Wistan appeared lost in thought, following with his eyes one of the gnarled roots stretching from the oak’s trunk and past where he stood, before burrowing itself into the earth.

(p. 110)

Here, the oak tree represents the conscious mind, the part of the psyche that is readily accessible. But below the earth lies the subconscious mind, and the collective consciousness. The roots represent the mind’s attempt to reach into the subconscious and tap into the hidden regions of memory.

The tree symbol segues nicely into the next symbol, which is that of tunnels underground.

They all paused to recover their breaths and look around at their new surroundings. After the long walk with the earth brushing their heads, it was a relief to see the ceiling not only so high above them, but composed of more solid material. Once Sir Gawain had lit the candle again, Axl realised they were in some sort of mausoleum, surrounded by walls bearing traces of murals and Roman letters. Before them a pair of substantial pillars formed a gateway into a further chamber of comparable proportions, and falling across the threshold was an intense pool of moonlight. Its source was not so obvious: perhaps somewhere behind the high arch crossing the two pillars there was an opening which at the moment, by sheer chance, was aligned to receive the moon. The light illuminated much of the moss and fungus on the pillars, as well as a section of the next chamber, whose floor appeared to be covered in rubble, but which Axl soon realised was comprised of a vast layer of bones. Only then did it occur to him that under his feet were more broken skeletons, and that this strange floor extended for the entirety of both chambers.

(p. 170)

The tunnels and underground chambers symbolize the portals into the subconscious. Additionally, the bone fragments represent fragments of memory, pieces of ourselves and of those who lived before us that comprise the collective consciousness. I also interpret the moonbeams entering the chamber as an individual’s glimpse into the hidden regions of the psyche.

The last memory symbol I want to mention is the river.

It was bitingly cold on the river. Broken ice drifted here and there in sheets, but their baskets moved past them with ease, sometimes bumping gently one against the other. The baskets were shaped almost like boats, with a low bow and stern, but had a tendency to rotate, so at times Axl found himself gazing back up the river to the boathouse still visible on the bank.

(p. 226)

The river, or stream, is a common metaphor for consciousness and memory, but what I like about Ishguro’s use here is his inclusion of ice fragments, which conjures similar symbolism from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner. These ice fragments are shards of memory that are formed from the collective consciousness, yet also melt back into the collective stream of memory and thought. It is the fluid made solid. The random bumping into the fragments suggest that the memories that move into our conscious mind are also random. We really do not have control over the memories which come to the surface. We move along the stream of consciousness, occasionally coming into contact with the shards of memory that also float along the surface.

There is a wealth of other symbols in this book, all woven together in a beautifully written and engaging story. I don’t want to give too much away. I highly recommend this book. It’s both thought provoking and a pleasurable read.

Cheers!

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Thoughts on “A Late Walk” by Robert Frost

Vincent Van Gogh

When I go up through the mowing field,
The headless aftermath,
Smooth-laid like thatch with the heavy dew,
Half closes the garden path.

And when I come to the garden ground,
The whir of sober birds
Up from the tangle of withered weeds
Is sadder than any words.

A tree beside the wall stands bare,
But a leaf that lingered brown,
Disturbed, I doubt not, by my thought,
Comes softly rattling down.

I end not far from my going forth
By picking the faded blue
Of the last remaining aster flower
To carry again to you.

In this poem, Frost uses autumn as a symbol for impending death. It appears that someone close to him is nearing the end of his or her life, and this imminent death is cause for Frost to reflect on his own mortality.

In addition to the ABCB rhyming scheme, Frost incorporates alliteration, which works nicely. The phrases “garden ground,” “withered weeds,” “leaf that lingered,” and “disturbed, I doubt not” instill a somber musicality to the poem that evokes a feeling of inner reflection.

I have often walked alone in the fall, smelling the dead leaves and listening to the wind rustling the bare branches of trees. At these times, I am very aware of the fragility of life, along with the promise of spring and rebirth.

It is the promise of rebirth that offers a ray of hope in this otherwise sad poem. Frost uses the aster flower as a symbol for spring and rebirth. Death is just part of the cycle of life, but the cycle continues and from death comes new growth.

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Thoughts on “The Two Trees” by William Butler Yeats

Picasso: Two Trees

Beloved, gaze in thine own heart,
The holy tree is growing there;
From joy the holy branches start,
And all the trembling flowers they bear.
The changing colours of its fruit
Have dowered the stars with merry light;
The surety of its hidden root
Has planted quiet in the night;
The shaking of its leafy head
Has given the waves their melody,
And made my lips and music wed,
Murmuring a wizard song for thee.
There the Loves a circle go,
The flaming circle of our days,
Gyring, spiring to and fro
In those great ignorant leafy ways;
Remembering all that shaken hair
And how the wingèd sandals dart,
Thine eyes grow full of tender care:
Beloved, gaze in thine own heart.

Gaze no more in the bitter glass
The demons, with their subtle guile,
Lift up before us when they pass,
Or only gaze a little while;
For there a fatal image grows
That the stormy night receives,
Roots half hidden under snows,
Broken boughs and blackened leaves.
For all things turn to barrenness
In the dim glass the demons hold,
The glass of outer weariness,
Made when God slept in times of old.
There, through the broken branches, go
The ravens of unresting thought;
Flying, crying, to and fro,
Cruel claw and hungry throat,
Or else they stand and sniff the wind,
And shake their ragged wings; alas!
Thy tender eyes grow all unkind:
Gaze no more in the bitter glass.

According to the Eden myth, there were two trees in the Garden: The Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, and the Tree of Life. In this poem, Yeats uses these two trees as symbols for the creative and the mortal aspects of the human psyche, respectively. The first stanza corresponds with the Tree of Knowledge, and the second stanza corresponds to the Tree of Life.

While the story of eating from the Tree of Knowledge is often interpreted as something negative, a rebellion and fall from grace, Yeats does not seem to see it this way. For Yeats, knowledge of good and evil is essentially what makes us godlike, and the true mystical power of god is the power to create. The first stanza is filled with imagery of growth and flowering, which symbolizes the blossoming of the creative spirit in an individual. He encourages the reader to “gaze in thine own heart,” because that is where the “holy tree” of creativity is rooted, within the deeper self.

Other metaphors that Yeats uses in the first stanza are music and circles. Music is a fairly standard metaphor for poetry, which Yeats attributes to the eating of the fruit from the first tree. The circle conjures images of pagan rituals, most likely Druid or Wiccan, but possibly also of the Golden Dawn. The circles, spirals, and gyres evoke a sense of ritual performed within a circle around a fire. Yeats would have likely believed that the development of spiritual and occult arts was a result of the symbolic eating from the Tree of Knowledge.

And this brings us to the second stanza, and the Tree of Life. It is important to keep in mind that the archetypal humans did not eat of this tree, and as such are destined to wither and die. The effects of this tree are manifested on the outside of a person, as opposed to the Tree of Knowledge which is internal. Hence the demons hold up “the bitter glass,” which is a mirror. Gazing in to it, one becomes aware of aging, of mortality, of impending death. All the symbols that Yeats uses in the second stanza—night, snow, broken boughs, blackened leaves, barrenness, ravens—are all associated with death.

So what is the larger message that Yeats is trying to convey here? It seems to me that he is encouraging us to shift our focus from our outer selves, away from the flesh and our mortality, and instead focus on the inner self, the spirit, the divine essence within all of us. We will die, that is inevitable; but we do not have to spend our lives worrying about getting old and dying. We should live full, spiritual, and creative lives, building loving relationships with others, and creating beauty for future generations.

Thanks for taking the time to read my reflections, and as always, please feel free to share yours in the comment area below. Cheers!

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“Norse Mythology” by Neil Gaiman

I had to travel for work recently, and this was the perfect book to read while on flights and in hotel rooms. It was a quick read, entertaining, and thought-provoking. Basically, everything you expect from Gaiman in the retelling of Norse myths. He took stories from the Prose Edda and the Poetic Edda and presents them in his own voice. It works really well.

There is an abundance of the usual characters that we expect in the Norse myths: Thor, Odin, Loki, Freya, and so on. But Gaiman also treats us to some lesser-known players, and some of these stories have resonant similarities to other myths. For example, in the following creation story, Ask and Embla are created from the Ash and Elm trees, and the names conjure images of Adam and Eve.

Ve carved the logs. He gave them the shape of people. He carved their ears, that they might hear, and their eyes, that they might see, and lips, that they might speak.

The two logs stood on the beach, two naked people. Ve had carved one with male genitals, the other he had carved female.

The three brothers made clothes for the woman and the man, to cover themselves and to keep them warm, in the chilly sea-spray on the beach at the edge of the world.

Last of all they gave the two people they had made names: the man they called Ask, or Ash Tree; the woman they called Embla, or Elm.

(p. 34)

It is rare that I actually laugh out loud when I am reading, but it happened during this book (glad I wasn’t drinking coffee – it would have come out my nose). It occurred during the myth about the Mead of Poetry, which Odin, in the form of a giant eagle, stole from a giant, carrying the mead in his mouth and spitting it into vats back as Asgard. But that is not the whole story.

There. That is the story of the mead of poetry and how it was given to the world. It is a story filled with dishonor and deceit, with murder and trickery. But it is not quite the whole story. There is one more thing to tell you. The delicate among you should stop your ears, or read no further.

Here is the last thing, and a shameful admission it is. When the all-father in eagle form had almost reached the vats, with Suttung immediately behind him, Odin blew some of the mead out of his behind, a splattery wet fart of foul-smelling mead right in Suttung’s face, blinding the giant and throwing him off Odin’s trail.

No one, then or now, wanted to drink the mead that came out of Odin’s ass. But whenever you hear bad poets declaiming their bad poetry, filled with foolish similes and ugly rhymes, you will know which of the meads they have tasted.

(p. 151)

I will forever have this image in my mind when I read a bad poem!

Many of the myths in this book are symbolic for issues that we as conscious beings have to grapple with. A great example of this is when Thor wrestles an old woman and is unable to defeat her. This tale is symbolic for how we, aware of our mortality, have to wrestle with the knowledge of our impending death as we enter into old age.

“And the old woman?” asked Thor. “Your old nurse? What was she?” His voice was very mild, but he had hold of the shaft of his hammer, and he was holding it comfortably.

“That was Elli, old age. No one can beat old age, because in the end she takes each of us, makes us weaker and weaker until she closes our eyes for good. All of us except you, Thor. You wrestled old age, and we marveled that you stayed standing, that even when she took power over you, you fell down only to one knee. We have never seen anything like last night, Thor. Never.”

(p. 176)

Something that has always fascinated me about mythology is how recurring themes appear across various myths, regardless of the time and place in which those myths originated. A great example is the river which the souls of the dead must cross. For me, it symbolizes the crossing of the stream of consciousness, which we must undertake in order for our consciousness to return to the divine source.

Hermod the Nimble rode for nine days and nine nights without stopping. He rode deeper and he rode through gathering darkness: from gloom to twilight to night to a pitch-black starless dark. All that he could see in the darkness was something golden glinting far ahead of him.

Closer he rode, and closer, and the light grew brighter. It was gold, and it was the thatch bridge across the Gjaller River, across which all who die must travel.

(pp. 242 – 243)

This book is outstanding on so many levels. It is simple and accessible, yet brimming with profound wisdom for those who want to dive deep into the text. I highly recommend this to all readers.

Cheers!

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“Ulalume” by Edgar Allan Poe

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Illustration by Dante Gabriel Rossetti

Then my heart it grew ashen and sober
As the leaves that were crisped and sere —
As the leaves that were withering and sere,
And I cried — “It was surely October
On this very night of last year
That I journeyed — I journeyed down here —
That I brought a dread burden down here —
On this night of all nights in the year,
Ah, what demon has tempted me here?
Well I know, now, this dim lake of Auber —
This misty mid region of Weir —
Well I know, now, this dank tarn of Auber,
This ghoul-haunted woodland of Weir.”

(excerpt from poem)

This is a fairly long poem, and I debated whether to include the entire text here. I decided to include some excerpts and a link to the entire text. Click here to read the poem on the Edgar Allan Poe Society website.

This is a poem about being haunted by the loss of a loved one, not unlike “Annabel Lee” or “The Raven.” It is set in October and incorporates seasonal metaphors symbolizing death, such as withering leaves, ashen skies, and cypress trees. But for me, the most intriguing aspect of this dark poem is the exploration of the subconscious mind.

The protagonist describes travelling with his Psyche, or Soul, through the boreal regions of the north.

Here once, through an alley Titanic,
Of cypress, I roamed with my Soul —
Of cypress, with Psyche, my Soul.
These were days when my heart was volcanic
As the scoriac rivers that roll —
As the lavas that restlessly roll
Their sulphurous currents down Yaanek
In the ultimate climes of the pole —
That groan as they roll down Mount Yaanek
In the realms of the boreal pole.

As I read this, I envision the frozen northlands, the Aurora Borealis, and vast expanses of wilderness coated with ice and frost. These represent the speaker’s subconscious mind, where memories and dreams lie frozen in an area that is difficult to reach. He enters this realm with his Psyche, the part of his consciousness connected with the realm of dreams, imagination, and memory. There is also an active volcano, which symbolizes fiery and painful passion and emotion surging up to the surface from deep within. It’s an incredibly powerful image and captures the deep sorrow that the protagonist feels.

While in the deepest recesses of the subconscious, Poe describes the appearance of the goddess Astarte.

At the end of our path a liquescent
And nebulous lustre was born,
Out of which a miraculous crescent
Arose with a duplicate horn —
Astarte’s bediamonded crescent
Distinct with its duplicate horn.

Astarte is a goddess of fertility and sexuality, often associated with Venus. I interpret this as the protagonist envisioning the soul of his departed love having merged and become a part of the divine feminine. It’s an interesting idea, that male souls emanate and return to the masculine aspect of the godhead, while the female souls emanate and return to the feminine aspect of the divine. It is almost like a dualistic version of Plotinus’s theory of divine emanation. I suspect this is something I will be meditating on for a while.

Overall, this is a beautifully crafted and evocative poem that works on many levels for me. While I don’t think it’s as popular as some of Poe’s other poems, I feel it is as good if not better.

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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 2: At the Crossroads

Painting by Wilhelm Marstrand

Painting by Wilhelm Marstrand

One of the symbols that I have always found fascinating is the crossroads. Not only is it a representation of a point in our lives where we must choose a direction, but it is also an intersection between two realms: the conscious and subconscious, life and death, past and present. Maya Deren’s exploration of voudou offers great insights into the powerful symbolism of the crossroads.

Anyway, as I am continuing to read through Cervantes, I have noticed the symbol appearing in the text. In fact, Don Quixote states in no uncertain terms how important the crossroads are.

To which Don Quixote replied, “Thou must take notice, brother Sancho, that this adventure and those like it are not adventures of islands, but of crossroads, in which nothing is got except a broken head or an ear the less: have patience, for adventures will present themselves from which I may make you, not only a governor, but something more.”

(p. 65)

What is being expressed here is that the story of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza conveys more than what appears on the surface. It is not just an island in the vast sea of literature. It is a mystical place where the spiritual and the physical meet, where the veil between reality and the imagination is torn away.

Not long after this passage, Don Quixote and Sancho meet a group of shepherds at a crossroads who are on their way to a funeral.

They had not gone a quarter of a league when at the meeting of two paths they saw coming towards them some six shepherds dressed in black sheepskins and with their heads crowned with garlands of cypress and bitter oleander, Each of them carried a stout holly staff in his hand and along with them came two men of quality on horseback in handsome travelling dress, with three servants on foot accompanying them. Courteous salutations were exchanged on meeting, and inquiring one of the other which way each party was going, they learned that all were bound for the scene of the burial, so they went on all together.

(p. 86)

Here we have the intersection between life and death. The three plants that are mentioned—cypress, oleander, and holly—are all evergreens and symbolize the cycles of life, death, and rebirth.

I still have a long way to go in this book, and I suspect that Don Quixote and Sancho will find themselves at many other crossroads along their journey. I look forward to seeing which pathways they choose.

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“A Dream of Death” by William Butler Yeats

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

Cypresses: Vincent van Gogh

I dreamed that one had died in a strange place
Near no accustomed hand,
And they had nailed the boards above her face,
The peasants of that land,
Wondering to lay her in that solitude,
And raised above her mound
A cross they had made out of two bits of wood,
And planted cypress round;
And left her to the indifferent stars above
Until I carved these words:
She was more beautiful than thy first love,
But now lies under boards.

I read this poem twice this morning and had a good sense of the meaning, but felt that I might be missing some historical context. So I did a little research (the internet is an amazing resource) and learned that Yeats composed this poem for Maude Gonne, who had taken a trip to France for health reasons. Clearly, he was expressing concern about her being so far away from home while ill and afraid of what might happen to her in the unfortunate event that she passed away.

What struck me about this poem was the big-picture theme about death and remembrance. Most people who have lived and died are completely forgotten, and this is a sobering thought. We all like to think of our lives as being meaningful, and I do believe that everyone’s life has purpose in the grand scheme, but that does not mean that individual lives are remembered long past death. And I think this is what Yeats was getting at in this poem. His words in this poem ensure that the memory of Gonne would continue after her death, that she would not become just a nameless marker somewhere.

Another thing that is worth mentioning is the symbolism of the cypress trees. In Yeats’ vision, he sees cypress trees planted around Maude’s burial mound. The tree is an ancient symbol of mourning and possesses mystical properties, particularly in regard to ushering the soul from this world to the next realm.

The poet Ovid, who wrote during the reign of Augustus, records the best-known myth that explains the association of the cypress with grief. The handsome boy Cyparissus, a favorite of Apollo, accidentally killed a beloved tame stag. His grief and remorse were so inconsolable that he asked to weep forever. He was transformed into cupressus sempervirens, with the tree’s sap as his tears. In another version of the story, it was the woodland god Silvanus who was the divine companion of Cyparissus and who accidentally killed the stag. When the boy was consumed by grief, Silvanus turned him into a tree, and thereafter carried a branch of cypress as a symbol of mourning.

In Greek mythology, besides Cyparissus, the cypress is also associated with Artemis and Hecate, a goddess of magic, crossroads and the underworld. Ancient Roman funerary rites used it extensively.

(Source: Wikipedia)

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