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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 “The Hosting of the Sidhe” by William Butler Yeats

Image Source: Wikipedia

The host is riding from Knocknarea
And over the grave of Clooth-na-Bare;
Caoilte tossing his burning hair
And Niamh calling Away, come away:
Empty your heart of its mortal dream.
The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round,
Our cheeks are pale, our hair is unbound,
Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are agleam,
Our arms are waving, our lips are apart;
And if any gaze on our rushing band,
We come between him and the deed of his hand,
We come between him and the hope of his heart.

The host is rushing ’twixt night and day,
And where is there hope or deed as fair?
Caoilte tossing his burning hair,
And Niamh calling Away, come away.

Before we can begin to understand the symbolism in this poem, we have to know the names and places mentioned by Yeats.

  • Sidhe—The Faeries, but with a more general implication of supernatural beings.
  • Knocknarea—Mountain in Sligo.
  • Clooth-na-Bare—A faery who sought death in the deepest lake in the world, which she found in Sligo; hence, also a place name.
  • Caoilte—Legendary Irish hero (companion of Oisin).
  • Niamh—Beloved of Oisin, whom she lures into the adventure described in Yeats’s long early narrative poem “The Wanderings of Oisin.” Her name means “brightness and beauty.”

(Definitions source: M.L. Rosenthal)

Rosenthal provides further information regarding the Sidhe and what they meant to Yeats in particular.

Thus the Sidhe are more than mere faeries in the ordinary sense; they are supernatural beings of a more exalted character. Yeats sometimes thinks of them as including all mythical heroes, and at other times makes them quite sinister. To be touched by them is to be set apart from other mortals, an ambivalent condition common to all who succumb to enchantment.

Clearly, this is a complex poem which contains layers of symbolism. I’ll do my best to bring some of these symbols to the surface.

The Sidhe appear to embody the mythology of Ireland, a combination of the mystical and the heroic. They are the Druids, the poets, the heroes, the supernatural beings, all combined into one host. Essentially, they are the source of inspiration for Yeats.

Knocknarea and Clooth-na-Bare are both in Sligo, so we have the lofty peak and the deepest lake, respectively, in the same location. Yeats seems to be implying that the mystical inspiration for his poetry is drawn both from searching the heavens, or the realm of the divine, as well as in exploring the depths of the waters, which symbolizes the deep wellspring of the subconscious mind. This places Ireland at a sort of crossroads, a place where the divine and the human meet, where god consciousness blends with the magical power of human consciousness.

Niamh is a little more complicated. I see three possible representations here. First, she could represent Ireland as the mother country. Second, she could symbolize the embodiment of the divine creative force, or the muse which inspires the poet to craft verse. And thirdly, I suspect there is a correlation between Niamh and Maud Gonne, Yeats’s beloved and personal inspiration. Considering that there are three possible representations embodied in Niamh, it is also possible that Yeats intended her to symbolize the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone).

I suspect that Yeats sees himself reflected in the character of Caoilte. He is an Irish hero, heeding the call of the Sidhe, lured into the adventure of creating poetry by the mythical being of Niamh. As I envision him “tossing his burning hair,” I see a symbol of the mystical poet, whose mind and thoughts are aflame with the divine fire of inspiration, burning with a passion to rekindle the creative flame that was once Ireland.

As with so many of Yeats’s poems, I suspect this one is open to other interpretations. This one is just my personal view. If you have other thoughts or ideas regarding this poem, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

Thanks for stopping by, and happy St. Patrick’s Day.

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“King Solomon’s Mines” by H. Rider Haggard: A Hero’s Journey into the Subconscious

I picked this book up on a whim, basically because it was on sale and I had heard of it, and also because I liked the character of Allan Quatermain (the protagonist in this book) from the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The notes on the back cover also state that this book influenced the Indiana Jones movies. All in all, it seemed like something I should read.

It’s basically a story about a small group of adventurers in Africa who go on a quest to find the fabled diamond mines of King Solomon. The writing is great, the story is exciting, and the imagery is dazzling; but what I found most fascinating about this book is the symbolism concerning the archetypal hero’s journey into the underworld.

For me, the hero’s journey into the underworld is symbolic of a person’s exploration of the hidden realms of the subconscious mind and is frequently associated with images of death and rebirth. This book is brimming with these types of symbols.

Before the intrepid crew sets out, Sir Henry Curtis lets everyone know that this journey they are about to undertake is the strangest on which a human can embark.

“Gentlemen,” said Sir Henry, presently, in his low, deep voice, “we are going on about as strange a journey as men can make in this world. It is very doubtful if we can succeed in it. But we are three men who will stand together for good or for evil to the last. And now before we start let us for a moment pray to the Power who shapes the destinies of men, and who for ages since has marked out our paths, that it may please Him to direct our steps in accordance with His will.”

(p. 53)

As they set out on the journey, Quatermain attempts to describe the mountain landscape, symbolic of the border realm between the two states of consciousness. But because this lies on the border of the subconscious, it is ineffable and beyond the ability to describe in words.

To describe the grandeur of the whole view is beyond my powers. There was something so inexpressibly solemn and overpowering about those huge volcanoes—for doubtless they are extinct volcanoes—that it fairly took our breath away. For a while the morning lights played upon the snow and the brown and swelling masses beneath, and then, as though to veil the majestic sight from our curious eyes, strange mists and clouds gathered and increased around them, till presently we could only trace their pure and gigantic outline swelling ghostlike through the fleecy envelope. Indeed, as we afterwards discovered, they were normally wrapped in this curious gauzy mist, which doubtless accounted for one not having made them out before.

(p. 61)

Consciousness is eternal, and a symbol that frequently is used to represent the continuity of consciousness is the ourosboros, or the snake devouring its tail. This symbol is tattooed upon the body of Umbopa.

“Look,” he said: “what is this?” and he pointed to the mark of a great snake tattooed in blue round his middle, its tail disappearing in its open mouth just above where the thighs are set into the body.

(p. 103)

Later, Quatermain contemplates the eternal nature of the soul, or the subconscious.

Truly the universe is full of ghosts, not sheeted churchyard spectres, but the inextinguishable and immortal elements of life, which, having once been, can never die, though they blend and change and change again for ever.

(p. 132)

When the adventurers finally enter the cave, they marvel at the forms, the strange creations of the subconscious, reminiscent of the forms in Plato’s cave. These forms are described as strange, since they exist beyond the realm of our ordinary waking consciousness.

Sometimes the stalactites took strange forms, presumably where the dropping of the water had not always been in the same spot.

(p. 173)

It is also worth noting that water is another symbol of the subconscious. Essentially, the hidden divine aspect of our consciousness is what creates the forms which eventually manifest in the material realm.

Quatermain then contemplates how the inside of the cave is illuminated.

… I was particularly anxious to discover, if possible, by what system the light was admitted into the place, and whether it was by the hand of man or of nature that this was done, also if it had been used in any way in ancient times, as seemed probable.

(p. 174)

This symbolizes one of the most important questions for humankind: From where did consciousness arise? Light is the symbol of consciousness, or the divine intellect. It casts light into the darker regions of the subconscious and enlightens us with the divine knowledge. But is this the result of our own doing, a construct of our own minds? Did we evolve this way? Or was some divine “nature” responsible for the gift of enlightenment?

When the group emerges from the cave, they are greeted by a friend who acknowledges the importance of their return to the world of normal consciousness, which is the symbolic end of the hero’s journey, the return from the land of the dead, or the deep reaches of the subconscious.

“Oh, my lords, my lords, it is indeed you come back from the dead!—come back from the dead!”

(p. 196)

I have to say, I really loved this book. It spoke to my sense of adventure, but also inspired me with its rich symbolism. And the quality of the writing is outstanding. I highly recommend this book if you have not read it. It’s short and quick, and definitely worth it.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 34” by Lao Tzu

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The Great Tao is universal like a flood.
How can it be turned to the right or to the left?

All creatures depend on it,
And it denies nothing to anyone.

It does its work,
But it makes no claims for itself.

It clothes and feeds all,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Little.”

All things return to it as to their home,
But it does not lord it over them:
Thus, it may be called “the Great.”

It is just because it does not wish to be great
That its greatness is fully realised.

As I read this passage and contemplated it, I got the sense of the Tao as both the source and the destination. Consider the metaphor that Lao Tzu uses of the flood. All water has the ocean as its source, and all water eventually flows back to the ocean. It is the same with the spirit. All spirits have the Divine as their source, and all spirits return to the Divine. And just as a flood can be both destructive and nourishing, so can the human soul be destructive and nourishing. But ultimately, it is all part of the same flow.

I frequently need to remind myself that there is always a balance between the positive and the negative. So much attention is focused on the negative that it is easy to overlook the fact that there is exactly the same amount of positive in the universe. One can never exceed the other. It then just becomes a question of where do we want to focus our attention. For me, I try to just acknowledge the negative while focusing on the positive. That seems to work best in managing the broad swings of the pendulum.

Thanks for taking the time to read my musings, and I hope you have a blessed day.

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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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Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 3: Saintly Sancho Panza, a Christ Symbol

sanchopanzastatue

Sancho Panza is a very complex character. At first, I envisioned him as a manifestation of the fool archetype. He reminded me a lot of the fool in King Lear, cloaking wise perspective amid jokes, puns, and antics. But as I read on, the image of Sancho broadened and he appeared more and more as a saint. It could even be argued that he is a symbol of Christ himself.

First, consider that Sancho rides an ass and not a horse. When we remember that Christ rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, we have an initial parallel between the two.

Sancho describes himself as a man of peace, embodying saintly and Christ-like attributes. He also emphasizes his capacity to forgive others unconditionally, just as Christ was able to forgive.

“Senor, I am a man of peace, meek and quiet, and I can put up with any affront because I have a wife and children to support and bring up; so let it be likewise a hint to your worship, as it cannot be a mandate, that on no account will I draw sword either against clown or against knight, and that here before God I forgive the insults that have been offered me, whether they have been, are, or shall be offered me by high or low, rich or poor, noble or commoner, not excepting any rank or condition whatsoever.”

(p. 109)

Shortly afterwards, Sancho describes to Don Quixote how he was given the sign of the cross on his back, and how he endured the suffering with the same acceptance as Christ and other saintly martyrs.

“They gave me no time to see that much,” answered Sancho, “for hardly had I laid hand on my tizona when they signed the cross on my shoulders with their sticks in such a style that they took the sight out of my eyes and the strength out of my feet, stretching me where I now lie, and where thinking of whether all those stake-strokes were an indignity or not gives me no uneasiness, which the pain of the blow does, for they will remain as deeply impressed on my memory as on my shoulders.”

(p. 111)

At the wedding in Cana, Christ famously turned water into wine. In this text, Sancho Panza also exchanges water for wine, strengthening the correlation between him and Christ.

… but as at the first sup he perceived it was water he did not care to go with it, and begged Maritornes to fetch him some wine, which she did with right good will, and paid for it with her own money; for indeed they say of her that, though she was in that line of life, there was some faint and distant resemblance to a Christian about her.

(p. 131)

It is also worth noting the similarity here between Maritornes and Mary Magdalene. Both were women of “ill repute” who exhibited true spiritual values of compassion and caring.

So far, I find Sancho Panza a much more interesting and multifaceted character that Don Quixote, but I still have a way to go in the book. Thanks for stopping by, and as always, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment section.

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“Tao Teh Ching: Chapter 12” by Lao Tzu

Chinese5

The five colours blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavours cloy the palate.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Rare goods tempt men to do wrong.

Therefore, the Sage takes care of the belly, not the eye.
He prefers what is within to what is without.

This is one of those times that I am grateful for the internet. When I read this passage, the general theme was obvious enough—do not focus all your energy on material gains, but instead, seek within for spiritual treasures. But I knew I was missing something critical and that something must be associated with the number five, which is echoed in the first three lines. From my western perspective, I could not think of any significance that the number five would have in the context of this passage. So I resorted to Google.

I learned that in Chinese thought, the number five is significant because the Chinese believe there are five elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire, and Metal. From my western perspective, I have always considered there to be four elements: Earth, Water, Wind, Fire. Now the meaning of the first few lines made sense. It is the distraction of the elements to our physical senses that draws our focus away from the internal and towards the external.

This is an example of how ideas and symbols can be interpreted differently based upon the cultural context. Whenever we attempt to uncover the meaning of something, we should always consider the context in which it was created.

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