I’m so pleased to welcome Carole Cummings to The Novel Approach today, not as an interviewer for DSP Publications’ Genre Talk, but to chat about a subject near and dear to my heart–symbolism–in a series that’s near and dear to my heart–Wolf’s-own. Enjoy Carole’s article, then be sure to click on the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win a signed copy of Wolf’s-own: Ghost, a full set of the four books in the series, or, the grand prize, a Kindle Fire.
ALIENS AND OTHER PHALLIC THINGS—ER, I MEAN SYMBOLS IN SPECULATIVE FICTION
I have a bit of a love/hate relationship with symbolism in literature. I love finding it. I love analyzing it. But I hate it when I’m told “This is the symbol and this is what it means. It doesn’t matter what the author intended. It doesn’t matter what another might see and extrapolate from the same image. This is what it means and there is no other answer.”
I had a professor once with whom I argued quite vociferously about the symbolism of the white whale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. To this professor, the whale and its whiteness represented the juxtaposition of Evil hiding behind a façade of Good, how one cannot exist without the other, and just as Ahab wanted to be the instrument by which Evil was defeated, so too would the whale be the instrument by which Good fell with it. And since Ahab ultimately failed, Evil remains in the guise of Good, and humanity continues to fall.
Plausible, certainly. But still. I thought it was bullshit. I thought Ahab was a crazy bastard who had delusions of grandeur, and I saw the whale as something he couldn’t control—something beyond him, something with powers he couldn’t understand, something with motivations that were unfathomable. Something that was, when you think about it, godlike. And it was my theory that Ahab wanted to justify his need to slay his god, to—as mankind always does—exert his own will by thwarting his gods and turning that god into a demon to rationalize his megalomania.
It’s a theme that’s pretty much everywhere. Prometheus and his hubris in his attempt to touch the face of his god and getting brutally thwarted for it. Look at Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for example, the full title of which is, of course, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus. Here, again, a man attempts to wield powers reserved for gods, and not only is he punished, he’s punished by the thing he created with those powers. We see this same theme again in the not-really-a-prequel to Alien, Ridley Scott’s aptly named Prometheus, which was fairly universally hissed at, but thematically and symbolically speaking, it was pretty damned spot-on.
And it’s fitting how the symbolism in Prometheus piggybacks the violent aftermath of that hubris with the subsequent symbolism in Alien and gives us a look at how we keep reaching, and the gods keep trying to cut us off at the knees for it. Because the thread that links Prometheus to Alien is that weare responsible for the creation of the monsters, monsters which then tried to destroy us through symbolic rape. (Because gods throughout history and various religions are, by and large, weirdly rapey.) Seriously—look at the sets and the creatures and… pretty much everything. Penises and vaginas everywhere! And it’s not only about rape but brutal rape. (Not that there’s any other kind.) Brutal rape followed by an unwanted “pregnancy” that really doesn’t end well for anyone.
It gives whole new meaning to that final scene, where Ripley’s getting ready to put herself into hypersleep for the trip home. She’s down to her panties and a tiny tank—obviously asking for it, right?—when the alien drags its giant phallic head out from the guts of the little ship and tries to have its way with her. The fact that it doesn’t succeed, that Ripley thwarts the gods’ revenge, tells us how we’ve evolved intellectually since Prometheus and Frankenstein’s monster, how we’ve become less naïve about gods and their omnipotence, their right to punish us for our curious natures.
Not only does it turn the Prometheus theme on its head, but it says something quite profound about us and our gods, and who really wields the power in that relationship.
And the movie relayed all of it without once preaching at the audience with words that would just as likely have been either ignored or mocked. It did it with images, with subtleties, with symbols the conscious mind might never see clearly, but that the subconscious can’t help but assimilate. Maybe another viewer would never see that symbolism, and maybe, even if they did, they wouldn’t agree it’s there or that it means what I see in it. But that’s the point—that’s what I see. That’s what it means to me. No one has to agree with me for me to see it there and to take the meaning from it that I do.
Speculative Fiction—whether it be literature or film or any other medium—has a rich history of taking these kinds of broad concepts and encapsulating them into symbols that resonate. Tolkien symbolically warning the world of the dangers of Industrialism in The Lord of the Rings. The proliferation of shadow imagery throughout Ursula K. Le Guin’sA Wizard of Earthsea giving us hope because a shadow cannot exist without light. The systematic oppression and attempted genocide of magical people in the BBC series Merlinas allegory for the discrimination of the LGBTQ community. The shadow of a Guinevere slipping ever-so-briefly but still heartbreakingly and inevitably between Arthur and Bedwyr in Mary Stewart’s Crystal Cave series. The hybrid mockingjay in Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, accidentally created through the Capitol’s attempt to—quite literally—steal the opposition’s voices, its ultimate failure and then its subsequent neglect. Much like how Katniss herself was created.
Are these symbols definitive? Did the creators put them there on purpose? Do they mean what I think they mean?
Who knows? Some of them, probably yes, since the authors have told us so. But that’s the great thing about symbolism—even if the author put it there and knows exactly what it means and why it’s there and what it’s meant to convey, it doesn’t matter if a reader gets something else entirely out of it. Maybe the shadows were merely moody setting. Maybe the mockinjay was just a pretty bird. Maybe Ishmael was simply telling us the mother of all fish tales. (“No, seriously, it was this big!”)
To me, that’s the best part. It’s all subjective, like pretty much anything that’s interesting and has resonance. The Prometheus theme I saw in Moby Dick helped me to appreciate the tale in a way the Good –vs– Evil theme upon which the professor insisted just couldn’t. It gave new depth to Ahab and helped me to understand him as a person, terribly flawed and kind of awful, but still sympathetic because who wouldn’t like to look their god in the eye, if they had the chance? Who wouldn’t want to rage and scream and throw their harpoons at the unfairness of a force of nature? What I saw in the symbolism of that book took it from an ordinary academic assignment and elevated it to something that has stayed with me for the *mumblety mumble* years since. It showed me that we will see what we will see, no matter what the “right” answer may be, and we will take away from a story what it’s important for us, as individuals, to take away.
I came here today to talk to you about symbolism in speculative fiction, and more specifically the symbolism in Wolf’s-own. And there’s a lot of it—some of it was intentional; some of it I only realized was there well after I’d written it. I had a whole list to go through—the symbolism of twins and how Shig’s arc parallels Fen’s; the real meaning of those petals that keep haunting Fen; Morin and the fish; Fen’s dreams; the scent of almonds; the colors of the moons and the names of the gods; Malick’s hand around Fen’s throat.
There’s more. And believe me, like any author, I could go on and on and on about what all of it means and how understanding it all could enhance a reader’s perception of the overall arcs. I’m not going to do that, though. Because, in the end, it doesn’t matter. The symbolism in Wolf’s-own is really what you make of it, not me. I hope you give it a try. And I hope you get out of it exactly what you want to get out of it.
Me, I’m just going to float off on Queequeg’s coffin and ponder Eve’s “apple”. Or maybe two dragons—one red, one white—battling it out beneath a mountain. Or maybe even the poignant thwip-thwip-thwip of a moth’s ragged gray wings and the pursuit of a freedom that’s being sought in all the wrong places. Maybe none of those things mean anything to anyone else, but that’s okay—I know what all of them mean to me.
For what it’s worth, that professor and I never did agree on Moby Dick. But I aced the class anyway. ;)
The Wolf’s-own series (Ghost, Weregild, Koan and Incendiary) can be purchased in ebook and paperback through DSP Publications and Amazon, as well as most major outlets.
About the Author: Carole lives with her husband and family in Pennsylvania, USA, where she spends her time trying to find time to write. Author of the Aisling and Wolf’s-own series, Carole is currently in the process of developing several other works, including more short stories than anyone will ever want to read, and novels that turn into series when she’s not looking.
You can follow Carole via her her website, Facebook, blog, or Twitter.
(She also has accounts on Google+, Tumblr, LinkedIn and Pinterest, but has no idea how to use any of them. Shut up.)
30 thoughts on “Guest Post and Giveaway: The Wolf's-own: Ghost Blog Tour With Carole Cummings”
Symbolism…totally enjoyed the blog, but maybe a little deep for my thought processes? Also, I never read or studied Moby Dick. Maybe I should give it a try. :-)
Thanks for your thoughts, Barbra. Moby Dick–for whatever reason you read it–is, at its core, a really good human story. And Melville definitely had a way with words. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it. :)
I think Moby Dick is the kind of book you could be discussing forever… And always find new meaning, symbol, hidden message. I remember some very interesting discussions about it at university…
Congratulations on the new release. The book sounds great
Oh, I totally agree, Susana. I won’t even try to pretend I found all the symbolism, or that I correctly understood what I did find. And I think you could find different symbols and different meanings for them should you read it at, say, 20 and then again at 35, depending on what kinds of life experiences you’ve had. It’s just that rich with it.
Thanks for stopping by!
I have admit that symbolism has never been my strong suit. I was always a science and math person who deals better with black and white!
Well, but that’s one of the great things about it all, Ree Dee–if it’s done right, you don’t have to see it at all. Something like Moby Dick, while incredibly rich with symbolism, can still be read as just a really good fishing story. The symbolism is there for those who care about that sort of thing, and for those who don’t, it’s still a highly enjoyable read. :)
Good Article. Thanks for the give a way
Thanks, Becky! :)
Congratulations on your release and symbolism is not something I really understand there are so many sides to what people think and mean!
That’s exactly the point, Shirley. It’s so subjective and the interpretations, I think, depend entirely upon the individual doing the interpreting. That’s one of the things I love about it. :)
Thanks for hosting today, Lisa! :)
It’s absolutely my pleasure, Giselle! This is one of my all-time favorite spec fic series, so I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. :)
snuffly hugs Thanks for letting me come natter, Lisa, and thanks for arranging it all, Giselle. <3
Thanks for the the thought-provoking post. I subscribe to your interpretation of Moby Dick over your professor’s. :-) And your analysis of Alien made a lot of sense to me.
grin Thanks for that, Jen. high five
Congratulations on the new release! Looking forward to reading it!
Thank you, Julie! If you give it a try, I hope you enjoy.
I guess I’m a bit like you in the aspect that I have a love hate relationship with it. I like seeing it and learning about it and being able to draw my own conclusions but I don’t like being told it has to be this or that or you have to associate a certain way of thinking when you see it.
Hi, H.B.! Yeah, to this day, I really don’t understand that professor’s insistence that it had to be that symbolism or it was just plain wrong. I appreciate someone pointing something out–“This is what I saw and this is how I interpret it”–but it’s such a subjective thing, I don’t think any symbol could be as cut-and-dry as he tried to insist it was. The class, I think, was still valuable, in that it taught me the value of symbolism in general and that it’s up to an individual what they take away from a story–not what the professor necessarily wanted me to learn, but it had a lasting impact on me nonetheless. ;)
What a fantastically dense blog post. I’ve never been that keen on Moby Dick, but I love the way you’ve contrasted the dry, lifeless approach of a professor with your own vibrant, dynamic grasp of the symbolism. I always saw Moby Dick as a force of nature too, one of the wild gods of the forgotten people destroyed and subdued by colonialism come to flaunt his continued freedom. That the whale is white always seemed to me to convey on it godlike stature as you saw it, not the illusion of the good layered over a core of evil. The whale is not evil, merely inhuman. It inhabits the alien depths of the deep sea, as far from human reach as any heaven or pantheon’s haven. It does not care for man’s whims or wants, and Ahab’s megalomania–you called it right–and sense of entitlement cannot sway it. In that way, it neatly fits the bill of any bitter person’s idea of an impersonal and uncaring god, and his increasing obsession with victory over it parallels my own struggle with God as I’ve aged. Definite food for thought.
I’ve never heard of these books before, but I’ll definitely be looking into them now.
…one of the wild gods of the forgotten people destroyed and subdued by colonialism come to flaunt his continued freedom.
Eeeeeeeee! Yes, yes and yes! I love this response. You’ve nailed it perfectly and I have nothing more to add besides YES! Thanks so much for dropping by!
we’re supposed to see symbolism??? but I just want to read a good story! :P
Well, not supposed to, Lee. That’s kind of the point. It’s there, should one choose to examine/analyze it, but if not, the “surface” story doesn’t lose its entertainment value. A good story is a good story, symbolism or its lack notwithstanding.
article was interesting and nowadays I need things that will make me think more. The Wolfs Own series looks awesome though.
Thanks, wiccachic. :)
Lovely post, Carole. Thank you for sharing it with us. It’s been a bit since I’ve had a long discussion about symbolism, but there was a time when I couldn’t see a character name with the initials J.C. without wondering if an author was trying to have a Christ figure. (When weren’t they?!) I love how you didn’t even see some of the things you put into your own work until later. That wily subconscious playing around while your conscious brain was there toiling away. ;-)
Hi, Carolyn, and thank you! I’m glad you found it interesting. :)
Yeah, the old JC trope and all the righteous not-preaching that came with it. You’re right, it did get old after a while.
You know, I did another guest post on writing for the tour, wherein I talked about Story and how an author can certainly choose a story, but a Story must choose an author, and I think that has a lot to do with the whole subconscious thing. A lot of the most meaningful (to me) symbolism in the things I write, the symbols with the most depth and impact, are those things that I didn’t put there consciously. It’s almost enough to make one believe in Fairy Dust and the Muses. ;)
Thanks for the great post. I too have a love hate relationship with symbolism. I think that peoples past experiences tend to color symbolism for them. No one has a “pure” perception of any situation and our lives and experiences color those ideas of symbolism. I think that there are some stories that the symbolism is more clear than others, but I have no problem with others giving another interpretation if it’s thought out well. I loved your discussion of Alien and Prometheus as well as Moby Dick.
Hi, Jen! :)
Oh yeah, absolutely–I think a reader can find different symbols and meanings upon re-reads of the same novel, depending on what point in their life they’re reading it. I know I find something… maybe not new but different every time I re-read The Lord of the Rings or The Dark Tower series. Things I’ve read dozens of times before but am now looking at from a slightly different angle. Kind of awesome, yeah?
I’m glad you enjoyed the post, Jen, and thank you for stopping by!
Thanks for the reply, Carole! I’ll have to go check out some other stops and read up. :)
I think that’s part of the fun of being well-rounded (you’ve studied and absorbed a lot of different information) and creative, things happen on a subconscious level. All of sudden there’s this thing you’ve created that was a lot of work but also there’s things you didn’t even think about that end up making something stand out. That’s when you get to sit back and be impressed with yourself. “Look, I didn’t even mean to do that, and it’s awesome!” ;) We probably get more happy about those moments because they were a surprise even for us, the one making it.
Random a bit, but connected in my mind, sometimes I think it’d be fun to have commentary on a book like we get in movies, like “This line right here in chapter 8 is the first line I ever wrote of this story and it came to me in a dream.” I love knowing background on stories, so that’s why reading blog tour posts can be so great. Glad to have you back on TNA, by the way. :)