We Have Forgotten Our Symbolic Language

There was a time when fairy tales and myths were ways of talking about the world which were rife with mystery and symbolism. These stories served as ways to present human realities in sharp, simple and easy to remember ways. While lacking in nuance by today’s standards this symbolic language is part of what made these traditional stories easy to pass down. The people who told them were typically not literate and, even if they could read or write, generally wouldn’t have the resources to make something durable enough to stand the test of time. The average home was a very flimsy place back in the day, and something as flimsy as paper was unlikely to survive the seasons, much less the years.

So stories larger than life, stories of brave knights and princesses, dark forests and lurking predators, monsters and ghosts were spun to stand out from the day to day humdrum of life. But most all people knew that the protagonists were stand-ins for the higher callings in their lives, the dark places represented hard times or unfamiliar circumstances and the ghouls and dragons the worse parts of human nature that had to be confronted and overcome, whether from sources without or from within their own heart. This symbolic language was beautiful, effective and most of all memorable.

We’ve forgotten how it is used.

Part of this is because of the immediacy of our culture. Twitter hot takes and reddit memes have overtaken the discussion to the point where the first aspect of anything that catches the attention is what is commented on. You would think memes could fill the role of introductory symbology for our culture but so much of meme culture is rooted in irony and sarcasm that it tends to undermine the nature of symbolism – commentors are too busy trying to put their own spin on the meme to consider the original intention of whatever they’re riffing on. Symbology requires a level of shared perception between author and audience which meme culture actively avoids. Which brings us to the second issue, namely the very postmodern culture we live in.

Postmodernists are hung up on power games and oppressing people; they’re always looking for it. Almost all literary criticism in our era is rooted in postmodernism, so the people who used to keep and teach our cultural symbolism, the elders and wise women, now spend all their time dissecting it to see how it’s bad. An ogre who robs and kills travelers is no longer a symbol of human greed, it’s a racist caricature of Jews, or black people, or whatever.

This is something that’s been nagging at me for a while, but I always chalked it up to postmodernism. But the decay of meaningful symbology was really thrown in stark contrast for me by the reaction to a little work of Japanese fiction called Goblin Slayer. For those wondering, the story focuses on a man who kills goblins. Who would have guessed?

There have been two camps of people who have reacted to Goblin Slayer: people who think the show is morally reprehensible or at least posing as it for shock value and people who think it’s just a dark, gritty action fantasy tale not afraid to face harsh realities.

The primary two reasons given when people say Goblin Slayer is horrible are:

  1. The first episode contains a not very explicit but not very ambiguous rape.
  2. The attitude of the title character, particularly in his extermination of child goblins, endorses genocide.

The usual responses to these objections  given by those who just think Goblin Slayer is a dark adventure are:

  1. Rape is an evil thing that happens, and using it to establish the evil of your villains is just as valid as using murder or torture, both things goblins also do in the first episode.
  2. Goblins are presented more as a lethal pest that happens to have arms, legs and a head like a human, rather than as sentient beings. The Goblin Slayer is an exterminator who deals with the pests, not a genocidal maniac.

Both of these reactions completely miss the point.

They are not serious criticisms of the story, for two reasons. The first is that they are based on a woefully incomplete understanding of Goblin Slayer. These are not criticisms, these are hot takes, sarcastic, ironic statements made to grab attention on Twitter, not engage with the work as it stands. One episode of a thirteen episode run is not much to base an opinion on but it is plenty to grandstand on like an ignoramus. For starters, if these self-styled critics were interested in offering an informed opinion without waiting for the rest of the series to broadcast, Goblin Slayer has plenty of source material that they could have drawn on and the source books are “light novels”, the Japanese equivalent to novellas, that can be read in a few hours each. But this wasn’t about criticism or analysis, this was about finding something to be outraged about. But outrage is the devil’s cocaine, it feels good but blinds all senses, leaving the outraged to be swept along by the crowd with no real sense of what’s happening. It’s the exact opposite of the attitude a critic needs.

Worse, this easy outrage at any little thing you can call rape or racism dulls the senses. Like the cocaine addict, the outrage addict wears down their receptiveness to these issues and wearies their mind, until real outrages pass right by them without comment. But that’s not what we’re driving at today, so we’ll leave it at that. The real point is this:

Goblins are not stand ins for real world races, nor are their crimes perpetrated on the audience. In Goblin Slayer the goblins are symbolic of human evils. The narrative goes out of its way to make this point. We are told in the first chapter of the source material that a saying goes that every time a new group of adventurers is formed so is a band of goblins. A folk tale is mentioned that a goblin is formed every time someone makes a mistake. Elsewhere the Goblin Slayer himself mentions that his sister told him when you resent someone you become a goblin. The Slayer’s cunning and ruthless way of fighting is twice compared to the behavior of goblins, a fact he himself acknowledges in a speech early in the first book where he compares his own obsessive destruction to that of a goblin’s. “He who fight’s monsters should take care lest he become one” is an overused trope but fortunately not one that really applies to Goblin Slayer.

You see, Goblin Slayer is a story in the vein of the old fairytales (a very gruesome and violent group of fiction itself, I might add). The Slayer himself is an embodiment of the battle between good and evil in human hearts. He comes from a very, very dark place. It’s what drives him to exterminate the evils of goblins so thoroughly. As the only villains of the tale, goblins in Goblin Slayer fill many roles but all of them are as representations of human vice. Gluttony and greed in the form of their rapacious theft and cannibalism, lust in their abductions and rapes, cruelty and wrath in their rampant violence.

We know that the victims of evil are, sadly, the most likely to perpetuate that evil. Bullied children are more likely to become bullies as they grow, victims of domestic violence more likely to abuse, sexual assault victims more likely to rape. This truth is dark, but doesn’t leave one without hope. If acknowledged, one can be on guard. Like the reforming alcoholic who avoids any drinking situation, these victims can grab hold of their situation if only they know what to be on watch for.

While many adventurers move on past goblins and view them simply as pests, the Goblin Slayer has suffered horribly from them and so he is more on guard against them than any other. He does not allow even a scrap of potential for them to reclaim their power in his life, so he exterminates them even down to the children. He is dark and troubled, teetering on the edge of monstrousness himself at times, but in time he is blessed with people who can see how damaged he is and who will not reject him outright, and what began as a perpetual battle against the darkness the goblins cast him into begins to relent, and the support of people who care gives him the chance to begin building a life that is more than just battling his own demons.

No, Goblin Slayer is not great literature. But it is a sincere story about looking the human capacity for evil in the face and accepting that it has to be fought in all its incarnations, great and small. The way it goes about this will doubtless be off-putting to some. It’s not exactly pleasant to watch. But the point is, it is a story told in a language that was commonplace in our culture not fifty years ago but that we have somehow forgotten how to use in the time since. That’s clear from the incredibly off-base reaction to it. That’s quite sad, a whole portion of our cultural heritage lost in just a few generations. It may take far longer to recover from the loss.


One response to “We Have Forgotten Our Symbolic Language

  1. Pingback: The Loss of Western Symbolism | Nate Chen Publications

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