So remember when I talked about the use of goblins as a metaphor for human frailty? Well I’ve been thinking a lot about modern failures to make effective use of traditional symbolism and I’ve reached an almost inevitable conclusion – many Western symbols have been undermined to the point where they are entirely useless as storytelling tools. Yes, a lot my thoughts of late have been returning to various themes and my essays will be reflecting this. So let’s talk about symbolism.
Symbols are the bedrock of communication. Words are essentially symbols for abstract concepts. On a lower level, even letters are symbols for individual sounds. We string three letters together to write ‘cat’. Those symbols tell us to think of a specific series of sounds which in turn we connect to the concept of a domesticated animal that humans adopted for the purpose of shedding fur on all of our black clothing. Language is essentially symbolic. Imagine if I were to write a sentence where short grinder hammerhead portal normalize traffic wrangle. Nothing would make sense, right? I can’t just use a word and change the meaning it symbolizes to something else, that would strip all attempts at communication of meaning and purpose.
Our larger scale cultural symbols are just as important and just as vital to cultural coherence as words are to coherent communication. So I’ve been thinking about them and mulling them over and asking myself – are we even trying to communicate the core of these symbols anymore? Or is one of the reasons our culture seems unable to cohere any longer because we’ve abandoned the language that’s supposed to be holding them together?
As with many big questions of this nature I have few answers. But there are two interesting data points to look at: Monsters and Relics. Let’s break them down, shall we?
I already talked some about the nature of monsters in fiction when I talked about Goblin Slayer but let’s look a little deeper. Beginning with the Greeks monsters were seen as symbols of the ills of the human condition. In fact, many monsters were a result of human misbehavior if not actual humans transformed for evil actions. As examples Arachne was transformed for her pride and Medusa for lust and adultery (and public fornication).
Moving forward into medieval times we see interesting stories like Saint George and the Dragon, where a country is poisoned by the influence of an evil creature that is devouring their children. George captures and executes the beast and the country is converted to Christianity. It’s an interesting inversion of the Fisher King, where the ills of a country are personified rather than its health. But the material point is that the recovery of the land is tied to a new moral system, symbolized in George’s battle with the Dragon.
A wonderful modern take on this symbolic application is George (not a dragon slayer) MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, where a simple miner boy finds he has to fight an entire royal court that is slowly transforming into an army of monsters. Again, the transformation into monsters is driven by failings of character.
But in modern tales there’s a strong resistance to allowing monsters to fill this symbolic purpose. Part of this comes from the creative desire to do something new, and rather than carve out new expressions of a symbolic theme many creators have chosen to just look at the symbols in a new light. Unfortunately that new light is almost entirely a literalistic one. Rather than look at monsters as metaphors almost all modern fantasies and fables try to grapple with monsters as stand-alone creatures that must be complete in and of themselves.
Consider The Dragon Prince. The whole premise of this show is that there is an entire nation of exotic and fabled creatures brimming with magic and culture, and humans are locked in a struggle with them. There’s nothing wrong with that premise. But the story constantly invokes the symbology of dragons, complete with their hording, their vengefulness, their pride and their destructive temperament. And instead of overcoming them, the characters simply decide they must live with the dragons.
And there’s a life lesson there, for sure. You will meet people like this, and you will have to live with them. But what this take on the symbolism of monsters misses is that, while classic monsters cannot exist without humanity, neither can humanity exist without monsters.
The pat, easy answer of The Dragon Prince is that our difficulties are primarily external. They stem from misunderstandings or an unwillingness to compromise, not from flaws of character we must grapple with and overcome. But this kind of simplistic externalizing of internal struggles is far and away the norm these days, robbing a powerful symbol of its cultural impact.
This isn’t really the best word for what I’m getting at, as a ‘relic’ generally refers an item of some kind of great cultural or spiritual significance whereas here I mainly refer to items that take the measure of a man. Again, in early myths we see relics as measures time and again. The most common measure these relics took was the worthiness of a ruler. That’s seen in early forms in things such as the Golden Fleece but probably most significantly in the swords of King Arthur. Both the Sword in the Stone and Excalibur (when they aren’t the same sword, your legend may vary) are weapons that only worthy men can acquire. This was kind of a theme in the British Isles, as the Dyrnwyn was another, lesser known British sword that supposedly burst into a flaming weapon in the hands of a worthy man. Additional British relics include a whetstone that would only give sharp weapons to brave men, a coat that only fit the brave, and a mantle that only reached the ground on a woman who had honored her marriage vows.
We see this theme in legends of the Norse as well. Modern culture brings to mind Mjolnir, the hammer of Thor, which only the thunder god was supposedly strong enough to lift – but in the ancient legends the weapon wasn’t limited in that way. In fact, it was stolen more than once. But Sigmund the Volsung also acquired a magic sword which only he could only pull free. The sword is as much a curse to Sigmund as a blessing but does serve as a mark of his exceptional nature as acknowledged by Odin.
Of course the relic as measure of a man is a symbol we see in modern fiction as well. Even in the very recent examples of the MCU it’s everywhere. Not only is there the modern interpretation of Mjolnir but there’s Captain America’s shield, an item he receives in acknowledgement of his status as America’s greatest soldier and can only use effectively because of his skill and intelligence, and even Iron Man’s armor, which he wields by virtue of his scientific brilliance and character (such as it is).
However, even the relic is beginning to fall from grace. In the MCU, Mjolnir was destroyed and Thor had to learn to do without it. In the Hard Magic novel series there are relics which serve to keep magic safe and usable but, eventually, are destroyed in favor of making magic more accessible. In fact, in many urban fantasy series relics that take the measure of their user get subverted into items that restrain their owner, a kind of shackle that keeps their owners on a preset path. In other cases they’re simply powerless items used to prop up shams or pretenders.
Where the transformation of the monster is a somewhat understandable outgrowth of a more literal minded culture and the creative mind’s constant striving for new takes on old stories, the subversion of the relic strikes me as more an outgrowth of the dreaded postmodernism. A weapon like Excalibur cannot actually measure a person’s worthiness to rule so it has to be a prop intended to make people appear worthy to rule. The loss we suffer from this kind of perspective is pronounced.
One of the things a relic as a symbol for worthiness can easily illustrate is why we must be cautious with those who are entrusted with power. All the British relics that measure worthiness inflict consequences on those who attempt to use them but are unworthy. Consider the cook pot – brave men can eat from it but cowards will starve. So be brave! Keep yourself and your community fed! Relics create an immediate sense of what the stakes are for having or not having the qualities they measure. Subverting them as a symbol for virtue internalizes something that should be external – if what we need comes from within ourselves or is just an idea we project onto the item to justify ourselves then, in almost paradoxical fashion, the consequences of falling short of that standard are no long our fault but the fault of our circumstances. Cowardice isn’t what led us to starve, there simply wasn’t a brave person here to get food and share it with us. Or perhaps we were just caught up in how society told us we should eat instead of considering new ways of thinking about meals (like food poisoning!)
There are a lot of reasons to want to tweak things like symbolism in your storytelling. But every time this is done it’s like assigning a new meaning to a word. The more it’s done, the more overworn the word or symbol becomes and the harder it is to clearly convey the other concepts the word addresses. That’s a loss for communication, and it really needs to stop. Our symbolic language is part of our culture, part of how we share ideas, and if we lose it then art and culture become that much harder to propagate.