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Rick Singleton 

Professor OSC



Metaphorical Symbol, Symbolic Metaphor.



            Throughout or lives we are surrounded by saying and objects that mean something important or specific. Like the color red at a traffic light. We all know what that means.  We have been brought up in such a culture that red usually means “Stop!”

But in literature, the written word red can have many meanings. Symbols and metaphors, in the art of writing, can be obvious or cleverly hidden.  The use of symbols and metaphors can be a powerful tool to invoke the imagination and emotions of the reader.

            To fully understand what a symbol is, let’s look at the origins of the word Symbol. Symbol comes from the ancient Greek word symballein, which means to put or throw together. Today, a symbol is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention, especially a material object used to represent something invisible.

            Next we comes the origins of what metaphor is. Metaphor comes from the Greek word metapherin, which means to transfer. So in essence a metaphor is transferring meaning from one object or saying to another. In today’s vernacular a metaphor is a figure of speech in which a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing is used to designate another, thus making an implicit comparison.

            With some background on symbols and metaphors we can move on to the fun part of the paper.

            Symbols and metaphors in literature pack a whole lot of meaning in them. Even when they are made up from the author’s imagination or real life, we know that something is up. After placing a value, or being told what its value is, we now understand what it is standing for. But our understanding is limited by our knowledge about that particular object or phrase

            We have to look at a symbol or metaphor from multiple angles. This is where after reading a symbol that is recognized; we either subconsciously or consciously place a value on that symbol. If we don’t fully understand a particular object, we tend to either try to understand it or hope that it comes up again with more details later on.

            Culture and societies have a habit of assigning values to a symbol. These values change over time and sometimes have their meaning corrupted. What was once popular may now be mocked or ridiculed. Corruption and mockery are particularly rampant in religious objects.

            Although symbols and metaphors represent objects or phrases, they also hold to an invisible idea or ideals. This is where it becomes tricky because the true meaning can be come cluttered up in what society says it is. To find the true meaning of that idea, we have to go back to the root of the symbol and why or for what it was made.

            These invisible ideas and ideals are the true embodiment of a symbol. Take away the idea then the symbol falls apart.

            What a writer uses to tell a story is words of course. Words are characters that represent an idea. Therefore a word must also be a symbol because symbols are also used to represent an idea. Northrop Frye said, “What makes a word a word is its difference from other words, and what gives the words a public meaning for a community is the disentangling them from the association of those who use them.”

            So we as a reader are taking in all these word symbols that authors use to convey their own thoughts and ideas. The author writes symbols, words, uses symbols, ideas, and we the reader have to make sense of these symbols.

            When an author uses a metaphor what he is really doing is building a simple model would look like this; A is B. Frye said that “Our first problem is, what’s the point of saying A is B when anyone can see that A is not B?” The answer to his question is found only if we understand the subject and the object that the relation is being made between.

            The union of subject and object is a conscious effort on the part of the writer to make a metaphor. Whether we as a reader pick up on it is based again on our knowledge and understanding of the subject object relationship.

             One of the most recognizable objects from J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is the One Ring. It is the object that controls the other ring wielders, yet it is also the only one that has that power and will of its own. The One Ring symbolizes power, dominance, corruption, and evil.

            When we take the phrase “One ring to rule them all,” it then becomes a metaphor. Because the One ring is the subject and the object of the phrase, but it’s A is B relationship is simple to understand once we know the idea behind the ring and the phrase behind the metaphor.

            Within one symbol, subject and object, Tolkien has created a symbol and a metaphor using one phrase and one idea. This is only the beginning of Tolkien’s genius.                    One thing we must remember as a reader is not to over analyze things. Often times we must take things at face value to understand the author. Otherwise, we won’t be giving the book or story a true reading, as the author intended it to be. Over analyzing can lead to misconceptions and a false sense of what the story is really about.

            The symbols and sayings around us and in literature have a purpose and meaning. But what we make of it is our own choice. How the metaphors and symbols are used to invoke our imagination and emotions is all up to our knowledge and understanding.

















Frye, Northrop. “Myth and Metaphor.” ed. Robert Denham. UPoV. Charlottesville 1990



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