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
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
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
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
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