Candle on the Water: The Values of Symbols

"Symbols can be so beautiful, sometimes."
~Kurt Vonnegut

For every Mr. O' Brien insisting evil lurks in every image that is not created solely for evangelism, there is a critic finding Christological symbols at the bottom of the book-pile. Forcing symbols either way is a mistreatment of art, an inability to allow the symbol to live its role.

Masha's kickoff post this week, a set of musings upon the direction and power of symbols, referenced A Landscape with Dragons by Michael O'Brien. I've never read the book, though I have a vague recollection of reading a related article by him somewhere—something that gave me enough information to back Masha up when she claims that the author
...argues that the dragon can be nothing but a demonic symbol, and he happily beats the dragon to death in the attempt to prove his point. But no symbol is so limited, and the book becomes ridiculous in its pursuit of demons.
To which I can only say, well, obviously Michael O'Brien never saw this:

Actually, that's not all I could say. If I really wanted to, I could make a bunch of points about how no, the Harry Potter series is not designed upon the idea of salvation by secret gnostic knowledge, but upon the graces of salvific courage and love. And that no, Twilight shows not that vampires are good, but that we all have to control our inner monster by paying attention to conscience. And that no, I really just don't have a lot of use for the idea that Smaug and Elliott are essentially alike in what they represent. Context matters in the artistic development of a symbol.

But to be honest, I get tired of arguing the point. It never convinces anyone, any more than the opposing arguments convince me. Minds develop, but they don't often change. Word to the wise.

I will give O'Brien and others of his perspective one point, and that's that I do believe in artistic responsibility. I believe we are responsible to avoid calling evil good or good evil. But that's a tricky concept, one in which the artist must reckon with his own conscience, and it neither starts nor ends with the use of images.

Speaking as both a reader and a writer, symbolism is a fun realm to play in. I enjoy reading the Wheel of Time and seeing Jordan throw down loads of Eastern and Middle-Eastern imagery. I love getting a catch of breath when Harry Potter wakes in a place he thinks is "like King's Cross". I adore watching the Sun and Moon Merryweathers progress toward reconciliation in Little White Horse. All of these, of course, would be perfectly good stories even if I'd never noticed any of that. It just gives me one more level at which to take delight in a book.

When I write—and I hope someday to have published books to back this statement up—I don't allegorize. But I'll be laying words on a page and all at once, I'll realize that the story connects to an idea, something I think or believe or love. It's just a glimpse, just one bright moment when the tale or the people in it touch a greater reality. The next moment, I'm back in the ordinary story. Then, later, someone else will read the chapters and pull out something I had never even thought of. I love these experiences more than anything else about being an artist.

But that's just me. There's a whole vast range of reasonable artistic ways to deal with such matters—a fair republic situated between the tyranny of agenda and the anarchy of vagueness.

If we're going to talk about obscuring, though, that leads us to Mr. Pond's post. I was amused by this week's offering, but baffled by the prospect of creating even remotely logical paragraphs in response. Therefore, in the end, all I have to say is look—a kangaroo!

“And who understands? Not me, because if I did I would forgive it all.”
~Ernest Hemingway


  1. Ooh, I hope you don't think I was making a sneaky jab at HP..I wasn't. To my complete disappointment, Mr. O'Brien doesn't mention the books at all in his book (he does mention Pete's dragon, though, and you're wrong. The dragon IS evil) all he does is give a book list telling you exactly which books are acceptable. I was sort of wrapped up in his examples and didn't think it might be taken as a jab. Sorry.

    My thoughts on it have been a bit fragmented. But I think overall my issue is that people too often look at sybolism like Mr. O' Brien. Dragon = evil, instead of looking at what the dragon consistently symbolizes, which is most likely power. I good author can happily go off creating dragons that are good or dragons that are evil, according to his tastes, because he understands what is at the base of the symbol...but maybe I should just write my post.

    1. HAHAHA! Elliott, evil. Who'd have thought? :P

      Masha, I didn't take that as a jab at all. I HAVE read some of Michael O'Brien's anti-Potter stuff, and therefore I took a jab at that. :D But I thought your post was good, and was basically agreeing with you.

      Looking forward to your piece today!

  2. Oh good! I used your post in mine this week! Just for one random comment, I hope you like it.

    And yeah..Elliot's evil, so is Puff, I'm sure, satan & drugs! And every other dragon ever mentioned, along with the book Dune, which bothered me, and even the Prydain books are 'problematic' and should be avoided...he didn't mention the Harry Potter books at all, which was disappointing, since that was why I got the book, but obviously, there are dragons, so I'd suggest burning them all. ;)

  3. Jenna, you know that dragon's just trying to CORRUPT THE HEARTS of the honest sailors of Passamaquoddy and lead that one kid down the primrose path of CARTOON EVIL. He's a dragon in dragon's clothing!

    What about The Reluctant Dragon? Does he mention The Reluctant Dragon? Does he mention the Chinese and how insufficient fear of dragons leads to Communism? Or is that for the sequel, A Landscape With Even More And Scarier Dragons?

    I don't know how we're going to manage to burn all those books without a dragon or two to help out.

    Poor little upside-down cake, indeed.

  4. Masha and Laura, HAHAHAHAHA! All at once, I have a lot of affection for dragons.


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