I woke up the other night to a sound I have hated since childhood: the hoot of an owl. Actually, I should say the hoots of two owls.
It was about 1:30 in the morning. I had gone to bed about 10 o’clock the night before and I needed to be up early that morning for my 7:30 AM class (an ungodly hour if you ask me). So you can imagine I wasn’t crazy about being woken up at 1:30. Furthermore, the sound that woke me up was what I call “the sound of my nightmares”. Now, granted this has more to do with a scary movie I saw as a kid than it does the owls themselves, but the very sound of an owl hooting…at night…outside my bedroom window just gives me chills. I tried to go back to sleep, telling myself I really had nothing to fear, but that mantra only worked for about half an hour before I woke up again…to two owls hooting outside my bedroom window. I swear they were conspiring against me because they continued their obnoxious shouting match for at least another hour, and by this point I was so disturbed I could hardly sleep.
To most people nowadays, my intense phobia of owls in the dark might sound a little strange, but there was a time when many people feared owls. And I happen to know for a fact that I’m not the only one afraid of the dark. Or, rather, as a speaker I heard once put it, “I’m not afraid of the dark…I just move really fast in it.”
Fears, particularly when associated with things such as owls and darkness, reach back into humanity’s deepest psychology, and it is to this psychology that most writers turn to, with or without realizing it. For me, I do not view owls or darkness just as what they are. There is meaning behind them. Because of the movie that scared me so badly as a kid, and because of the nightmares that movie caused, I associate owls not with animals but with separation, danger, and anxiety. However, this was triggered primarily by nightmares, at which point I would wake up alone in the dark and terrified. Thus, I fear owls in the dark, but I don’t mind them much in the light.
In fantasy, the most basic of symbols are light and darkness. Light, in most cases, represents good; darkness, evil. Though many people complain that this light vs. dark symbolism has become cliche, fantasy is not the first to use it. The Bible itself makes great use of this and, some say, may in fact be the origin from which fantasy first acquired this convention. It is one of the oldest types of symbols and one that most people can identify with.
Beyond fantasy and the “cliched” light vs. dark symbolism, many other authors use variations of symbols to foreshadow or emphasize important aspects of their stories. Charles Dickens inundated his stories with symbolism. A Tale of Two Cities, for instance, is riddled with symbols, (shadows, wine, knitting), all of which mean something beyond what they seem on the surface.
Though many people readily argue with the Jungian theory on symbols in dreams, there is, I believe, at least a small amount of truth to his theory. Whether through society, experience, culture, or some other influence, groups of people tend to associate certain things with alternate meanings. For instance, I once did a little “study” of sorts where I first asked people I knew what their favorite colors were. Once I had written that down, I gave them a list of colors and asked them what they associated each color with. Generally speaking, they would say that they associated a color with an object, to which I would ask them what they associated that object with. Almost without fail, they would associate the objects, and thus the colors, with certain qualities or emotions. Though I can hardly call this a scientific study, as the people I asked were no more than a handful of friends and family, I did notice something very interesting. More than one person associated certain colors with the same or similar objects. For instance, red was frequently associated with blood. Likewise, certain objects were associated with common feelings. It is this commonality that makes literary symbolism work.
As a writer, I have often wondered, “What makes a book a classic? Why is it that those books and not others manage to stand the test of time and move into the next generation?”
I still haven’t quite figured it all out yet, but there is one thing I have noticed. All the classic books that I have read use symbolism incessantly throughout their work, whereas many of the modern books I’ve read tend to be rather straightforward. The symbolism in the classics add depth to a story, not only drawing the reader in but leaving them wondering afterwards, “Did I actually get it all?” The stories, at least in my opinion, are eternal because there’s always a little bit more.
I’m sure there is more to it, but I think that, if nothing else, perhaps the use of symbolism can be viewed as a stepping stone building up to a truly great story. I guess owls have their uses after all…