What Are Your Favourite Symbols in Literature?

Literature provides us with an array of symbols and metaphors. Some of these symbols are brief, magical flares in the moment of a passage – just something to solidify the picture in the reader’s mind. But some of these symbols are deeper, more potent, and more ambiguous too. These are the extended metaphors – and most of these everybody will know. You might struggle to call any to mind as you read this, but as soon as I say my three favourite, you’ll instantly recognise them (even if you haven’t read the books).


So, without further ado, here are my top-three iconic metaphors in literature. I’ll do a nice chunky piece on the winner (drum-roll please) and then two shorter pieces on the hardy runners up. I’d love for you to post one or more of your own favourites in the comment-feed below – I’m always open to new things, or new looks at old things!


1) The One Ring – The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings is perhaps one of the most powerful metaphors I have ever come across, and yet, it is subtle enough that many do not view it in a symbolic fashion. It’s true the One Ring functions perfectly fine as a magical item with powers – and that is enough to enthral the reader – but I like to look a little beneath the surface too. The One Ring is clearly a metaphor for addiction.


For the modern reader, the word addiction has the 1-dimensional association of drug-addiction. Obviously, this is a very powerful type of addiction – but there are other things human beings are addicted too, things that are psychologically far more subtle and insidious. We are addicted to self-pity, to self-loathing even, and yet paradoxically at the same time, to self-love – to seeing ourselves as better than our world.


‘He hates and loves the ring. Just as he hates and loves himself.’


In many respects, the One Ring is a symbol of the hunger and emptiness of the human condition. We want something to ourselves that is purely our own, no-one else’s, but we don’t even truly know what the thing is, and we certainly don’t know about its negative consequences. The more we get addicted something, the less control we have over our actions – in fact, we start to become controlled by others.


This addiction will make us violent – and will even force us to make illogical ‘cover-ups’. Bilbo and Gandalf’s conversation before he leaves for Rivendell is a classic example of this:


“In an envelope if you must know,” said Bilbo impatiently, “There on the mantelpiece. Well, no! Here it is in my pocket!” He hesitated. “Isn’t that odd now?”

Bilbo lies that the Ring is on the mantelpiece instinctively. If he had thought ahead, he would have realised Gandalf would immediately check the mantelpiece and see there was nothing there. This warped deceit is also followed by guilt and blame: ‘Well if I’m angry it’s your fault…You want it for yourself!’  – interesting the first thing Adam and Eve do after they taste the forbidden fruit is to blame one another. This even more dangerously leads to a complete distortion of logic. This final stage is perhaps most brilliantly captured in Boromir’s speech:


‘It was only yours save by unhappy chance. It could have been mine. It should be mine. Give it to me!’



Boromir’s dialogue makes no sense. Just because something ‘could have’ belonged to you, does not mean it ‘should’. Frodo chose to bear the ring when no one else (including Boromir) spoke at the council of Elrond – so it is the furthest thing from ‘unhappy chance’ possible. But in the warped mind of the addict – logic takes flight, and is replaced by a new distorted order.


2) The Dark Tower – The true original quest to find the Dark Tower can be found in the stunning, harrowing poem by Robert Browning: Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came. Later, Tolkien, Stephen King and many others borrowed this fantastic and unsettling image. In the poem, the hero Childe Roland finds himself, like in a dream, suddenly in a strange, barren land – a land he has been searching for his whole life but has never been able to reach. He cannot explain how he got there, only that he is here and must find the Dark Tower. The poem is full of startling and sometimes deeply disturbing images (for example: when Roland is wading through an oily black lake he suddenly realises he’s stepped on a baby drowning on the river-bed – he hears the gurgled shriek but ignores it and carries on). But the Dark Tower itself remains the most haunting and evocative.


The questions about the Tower are left largely unanswered. When he reaches it, Roland meets all those who went before him, except they are changed, monstrous somehow, and ‘ranged along the hillsides / met to view the last of me.’ Why will it be the last of him? Will they attack him? Will the Tower open? None of this is answered. The poem ends with Roland heroically drawing his ‘slug-horn’ to his lips blowing a final note. The Childe Roland of French literature (their equivalent of Lancelot) famously never blew his horn – he saved it for them most dire need.  Yet, Browning subverts this in his poem, and has Roland break his one rule in order to stand against the darkness of the Tower. We never find out why he had to find the Tower, or what was in it. This may seem unsatisfying, but it’s not. We all know the worst thing is when films and books hold the hand of the reader/viewer and guide them through the story in baby-steps, spelling everything out. This poem invites you to think, to work at it, and draw your own conclusion based on the secrets and symbols in the text.


So, what do I think the Tower is after all that ramble?  Well, I think it’s different for each person. Like a dream. Like a vision. The best thing is for you to think what it might mean for yourself. If you haven’t already read it, you should check out the poem: http://www.bartleby.com/246/654.html – it’s as chilling as anything ever written, and the ending will make every hair stand on end.


3) Moby-Dick – the white whale is perhaps one of the most iconic symbols in all of literature. But what it means is far harder to identify. Many have argued that the omnipresent uncatchable whale represents God – and that the whaler Ahab is an atheist on a mad quest to destroy him. At the same time Moby-Dick is said to be the sum of all evil by Ahab himself – yet it seems that Ahab is merely putting all of his own evil onto the carte-blanch (the white-page) of the whale. Others say that Ahab as an old man, facing mortality, is trying to seek out and destroy death. The fact that the meanings behind Moby-Dick are still being discussed 200 years on is a testimony to its power and grip on the imagination. Whether Herman Melville intended it to only have on interpretation is doubtful, but the quest for a unifying, ultimate meaning behind the whale in many respects reflects the hunt for Moby-Dick itself. Perhaps that is the simple answer – the hunt for Moby Dick is the hunt for the ultimate truth – the white light that scientifically underlies all colours – but humanity is not ready for that truth. At least, not yet.


Well, that’s me done! I hope you enjoyed this all-too-brief examination of some of literature’s best symbols and allegories. I’d love for anyone to post their thoughts or feelings about one of the symbols above, or about their own favourite symbol. Let’s share all the great stuff that’s out there.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Peace x


2 thoughts on “What Are Your Favourite Symbols in Literature?

  1. Love this post, Joe! 🙂 My favourite symbol is the bird flying into the window in ‘Pale Fire’ by Nabokov: ‘I was the shadow of the waxwing slain/ By the false azure of the window pane’. It becomes a metaphor for the reader’s experience of the book, always being fooled by false perspectives.

    Love the blog, keep it up!

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