Thursday, October 13, 2011

Symbolism in Writing: Shell Cottage: A Respite from the Storm

I'm sorry to have missed so many days blogging. The kids had fall break and we took a short, but much needed, vacation to the beach. Since getting back, I've been dragging and slow to catch up.

I really needed this break. Life has been rather crazy lately, and to go from nonstop work to three days of walking on the beach was rejuvenating.

As I walked on the beach picking up shells, I understood why JK Rowling brought Harry to Shell Cottage in Deathly Hallows. Didn't you ever wonder while reading that scene why JKR chose to have Bill and Fleur start off married life in a cottage in the middle of nowhere? Wouldn't you have thought Fleur especially would have craved some city life or Bill to be near some family?

But I think JKR designed Shell Cottage for a couple of very specific purposes -- the role it serves in this point of the story and the symbolism it provides.

Since Paleolithic days, shells have been viewed as symbols of life. Some ancient peoples painted shells with red ochre, symbolizing blood, and buried them with their dead, presumably to help them live again. Coming forward to Greek times, the shell was a symbol of Aphrodite, goddess of love, new life, and the dawn, as she rose from the sea on a scallop shell. Finally, in medieval times, the shell came to be associated with the pilgrimage of Saint James, signifying pilgrims on a spiritual quest.

Love, pilgrims, dawn, life, and death. All are found in the scenes JK Rowling set at Shell Cottage.

Harry apparates at Shell Cottage holding onto Griphook and Dobby, with Bellatrix's silver knife protruding from Dobby's chest. The first thing Harry faces at Shell Cottage is the death of the house elf who just saved his life, the slaying of an innocent. Working through the night with his own muscle, not magic, Harry digs Dobby's grave, and with the rising of the sun, plants the beloved house elf in Bill and Fleur's garden.

This moment marks a key transition in Harry's journey. As Harry enters Shell Cottage for the first time, it is with a new strength and determination. His days of wandering through the wilderness are over and he's taking charge. This new Harry has learned to shut his mind to Voldemort, to not act and seek out an item of immense importance, to instead stay and wait, dig a grave and bury a loved one. He felt "as though he had been slapped awake again."

As Harry washes Dobby's blood and the mud from the garden off his hands, "Dawn was breaking over the horizon, shell pink and faintly gold." Indeed JKR repeats the golden image of the sun many times -- "flecked with gold in the sunrise" -- as Harry interviews first Griphook over Ollivander.  He acts to choose Horcruxes, not Hallows, to follow the path of eliminating evil rather than gaining power. The rising golden sun also marks the dawn of the final phase of Harry's alchemical journey as he is now fully mature, fully conscious and proceeding deliberately and decisively toward his chosen destination.

Harry, Ron, and Hermione are indeed pilgrims on a quest, and for Harry, it is deeply spiritual. The "reddish mound of earth that covered Dobby lay ahead" in the spot where Harry reveals the truth of the Elder Wand to Ron and Hermione and his decision to not go after it. "He could not remember, ever before, choosing not to act." And even as he listens to Ron and Hermione once again play the opposing sides of his conscience, he knows he's made the right choice.

"Bill and Fleur's cottage stood alone on a cliff overlooking the sea, its walls embedded with shells and whitewashed." Harry spends much time alone at Shell Cottage, outside on this cliff overlooking the sea. It rejuvenates him, heals him from the endless wandering that has been his only reality for the last several months, and prepares him for the final journey of his quest which lies ahead.

It is no accident that Lupin arrives to announce the birth of Teddy at Shell Cottage. As a bookend to the scenes started with Dobby's death, Lupin's "tidings of new life were exhilarating." As Harry, Hermione and Ron leave at dawn to journey to Gringotts and begin the final quest to defeat Voldemort, "small green shoots were forcing their way up through the red earth of Dobby's grave." Life has sprouted from death. A new generation of wizards have already been born, and the love symbolized through Bill and Fleur's marriage and the peace of Shell Cottage has provided the Trio with the necessary strength and renewal to go forward.

JK Rowling deliberately chose Shell Cottage as the setting for two chapters which start with the death of an innocent and concludes with the birth of new life and hope. Within the respite and refreshment of its small confines, she has Harry accept the maturity and new resolve to face his final challenge. Setting, Transition, Symbol. When all put together with powerful if sublime symbols, it resonates deeper within the reader of the story's meaning.

Take a moment to think of your settings and your key moments of transition. Can you envision them more deeply, add more meaning, weave in universal symbols that will resonate with your reader? As writers we want to use every tool at our disposal to convey the full sense of our story to those who read it. Symbolism is a subtle but powerful tool for helping the reader to grasp more, to sense deeper, than the surface look and feel of the fast-paced storyline.

What symbols have you used in your story? Have you reflected on how they would change at moments of transition? Have you fully utilized your settings to convey your themes into more subtle territory?

(Check Out JK Rowling's Newest Release -- Harry Potter and the Cursed Child here!)