Roses are red, violets are blue. Think outside the box. Wave a white flag. Don’t go breaking my heart.
We get used to using words early in our lives. We speak a language long before we learn it, asking “Why?” when we hear something where we know the words but not the meaning. So by the time we learn to read, we have built up a shorthand of symbols. Flowers are for girls, and roses are for love, so red roses means someone’s got a girlfriend. Boxes are small containers, so thinking outside the box means to think bigger. White is for peace and flags are for countries, so white flags mean peace agreements between people at war. Hearts are where we keep our emotions, and the world seldom comes with signs that say “You break it, you buy it,” so broken hearts come out of giving someone your heart when that someone dropped it but didn’t buy it. Ouch.
People learn fast.
When the Grimm brothers set out to gather what we now consider their vast collection of German fairy tales, they weren’t looking for original stories. They were studying the German language. They wanted to know why people said things like “Mother Hulda’s making her bed again” whenever it snowed. Buried within each story is a wealth of linguistic information. Some of it is pagan. Some of it is Christian. Some of it is amoral—without any inclination towards bad or good. Some of it is still used today.
Safely tucked between the pages is the story of the little goose girl, a princess who is given no name. Mean people might say she didn’t deserve one. They would argue that a princess who never did anything to rescue herself is not worth a crown or a name. I’m not one of those people.
“The Goose Girl” does wonderful things with symbolism. The first of which being that the author does not explain the symbols in the story. The reader is left to determine the meaning and the value of various symbols.
My favorite symbol in this story is the handkerchief, which had three drops of the queen’s blood. Most people overlook this symbol, because the princess loses it so early in the story. It never comes back. Unlike the lovely Falada, it doesn’t talk. No one wages a war over it.
But none of the story would have happened without the princess losing it in the first place.
The handkerchief isn’t only a catalyst (something that forces a change) in the story. It also carries meaning of its own. The queen mother specifically sent this handkerchief for the princess’s protection. It must have had some power, or else the servant would not have begun her wicked work once it was lost. And, like Dumbo’s feather, the princess does not need the handkerchief back in her possession in order to reclaim her position.
But how do writers incorporate symbols without being too obvious? Or, without losing the reader completely? What symbols do you use in your stories...