Theme Through Symbol

I’m examining the chapter on Theme from Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass. He starts the chapter with a definition of theme, then gives a quick overview of how to build theme into your story. Then he breaks off into a discussion on symbols.

When I saw this, I shuddered. I mostly understand symbols, but I don’t consciously construct them in my stories. They just sort of happen. My critique partner usually writes a note in the text about “nice use of symbolism here” and I smile and accept the praise and have no clue what she’s talking about. I don’t know why I struggle with symbols, since they’re much more tangible than Theme or Concept or Big Idea, but the fact is, they elude me. So when Maass launched into a discussion about how symbols can enhance theme, I had doubts that this section would enhance my understanding of theme. 

Maass stated, “The most effective pattern to follow is that of a single symbol that recurs.” Like the ring in Lord of the Rings. It wasn’t a ring, a sword, a comb, and a sack of flour. Just a ring. Then came the words that made me feel a bit better about myself. “They [symbols] are frequently present in a novel whether the author intended them to be or not… Evoking symbols is often a matter of making use of what is already there.” 

Randy Ingermanson identified the theme from Lord of the Rings as this: “Good ultimately conquers evil, because evil defeats itself.” (I got that out of his book Writing Fiction For Dummies, which I’ll be delving into in the next post, so hold your horses.) 

I agree that this statement properly identifies the theme to Lord of the Rings. I agree that Frodo’s ring is a symbol in the story. But I still don’t understand how Frodo’s ring symbolized this theme. The ring wasn’t good. Nor did it defeat itself. What did it symbolize? I don’t have a clue (again, understanding these things really isn’t in my skills set). So I asked my husband. He said the ring symbolized universal power and the universal degradation of the soul. Oh, that’s good. I agree. But, again, I don’t see the connection between the symbol and the theme.

Maybe I’m doomed to never understand this concept. If you got it, please enlighten me. I’m feeling rather obtuse at the moment.

-Sonja
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