Shortly after New Year’s my hometown experienced some unseasonably warm, humid weather for January (even for Georgia). It poured rivers all day, with hardly a letup. Late in the afternoon, I made a quick run to the store, and by the time I finished the world had grown dark outside.
As I approached the exit doors I blinked my eyes, and did a double take. I thought I was seeing an odd reflection back through the sliding glass doors – but no; the world really had changed that drastically in only half an hour. What had been a damp, clear, break-between-the-clouds world when I went in had been replaced by the thickest, densest, most ghostly fog I had ever seen. Standing on the sidewalk, I could not even see the opposite side of the street.
The drive home that night was interesting, to say the least. Though I was only five miles from home, it was a winding, corkscrew five miles – alongside vast acres of rolling pastureland, down into marshy hollows, round hairpin curves and over one lane bridges. I traced the route from memory, because I could not see anything except the encroaching fog, and the eerie wells of light that punctured the mist above me. More unsettling was to see the full moon rising in a clear night sky, high above the fog embankment. Beyond the highest trees, painted like a colored wash above the goblin-gray sea of restless fog, was a band of starry sky with the moon at its heart, hung like an enormous pearl on a satin ribbon. Below, every mist-bound tree cut an imposing figure, marching out of the vagueness with the dark, stern presence of a giant at large. The last bands of sunset cut through the topmost coils of vapor, picking out the bare crowns of oak trees like the many-pronged horns of a mystical creature.
I drove about ten miles an hour all the way home, alternately watching the shrouded road before me and gaping at the glory-streaked netherworld pressing around me – above and below, near and beyond. I was full of wonder at the sight; and yet one persistent thought kept running through my mind: This is why people believe in fairies.
It is small wonder why, in every high school and college literature class, teachers burden their students with lectures on symbolism and motifs. There is, after all, good reason for impressing something such as, say, the water symbol on students of western literature. In nearly every classic tome water generally represents, on the surface at least, memory. This is why we can study Galadriel’s mirror from Lord of the Rings, the great river (the Mississippi) at the heart of Huck Finn, or that disastrous sheet of ice in Ethan Frome and pull from each a family resemblance, so to speak, in what those scenes communicate. Individually, the water symbol adds extra layers of peculiar meaning to the plot at large. Yet despite the disparate nature of their respective tales, Lord of the Rings, Huck Finn and Ethan Frome all contain in the water symbol the impress of memory. Events long gone that cannot be recovered, for good or ill – that is the common truth that resonates with the reader.
Fog is another such symbol. Mystery, of course, is the essence of its nature, its allure, and its danger. It is a living shroud for the natural world, a ghostly harbinger of death and portents, that rises and abates when least expected. It confuses the most level-headed guides, makes familiar terrain as foreign as a distant planet, and brings doubt where certainty once prevailed. Symbolically and in reality, fog is about obscuring the truth, covering with doubt, and taking what we thought we knew and transforming it into the unknowable and threatening.
I know several writers who eschew using “traditional” symbolism. It was quite the fad for a while to take the established symbols and motifs from classic literature and turn them all on their ear. In some circles, it is still fashionable.
Yet I maintain that we should not shy away from established symbols in our writing. True, we don’t want to be cliche — that is the fear of every writer, I think, whether published or no. But if we dismiss all of the most basic symbols that appeal to our innate senses as humans, then we risk losing that subtle anchorage every writer needs in order to give texture and familiarity to their work. Appealing to the familiar and sympathetic in your readers goes beyond merely crafting believable characters with identifiable problems; it extends even to the ordinary symbols that, like fog, chase them through their days and twist the details of familiar life into new complexities, thus layering substance with urgency, and drawing your reader yet farther into your world.