Traditional Themes and Motifs in Literature

by Tina Blue
February 5, 2001

          One approach that I use when teaching poetry to college students is to introduce them to traditional themes and motifs.

          Poets, if they are serious enough about their art to have made a study of poetry, are thoroughly familiar with common themes and with the images typically used to represent those themes. That doesn't mean that they just trot out the same tired metaphors and symbols to do the same old jobs. No, a genuine poet will heed Ezra Pound's dictum to "make it new."

          And yet even while making it new, a poet will of necessity be working with the "stuff" of his tradition, as well as with the "stuff" of life itself.

          Certain motifs are universal because they represent patterns common to all human experience. For example, the seasonal and diurnal (daily) cycles are used in all times and all places to represent the general cycle of life and the progress of the individual human life. Is there a human being beyond a certain age who does not know that springtime and morning are associated with youth, while winter and nightfall are associated with age and death? And what culture does not distinguish between the positive value of light and warmth and the negative implications of dark and cold?

          Other motifs belong to specific traditions. The imagery associated with the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus belongs to the art and literature of the Western world, and after 2000 years of rich iconographic tradition that imagery transmits complex layers of meaning and association to those who are familiar with it, even those who are not Christians.

          The concept of a lost ideal, a state of perfection no longer available to mere mortals--e.g., a Garden of Eden or a Golden Age--is probably universal, but the specific meanings associated with that idea vary among cultures, as do the images connected to that paradise or its loss.

          For example, the image of the apple associated with the Garden of Eden myth carries such potent connotations that when Snow White is offered a poison apple by her wicked stepmother, we recognize the apple as a symbol of deadly seduction, of innocence betrayed.

          Thus the story of Snow White resonates with that of Eve, and its implications are extended to include the idea that by accepting the proffered apple, Snow White will have to leave behind her youthful innocence and move into another stage of existence.

          Her transformation from child to woman is achieved through a symbolic "passage." She "dies" to her old self and, like a caterpillar, is cocooned within her glass coffin, to be awakened at last by the call of perfect love.

          Similarly, when Adam and Eve are evicted from Eden, they leave behind their innocent, inexperienced selves to wander through the harsh mortal world. Their pure souls and those of their descendants are "cocooned" in imperfect flesh, a sort of "death," until they are awakened at the End of Time by the call of perfect (divine) love.

          But traditions are never "pure." There is so much cross-fertilization going on all the time that it's often difficult to tell whether cognate myths are the result of contact between cultures, or the consequence of separate developments from a single source. Thus, like many other mythic patterns, the theme of the murdered and resurrected god whose death renews life for a world gone moribund is found in many different traditions.

          Besides the Christian version, there is the Egyptian myth of Isis and Osiris, as well as the Greek myth of Dionysus and the related Greek myth of Orpheus. Other versions of this theme occur in other cultures. In fact, it is probably universal among agricultural societies because of the significance of the harvest as a consequence of the "burial" of seeds in the ground, and because it is so evident that life springs from decay and death, since decaying matter is used to enrich and fertilize the soil.

          The use of sacrifice--human or animal--to sanctify the land so that it will bear fruit is the model for this mythic motif, and thus the image carries with it powerful associations of life renewed, of the revivification of a moribund world through the sacrifice of the god.

          In our society many, perhaps most, children grow up experiencing only  limited contact with the traditional images and motifs that have enriched our artistic and literary culture. Even worse, much of what they do encounter is cheapened and oversimplified by translation into the language of pop culture. Consequently, when they encounter literature that is rich with such resonances, they have no clue what to make of it.

          When I get them in an "Introduction to Literature," an "Introduction to Fiction," or an "Introduction to Poetry" class, they don't even know where to begin with literature that is not shallow and simplistic. Everything must be reduced to Hallmark card sentiments or to cliched story lines. Even if a poem or story doesn't fit into the simple box they try to pack it into, they will interpret it, at least initially, as if it does.

          One way that I introduce them to the resonant motifs of tradition is by showing them how those motifs are manifested, though usually in attenuated form, in pop culture. Then I can lead them toward understanding those motifs as they appear in literature.

          Take, for example, the Trickster figure in myth, art, and literature. Such figures as Satan (in the Judaeo-Christian tradition), Coyote (in the Native American tradition), Spider (in African folklore), Monkey (in Chinese myths), Loki (among the Norse gods), and Hermes (in Greek mythology) are all manifestations of the Trickster.

          I won't get into anything too deep here (though I won't promise not to in future articles), but I want you to consider Bugs Bunny. He is one of the best modern manifestations of the Trickster archetype, and the implications of his behavior are not significantly different from those of the traditional Trickster. He represents both the risks and the rewards of the unbridled id and of the chaotic power that underlies existence.

          Chaos is, well, chaotic. It is destructive. Yet it also represents power, creative energy, and the life-force itself. An ordered world cannot tolerate the uncontrolled operation of such an incomprehensible power, and yet a too-ordered world, one that too successfully represses this force, becomes sterile and meaningless.

          Bugs Bunny is funny and clever, and his main goal in life seems to be to disrupt the conventional order. But look at his tools: he throws bombs! Sure, these are cartoon bombs, so nobody really gets hurt, but the shadow of real danger can be vaguely discerned behind the technicolor brilliance of this cartoon Trickster.

          A less complex version of the Trickster is Woody Woodpecker. He is a less inspired manifestation of the Trickster, because he does not carry the depths and complexities of the Bugs Bunny character. His is essentially a one-note performance, whereas Bugs Bunny, both in character and in behavior, conveys a virtual symphony of implication.

          So what, you may wonder, does Bugs Bunny have to do with the study of poetry? Well, one traditional role of the poet is as Trickster, an antic figure that renews a sterile world by releasing into it the potentially dangerous and destructive power of another state of being.

      In his role as Trickster the poet does not comfort us. Quite the contrary: he shakes things up. He disrupts conventional patterns of meaning and threatens the established order.

          He throws bombs.

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