Motifs in Literature, and a Poem: The Hell Hound at the Tree of Life

Photo by Mitsuko Tonouchi
Photo by Mitsuko Tonouchi

This week I’ve been thinking about motifs in literature: recurrent images, symbols or ideas an author employs to paint a picture in the reader’s mind. Motifs are woven through the books we read, used by authors to add depth and convey meaning. They might be colours (red for passion or victimhood, for example), the elements (water for cleansing, fire for destruction), weather (rainbows for hope, or the storm in The Tempest) or random objects the author repeatedly inserts into a text to emphasise a theme (say, the invisible cloak in Harry Potter, which once belonged to Harry’s father, symbolising fatherly protection).

In Macbeth, Lady Macbeth’s repeated washing of her hands represents guilt. In Othello, Shakespeare uses a handkerchief to represent love and betrayal. Mark Twain uses the Mississippi River to great effect in Huckleberry Finn to symbolise adventure, freedom and the transience of life. Horror often uses doppelgängers. In fantasy, a full moon might represent the advent of the supernatural.

What are your favourite motifs in literature? I use fire, water and colour in my current novel, but have found that their use could be more evenly spaced within my manuscript for better thematic impact. When you use motifs in your own work, do you find they subconsciously develop, or do you add them in later drafts?

I’ll leave you with a poem where I play with motifs: a hell hound, the tree of life, and light and dark.

The Hell Hound at the Tree of Life

Photo by Sigurd Rage
Photo by Sigurd Rage

The black hound sat
slicked with sweat
at the foot of the tree of life
quenching his fiery thirst
in Eden’s cool waters

The tree’s godly branches,
laden with heavy fruit,
withered in the presence
of the foul beast until only
a halo of evergreen remained

Golden fruit became
blackened stones in freefall,
a macabre confetti cast in
the quaking garden
held captive by the hound

He rested on his mangy haunches,
malice suspended in drool,
waiting for Azazil’s command
as the skies grew thunderous
and ghouls circled above

But Eden would not be conquered
by dark intent and rose up
Its roots erupted from the earth
to overcome the beast
and the swirling black

Only a shadow lingered
at the close of the battle
that twisted and swam
across the green, waiting, watching
Eden once more in full bloom

4 thoughts on “Motifs in Literature, and a Poem: The Hell Hound at the Tree of Life

  1. I don’t do it consciously. In fact, I recently finished writing a short story and it was only after it was completed that I realized what I had done. That works best for me.

  2. This is quite random and a bit self-indulgent, but I can’t stop putting disused railway lines in my stories. It started off as a subconsious thing, until someone pointed it out to me, and now even as I’m writing a short story or piece I have thoughts of disused railway lines as settings or metaphors and I have to push them away and find something else.

    I can only reason thus – growing up, the bottom of my road was a cul-de-sac and you had a large patch of wasteland, then a disused railway line and some abandoned factories. Being a kid, this became our obvious playground. I suppose there is something evocative about them – the sense of a tangible past, the allure of travel and adventure but anchored by the impotence of the trains not running on it anymore, of failure. It becomes a visual ghost. I think on a personal level, it’s also a connection to my childhood, which considering most of my stories have a grain of autobiography about them, is not that surprising.

    1. Jimmi, what a wonderful comment. I need to read more of your fiction, blog posts, anything. You write beautifully. I like the idea of a half hidden motif that appears and reappears across an author’s body of work, something that super fans pick up on. I hope you don’t quash it entirely. And maybe write a story that is entirely about one, not just as a setting detail, but a main plot, because your themes above are brilliant.

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