If there’s one motif in literature the world over, it’s the struggle between light and darkness. Good and evil. Heaven and Hell. It’s often as simple and straightforward as good guy / bad guy: here the guy who fights for righteousness and justice and really good things, and there the one trying to subdue him, or even better, subdue the world the good guy fights for.
And that’s fine, and good, and even compelling, from time to time. But light and darkness are bigger than good and evil.
Humans crave the light.
It sustains us, nourishes us, protects us.
Our entire planet only supports life at all because the universe creates light by smashing the elementary blocks of matter together again and again.
The light of a fire at night means warmth, means food, means survival.
The light of the sun in the day means growth, means sustenance.
The light of a cityscape at twilight means vibrance and strife.
We sleep in the night because that’s when the monsters come out; only in the light can we see them for what they really are. We seek out the light because the light means other people.
Light, in short, is life.
Darkness, on the other hand, is the great unknown — it’s the monster lurking just out of sight, it’s the cold bleakness of night, it’s the blasted wasteland of a sunless world. Darkness is death.
I’m in the midst of teaching Beowulf to a bunch of, at best, mildly interested near-adults, who aren’t particularly interested in working to understand that basic symbolic dichotomy: that light means life, and darkness means death. The world of men, in the piece, is always surrounded by a warm golden glow: the glow of a fire, the glow of a nourishing sun, the glow of human heat. The lairs of the monsters, by contrast, are dark, bleached out, shrouded in shadow. Grendel attacks the halls of men and steals from their safe places the light of life; only when Beowulf arrives from across the sea, bringing the light of God with him, does light and life return to men. Heck, one of Grendel’s weapons in the fight with a demon in the film is a glowing artifact that he uses to light up the darkness.
And it got me thinking about my own works. This symbolism of light vs darkness, of life vs death, is so obvious, so simple, so hardcoded into our very brains, it seems almost silly not to tap into it. So am I using it? Well… yes, and no.
The hero of my first novel is struggling to overcome an insecurity, a lost ability. Along the way, the power is cut off in his apartment, and he is forced to write by candlelight; a shallow pool of light keeping the demons and his fears at bay. He invents new sources of light, but they are all artificial — only when he overcomes his tribulations and embraces his potential does he win the windfall that lets him put the lights on. (Okay, so that didn’t happen at all, but now that I’ve thought of it, IT’S GOING TO.)
In the second novel, things are a little more complicated. Machines have taken over the safekeeping of men, and their world is bathed with light, but a harsh, sterile, impersonal one. The blank, faded light of fluorescents, a cold light. Interlopers from another time and place arrive and slowly begin turning out the harsh light of machination, and the world lurches into darkness for a time, but little by little the darkness and the artificial light are replaced once again by enlightened human light; a blinding, all-illuminating force that drives the shadow out of all the dark corners and exposes the truths that have been forgotten. (Again, at the moment, this isn’t happening at all, but CRAP IT NEEDS TO.)
And I could write on and on about the play of light in my books, the way it ebbs and flows with the spirits of my characters, but my heart’s not really in it right now.
Because I fear my grandfather’s light is going out.
He’s been battling with infirmities and sicknesses for a while now, and in the last month or so, seems to have lost his spirit and his will to fight. He’s old — no getting around that — and seems to be making the choice simply to allow his candle to gutter out, rather than to rekindle it through artificial, uncomfortable, even painful means. This isn’t a shock to us, but that makes it no easier to bear. Life — and light — are precious and fleeting. We have them for a short, little while, and then the darkness takes us again.
Life is about the struggle with that darkness, and my grandfather’s struggle is almost over.
So, as a tiny disclaimer, my thoughts are likely to be a little jumbled up in the coming days or weeks. If the material here turns dark or nonexistent for a while, that’s why. Programming will return to normal as soon as we are sure what is normal in the first place, to bastardize a quote by the late great Douglas Adams.
In the meantime, I’ll leave the lights on around here.
This weekly Re-Motivational post is part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday. Every Saturday, I use LindaGHill‘s prompt to refocus my efforts and evaluate my process, sometimes with productive results.