Thursday, February 26, 2015

Spenser, Lewis & A Short Exercise in Metaphor

“God…sent the human race what I call good dreams. I mean those queer stories scattered all through 
the heathen religions about a god who dies and comes to life again and, by his death, has somehow given new life to men.” C.S. Lewis

I’m going to let you all into a little secret. One of my favorite stories is Edmund Spenser’s first volume of the Faerie Queene (rendered most excellently here by Roy Maynard). It’s the story of the Reformation in England and it’s the story of St. George and the Dragon. Upstream from and influencing C.S. Lewis, it’s also similar to Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress (written a century later), but different in that it’s martial and militant—the story of the Christian waging war on his own sin, waging war and falling and picking himself up again—ultimately falling and failing and needing to be delivered. It’s a riveting epic (deserving wide recognition!), but today I’m specifically bringing it up as it’s part of the immense tapestry behind us—the tapestry of types and shadows and literature and history. 

Looking at that tapestry, seeing it as God’s story and handiwork, we naturally see the fountainhead of it all, his given Word: perfect in its history and pictures and poetry. In the beginning we have the garden, and Genesis and Exodus are chock full of shadowy returnings to that garden—returnings to the garden Adam and Eve left. And popping up in key places, that garden continues appearing all the way through to Revelation. 

We also have characters. We have the first Adam. We have Boaz, the kinsman redeemer. Joshua, the conqueror. Othniel and Samson and Jephthah, saviors of their people. David—a sinning king yet a man after God’s own heart. The list could go on and on and on…all of them pointing to our great kinsman redeemer, conqueror, deliverer—perfect and sacrificial High King. 

Christ is the ultimate fulfillment, but if we know our types and shadows, we can explore different facets of the great story and catch a fresh and deeper perspective—a deeper understanding of what it all actually means. Digging into it and figuring out the connections is also an excellent training ground in metaphor. And, if we’re going to tell good stories in our own turn, such an exercise is invaluable!

Metaphor lets us approach something obliquely, adding depth and a further layer to be unpacked—adding multiple layers to unpack. Naturally, when it comes to writing, this requires subtlety, understatement, and a level of mystery. We want the reader to have the thrill of digging and discovering and putting the pieces together for themselves in our wonderful stories.

Deep metaphors are tricky—often tricky to get straight in our own minds—and so, in the end, it often comes down to capturing and describing a mystery with clarity. But when we do, a marvel happens—more mystery springs from the earth and our stories come alive.


Share your thoughts! How are you creating with metaphor?

Heidi Peterson is a lover of wide-spreading land, summer dust, white pounding waterfalls, and mountain tops; also of good dark coffee and rich stories. Most of all she's a lover of the One who is the Word, the Word made flesh. You can visit her additional blog (where she shares more about books, movies, and further marvels of life) at: Along the Brandywine.

Visit and contact at: Sharing the Journey // Along the Brandywine // ladyofanorien(at)gmail(dot)com


  1. In my own writing, large metaphors kind of sneak up on me. A lot of times when I try to put metaphors and symbolism in my work, it feels forced, but when I'll go back and read over something after it's finished, I often discover I've unconsciously stuck all kinds of archetypes and symbols in it.

    That book I mentioned on my blog the other day, James N. Frey's "The Key: How to Write Da*n good Fiction Using the Power of Myth" really digs into all the different archetypes we find in literature, and the different story elements too, and although Frey doesn't go into how they resonate with the Bible much that I recall, it's pretty easy to draw parallels yourself.

    1. Hamlette,
      Yes. For me I find it helps tremendously if I have a big, overarching idea, but then I do notice I start getting stilted if I think about it too much. So it's the balance of keeping it in mind -- letting it drive the story forward -- but then not thinking about it when writing Every Single Sentence. :) I've been able to loosen up quite a bit more with my current ODS draft and it's been incredible. (And as a sidenote, isn't it crazy sometimes when the characters start taking your neat, tidy metaphor and running off with it in a foreign direction? :P It's exciting in that the story's coming alive, but nerve-wracking!)

      And I do think a LOT of the best metaphors are subconscious (not talking about allegory here). So it's in learning how to hunt out and understand the pictures/metaphors/symbolism when they come up in the Bible and good literature and then stocking your brain so they can come out when needed and flow naturally.

      And yes, I have to get hold of a copy of Frey's book! :)

    2. Yeah, I need to know my overall theme and what the point of my story is, but metaphors and symbolism and stuff -- if I work at it, it's forced.

      (Characters taking over stories -- one of the coolest, buzziest feelings ever! And the scariest! Some people are like, "You made these people up. You are not helpless. Make them behave!" But I find making them behave to be boring, so unless I absolutely have to rein them in, I like to see where they take things. But I also love control, so that's a hard thing for me to deal with sometimes.)

      (And then there are those characters that waltz in and try to take over the whole story even though they're supposed to be minor characters. Some of them are very naughty in that regard and require constant minding! I have one in the New Story who thinks he should get more lines, and is constantly trying to steal scenes. Tsk tsk.)


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