Changing the Elements: A New Approach to Old Stories


This weekend I visited Arundel Castle for the first time. I’m going to start with: it’s awesome. Norman keep at the centre, expanding out by periods until you get to the 16th century tilting yard and banqueting hall. You should totally go if you ever get the chance. But it was the grounds that made me stop and think. In one of the gardens I came across this fountain:

Cool physics aside, it made me think of the Arthurian legend of the sword in the stone. The symbol of kingship suspended in one of the basic elements until the true claimant takes it. Now, stone/earth suggests a strong, reliable king. Someone who could unite warring factions and reign in a steady, constant manner. This is basically what Arthur did. He set up a form of government, stopped the civil wars, pacified the country and established a system of law. He ruled for decades as a solid leader.

But what if you change the starting element? Does that change the symbolism enough to impact the story? It’s a fun idea to play with. What if the element were water? You’d get a mutable king, who changed course to negotiate difficulties rather than powering through them. Someone who erodes opposition, not crushes it. A politician, perhaps. Fire gives you a passionate, war-like king; air gives you someone subtle, nearly invisible but essential. Maybe a character like Vetinari from Pratchett’s Discworld books. If you change the nature of the man then the story has to change around him. Re-imagine the legends of Arthur as a fiery king – it makes quite a difference.

How much do we (sub)consciously use this kind of symbolism in our stories? People are very good at thinking in symbols and they are a handy way to convey a lot more information than just the surface words. I’ve talked about this before a bit, but with colour. Using widely recognised symbols as a theme or foundation is less risky because the collective understanding of what that symbol means is usually a lot more coherent. You can do a lot with symbols. If you deliberately subvert or change them – the earth king becoming the air king, as above – then you can do even more. There’s a Penguin Dictionary of Symbols which, as a source of inspiration, is pretty awesome in and of itself. When something becomes a symbol its origins are usually forgotten. Going back to them can reveal some nice little bits of history and tons of ideas.

Anyway, just some food for thought. 🙂

One response »

  1. Choosing Arthur is very interesting, because he himself is the symbol of the True King.

    He is an enigma and as such is a great vehicle for transferring our own heroism onto. The Plantagenet line, whilst French and Norse before, claimed lineage from this King of Kings. The round table spoke of equality before Prince John was forced to give it to his Barons.

    In literature one of the great things is he is constantly re-imagined till no original remains. The stoic king, the young boy king, the Roman Auxiliary, the Romano-British Warlord, even as an Alien. Yet throughout these stories old and new he remains the king, possessing those virtues and vices we choose to apply to him.

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