Leitmotifs and LIFEmotifs

No, go back and watch that first! ^^

I showed this video to my AP classes the other week in order to help them enrich their understanding of literary motifs– which are recurring images, symbols, ideas or patterns in a story that help highlight or develop a theme. (See previous post for the difficulty with themes.)

As I explained to my students, in the video above, the Nerdwriter uses the word “theme” where, literature-wise, I would use the word “motif.” He does an amazing job showing how Howard Shore develops the same series of notes (eg: the “Fellowship theme” /  motif) throughout the trilogy of movies in a way that highlights and qualifies the meaning of the scenes.

Literary motifs are not too hard to spot once you know what to look for–and they can really enrich your experience of a story.

For example, proposals are definitely a motif in Pride and Prejudice:

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“Almost as soon as I entered the house I singled you out as the companion of my future life. “
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“You must allow me to tell you how ardently I admire and love you.”
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“On opening the door, she perceived her sister and Bingley standing together […] the faces of both, as they hastily turned round and moved away from each other, would have told it all. Their situation was awkward enough […]”
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“It taught me to hope,” said he, “as I had scarcely ever allowed myself to hope before.”

Notice that, although each instance of the motif includes different characters in different situations with vastly different moods, etc– (like different instruments!) there is the common pattern of notes throughout. In fact, there is a thread weaved in the plot, if you tug it, you might be able to pull in order coax out a theme somewhere. What is Austen saying about proposals? Or even — what are adequate grounds for making a proposal? Answering those questions would give you a modest theme that Austen is probably getting at.

Interestingly, I find it rather unlikely that Austen thought to herself– “Hm, I think I will put a proposals motif into my story.” Maybe she did think that. But likely the proposal scenes occurred naturally in the plot. Motifs, like so many other amazing patterns in literature, often arise out of an organic process that isn’t always the result of the author’s conscious or deliberate intent; yet they are there just the same. I think of the Eucharistic sunset motifs in Flannery O’Connor stories, or the confession-rehearsals throughout Crime and Punishment, or the countless goodbye exchanges between friends in The Lord of the Rings. They are meant to be there, but not always, consciously, by the author.

Previously, my students had been thinking of motifs in King Lear as sort of static key words that show up frequently in the work; oh, look! There’s the word “sight” again! And then King Lear is acting “blind”! And now Gloucester’s eyes have been removed… so he’s literally blind… But although they could notice repeating images or words, they did not yet have the sense of the richness inherent in motifs. That’s why the video above is so helpful. There’s an almost visceral level that music in movies can touch that is not so easily accessed (at least anymore) by literature– but once you are reminded of it you can return to the page with awakened senses.

So, now that we’re reading Beowulf, what I want my kids to see is that the images or ideas that recur throughout the poem — like gold and treasure, the concept of fate, the use (or uselessness of weapons)— do so in much the same way as the stirring “Fellowship” motif recurs throughout LOTR or the foreboding Darth Vader or mysterious Force motif recurs throughout the Star Wars Saga. Sometimes, the same motif is played with different instruments, or with a different tempo, or with a minor shift of some kind. The change in tone, in instrumentation, in context, is as important in musical scores as it is in literature– and these changes suggest something about meaning.

For example, the first time we see the treasure motif appear in Beowulf is in the context of death: Shield Sheafson, a paradigmatic king and warrior whose hallowed memory strangely opens the tale of Beowulf, is given a water burial. He is lain in a boat by his thanes and covered with treasure:

They stretched their beloved lord in his boat,

Laid out by the mast, amidships,
The great ring-giver. Far-fetched treasures
Were piled upon him, and precious gear.
I never heard before of a ship so well furbished
With battle tackle, bladed weapons
And coats of mail. The massed treasure
Was loaded on top of him: it would travel far
On out into the ocean’s sway. (Heaney, Beowulf 34-42)
Yes, like Boromir.
The next time treasure in Beowulf appears, however, it does so in the context of the gilded gold in the hall of Heorot. The hall itself cannot protect the people from the brutal devastation of Grendel, and so once again treasure is associated with death. This time, however, it is clear that treasure does have some kind of protective mythic quality:
So Grendel waged his lonely war,
Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,
Atrocious hurt. He took over Heorot,
Haunted the glittering hall after dark,
But the throne itself, the treasure-seat,
He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast. (Heaney, Beowulf 164-9, emphasis added)
Treasure is linked with death here, certainly– Grendel “took over Heorot” and “Haunted the glittering hall.” Treasure cannot ultimately protect men from their fate. However, treasure is also associated with kingship and a special kind of providence: “the throne itself, the treasure-seat, / [Grendel] was kept from approaching.”
One word for king in the poem is a kenning– “ring-giver”– that is, a treasure-giver. Kings and chieftains bestowed treasure upon their thanes in return for loyalty and mighty deeds. Their thrones are evidently “treasure-seats” protected by God, who keeps Grendel “from approaching.” It would be a mistake to think that treasure in this poem is a materialistic indulgence or source of vice in the same way that money is in, say, in The Great Gatsby. It is associated far too often with honor and nobility for that kind of dismissive interpretation. Yet at the same time, treasure and weapons and gold are left in the barrows of heroes long gone.
The more you notice the places in which this motif appears throughout Beowulf, the stranger and more mysterious it becomes. Beowulf lays aside his treasure, his arms, to fight Grendel– and only thus is victorious. Grendel cannot be defeated by ordinary means. And yet Beowulf needs treasure — a magic sword– to defeat Grendel’s mother. Much later, as he dies from battle wounds, the old King Beowulf asks his young thane to bring to him some of the treasure from the dragon’s hoard– pulling us back once again to the association of treasure with death.
I could be conflating different motifs here — perhaps it would be better to distinguish gold from weapons within this idea of “treasure.” But nevertheless I think the point holds; recurring images and patterns in stories are worth noticing. They can open up initially obscure tales in surprising ways.
The kids will be researching a topic in Beowulf for their first mini research paper, and each topic they can choose from is tied– at least obliquely — to a motif.
One of my students asked if he could trace rewards exchanged in Beowulf between king and thane in order to explore their impact on the rewards system in the RPG game Skyrim–which apparently borrows a lot from Anglo-Saxon culture. I said, go for it.
Ultimately, it would be cool for them to ponder the extent to which there are any motifs in their own lives. Admittedly, it’s dangerous to go pattern-hunting in one’s own life– it is better to cultivate a humble disposition that welcomes each day, acknowledging that day’s uniqueness, and that doesn’t too hastily categorize moments into pre-conceived patterns.
Still, I think God Himself sometimes has favorite ways of working with different people in a motif-esque kind of way: He seems to think exile is a recurring pattern that is necessary for the Israelites. Abraham is told to make all sorts of journeys– exterior and interior. Peter’s recurring motif is to make a fool out of himself. If we approached our own lives with prayer (the proper literary approach for this genre, if you will), I think we might discover some beautiful motifs woven throughout them. How much more intricate they are than movies and novels– and how much more strange and mysterious.

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