TIP#4 Recognize valid situations where literal and metaphorical meanings co-exist.
Statements may have both literal and metaphorical meanings without being ambiguous, equivocal, or contradictory.
Acronyms and acrostics, homonyms and antonyms, sound devices like alliteration and rhyme, humor, and even puns, function as literal content and also as helpful memory aids. Today’s icons, emoticons, GIFs, and memes combine devices like humor, symbol, and satire as communication shortcuts We see these in a wide variety of settings, from personal message to social media posts, advertising, and meetings.
Literal and metaphorical fusion in a class children’s tale
In Winnie-the-Pooh, Christopher Robin and his animal friends set off on an “expotition” [sic] to find the North Pole. It soon becomes apparent that they have no idea what this geographic “pole” literally is. They envision an object “stuck in the ground.” Amid this lighthearted fun at young children’s innocent misinterpretation, the group’s conclusion that they have, in fact, discovered the pole is not only a literal event but also a symbolic one.
When Roo falls into the river and is swept downstream, Pooh finds a long pole to use in rescuing him. Afterward, the characters decide that they’ve accomplished their mission. Placing the pole in the ground, they name it the “North Pole” and label it with a sign attributing its discovery to Pooh. Its metaphorical significance, however, is twofold. First, it affirms the value of Pooh’s quick thinking despite his often being characterized as a “bear of little brain.” Second, it commemorates the group’s efforts to save a friend in danger. The North Pole, a literal point of geographic orientation, also frequently symbolizes an ideal destination. A. A. Milne fuses both meanings in this delightful tale.
Biblical teaching models
Numerous examples of “both/and” meanings exist in Scripture. Referring to the history of God’s covenant with Abraham, Paul explains its spiritual significance. He uses the term “allegory” in Galatians 4 to show differences between law and grace, referring to both old and new covenants and “Jerusalem.”
In Ephesians 5, Paul describes God’s design for husband-wife relationships as literal practice, but also refers allegorically in v. 32 to “Christ and the Church.”
Claims and counter-claims often focus on interpretation of literal situations, but many lead also to metaphorical expression.
- Pharisees called Jesus a literal commandment-breaker when He healed people on the Sabbath. He stated His actual purpose to fulfill God’s law and commandments.
- The gospel encounter when Jesus insisted that children be allowed to come to Him leads to a teaching point. As these children come to God in faith, believers of all ages must recognize their need to seek God as their Father.
- He supplies a bountiful catch of literal fish, and calls the disciples to become “fishers of men.”
Applying biblical models in children’s and YA stories
John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress uses allegory to retell the gospel as a quest journey in his own culture’s terms. Each character, place, and event represents a biblical parallel, with Christian recognizing his overpowering guilt and need to get rid of his sin “burden” as family and neighbors oppose his determination to set off for the Celestial City. At each stop along the way, readers share Christian’s experiences and find a new insight into faith, hope, doubt, failure, or commitment.
Max Lucado uses allegorical and symbolic elements to deliver literal truth in You Are Special. Stars and dots represent good and bad opinions people express about others, including the main character, Punchinello. He meets Lucia, who is immune to these “stickers” because she ignores them, instead forming her opinion of herself directly from Eli, the Maker. Her name, which means “light,” symbolizes wisdom and freedom found in the truth of God’s Word.
Questions for writers
Do stories you read or write treat literal and metaphorical references as mutually exclusive? How can children’s and YA literature help readers recognize situations in which one person, event, or object that has actually existed or happened, has added significance? Do you have a favorite example? We welcome your comments or questions below, on social media, or email: firstname.lastname@example.org
One thought on “5 Tips for Using and Understanding Literal and Metaphorical Language, Part IV by Deborah DeCiantis”
As I reread my MG WIP, Half-Truths, I’m going to look for examples of metaphorical language, Debbie. Thanks for this series. I’ve appreciate the challenge to my writing.