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Outlander: Myths and Symbols


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Presented July 28, 12-1 Fremont Library
Outlander is much more than a television romance about a World War II nurse and a Jacobite in a fetching kilt. The series has been categorized as a period drama, adventure saga, military history and fantasy epic. Inspired by the Irish legends of Fionn Mac Cumhaill and the prophecies of Brahan Seer, the storyline is also filled with mythology and symbolism from around the world, from the Fair Folk and the Loch Ness monster to wendigos, ghosts, zombies and succubae. The series is also rich with its own symbolism: heather and white roses, the dragonfly in amber, Claire’s blue vase and wedding gown, her wedding rings and pearl necklace. This presentation by Valerie Estelle Frankel (author of five books about the Starz series and novels) untangles the myriad of myths, legends, symbols and literary references found within.

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Outlander: Myths and Symbols

  1. 1. Symbols of Outlander
  2. 2. Cross-Stitch  Diana Gabaldon named her first book Cross Stitch, which, as she calls it, is “a play on ‘a stitch in time,’” also referencing Claire’s occupation as a healer and seamstress of wounds (Outlandish Companion 323).  If Claire had time traveled both ways in book one, as first planned, the story would have made a cross shape of perfect balance, going and reversing.  Crossroads, a moment when one must decide which way to turn.  Also deeper symbolism: small descents into the unconscious  The X’s four legs represent the four elements of matter.
  3. 3. Outlander  Sassenach was proposed for a book title, but as it was difficult to spell and pronounce, Gabaldon and her publisher settled on Outlander, the translation. (episode one “Sassenach” is an homage).  “‘Sassenach.’ He had called me that from the first; the Gaelic word for outlander, a stranger. An Englishman. First in jest, then in affection” (Dragonfly in Amber, ch. 5).  Jaime indeed seems to regard Claire as his Sassenach, his English wife. Pet names like this one are both affectionate and proprietary – Jaime is the only one to call Claire this, and he uses it almost constantly. As such, the word emphasizes their special bond as well as its constancy through the series.
  4. 4. Dragonfly in Amber  The chalice on the book’s cover has a whiff of Gethsemane, as Jaime wishes the cup would pass to another. With a faint Celtic pattern, the cup also suggests royalty and kingship, linking to the Cup of the Druid King in The Scottish Prisoner.  Hugh Munro gives Claire a special gift. Gabaldon notes that the dragonfly in amber symbolizes Jamie and Claire’s marriage “not only via the token Hugh Munro gives Claire – but as a metaphor; a means of preserving something of great beauty that exists out of its proper time” (Outlandish Companion 368).  Amber symbolized frozen tears of the gods in Norse and Greek myth, indicating the sorrow of this precious time that will soon end (Bruce-Mitford 38).  The moments with amber symbolism are precious but also heartbreakingly short. Jaime gives Claire a second piece of amber to celebrate a year of marriage near Hogmanay, “a good time for beginnings” (Dragonfly in Amber, ch. 33). This is their last time of safety together before the Uprising.
  5. 5. Dragonflies  Dragonflies are a symbol of evanescence, fragile beauty that will shortly be lost. As such, they parallel the clan way of life and Jaime and Claire’s love, all under terrible threat.  The dragonfly also symbolizes free will, as the glistening creatures fly wherever they wish. Incredibly swift, they can move in all six directions, radiating a sense of power and poise.  He had been fixed in my memory for so long, glowing but static, like an insect frozen in amber. And then Roger’s brief historical sighting, like peeks through a keyhole; separate pictures like punctuations, alterations; adjustments of memory, each showing the dragonfly’s wings raised or lowered at a different angle, like the single frames of a motion picture. Now time had begun to run again for us, and the dragonfly was in flight before me, flickering from place to place, so I saw little more yet than the glitter of its wings. (Voyager, ch. 26)
  6. 6. Voyager  To me, Voyager conjured up not only the superficial meanings of journey and adventure – and the very concrete reference to an ocean voyage – but something a bit more. Growing up in the sixties as I did, I was exposed to the U.S. program of space exploration in a big way, and found the whole notion unspeakably romantic. Of all the different missions, Voyager was one that particularly caught my imagination. This was commitment to the dark unknown, in the search for unimagined knowledge. Courage and daring, in the service of hope. Very suitable, I thought, for a book dealing with dangerous journeys in search of self and soul. (Outlandish Companion 326)
  7. 7. Iconic Symbols
  8. 8. Wedding Dress  The ornate wedding gown is silver and white with a pattern of acorns and falling leaves that resemble rising birds). Acorns and oak leaves are a symbol of strength and fidelity in a marriage, the costume designer says in the accompanying podcast.  “It was as if I stepped outside on a cloudy day and suddenly the sun came out,” Jaime says sweetly.  The gown gleams with endless layers of glittering mica as well as silver embroidery. As Dresbach describes it:  I had really had gotten directions from Ron that this needed to be a fairy tale; a beautiful moment that cements and entire book series and an entire television series. It’s a series about a marriage and the foundation is this moment, but it’s two people who didn’t know each other and who didn’t plan to be married and are being forced into this. And yet, we had to make it so impossibly romantic that we could believe that our heroine and our hero could just fall in love so completely at that moment.
  9. 9. Modern Suit  Costume designer Terry Dresbach comments:  Claire and Frank are getting married just as the war is breaking out, and while there is still optimism in the air, it is a more somber time. Ron [Moore, the show’s creator and Dresbach’s husband] wanted the clothes to be very faded as in an old photo, so we used tones of grey and brown. But Claire is in love, and it shows up in her jaunty little hat, tipped over one eye.  It’s stark compared with the luxurious period gowns.
  10. 10. Geillis  “I designed Geillis as if she was always playing dress up, always playing a part. That is why not of her costumes connect as if they belonged to one person. There only theme would be that they make people slightly uncomfortable, but they are not entirely sure why.”  The “Monkey fur jacket” worn backwards for more jarringness. A touch of the forest-wise wizard about it  At home she wears a bad woman’s red shoes.  Her mourning dress is textured like feathers.  “I was in a fabric store in London, and this fabric got up off of the shelf, and said, ‘HEY!!! I am Geillis’s widows weeds’ … It looks like feathers … I knew I wanted it to be the most outrageous mourning gown one could imagine. And I knew I wanted white in it. Lots of it.”
  11. 11. Geillis  Geillis’s gray dress has a touch of Gandalf. Her Gathering outerwear resembles a filmy Greek tunic. As Dresbach notes:  Geillis is wearing an Arisaid, a Scottish woman’s plaid…clasped at the shoulder with a Lovers Eye brooch. I used a man’s leather belt, with a jeweled buckle, at her waist, as both a nod to Highland men, and as a way to provide contrast to her delicate, translucent costume. Feminine, but dangerous.  The eye comes from a portrait of Bonnie Prince Charlie, a secret paraded in public.  The disembodied eye seems a guardian for Geillis, suggesting occult powers of perception. Flaunting this at the gathering, she stands out in her contrasting color.
  12. 12. Jamie’s Kilt  When asked about the appeal of a man in a kilt, Gabaldon notes that while “really tired” she said, “Well, I suppose it’s the idea that you could be up against a wall with him in a minute” As she adds:  A man who you know is running around with his dangly bits so immediately accessible is plainly a bold spirit, up for anything at the drop of a hat (or some more appropriate garment) and entirely willing to risk himself, body and soul. The English Government understood this very well; hence the DisKilting Act, passed after Culloden, which – as part of a program of cultural punishment and ethnic cleansing – forbade Highland men to wear the kilt or possess tartan. (Doctor’s Balls)  Kilts are a romantic image, seen on many novel covers as a departure from dull, mannerly trousers.
  13. 13. Jamie’s Kilt  Some years ago a sculptured stone was dug up from the ruins of the Roman Wall (from the year 140), representing three figures dressed exactly in the ancient garb of the Highlanders.  In a song composed to commemorate the battle of Harlaw in 1411, M’Mhuirich describes the rest of the Highland dress item by item: “A jacket, vest, and feile-beag or kilt; a belted plaid or breacan-feile, a full-trimmed bounet, set of belts, a pair of tartan hose made of cloth, a pair of knitted hose, a pair of garters, a silver-mounted sporran, a targe [Scottish shield], with spear, a claidheamh-mor [great sword], brace of pistols, dirk, with knife and fork, a sgian- dubh [sock knife], a powder horn, and shoulder brooch” (“The Highland Garb”).  It was not until the 16th century that a simple length of cloth, belted round the waist, came into use. The “feileadh breacan” or “feileadh mor” (the great kilt) was several yards long: “It’s a bit undignified to get into, but it’s verra easy to take off” “How do you get into it?” I asked curiously. “Well, ye lay it out on the ground, like this” – he knelt, spreading the cloth so that it lined the leaf-strewn hollow – “and then ye pleat it every few inches, lie down on it, and roll.” (Dragonfly in Amber, ch. 36)
  14. 14. Frasier Tartan  Jaime typically wears the blue and brown MacKenzie tartan, presumably because he’s hiding among them. His wedding tartan in Fraser plaid is mostly blue-green with a little red. The costume designer describes making the Fraser tartan similar to the MacKenzie one to show the relation between the families – the Fraser tartan has only a thin red stripe in an homage to the traditional red tartan (Podcast 107). The MacKenzie tartan in “earth colors” was also created by the design team – neither is the authentic clan pattern.
  15. 15. Standing Stones  While stone circles appear across Britain and beyond, Craigh na Dun itself is fictional.  Scotland has many stone circles, while over 900 remain today across the British landscape.  Some standing stones were said to dance or move about the land, while others made noise, much like the roaring Claire hears each time. Old Irish and Welsh tales describe stones that could speak or move, especially at the Fire Feasts and Solstices.  Around the world, people would walk through the stones seeking healing or regeneration.
  16. 16. Travelers  Now this one is about a man out late on a fairy hill on the eve of Samhain who hears the sound of a woman singing sad and plaintive from the very rocks of the hill. “I am a woman of Balnain. The folk have stolen me over again,” the stones seemed to say. “I stood upon the hill, and wind did rise, and the sound of thunder rolled across the land. I placed my hands upon the tallest stone and traveled to a far, distant land where I lived for a time among strangers who became lovers and friends. But one day, I saw the moon came out and the wind rose once more. So I touched the stones and traveled back to my own land and took up again with the man I had left behind.” (Episode 103)  In book and show, the story is meant to parallel Claire’s own situation and also provide her with hope – after their travels, the women usually return home.  The wife of the Laird of Balnain may be on a mission to save her child, another common staple of fairy kidnapping tales. Some young men are stolen as well, to become great poets or musicians like Thomas the Rhymer.
  17. 17. Fairies  “Some say the hill is enchanted, others say it is cursed. Both are right,” Claire notes in the prologue to Dragonfly in Amber. In folklore, the fairies live under the artificial hills that are manmade cairns or burial chambers from the ancient peoples of the land – many believe the tiny folk who could not abide iron are in fact memories of primitive civilizations.  Sidhe is also the Gaelic word for the treasure-filled barrow-mounds, as fairies are said to live “under the hill.” Prehistoric flint arrowheads scattered throughout Scotland were always known as elf-shot – proof of the primitive fay who refused to use iron.  Scottish tales often take place in a particular century, rather than a nebulous “Once Upon a Time.”. (The only place where 200 years appears is the popular fifties musical Brigadoon). In Gabaldon’s work, the two hundred years seems to be common knowledge to the Scots.  As Joan MacKimmie describes tiny fairies, “They give you food and drink…But if you take any, you lose time…there’s music and feasting and dancing. But in the morning, when he goes back it’s two hundred years later” (“The Space Between” 234).  In fact, stolen children may be boys but stolen adults are often young women, taken as brides or wet-nurses for the fairies.
  18. 18. Selkies  The selkie legend describes “mythological creatures said to live as seals in the sea but to become humans on land” (Outlander, ch. 24). A man steals a selkie’s sealskin, and she turns into a woman and weds him. Eventually, she discovers the stolen skin and returns to the sea.  This story parallels Claire’s own – a magical woman is trapped in Scotland, unable to return to her birthplace and forced to marry a Scottish man of the time. He’s able to keep her for a while, but eventually must let her return home. Jaime seems to realize this as he guides Claire to the standing stones.  From the male teller’s point of view, this type of romance reflects a desire to connect with the world of nature, and particularly the threshold to the magical world, as heroes court nymphs of the wild feminine oceans, streams, forests and skies” – these semi-divine women offer a bridge from the human world to that of the unconscious (Frankel 306).
  19. 19. Loch Ness Scotland has always teamed with memorable folktales: of kelpies, selkies, and of course, the Loch Ness Monster, who appears in the books.
  20. 20. Jewels  “In most symbolic traditions, jewels signify spiritual truths” (Cirlot 163)  In the books, Jaime gives Claire a dagger with a moonstone in the hilt. A gift of love, healing, and foretelling. “It is powerful in reconciling lovers, and helpful to consumptives when the Moon is increasing in light, but when the Moon is waning, its stone will only enable its wearer to foretell future happenings” (Thomas and Pavitt 182-183).  From Geillis after their adventure in the third book, Jaime keeps an emerald, opal, turquoise, golden stone, and the black diamond. While the last of these, like its fellows, is intended for time travel, it has further significance as Jaime notes the adamant gives its owner “The knowledge of joy in all things” (Voyager, ch. 63). While he sells the other jewels, Jaime keeps this one for Claire so she can return to the future, suggesting his love and joy in her.
  21. 21. Sapphire and Diamonds  For many years, Lord John keeps the sapphire he confiscates from Jaime in Voyager. Lord John makes a sapphire paperweight that always journeys with him.  When pressed, he doesn’t return it, but instead gives Jaime the sapphire ring his first love Hector left him – he considers his talisman from Jaime more significant. Sapphires symbolize a higher spirituality with “truth, chastity, and contemplation,” since they’re the color of the heavens (Bruce-Mitford 40). John uses his path with sapphires to show his growth toward a more elevated love.  The “Star Sapphire was much valued by the Ancients as a love charm; they considered it peculiarly powerful for the procuring of favours, for bringing good fortune and averting witchcraft” (Thomas and Pavitt 156). Both his sapphires bring him love and luck in relationships.  In the seventh book, Lord John gives Claire diamond earrings. These are the hardest stone, as well as one of the most beautiful and expensive, and thus, a salute to her strength.
  22. 22. Pearl Necklace  “The pearl signifies humility, purity, innocence, and a retiring spirit” (Jones 94). In fact, these last do not well describe pale Claire, or indeed Ellen MacKenzie, who eloped and returned pregnant.  “Since the neck has an astrological association with sex, the necklace also betokens an erotic link” (Cirlot 227).  Pearls symbolize beauty and “have long been the jewel of love” (Bruce-Mitford 87). They were a combination of masculine and feminine, male fire and female water.  In the episode, Claire describes forgetting her previous life, losing the incidents like “pearls on a string…rolling into dark corners.” While this links with the pearls, in fact they are an heirloom, kept intact as a reminder.  Pearls also signify tears for their partings.
  23. 23. Rings  Claire’s wedding rings: a gold one for Frank and a silver for Jaime.  Gold symbolizes the sun, patriarchy and masculine principle. This is apt for Frank, in his world of military hierarchy in which Claire learned to operate. Only her trip through the standing stones saves her from a future as housewife to an Oxford Don, another masculine order.  Gold is popular for wedding rings because of its sunny, undimmed color, suggesting untarnished joy.  Malleable as it is, gold is a symbol for adaptability as well as untarnished constancy and the indestructible – gold buried for millennia will emerge from the earth in the same state it was buried. Frank is frozen waiting for Claire in the future, a lightpost to guide her home if she chooses to return. 
  24. 24. Rings  Silver is the less expensive, simpler metal. It represents the feminine principle – emphasizing that Claire can take the dominaent role. As Caitriona Balfe describes Jaime:  His emotional intelligence is what, for me, stands out. In this very rough and barbaric world, here’s a young guy who’s, emotionally, so much more modern. And he’s willing to learn and he’s looking for that guidance. And I think that’s the beautiful thing that they find in each other. I truly believe that she was very much in love with Frank, but I think that this is something that she has never experienced before… (Prudom, “Strong Female”)  In the book it’s a delicate thistle pattern, on the show, it’s from the key to Lallybroch – coarser but a link with her new home. 
  25. 25. Works Cited Bruce-Mitford, Miranda. The Illustrated Book of Signs and Symbols. USA: DK Publishing, 1996. Cirlot, J.E. A Dictionary of Symbols. New York: Routledge, 1971. Dresbach, Terry. Terry Dresbach: An 18th Century Life. 2014. Blog. Frankel, Valerie Estelle. From Girl to Goddess: The Heroine’s Journey in Myth and Legend. Jefferson, NC: McFarland and Co., 2010. – . The Symbolism and Sources of Outlander. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015. Gabaldon, Diana. A Breath of Snow and Ashes. New York: Random House, 2005. – . Cross Stitch. London: Arrow Books, 1994 – . Dragonfly in Amber. New York: Random House, 1992. – . “The Doctor’s Balls.” Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who. Edited by Deborah Stanish and L.M. Myles. USA: Mad Norwegian Press, 2012. Kindle Edition. – . Outlander. New York: Bantam Dell, 1992. – . The Outlandish Companion. New York: Delacorte Press, 1999. – . “The Space Between.” The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination: Original Short Fiction for the Modern Evil Genius. John Joseph Adams, ed. New York: Tor, 2013. 161-243. – . Voyager. New York: Random House, 1993. Jones, William. History and Mystery of Precious Stones. London: Richard Bentley and Son, 1880. “The Highland Garb.” The Gaelic Society of Inverness. Electric Scotland. Prudom, Laura. “‘Outlander’: Ron Moore on Adapting the Bestseller for Starz, Dispelling ‘Game of Thrones’ Comparisons.” Variety 6 August 2014. – . “Starz’s ‘Outlander’ Woos Women with Strong Female Protagonist.” Variety 7 Aug 2014. outlander-woos-women-with-strong-female-protagonist-1201277091. Thomas, William and Kate Pavitt. The Book of Talismans, Amulets and Zodiacal Gems. London: William Rider & Son, Ltd., 1922. The Sacred Texts Archive.
  26. 26. Check out more books by Valerie Estelle Frankel