Study Guide

Lord of Light Philosophical Views: Semiotics

By Roger Zelazny

Philosophical Views: Semiotics

"To speak is to name names, but to speak is not important. A thing happens once that has never happened before. Seeing it, a man looks upon reality. He cannot tell others what he has seen. Others wish to know, however, so they question him saying 'What is it like, this thing you have seen?' So he tries to tell them." (1.409)

The speech that gets our minds churning on symbols for the rest of the novel. Can words possibly describe reality? Sam says no, but then again, he's using words to describe the reality that they cannot describe reality… Whoa.

"They are our children, by our long-dead First bodies, and second, and third and many after—and so, ours is the parents' responsibility toward them." (2.298)

Although the Firsts fashion themselves as gods, these personas are just symbols meant to represent them as beyond human. In fact, they're so human they are responsible for an entire planet filled with, yeah, humans.

Occasionally, the lamp would flare or sputter, and it was as if a nimbus of holy or unholy light played about their heads, erasing entirely the sense of the event, causing the spectators to feel for a moment that they themselves were the illusion, and that the great-bodied figures of the cyclopean dance were the only real things in the world. (3.22)

All art is symbolic in one way or another. Not to get all Matrix-y, but what happens when you can no longer tell the real world from the art world? What if the world we think is real is really just an elaborate artistic symbol? In fact, Buddhism and Hinduism do have a concept that suggests the illusionary and—dare we say, symbolic—nature of reality, maya.

The answers following the questions, which now came from all of them, grew longer and longer, for they became parables, examples, allegories. (3.127)

Rild gets himself some disciples, and they ask for the answers to life's tough questions. It's what disciples do. But Rild doesn't give them straight answers—oh no—instead he relies on parables and allegories, and these are what? Yep, symbolic.

They meditated upon the Udgitha which functions through the eye, but the demons pierced it through with evil. Therefore, one sees both what is pleasing and what is ugly. Thus the eye is touched by evil. (4.Intro)

This introduction to Chapter 4 suggests that all of our senses are a way of receiving symbolic information as it puts all five in parallel with words (which we've already determined are symbols by nature). Too bad these symbols are all infested with demons. Does one need a special type of exorcist or ENT to extract eye demons?

Tathagatha and Sugata would be part of a single legend, he knew, and Tathagatha would shine in the light shed by his disciple. Only the one Dhamma would survive. (4.364)

For the followers of Buddhism, Sam and Rild are now one in the same. The Buddha is no longer a person, but rather two people who have become one symbol. Sounds cramped.

"The Buddha and his words are an abomination in the eyes of the gods."

"But why?"

"He is a bomb-throwing anarchist, a hairy-eyed revolutionary. He seeks to pull down Heaven itself." (5.160-162)

Potato, potato. Tomato, tomato… those are supposed to be pronounced differently. Our point is: The same symbol can be one person's salvation and another's bomb-throwing anarchy, in the same way that the same word can have more than one pronunciation.

"The only other things he cares about in those cities are souls, not bodies. He will move across the land destroying every symbol of our religion that he comes upon, until we choose to carry the fight to him. If we do nothing, he will probably then send in missionaries." (7.218)

When we read this, we thought to ourselves: If you destroy all the symbols of a religion—and we mean all the symbols—can you effectively destroy the religion? What do you think?

"Yours was the power to lay a belief upon them. You are what you claimed to be."

"I lied. I never believed in it myself, and I still don't. I could just as easily have chosen another way —" (7.279-280)

Sam says he lied when he said he was the Buddha. But has his lie become the truth? Has he become the symbol he said he was but never believed he was? Yes? No? We're going with maybe.

Death and Light are everywhere, always, and they begin, end, strive, attend, into and upon the Dream of the Nameless that is the world, burning words with Samsara, perhaps to create a thing of beauty. (7.607)

In the end, the characters of Yama and Sam are no longer discussed as people but as symbols of Death and Light itself. They have passed into legend, and so have obtained symbolhood. By the way, symbolhood, yeah, not a real word, but we hope it'll catch on all the same.