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Literary Motifs

Literary motifs are images, symbols, or themes that are repeated throughout a piece of literature or across more than one piece of literature so as to form a pattern.10 Because they recur at different points in a narrative, motifs help to unify the text, particularly in cases where the narrative is fairly long.11 There are also leitmotifs in literature. Leitmotifs are repeated patterns and images that tend to be less dominant than motifs, but their repetition serves to unify narratives on multiple levels as well. An example of a unifying motif in the book of Joshua is the repeated encouragement in which the Lord says to Joshua after Moses’ death, “Be strong and courageous” (Josh 1:6), followed immediately by the intensified, “Only be strong and very courageous” in the next verse. These encouragements remind Joshua that the battles he is about to engage in are not his to win, but the Lord’s. The admonition to be courageous does not originate here; rather, it comes from prior events in the life of the nation of Israel under Moses. Shortly before he was to die, Moses encouraged the people with the same words, stating “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them [the inhabitants of the Promised Land], for it is the LORD your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you” (Deut 31:6). In their immediate context at the beginning of the conquest, then, the Lord uses these words to fortify Joshua to the task before him; at the end of his life, Moses encouraged the people with the same words. The immediate effect of the Lord’s words in Joshua 1 is not only to encourage Joshua to be brave in the military campaigns ahead of him, but to connect Joshua’s work with Moses’—as indeed it is, for it is the work of redemptive history that both men do. In turn, Moses’ use of the words to the Israelites before he died reaches back into the earlier history of Israel and Moses’ own call, thereby connecting Joshua’s work in the people’s sight with the Lord himself, for by God’s own word, Moses was his “servant” and the leader of his people (Josh 1:2, 7, 13, 15; 8:31, etc.). A striking repetition of the same motif occurs as the people are ready to cross the Jordan River, for they admonish Joshua to be strong and courageous (1:18). The people’s repetition of Joshua’s words back to him serves to indicate that they will gladly follow him as the leader God has appointed for them. Finally, at the end of his life, Joshua encourages those who come behind him to be strong and courageous as well (23:6). In effect, the repetition at various points throughout the book of Joshua of the motif to “be strong and courageous” relates Joshua’s work to Moses’ and the Lord’s in redemptive history; connects Joshua in the people’s sight with Moses, “the servant of God”; and turns attention away from the forty years of wilderness wanderings to the imminent conquest and settlement of Canaan.12

It can be noted further from the Joshua example that a motif need not necessarily be a primary theme of the piece of literature in which it appears—though it often is a dominant theme. In the example of the conquest of the Promised Land, Joshua’s courage is not the primary theme of the book that bears his name; rather, it is God’s work on behalf of his people in conquering and displacing the Canaanites in the Promised Land—and, ultimately, God’s actions in redemptive history leading all the way to Calvary—that forms the primary theme and focus of the book of Joshua. Even when motifs are not the primary theme of a work, then, they still illuminate the primary themes of the work and direct the reader’s attention toward them.13 In the case of the example from the book of Joshua, the admonitions to be strong and courageous point back ultimately to the Lord himself who gives the admonitions. While Joshua is a great leader, he does not defeat the inhabitants of Canaan by military might. For instance, it is the Lord who defeats Jericho without a single military offensive on Joshua’s part (chapter 7); in the final overthrow of Ai, it is God’s plan of the ambush that seals the day, while all Joshua can do is hold out his javelin toward the city as God instructs him (chapter 8); and in the defeat of the confederations of Canaanite and Amorite kings in chapter10, it is the hailstones from heaven (10:11) and the sun standing still (10:12-14) that defeat the enemy. Joshua is no General MacArthur or Patton; his greatest praise is that he, alongside Moses, is “the servant of God” (Josh 24:29). In the motif of the encouragement to Joshua to be strong and courageous, then, we find a literary marker that on the one hand unifies the text and connects it to the Pentateuch, and on the other points to the primacy of the Lord in the narrative of the conquest of the Promised Land.

One other function of motifs and leitmotifs in literature is to help readers recall earlier events.14 To be sure, the reminders that these motifs provide serve to unify the narrative text as well, and they do so by pointing back and bringing to remembrance earlier events that prove to be significant later in the narrative. Two examples from Shakespeare’s well-known play, Macbeth, illustrate the point. First is the leitmotif of clothing. At the beginning of the play, shortly after the witches’ prophecy that he would become Thane of Cawdor has proven true, Macbeth becomes preoccupied with the possibility that he might be king—again, according to the witches’ prophecy. While he is lost in thought, his friend Banquo says of him, “New honors come upon him, / Like our strange garments, cleave not to their mold / But with the aid of use” (1.3.144-146). That is, Banquo states that Macbeth’s new title of Thane of Cawdor is like a new piece of clothing that he is not yet used to wearing. In itself the image is arresting because it expresses so clearly the state of things at this point in the narrative. Shakespeare repeats the clothing image later in the play and, when he does, the reader realizes how significant the motif has become. The later repetition of the clothing motif serves to remind the reader at a crucial point in the narrative of this earlier event and its significance. Earlier in the play when the clothing motif was used, Macbeth was just beginning to think of how he might become king. At the end of the play, when Macbeth has murdered the king and taken his throne, and still later when his wife commits suicides, he realizes that his own life has no more meaning. At this important point in the narrative, one of the nobles who marshal an army against Macbeth to remove the tyrant from the throne of Scotland states, “Now does he feel his title [that of “king”] / Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe / Upon a dwarfish thief” (5.2.20-22). Immediately the reader is reminded of the earlier title of “Thane of Cawdor” symbolized by clothing that Macbeth found difficulty adjusting to. At the conclusion of the play, however, the motif of clothing is full of irony, for now Macbeth is like a pathetic dwarf unable to fill the noble robes of king. In this manner, Shakespeare not only unifies the beginning and ending of the play; he fills the conclusion with a tragic irony.

The second example from Macbeth is the motif of light and dark—a motif that occurs almost ubiquitously in world literatures and the Bible. At the beginning of the play, Duncan, the rightful and noble king of Scotland, compares the rewards he will give to all those who helped him defeat the insurrection that precedes the action of the play to the light of stars. “But signs of nobleness, like stars,” he announces, “shall shine / On all deservers” (1.4.41-42). This is an archetypal use of light associated with goodness—a motif given one of its most important expressions in the Prologue to the Gospel of John where it is associated with God himself (John 1:4-5). Shakespeare follows a time-honored and traditional archetype in Duncan’s association of good things to light—in this case, the stars. Duncan follows this announcement of largesse with the fateful proclamation that his son, Malcolm, will be named the rightful heir to his throne. The image of light and dark becomes a motif when Macbeth inverts Duncan’s use of it almost immediately. Speaking aside (indicating that no one on stage hears him—more a mental thought than an oral statement), Macbeth states that the naming of Malcolm as heir to the throne is an impediment to his own ambition to be king. “Stars, hide your fires,” Macbeth declares; “Let not light see my black and deep desires” (1.4.50-51). Again, Shakespeare unifies the text and, in this case, underscores the deliberate, intentional nature of Macbeth’s evil desire to become king. First degree murder is on his mind. As if this were not rich enough, Shakespeare reverts to the motif of light and dark much later in the play, further unifying the narrative and underscoring the irony of the events in the play. Lady Macbeth, who goaded Macbeth to kill Duncan, has been driven insane by the guilt that her action and her husband’s actions have caused her. In her famous sleepwalking scene in act five, we are told that she never wishes to be without a light close by (5.1.22-23), for the darkness—associated with her husband’s murder of King Duncan—terrifies her. With one deft stroke, Shakespeare turns Macbeth’s conscious desire for darkness to cover his sin back upon Lady Macbeth. Her suicide which follows soon after the sleepwalking scene forces Macbeth to realize that his life is meaningless, and he dies a hollow man without her (5.5.17-28).

The examples from Shakespeare’s Macbeth demonstrate how subtle and nuanced motifs can be. Motifs unify narrative texts, particularly when the action is protracted and the reader tends to be caught up in the immediacy of the events at any given point in the story. Motifs serve to recall earlier incidents and thereby emphasize themes and ideas that the author wishes the reader to remember. Finally, motifs can provide an ironic commentary late in a narrative about motives and actions earlier in the story.

The Third Day Motif In John Milton’s Paradise Lost

A particularly instructive use of the literary motif of the third day is found in John Milton’s seventeenth century English epic poem, Paradise Lost (published first in ten books in 1667 and in 1674 in twelve books). Looking back to the Genesis account of the creation and fall and reaching all the way forward to the eschaton, Paradise Lost presents the biblical narrative from its beginning to its end. The poem contains a three-day war in heaven of the good angels against Satan and his forces. The war in heaven is an epic in miniature within the larger epic poem that makes use of conventional classical epic literary machinery. At the same time as Milton uses the exalted rhetoric, the hieratic language, and the conventions of epic battles of classical literature, he subtly undermines the pagan worldview that sees warfare as glorious and exalted above all other human endeavors.15 Milton’s subject is, after all, the Christian narrative of Lucifer’s rebellion against God in heaven, and against Satan only deity can prevail.16 Of importance in both the classical and Christian traditions behind the poem, however, is the fact that the battle takes place over three days, with the third day understood to be the climax of the narrative. On days one and two, the good and evil angels fight each other but are unable to overcome one another. The battle ultimately requires a third day and is brought to conclusion only by the personal intervention of the Son of God in the cataclysm. Milton writes in a long tradition of classical epic battles but, in his own way, “baptizes” the classical tradition by using it to advance Christian themes.17

When Milton writes his imaginative account of the war in heaven and the expulsion of Satan and his demons from heaven, his mind is saturated with details from the narratives of the Bible. We might even think of Paradise Lost as something of a gloss on the narrative of creation, rebellion and fall, and redemption. To be sure, Milton “fills in” the biblical narrative with details of his own invention, but he sees these additions as being consistent with the spirit of the Bible. In regard to the motif of the third day, Milton uses it in his account of Satan’s rebellion for purposes similar to those we find in the Bible. In the Bible, motifs are used in at least five ways: (1) to provide information and instruction; (2) to complete a preparatory waiting period; (3) to indicate special spiritual activity; (4) to point to purity and healing; and finally (5) to remind us of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Milton uses motifs in Paradise Lost in many of the same way the Bible uses them—not surprisingly for he was thoroughly conversant with the Bible.

Information And Instruction

The overall purpose of the entire account of Satan’s rebellion, the three-day war in heaven, and the expulsion of the demons from heaven to hell is information and warning; it is given as instruction to Adam. This didactic purpose of the account is apparent in Milton’s rhetorical strategy in the poem. The narrative of Satan’s rebellion and the war in heaven fills the last half of Book Five and all of Book Six of Paradise Lost. In the middle of Book Five the still sinless and innocent Adam asks the archangel, Raphael, to explain what he means by Adam and Eve’s “obedience” (5.513-514), and Raphael responds to Adam’s question by telling him the story that fills the remainder of Book Five and all of Book Six. At the end of Book Six when Raphael completes his account he concludes the narrative by warning the still-innocent Adam, “remember, and fear to transgress” (6.912). Milton’s rhetorical strategy in Books Five and Six indicates that the grand purpose of Raphael’s account of Satan’s rebellion and fall is to inform Adam of the necessity of his obedience and to warn him not to follow Satan’s lead and rebel against God. It is only when the narrative of the three-day battle in heaven is concluded by the action of the final, and third, day that Raphael’s instruction to Adam is complete, for it is on the third day that the Son of God defeats and routs Satan and his followers. The archangel Raphael presents the account of the three-day battle didactically as an admonishment to Adam to be faithful and obedient to God.

Purity Or Healing

At the heart of the three-day battle in heaven is the purity of heaven itself. When Satan hears God the Father announce that all created things, including all the angels, are subject to the Son (5.600-615), he is overcome with envy and pride (5. 662, 665). He resolves not to submit to the Son, but rather to rebel (5. 668-72) and lead any angels who will follow him. It is this pride, which C. S. Lewis calls “the complete anti-God state of mind”18 and is first seen in Satan before any other created being, which pollutes heaven and therefore must be removed. We must distinguish between the actual event of the rebellion and war in heaven and the rhetorical purpose of Raphael’s telling Adam about the event. The purpose of the war itself is the purification of heaven from the stain of Satan’s prototypical sin. Milton’s diction supports this understanding of the event. Praising the angel, Abdiel, for not following Satan, God the Father commends the loyal angel for upholding the Truth (6.32-35) against “that Godless crew” (6. 49) who have rebelled. Milton’s God tolerates no impious pride and leaves no room for Satan and his demons to remain in heaven in their sinful state. Later in the narrative, at the beginning of the third day of battle, the Son of God speaks of the sinful “perverseness” (6.788) of the rebellious angels who, even after two days’ opportunity to repent, still refuse to submit to the Father’s will and them summarily drives them from heaven (6.825-866). First and last, the three-day war in heaven serves to purify heaven of the pollution of Satan’s sinful pride and rebellion and restore purity to heaven. There is no place in heaven for a rebel and tyrant.

Completion Of A Preparatory Waiting Period

Milton structures his account of the three-day war in heaven by presenting days one and two of the battle as preparation for the grand events of day three. The angels loyal to God the Father are unable to defeat Satan and his followers on two successive days because, like the demons, they are merely created beings (6. 685-698). The outcome of the first two days of battle remains doubtful because it cannot end any other way. Only God can defeat Satan. In this way, Milton makes use of the first two days of the battle as preparation for the climactic third day on which the Son will be glorified above all the angels when he expels Satan and his demons from heaven. Ironically of course, the Son’s glorification is the very truth against which Satan originally rebelled (5.600-615), and it is the very truth that his expulsion from heaven proves to be true. It takes the third day, which is designated specifically the Son’s day (6. 699), utterly to defeat Satan and banish him from heaven. The failures of the angels on days one and two lead directly, and as an important and deliberate part of the Father’s plan (6.675-679), to day three on which the Son is glorified in the sight of all when he easily routs Satan and all his host, not using even half of his power to expel them from heaven (6.853). Day three dawns with great expectations of a special event in God’s grand providence. A corollary of the Son’s exaltation on day three of the war in heaven is the lesson the angels loyal to God learn at the same time. In Surprised by Sin: The Reader in Paradise Lost, Stanley Fish states that the angels learn on days one and two that they cannot defeat Satan, and this lesson in turn prompts them to simply “stand” and watch the Son do what only He can do (Paradise Lost 6.801-823). The angels’ posture at this point, Fish suggests, is one of faith—a faith that has jettisoned the desire for personal glory sadly so characteristic of epic heroes and learned instead to submit to the Son who alone is the true hero.19

Special Spiritual Activity

Day three completes the narrative of the war in heaven and recounts Satan’s expulsion irrevocably from heaven. The narrator prepares the reader for the glorious events of the day by calling the dawning of the third day “the third Sacred Morn” (6.747). The glory of the day is further underscored by the Son’s chariot, made of “Wheel within Wheel” (6. 751) reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision of the transcendent God (Ezekiel 1). Prior to the actual battle of the day and further underscoring the suspense before the battle begins, the Son speaks to his host assuring them of his victory (6.801-823). Finally the narrator climaxes the event and releases the suspense with the Son’s advance that so completely terrifies Satan and his demons that they eagerly and willingly throw themselves out of heaven to avoid the Son’s wrath (6.863-866). Satan’s expulsion from heaven climaxes Books Five and Six of Paradise Lost and achieves the effect of praising the Son above all created beings. Expectations are realized and the narrative is complete.

It can be seen, therefore, that motifs constitute an important contribution to the understanding of a given piece of literature. The implications of their presence have been noted in the case of Milton’s Paradise Lost where their indebtedness to scriptural precedents was seen. This study now turns to the use of the number three and the motif of the third day in particular as found in the Scriptures.


10 Ross Murfin and Supryia M. Ray, The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms (Boston: Bedford Books, 1997), 224.

11 Ibid.

12 A significant later use of the motif, “Be strong and courageous,” is found in 1 Chron 22:13 where David exhorts his son, Solomon, to “be strong and courageous” in building the temple that God did not allow him to build.

13 Murfin and Ray, 188.

14 Ibid.

15 Barbara Kiefer Lewalski, “Paradise Lost” and the Rhetoric of Literary Forms (Princeton: University Press, 1985), 149. In her argument, Lewalski references Paradise Lost 6.693-698 where Milton’s God states bluntly that war cannot solve the problem of Satan and the evil he has brought into heaven.

16 John Milton, Paradise Lost 6.699-709 in John Milton: Complete Poems and Major Prose, ed. Merritt Y. Hughes (New York: Odyssey Press, 1957), 340.

17 C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1956), 179-181. Lewis uses the term “baptized” to indicate the point at which the writings of George MacDonald, a nineteenth-century Scottish divine, showed him that all of life was fraught with holiness for those who could see it. In the same way, Milton uses ancient classical literary conventions to express the Christian message of sin and redemption.

18 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Harper San Francisco 2001), 122.

19 Stanley Fish, Surprised by Sin: The Reader in “Paradise Lost”, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997), 192.

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Bible Study Methods