By Suzanne DeMott Gaadt
A dragonfly is a powerful symbol around the world. I have wondered about the symbolism in Dragonfly in Amber, the second book of the beloved Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon. http://www.dianagabaldon.com/books/outlander-series/dragonfly-in-amber/ As an homage to this story, I created a new design with my characteristic layers of meaning in watercolor and pen-and-ink. Here I share some thoughts about Ms. Gabaldon’s title, as well as the motifs contained in my art (shown here).
The Outlander novels and their exquisite adaptation by Ronald D. Moore for the Starz television network, http://www.starz.com/series/outlander/featured are the story of Claire (played by Caitriona Balfe), a WW II British combat nurse and the wife of an Intelligence agent. While picking wildflowers in the Highlands, she passes through a stone circle and is unexpectedly thrown back in time to Scotland in the 1740s. For her safety, she marries Jamie Fraser (played by Sam Heughan), a noble Highlander and outlaw of the British redcoats.
After the couple is forced to leave Scotland, Claire and Jamie shake things up in Paris on the eve of the Jacobite rising. “Dragonfly in Amber” focuses on their time in France working together to thwart Bonnie Prince Charlie before returning to Scotland to fight for the salvation of the Scottish clans. Since Claire is from the future, she knows what will happen at the Battle of Culloden when the clans are wiped out, but she has the audacity to try to change the future with Jamie’s help. We admire their fortitude and conviction in the face of a doomed cause. Gabaldon has created a world richly informed by history, science, magic, and eternal love. I sense she does not choose titles lightly.
Ms. Gabaldon says the dragonfly in amber is “sort of a symbol of Jamie and Claire’s marriage.” It is a metaphor for “something of great beauty that is preserved and exists out of its proper time.” In almost every culture, a dragonfly symbolizes change—the kind of change that brings a deeper understanding of the meaning of life. It represents going beyond what is on the surface and looking deeper into the implications and aspects of life. As a token of wisdom, it stands for transformation and adaptability in life. For Native Americans, it is a sign of someone departed.
The motif of a dragonfly has many meanings, but with the addition of the insect set in amber, it becomes even richer. Amber is known as the “memory stone” and is thought to contain magical properties. It locks thoughts and memories in place to keep them safe. Amber is seen as a window into the past. It is ground and used medicinally for soothing. This organic gemstone is formed over millennia from the hardened resin of ancient pine trees. It is transformed by time.
In the story, Jamie and Claire wonder if it is possible to change time—to prevent the looming conflict. However, the fact that Claire is living two hundred years before her birth has already had an impact on people and events in her time in the present. She changes time—all the time. With her healing skills, she saves lives that would otherwise be lost. She alters Jamie’s life and just about everyone else she meets just by engaging in decision-making.
If we think of a dragonfly as a universal symbol of “change” and if “change” is trapped in amber, then the object that symbolizes change is frozen in time. It no longer changes. Change becomes part of memory—it is even prevented from changing! In the case of our main characters in the story, they hope to change the future but if “change” is set in amber, the future cannot be changed. In this case, the dragonfly may represent the Battle of Culloden. The result of the Scots’ defeat changed the Gaelic way of life in the Highlands forever. It could not be avoided and is set in memory.
Caitriona Balfe, stated in an interview that she thinks of Claire as the dragonfly—another possible meaning. https://samcaitlife.wordpress.com/2016/04/06/new-sam-and-cait-attend-qa-at-the-apple-store-soho/ A dragonfly begins to grow in water then moves into light and air to fly. These agile, long-bodied predators can fly up to 45 miles per hour! They have 20 times more power in each wing stroke as compared to other insects, and an ability to move in all six directions: backwards, forwards, up and down, and side to side. Claire is a time traveler, moving between centuries backwards and forwards—beginning life in one reality before moving to another. She adapts to her surroundings and goes beyond the surface to delve deeper into life. Claire as the dragonfly set in amber is imbued with magic and lives in memory.
In my artwork, the dragonfly glows within an amber sphere, along with other icons. Notice the two rings, interwoven like an infinity symbol. They represent Claire’s wedding rings: the gold one from Frank and the Celtic silver ring from Jamie. There is a star-filled dome that refers to the King’s chamber. The top ring doubles as a compass, alluding to “Voyager,” the next book in the series. The word “CHANGE” is inscribed there with the “N” pointing north on the Eiffel Tower—a nod to Claire’s time in Paris during the war. A fleur de lys of France sits at the south point. The silver ring contains two hearts for Jamie and Claire above the purple mountains of the Highlands. The curved lines on either side of the dragonfly create balance and harmony while honoring the Gaelic culture and the medieval monks who illuminated manuscripts. The spirals also represent horseshoes for good luck, clefs and musical notes, snakes, and the twisting storylines of plot and subplot. This knotwork weaves in and out of the standing stones of Craigh na Dun to ground the entire design in Scotland.
I was an art history and communications design major in college in Philadelphia and Rome, Italy. I am fascinated with symbolism in the arts and culture, the hidden stories behind certain motifs, and the meaning of myth. My interest in Celtic mythology began as a child with my Irish grandmother and led to the discovery of the King Arthur legends. For thirty years, I have traveled the world for business and pleasure, seeking out UNESCO World Heritage sites, especially Iron Age ruins in northern Europe. I wandered the stone circles in the Orkney Islands of Scotland http://www.orkneyjar.com/history/skarabrae/, marveled at the ancient mounds of Newgrange in Ireland http://www.newgrange.com, and climbed the sea-washed stones of the Giants Causeway in Northern Ireland http://www.giantscausewayofficialguide.com.
I dedicate this art and essay to the creative vision of Ms. Gabaldon, whose legions of fans have enjoyed reading and re-reading the Outlander books for 25 years. I also want to thank the outstanding actors, writers, producers, directors, and crew of the Outlander television production for their artistry and integrity.
I welcome comments!
Prints of the artwork are available here at this site. If you have any questions, please message Suzanne through this site, the Give A Fig Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/GiveAFig/ or Twitter at https://twitter.com/GiveAFig1.
© Suzanne D. Gaadt, 2016. All rights reserved. No part or whole of this essay or artwork may be used in any way, quoted, borrowed, scanned digitally, photographed, or otherwise copied without the express written permission of Suzanne D. Gaadt.