The day seems to be pretty well gone by now when the advent of a comet was universally regarded as a portent of war or pestilence, or a herald of the end of the world. When Halley’s comet in 1456, appeared contemporaneously with the advance of the Turks into Europe, all Christendom added a special supplication to the Litany, “From the devil, the Turk, and the comet, good Lord deliver us.” Now, I fancy, the only lingering superstition on the subject — and it is one which facts have undoubtedly done much to support — is the beneficial influence of comets upon the vintage.“MELBOURNE.” Bendigo Advertiser (Vic. : 1855 – 1918) 9 February 1880: 2.
On 2 February, 1880, Halley’s comet made a return to the skies over Victoria and New South Wales. This once-in-a-lifetime event that once brought with it much anxiety and superstition had by that time become, mostly, a mere curiosity. Yet, for symbolic reasons it is worth noting the comet in relation to the Glenrowan story for it is, in many ways, a war story and the comet was traditionally seen as a portent of war and strife.
Just as we see now, the 19th century was filled with many superstitious people who held symbols such as comets as very important, and people looking down their noses at them and writing to the press to make it known how much more intelligent they were than them. After all, what’s the point in being smarter than everybody else if they don’t know it. What this does allow is the utilisation of the tug of war between superstition and rationality that such a symbol brings with it, to reflect the thematic content of the text. To this effect I have used Halley’s comet in the novel to highlight the difference in thinking between Ned and Joe.
Ned has many lofty ideas about the significance of symbols and dreams signifying his path to glory, but Joe is not having any of it. He’s a “lapsed Catholic” whose only focus is on the material world. He tends to waver between existentialism and nihilism. We know from Ned’s own words, historically, that he believed in the spiritual world and, in particular, divine judgement. We can’t be certain from the historical record what Joe’s beliefs were in regards to the metaphysical, but it is possible to make an educated guess based on his behaviour. Joe was a hedonist who drank, did drugs and got laid outside of wedlock. He doesn’t come across as the kind of guy who was too focused on the meaning of weird lights in the sky or other portents of doom. Ned, on the other hand, probably looked for signs of his own greatness in order to placate his ego, while maintaining a broader spirituality, if not superstition, that guided his decisions.
Of course, there are other uses of symbolism in the novel that draw on mythology and the paranormal to heighten themes and personal drama, but none of it is done in opposition to what is recorded historically. That’s the benefit of writing in this way, where you are relying heavily on historical fact but give yourself enough room to get creative within the boundaries of that.
What other symbols appear in the book? You’ll just have to wait and find out.