From Wildman to King: Another Look at Male Myth and Initiation Part 2

The prince-become-a-cook's-boy continued to hide his golden hair, the mark of his shameful failure at the spring, keeping his head covered even when he came into the royal presence. Given what happened later in the story, had the boy removed his hat as the king demanded, it would have been clear to all that he was no mere servant. But, like the man who habitually counters every compliment with a recitation of his faults, the boy kept his beautiful hair concealed with the excuse that he suffered from a terrible scalp condition too repulsive to be exposed to view. His real identity still a secret, the boy was declared by the outraged king to be unfit for royal service. But people again felt sorry for him. Instead of being thrown out of the palace entirely, he was banished to the garden, there to await discovery by someone who would be neither satisfied with his explanation nor put off by his appearance.

Of Golden Hair, Wildflowers, and Foolishness

Although no longer the stranger who had come to the palace door begging for a job, the boy had not exactly improved his social standing. Given his low status, strange refusal to remove his hat no matter what the circumstances, disgraceful dismissal from the royal kitchen, and unknown history, the boy may well have been regarded as some sort of eccentric. Not only had the former prince descended to the level of a common laborer, he had apparently become a simpleton! In the usual course of things, the daughter of a king would have had nothing to do with such a lowly creature. It is no accident that the story has the princess' in her room looking down upon the boy in the garden.

Despite allegations to the contrary, not only is it possible for a man to be initiated by a woman, meaningful encounter with the feminine is an absolutely essential part of any real initiation into manhood. There is an element of at least symbolic truth in the old idea that a boy becomes a man through sexual experience. The male-female dichotomy is the most basic, and perhaps most immediate, of the many pairs of opposites that confound and bless our existence. In the opposite sex we encounter the other who will always be, to some degree, a mystery. No matter how close his relationship with a woman, a man will never know exactly what it is to be female, nor can a woman know what it is to experience the world through a male body.

The princess' elevation no doubt served to set her apart from the more mundane world as well as from the boy in the garden. But, unlike some other fairy tale princesses, she had no need of a rescuing prince. It was more the other way around, as she lured the boy up to her room. Unlike him, she seemed to be quite sure of who she was and what she wanted.

There are, of course, many women who while away their lives dreaming of the prince who will someday come to rescue them from their dreary lives. There are also more than a few men who long for the day when some princess will look down from her window and extend an invitation to (in the words of Mae West) "come up and see me sometime."

Unlike Rapunzel imprisoned in her remote forest tower or Snow White seemingly dead in her glass coffin, not all princesses separated from the world of ordinary mortals are the victims of some malevolent force. A shy boy, a prince only in his dreams, may so idealize a girl as to raise her, in his perception, to a position hopelessly beyond his reach.

"To love pure and chaste from afar" was the ideal of the Courtly Love tradition that swept through the royal courts of twelfth century Europe. According to rules devised by the women who ruled the Courts of Love, a knight was to devote himself to a lady, often the wife of his lord, in whose name his exploits were to be done. But the lady, at least in theory, was to remain always above and beyond him. She became in effect a more or less divine being beyond the reach of any merely mortal man (Heer).

But ideals are usually one thing and reality another. This too is reflected in the old stories. The downfall of Camelot followed the consummation of the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, the queen of his lord and best friend, Arthur. In another tale from the Arthurian corpus, the young knight, Tristan, was given the task of conveying Iseult, the intended bride of his lord and uncle, to her wedding. But during the journey, Tristan and Iseult unwittingly drank a love potion intended for the wedding night. The resulting forbidden passion, along with the guilty couple's attempts to keep it secret, eventually brought about the ruin of just about everyone involved.

Fortunately love is not always forbidden. Sometimes a love-struck man will confess his feelings to the woman of his dreams to discover that she in turn has been dreaming of him. But then, as he comes to know her better, she may become even more of a mystery as he discovers that she is not as he had thought her to be. The magic of romance gives way to the everyday reality of life with a person whose ideas and feelings do not always coincide with his, leaving him feeling bewildered, hurt, and angry.

Logic and reason have little to do with romance. Despite our best intentions to be fully aware of the choices we make, falling in love is not a conscious decision; it is something that just happens to us. Try as we may to dismiss our infatuations as illusions, they still refuse to leave us in peace. A man may believe that he is well beyond the age when romantic notions could turn him act like a love stricken fourteen year old. But then the princess in the tower calls to him, and he is hopelessly lost.

For a man who has serious difficulty separating fantasy and reality, who cannot give up the promise of transformation represented by the object of his fantasies, an unrequited infatuation can become a dangerous obsession. The woman who he loves in vain becomes to him, at one and the same time, an angel with the power to save him if only she would and a demon who mercilessly torments him. Convinced that life without her is impossible, he may end by destroying her as well as himself.

Throughout history men have approached women with a great deal of ambivalence. On one hand women are idealized to the point of looking to them in hopes of salvation. On the other hand, women and the troublesome desires that arise in their presence represent a potential source of male damnation. But male fear of women is much more than a fear of sexuality. With roots in the male child's need to separate from his mother to prove himself a man, it is above all else a fear of the apparent ability of women to lure men away from their dutiful (and often dubious) allegiance to male values and the male establishment that defines their status as men.

Established standards of male behavior exalt the virtues of sane and sober responsibility. The ideal man is one who is always in charge of both himself and the situation. But men often do lose control. Sometimes they even make fools of themselves. Since so many of us seem to become fools (or even worse, swine, like Odysseus' men in their encounter with Circe) when in the presence of women, who better than women to blame for our follies? In the classic German film, The Blue Angel, a staid bourgeois professor is utterly ruined through his infatuation with a cabaret singer who seductively toys with him. While few end up in as sad a state as The Blue Angel's professor, reduced to playing the fool in a cabaret show, almost every man has at one time or another done something foolish in pursuit of sexual or romantic fantasy.

Appearing foolish is the last thing most men would freely choose to do. But foolishness is not always a bad thing. In many myths the hero starts out a naive fool who, completely unaware that he is doing anything wrong, innocently violates all the rules of acceptable behavior. According to some traditions, the Grail could only be found and the Wounded Fisher King healed by a perfectly innocent fool such as Parzival proved to be. By innocently ignoring the rules, foolishness opens the way for possibilities that adherence to the way things "should be," and are, would preclude. As a threat to the established order, foolishness is always condemned by the powers that be (Willeford).

The attempt to conceal one's foolishness may itself prove foolish. Like the boy who kept his golden hair covered, fearing exposure of his shameful failure at the spring, a man may hide his real self for fear that he will be unmanned by disclosure of some foolish weakness. Maybe the gardener's boy, as he went about his work, sometimes imagined,with a mixture of hope and dread, what might happen should his real identity become known. But then the king's daughter, as a result of what might seem to be mere coincidence, looked out of her window and saw what no one else had seen.