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

That night, wearing what Wolfram delightfully describes as "raiment of combat" - a sheer nightgown - the queen came to kneel weeping at Parzival's bedside. As his mother had taught him that it was proper to kneel only to God, Parzival, apparently still somewhat simple, told the sobbing woman to arise and join him in bed. With Parzival carefully lying on the other side of the bed, the queen requested his help in averting a grave threat to her and her kingdom. Being a good knight, Parzival the next day met and vanquished her enemy. The couple spent another night together, and again Parzival "left the queen a maiden." Not until the third night did he recall his mentor's description of man and wife as one, as well as his mother's admonition (which had caused so much trouble before) to embrace women. "And so they entwined arms and legs . . . . and he found the closeness sweet (Von Eschenbach, pp. 103-111)."

Perhaps the most basic of the many standards by which men judge the masculinity of other men is that of sexual potency. The proclivity of males to boast about their conquests is notorious. This is particularly true in adolescence when a boy's masculine identity, especially when challenged by his equally uncertain peers, is still very tenuous. A young man who does not brag at least a little about his sexual exploits is apt to be poorly regarded by his fellows; a youth who fails to even attempt a conquest when he has the chance is likely to be considered a fool or worse by his more aggressive peers. In their world, no healthy and sane male ever passes up the opportunity of a seduction.

For the women who find him attractive, the unresponsive man, like Parzival with the maiden queen and the gardener's boy with the princess, presents a puzzle, and perhaps a challenge. He may himself only feel tremendously frustrated by his apparent inability to act on opportunities that he allows himself to recognize as such only in retrospect. While some will see in him, like Joseph spurning Potiphar's wife, a model of proper behavior, his restraint may well be due to something other than adherence to a strict moral code.

Human behavior is based more on archetypal predisposition than moral ideals. Intimate relationship requires the exposure of one's most private self, and yet we have an inherent reluctance to expose ourselves, as is literally expressed in the near universal association of nakedness and shame. Even more potentially shameful than physical nakedness is the psychological nudity without which there can be no real intimacy. No matter how well we hide those parts of ourselves that we want no one to see, being truly intimate means that sooner or later we will be revealed as who we really are.

We both hope for and fear such an exposure. We so much want to be accepted for who we are, and fear that we will be found shamefully unworthy of acceptance. We desire to be known, and are terribly afraid of what might become known. Our fear is not so much of the other as it is of what the other might see in us. As with any potentially transformative experience, intimate relationship "is not comfortable and harmonious; rather it is a place of individuation where a person rubs up against himself and against his partner, bumps up against her in love and in rejection, and in this fashion learns to know himself, the world, good and evil, the heights and the depths " (Guggenbuhl-Craig, p. 61). Resistance to intimacy is in its essence resistance to the potential pain of such an encounter.

While both sexes resist intimacy, they tend to do it in different ways. Cultural conditioning makes it relatively easy for a woman to assume the role of nurturer. At first glance, nurturing might appear to be anything but an avoidance of intimacy. But a woman who is continually focused on her partner's needs is not likely to have her own exposed.

Men are generally well trained from an early age in the techniques of concealing their real selves behind a facade of rationality and emotional distance. The mysterious stranger, as a romanticized ideal, appears in countless myths, novels (including romance novels whose female authors and readers do their part in maintaining male stereotypes), and films. Many men try to live up to this archetype by being mysteries even to themselves. The man who responds to the stereotypical psychotherapeutic inquiry of "What are you feeling?" with "I don't know" or "I think that. . . ." may truly be unaware of his feelings or lack the vocabulary to describe them. If he believes, as do most men on an unconscious level, that being masculine means being always in control, emotional detachment will be almost as essential an aspect of his manhood as his genitals. Asking such a man to freely express his emotions may well be experienced by him as symbolically equivalent to a request that he willingly castrate himself.

In the initial stages of therapy the therapist may have to acknowledge a man's emotional life for him. In intimate relationship this part is usually played by a partner who, on a mostly unconscious level, bears the burden of his emotions along with her own. But fewer women these days are willing to serve as emotional nursemaids to men who refuse to take on responsibility for their own inner lives. A woman's steadfast refusal to nurture without being herself nurtured can mark the beginning of a painful, but ultimately rewarding change for her mate as well as herself.

The initial relationship, like many beginning relationships, of the princess and the gardener's boy was an ambiguous one. Perhaps the gardener's boy was foolish in not valuing the princess and her gold. Then again, maybe he was wise. The story leaves us to draw our own conclusions. In any case, he continued to be an intriguing mystery to her and, while the story says nothing about it, we may well imagine that he found himself from time to time thinking of her and her room.


Almost before it began, the flirtation of the princess and the gardener's boy was interrupted as "war overran the land." Declaring himself now a man, the youth announced his intention of joining in the fight against the invader. Everyone laughed at him, but they said they would leave him a horse in the stable. When he went out to get his horse, the gardener's boy found a lame old nag.

Men and war are not easily separated. Men seem to have an innate propensity to organize themselves along military lines to "attack" problems, even when a warlike approach may well be counterproductive. Men who hardly know one end of a rifle from another use the language of war to describe the relatively peaceful tasks of their everyday lives. The professional sports which obsess so many men are a very thinly disguised form of ritual warfare. While men often exhibit the best traits of warriors, they also have a distressing tendency to emulate the worst behaviors of off-duty soldiers.

The archetypal power that drives men to war has very little to do with the rational explanations we invent for it and has, thus far in human history, successfully eluded all attempts to banish it. There is a strongly spiritual quality to war. Throughout history, in culture after culture, blood sacrifice and religious experience have been tied together. In war the linkage is explicit and literal. Every war is, in a sense, a holy war made so by the actions of men sacrificing themselves as well as their enemies to a cause transcending life itself. Standing face-to-face with death, the warrior passes beyond, if only for a moment, the bounds of his own mortality. Even in death, through his sacrifice the fallen warrior is joined to something greater than his mortal self.

Despite its horrors, no matter how great its cost in wasted lives, wealth, and energy, there is something undeniably fascinating about war and the men who wage it. Many of the greatest stories of all time, masterpieces that have captured the very essence of human experience, are set in and about the battlefield. From ancient tales to the latest blockbuster movie, the resolute man of action who resolves problems by skillfully dispatching the people who cause them is a universally admired figure. Judging by the number of titles containing the word "warrior" to be found in New Age sections of bookstores, even proponents of peace and harmony find the archetypal appeal of the man of war hard to resist.