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

Long after everyone else had returned from the battlefield to celebrate the victory, the gardener's boy came in on his limping horse. He made a strange remark about having saved the day, but as usual no one took him seriously. The youth let the matter drop, and once again his real identity remained a secret. This time, though, it was concealed more by the assumptions of others than by his reluctance to reveal himself.

The gardener's boy was an outsider. While the people at the palace thought kindly of him and wished him no harm, they could not help but notice that he seemed more than a little odd, the sort of person who never quite fits in. Even while he was still at his father's palace, the tale gives no indication that the prince had any playmates. Given his royal status, it may have been difficult for the little prince to find any peers. In his father's kingdom, his special position set him apart. As a gardener's boy, he was isolated by his lowly station and peculiar behavior. Like many a lonely individual, he probably felt at one and the same time inferior and superior to the people around him. Awareness of his unusual and inconsistent nature only added to his reluctance to reveal himself. Part prince, part common laborer, yet really neither, he was a person who seemed to belong nowhere.

Social standing and social conformity go hand-in-hand. Peer relationships are an important and often overlooked factor in a developing a sense of self. Rejection by other children can be devastating. Elementary school boys tend to organize themselves into competitive groups, miniature warrior bands dominated by the most aggressive boys. Boys both within and outside the group are judged by their conformity to group norms. Members of other groups are looked down upon, and bullied when the opportunity presents itself. A boy who belongs to no group at all is likely to be abused by everyone. While the importance of peer groups waxes and wanes during the course of a man's life, the dynamics of playground, barracks, shop, and boardroom groups are strikingly similar.

Outsiders often find solace in dreams of revenge against those who have excluded them. Sometime such fantasies explode into violent realities when a quiet loner suddenly begins mowing down people at random. Suicidal fantasies often revolve around the bitter belief of an ostracized individual that a dramatic death will bring recognition denied in life. Fortunately most violent fantasies are never acted out, and most imaginings of social revenge take a more benign form. Dreams of what might be can sustain purpose and direction when there is otherwise little support for who one is. Sometimes dreams even come true when hidden potential meets with activating circumstance.

The gardener's boy, left behind with his useless horse, knew where to find the assistance he needed to realize his heroic potential. He had not yet availed himself of Iron Hans' promised aid. Maybe the boy knew that he had to first complete his assigned task of learning "what it is to be poor" before he could go to the wild man for help. Perhaps a certain degree of maturity is required to be worthy of the gifts of a wild man. Or it may have been that Iron Hans, who was after all less than civilized, would have been of little use to the boy in peaceful society.

In war, civilized behavior gives way to wildness. Inside the noblest warrior, no matter how well disciplined, there lurks a wild man. The immature warrior, unable to control it as a means towards a constructive, socially sanctioned end, is overwhelmed and himself used by the wildness. In battle or not, he carries it with him as a threat to social order. The mature warrior draws upon the same energy to do his terrible deeds, but knows that he is not the wild man. When the battle is done, like Odysseus restrained by Athena after he had slain Penelope's suitors, he leaves the wildness behind.

The youth was ready for the wild man's gifts. Riding the lame horse out to the edge of the forest, the boundary where the civilized and the wild came together, he called for Iron Hans. True to his word, the wild man responded and all went well for everyone but the enemy.

The youth might have returned to the palace with his magnificent charger and army to be proclaimed the hero of the day. But instead, he rode back to the forest to return the horse, armor, and army to Iron Hans. And so the identity of the hero was still a mystery when the gardener's boy came in on his crippled mount. His claim that things would have gone badly without him was taken as further evidence of the general belief that he was a fool. But the king's daughter, knowing that there was more to the youth than met the eye, had her suspicions

The Hero Found

At a loss as to who had saved his kingdom, the king proclaimed a three day festival. As a high point of the festivities, the princess was to throw out a golden apple to an assembled, group of knights. Since the unknown hero had already proven himself superior to the other knights of the realm, it was assumed that he would be the one who caught the apple, and thus his identity would be revealed.

The contest, as a means for obtaining otherwise inaccessible knowledge, was a form of divination. Whether involving a test of skill, as in our tale, or elaborate consultation of oracles, divination is based upon the belief that there is no such thing as chance. In every event, great or small, it is assumed that there is some hidden directive process at work. The goal of traditional divination is not to gain control over such transpersonal forces, but to come into alignment with them. Life goes well when attuned to the powers that govern its fate, and poorly when such factors are ignored.

Whatever their actual ability to control the patterns, chaotic or otherwise, that mark their lives, most men have an ingrained belief that they should be "captains of their fate," heroically following a well charted course through the sea of life no matter what storms they may encounter. The man who wanders off course, or worse fails to set and follow any course at all, is condemned as lacking the most essential qualities of manhood.

But life is not a journey from one given point to another. It resembles more a voyage of discovery with its exact route and destination unknown. Anyone who ventures into unexplored territory, which every life is, must be ready to alter his plans in response to what he encounters there. A life rigidly governed by preset plans is no more likely to succeed than a life driven entirely by chance.

Paradoxically, a man's belief that he can and should direct every aspect of his life can prevent him from finding any direction at all. Overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of achieving the perfect control he believes he must, the man governed by such a belief will feel inadequate to every task that comes his way. Unconsciously convinced that any assumption of responsibility will end in failure, he becomes quite proficient in avoiding the burdens of life. At the same time he feels hopelessly weighted down by his existence in a world that seems to have no place or use for him.

A man's difficulties in assuming responsibility for himself can often be linked to an absent, whether physically or emotionally, father. Children idealize parents, endowing them with godlike power and goodness, even when realities are very different. Without a real and involved parent with whom to compare and contrast the idealized parental image, abandoned children often feel, on some mysterious but very real level, that they are to blame for a parent's absence. If they had been better sons, perhaps their fathers would have stayed around. As adults, they continue to condemn themselves in the same way that they imagine their fathers reproached them. Feeling responsible for something which was never theirs in the first place, they come to believe that they are inherently inadequate to the responsibilities that are rightfully theirs.

Once allowed to emerge, the rage and grief of a man abandoned by his father can be immense. Expressing anger towards the father who went away, mourning a loss that went so long unrecognized can be a wonderfully liberating step towards leaving the past behind. But, as with any developmental stage, one can get stuck in it. Some abandoned sons never move beyond identification of themselves as victims of their absent fathers and, by extension, an uncaring patriarchal society. Caught up in a past that can never be undone, they fail to notice things that need attention in the here and now.