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

The young man's experience with gold had not been particularly good. Attachment to the golden ball led to his exile from home. From the golden spring, where his finger and hair had turned to gold, he had been further exiled into what appeared to be sure and utter ruin. Perhaps he had good reason for his disregard of generally accepted values. As the more perceptive alchemists insisted, alchemical gold is not the ordinary gold treasured by the worldly wise. Insistent on following his own idiosyncratic process, the youth honored neither the princess' gold nor her father's authority. But eventually he had to come to terms with both.

On the third and final day of the festival in "Iron Hans", the outraged king determined to put an end to the mysterious knight's continued defiance of royal authority. The king's men were ordered to bring back, by force if necessary, the man who caught the golden apple. The stranger still managed to escape, but not before his leg was wounded and, much to the astonishment of all who saw it, his wonderful golden hair exposed to view.

The wound by which one is known is an element in many stories. Odysseus, finally returning home disguised as an old beggar, was recognized by his childhood nurse when she saw a scar, the mark of an adventure early in his life, on his thigh. The resurrected Jesus proved his identity to the doubtful Thomas by showing him the wounds of his crucifixion. In an Italian variant of "Iron Hans", the youth was so weakened by his wounds that he was unable to change back into his gardener's clothes, and thus gave away his secret (Calvino, pp. 398-403).

A man unmarked by life, who has never known the pain of having fallen short of his ideals, is a man who has not been touched by the fires of initiation. Like the circumcision scar that marks the successful initiate, the wounds that life inflicts on a man remind him of his limits as well as his achievements. Bly (1990, pp. 207-208) claims that the wound to the youth's leg is not symbolic of a genital wound. But he also makes reference to the Grail King's wound, an injury which, in Wolfram's telling of the tale, is explicitly castrating. In a not uncommon displacement of a disturbing image, other accounts describe the Suffering King as having been pierced through the thighs. As we have seen, the road to manhood is often a painful one. That a young man's sense of himself might be wounded in the course of his journey along that road is not surprising. But, if all goes as it should, the injuries he receives will leave him perhaps scarred but not crippled. So in "Iron Hans" the young knight is marked but not disabled. If his was a genital wound, perhaps it was circumcision rather than castration.

In initiatory circumcision, the initiate's manhood is wounded by elders who act to check his chaotic and potentially dangerous adolescent masculinity while instructing him in its appropriate use. So in the Grimms' tale, the youth was wounded and his defiance of the established order brought to a halt by the king's order. The youth was made to recognize the authority of the king, and was in turn finally recognized for who he was. With the setting of limits on the youthful grandiosity of the hero, the unruly masculine energy furnished by the wild man was brought into conscious service of the kingdom.

No one gets through life unmarked. Some receive more wounds than others. Some wounds quickly heal; others, like that of the Grail King, are a lifelong source of torment. When not so severe as to be crippling, wounding experiences can bring a more realistic view of the relationship between oneself and the world. While they may seem devastating from the standpoint of his inflated ego, a hero's wounds can create possibilities far greater than his wildest dreams.

The boy received his first wound as he freed the wild man. That wound led to the shame of his failure at the spring, and his subsequent acquaintance with suffering and poverty. It also brought the promise of help that he drew upon to save the kingdom. His heroic exploits in turn led to another wounding, the revelation of his secret, and a royal wedding.

In "Iron Hans", the hero's disguise finally failed him. After having repeatedly risked being exposed, he was revealed to be who he was and no one else. And who he was proved to be something far greater than anyone, including himself, had ever imagined.

Union & Reunion

Reports of golden hair spilling out from under the escaping knight's helmet confirmed the princess' suspicions about the mysterious hero and the strange golden haired gardener's boy. After learning that the boy had returned from the festival with three golden apples, she went to her father with her conjecture.

The king summoned the gardener's boy to the palace. As before, the youth came into the royal presence wearing his hat. But before anyone could object to his lack of respect, the princess uncovered his head. With his golden hair falling down over his shoulders, it was clear to everyone that he was indeed much more than a mere gardener's assistant. The youth showed his wound and the golden apples as proof of his heroic identity, further declaring himself to be the son of a mighty king with unlimited riches his for the asking. The grateful king, his anger at the knight who had repeatedly defied him forgotten, acknowledged his debt to the young man. No longer shy, the newly revealed prince asked for and was given the princess' hand in marriage.

The story makes no attempt to explain why the prince kept his identity hidden for so long. His concealment would seem to have only made things more difficult for him. The prince himself seems to have temporarily lost sight of who he was.

In the Hymn of the Pearl, the royal child sent down into Egypt to recover the "One Pearl" fell into "a deep sleep" in which he forgot both his identity and his mission. Only after being awakened by a message from home did the prince recall "that I was a son of Kings and my free soul longed for its own kind." Awakened to his task, the boy enchanted the terrible guardian of the pearl by "naming the name of my Father . . . and of my Mother" as proof of his royal identity. Seizing the pearl, the hero returned to the glory of his parents' house to resume his princely position.

While expressly a poetic vehicle for Gnostic teachings about the process of redemption, The Hymn of the Pearl, like "Iron Hans", depicts an initiatory journey. In both stories, the hero leaves the blissful innocence of a privileged childhood to be plunged into a dark existence from which there is seemingly no escape. But the hero eventually emerges having gained more than he lost. In "Iron Hans", the gardener's boy drew upon the wild man's promise to save the kingdom. Having proven himself worthy, he claims the princess as his due, is reunited with his parents, and becomes the heir of Iron Hans.

There is in the tale an assumption that the youth could not have performed his heroic deeds had he not been a prince to begin with. At first glance this might seem to be an artifact left over from times before the rise of democratic ideals. But symbolically, it has a deeper meaning. A royal figure, traditionally the most exalted member of society, symbolically represents the most complete development of human potential (Cirlot, pp. 167-169). The royalty of the little prince playing about the palace was primarily latent. But in the course of his trials, failures, and triumphs, possibilities became realities. His golden hair and golden deeds finally revealed, the heroic youth's newly recognized royal status was more earned than given.

The royal wedding, the joining of the complimentary opposites represented by the two royal figures standing at the head of the realm, is an age old symbol of transcendental wholeness (Jung, 1977, pars. 349-543). The fantasy romance with the golden prince or princess who magically transforms one's life can be a potent force. But, actual princesses being few and far between, literal pursuit of the royal marriage is a certain recipe for disaster. But taken symbolically, the quest for the perfect mate becomes, once more, a path for inner healing and wholeness.

More than just an account of male initiation, "Iron Hans" is also about the process of becoming more fully human. The ultimate task of the hero is the restoration of humanity's lost potential for wholeness. Going beyond the boundaries that have stopped those who came before him, the hero reclaims what has been lost, bringing it back to revivify the world. In a culture ruled by masculine values, the heroic task of necessity involves restoration of the feminine to its rightfully equal place beside the masculine.