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

Parzival's wandering, confused quest repeatedly brought him into contact with aspects of life and himself totally alien to the manly warrior qualities that had so utterly failed him in his initial encounter with the Grail mysteries. The curse that tormented king and kingdom was eventually lifted, not through knightly valor, but by Parzival's expression of empathy for the suffering Grail King. Reconnected to its source of life in the feminine Grail, the Waste Land was again fertile, and Parzival himself became Guardian of the Grail.

At the very end of the Grimms' tale, we learn that Iron Hans was once a great and mighty king. But then a terrible spell made him a wild man. The story says nothing about the circumstances of the curse, but other tales hold clues as to what may have happened.

In Grimms' "The Frog Prince," an unfortunate prince became a frog through a spell cast by a witch. The frog reverted to human form when the princess, in a fit of anger at his insistence that he be allowed to share her bed, threw the frog against the wall "with all her might." In Chr├ętien de Troyes' Yvain, the unfortunate knight fell under an evil spell of sorts when his wife angrily, in a manner that might be considered witch-like, rejected him when he failed to keep his word to her. After living a long while in the forest as a wild man, Yvain was restored to sanity, human society, and eventually his wife through the kindness of a woman. Apparently the making and breaking of spells has a lot to do with relations between the sexes. Perhaps Iron Hans' transformation into a wild man stemmed from some unfortunate encounter with a woman.

A woman once told me that her lovers always seemed to turn her into a witch. She tended to be attracted to men who assumed that women were primarily responsible for what went on in relationships. This fit in well with her natural inclination to take charge of things. But when difficulties arose, she was usually blamed, even when she was clearly not the source of the problem. Her lover would accuse her of having, as if by magic, made him feel and do things that were totally alien to him.

While witches are represented as both male and female in folklore all around the world, we usually think of the witch as a woman. If the fairy tale princess is the perfect picture of young womanhood, the (usually old) witch is womanhood gone wrong. Much like the wild man in relation to civilized man, the witch is the shadow of civilized woman, the inverse of what is expected of females in a male dominated society. If women are supposed to be beautiful, devoted, and nurturing helpmates to men, the witch is ugly, malevolent, and beholden to no man.

When women are denied access to political and social power, whatever power they do manage to obtain will be condemned as an illegitimate, malevolent threat to the established order. Forbidden even the basic right of self determination, disenfranchised women learn to get what they want by manipulating men. Men come to fear the "subtle wiles" that women supposedly use to surreptitiously gain the upper hand. Women are made into mysterious creatures possessing magical powers inaccessible to men. Such an image can be exciting - the seductive temptress is more or less a beautiful witch. It can also be horrifying. Men fear the apparent ability of the witch to unman them, but fail to realize that the witch herself is a product of that very fear. If the witch is to release the man, the man must first release the witch.

The medieval tale of "Gawain and the Lady Ragnell" tells of the breaking of one such spell. Once, so the story goes, King Arthur encountered a terrible giant. Helpless before the giant's great strength, Arthur seemed doomed. The giant, however, offered Arthur the chance to gain his freedom by answering a riddle. But if he did not give the right answer, the king and his kingdom would be the giant's. Having little choice, Arthur asked for the riddle. The giant responded, "What one thing above all else do women desire?" Arthur went throughout the land, asking every woman he met what she most wanted. He collected a multitude of responses, but all were different and he feared none would satisfy the giant.

Then Arthur came upon a most hideous woman in the forest. So appalling was her appearance, he nearly fainted away at the sight. The loathly lady berated him for his disdain, saying that while she might be able to help him in his distress, she would aid no one who was not courteous. Arthur pulled himself together to tell her his problem. After making him swear to grant whatever boon she asked of him, the woman gave Arthur the answer to the giant's riddle. Unlike all the other answers that he had collected, this one rang true. Arthur met the giant at the appointed time and give him the hideous damsel's answer: "A woman desires above all else the right to freely exercise her own will." With a terrible oath, the giant confessed that was indeed the correct response.

Arthur joyfully returned to the woman to thank her, only to be utterly dismayed by her demand that she be wed to a knight of the Round Table. Arthur returned to his castle to reluctantly relate his adventure and the loathly lady's request for something that he could not bring himself to ask of any man. Gawain, however, without hesitation offered himself as husband to the ill-favored dame.

After their wedding banquet, Gawain led his bride to their chamber. With sinking heart, he turned towards her. To his great astonishment, he saw not the hideous woman, but the most beautiful maiden he had ever beheld. An enchantment had caused her to take on the hideous form. The spell could only be broken if the greatest knight in Britain married her of his own free will, as had happened that day. But she was not yet entirely free. She told Gawain that he must decide whether she was to be beautiful by day and ugly by night, or ugly by day and beautiful by night.

Gawain thought for a while before telling his now beloved wife that the choice was hers to make. Joyfully, the lady told Gawain that the spell was now completely broken. She would henceforth always be her beautiful self, for he had truly grasped the answer to the riddle.

Some versions of the tale say that Lady Ragnell was the victim of a plot by her evil stepmother and giant stepbrother. Others assert that the giant was actually Ragnell's brother, who too had been cursed by their terrible stepmother. The evil stepmother is a variant of the witch, and once again, as with Eve and Pandora, it seems that a woman is at fault for everything that goes wrong. But reading between the lines, we find another interpretation.

While the complexities of mother-daughter relations are well beyond this discussion, the evil stepmother who persecutes the heroine in many tales is an all too accurate description of the process in which mothers, denied "the right to freely exercise their own wills," collude with patriarchy in keeping their daughters in the place assigned to women. Women, as well as men, often fear the feminine and seek to deny it its rightful place beside the masculine. Internalized misogyny is a powerful, unrecognized force in the lives of many women. The ability of a man to lovingly respect a woman for who she is can go a long way towards breaking the spell that has convinced her that she is an inadequate human being, doomed to a lifetime of victimization simply because she is female.

The war between the sexes is a contest in which there can be no winners. Tales of courtly love and knightly quest remind us that the goal is achieved not through power but by courtesy and respect. The royal wedding, the joining of the two into a whole much greater than the sum of its parts, can take place only when each partner honors the inherent right of the other to freely choose who she or he will be. Men and women alike have been too long held spellbound by gender expectations. As women are freed from traditional roles, the power of the male stereotypes that drive men to destroy themselves and others in futile attempts to prove themselves men is also lessened.