Last Updated on Sunday, 27 October 2013 20:37
Written by Jim Moyers, MA, MFCC
In many of the old tales, the hero is the youngest and seemingly least promising of several brothers. He appears to be a simple fool predestined to fail at everything he does.
In many of the old tales, the hero is the youngest and seemingly least promising of several brothers. He appears to be a simple fool predestined to fail at everything he does. His ambitions are ridiculed by everyone. Still, willingly or unwillingly, loved or rejected, for reasons good and bad, like so many other young men before him, he sets out to do the best he can.
Movement from the familiar into the unknown activates a dynamic, archetypally based constellation of opposites. On one side is the desire for a familiar, secure place where one unquestionably belongs, the rules are known, and basic needs are always provided for. On the other side is the drive towards self-sufficient independence. Many men find coming to terms with these seeming mutually exclusive needs difficult, especially when confronted with the fact of their dependence. Having been told countless times that "real men always stand tall on their own two feet," proud in their ability to go it alone, boys and men come to believe that radical independence is an indispensable quality of manhood, and judge anything less in themselves as failure.
At the seemingly opposite end of the spectrum from the man who fiercely resists all attempts to limit his freedom, yet so closely linked as to often be manifest in the same man, is the man who is seemingly incapable of doing anything on his own. Apparently lacking a life force of his own, his very existence seems to depend on his link to some external source of vitality. While the connection can be to anything or anyone, more often than not the object of his dependence will be some representative of the all nurturing, all engulfing Great Mother, a figure who is both longed for and bitterly hated, often at one and the same time.
In actuality, a man who habitually denies the fact of his dependency has no more escaped from the clutches of the Great Mother than has the man who repeatedly flees from the threat of independence back into her arms. The aggressively independent misogynist fears that, if he relaxes his guard, he will be swallowed up by the Mother. For the passively dependent man, the realm of the Father threatens to destroy him should he venture out of the Mother's protective, suffocating embrace. Neither man knows the wholeness of the embrace in which both parents, and their domains, join to become one.
The Great Mother is, in developmental terms, the omnipotent mother of early childhood upon whom an infant is utterly dependent. She devotes herself totally to the child who as yet lacks the ability to either care for himself or effectively resist her. In turn, his attention centers on her as his literal source of life. In a healthy maternal-child pair, the relationship of helpless child and all powerful mother is gradually modified as the child becomes more able to care for himself.
Every child, as it grows, both rebels against maternal dependency and longs to return to the time when mother could magically make everything right. While both sexes experience this conflict as a generalized ambivalence towards women, the insistent definition of men as beings radically distinct from the feminine virtually guarantees that there will be some degree of confusion, some mixture of longing and fear, love and hate, in a man's every encounter with women. The man who avoids women due to some mysterious and terrible anxiety he experiences in their presence, the man who dares not openly oppose his mother or wife, and the man who violently dominates women to prove himself a man, all alike confuse flesh and blood women with the archetypal Great Mother.
Schizophrenia, a serious mental disorder characterized by dissolution of ego in the sea of the unconscious, often offers direct glimpses into the archetypal patterns underlying human behavior. I have known a number of schizophrenic adult men whose symbiotic relationship with their mothers strikingly resembled that of the Great Mother and her son-lover. Every step, no matter how minor, taken by the son away from the chronically dependent state to which his mental illness had seemingly sentenced him was met by a countermove in the mother-son relationship. Usually the net result was a worsening of the son's condition with his dependent status becoming all the more firmly fixed.
As a sort of living death, schizophrenia often results in a permanent disintegration of the self that precludes the possibility of an independent life. In effect and timing, if not cause, schizophrenia can be viewed as a catastrophic derailment of the process of leaving home. Typically it first becomes apparent during late adolescence or early adulthood, a time when most people are establishing a life apart from that of their family of origin.
While schizophrenia appears to involve a biological predisposition, individuals lacking such an inherent proclivity may experience a similar disintegration of self when subjected to severe stress. Almost everyone has at some time felt a sudden sense of vulnerability, intense anxiety, distorted sensory perceptions, or disorientation in response to some unexpected event or stress. Most people quickly regain their equilibrium as the crisis passes. But persistent and severe trauma, as experienced by abused children or in battlefield and disaster conditions, can result in long lasting, gross distortions of reality. Extreme gaps between experience and expectations, such as are sometimes encountered in moving from a sheltered environment out into the world, can seriously impair one's ability to function there.
The psyche is basically conservative - rather than changing its beliefs it prefers to bend perceptions to fit preconceptions. The resulting distortions can range from the relatively minor to full-blown psychosis. The potential for recovery from psychic disintegration of whatever degree and, beyond mere recovery, integration of the experience into expanded awareness is directly related to one's willingness to challenge the psyche's conservative bent. Acknowledging how little we actually know makes space for those parts of reality that, for better or worse, do not neatly fit our preconceived notions. Only as we are willing to examine and, if need be, change our beliefs do we learn from our failures to be as we had sought, the disasters that occur despite our best efforts to avoid them, and the successes that seem to come regardless of all our self-defeating behaviors. And when we are open to the possibility, we find that there is somewhere deep within ourselves, in the midst of all the confusion, vaguely distant, yet near and familiar, a powerful resource ready and able to help if we will only let it.
As he left the forest for parts unknown, the boy in the Grimms' tale seemed to be utterly alone, with no means whatsoever of directing his course in the world. But somewhere, hidden and perhaps even forgotten for the time being, he took with him the promise of Iron Hans' help should he ever need it. By the tale's end, all that belonged to Iron Hans, all of his immense strength, wealth, and wisdom, would be the boy's. But the process of internalization, the work of taking in and making our own what we value in others, is a lengthy one. The boy had a long, very hard road to go down before he could be a worthy heir to his mentor.
So far the boy's adventures had brought him nothing but trouble. In the course of only a few days, the royal child had been reduced to a homeless wanderer. He had managed to lose even the dubious privilege of living in the forest with a wild man. Totally alone in a world about which he knew nothing, the boy's future seemed anything but promising.
There are times in life when it is hard to avoid the belief that we have been condemned by some terrible fate to helplessly stumble along from one disaster to another. Lost and alone, there seems to be no way out of our hopeless situation and no one to whom we can turn for help. St. John of the Cross, a sixteenth century Spanish mystic whose own life had more than its share of darkness, coined the term, "dark night of the soul," to describe this sort of experience.
While the dark night of the soul experience can certainly be described as depression, it is not "just depression." At least it is not the sort of depression that readily yields to treatment based on the idea that such dark feelings result from cognitive errors that can be remedied through behavior modification techniques. Detailed objective examination, as is done in cognitive-behavioral psychotherapy, of habitual thought patterns and behaviors as reinforcers of depression can, in fact, be quite useful. But the difficult existential questions that well up from the dark depths of depression also demand and deserve recognition.
At first glance depression might seem to be more of a problem for women than men, with the reported incidence of major depression for women twice that of men. But social expectations and stereotypes make it more difficult for men to admit to being depressed. Men are supposed to be in control rather than be controlled. A man lost in a dark mood he can neither understand nor change, unable to take charge of himself much less anyone or anything else, is apt to be regarded by both himself and others as a poor excuse for a man.
A major characteristic of depression is an overwhelming sense of utter helplessness. From the perspective of a seriously depressed individual, there may seem to be absolutely no way to make things better. John of the Cross recognized this in his description of the dark night in which the soul is "purged from all help, consolation, and natural apprehension with respect to all things (p. 122)." As in the spiritual dark night, there may be nothing a depressed individual can do except accept the fact of the terrible mood that seems to have swallowed him up.
Acknowledging that one is in the grip of a mood greater than one's willful self creates the possibility of establishing a relationship to it, of following its lead down into darkness to find out where it comes from and what it might mean. In such surrender there is more than an element of faith that something greater than one's personal self is in charge of the process, directing it towards an eventual emergence of meaning from what seems to be utterly meaningless.
Surrender as a positive act is a difficult concept to grasp in our culture, especially for a man. After all, how many mythic heroes are so honored because they surrendered? To give up, to acknowledge a power greater than himself supposedly diminishes a man. But, at least in the realm of psychology, recognition of one's limits is often the first step towards regaining control.
When things are not going well, the psyche naturally tends to withdraw from the world. The low energy and subdued mood associated with depression force one to take time out. Socially, we recognize this in allowing a period of mourning, during which one is not expected to be as usual, to those who have experienced the death of a loved one. And at the core of depression, whether recognized or not, is a loss of some kind.
Sometimes the loss and its connection to the depression is clear. But things that cannot be seen or touched, but are nonetheless very real, can also be lost, in which case recognition of the loss, much less its resolution is much more difficult. This is especially true when the loss involves an aspect of one's self, something that, even in the best of circumstances, is usually more than a little vague.
Despite his almost total ignorance of his origins or identity, Parzival before his exposure as a failure gave little thought to who he was. As do many men, he apparently assumed that he was more or less what he did. But then he was denounced as a knightly fraud. Suddenly everything that he had done, all that he had thought himself to be, was empty and meaningless. Prior to his encounter with the wild man, the boy in our story was a royal child whose every wish was undoubtedly a command for a multitude of people whose duty it was to serve him. But away from his father's palace, alone in a world which had no regard for him, he was a total nobody.
Depression that follows the collapse of core beliefs about oneself and the world can be a long time in healing. After his disgraceful exist from the Court of Arthur, Parzival spent five years aimlessly wandering through "the Waste Land of his own disoriented life " (Campbell, 1976, p. 460), letting his horse, a representative of the instinctual life force that carries us onward even when we have no idea of which way to turn and no will to continue, take him wherever it wanted to go. Traveling at random "over paths beaten and unbeaten," the exiled hero of the Grimms' story learned well "what it is to be poor" in spirits as well as goods. At last he came to a city where he hoped to find some means for changing his so far dismal luck.
For as long as there have been stories, the tale has been told of the youth who sets out for some distant place anticipating a better life there. And almost as often, the story tells of shattered dreams as the youth becomes just one more unknown, lost soul awash in a sea of uncaring strangers. In such an impersonal, perhaps even hostile world a young man can easily go astray, losing sight of his ideals and even his identity. In the biblical story, the Prodigal Son, having wasted all his inheritance, became a keeper of pigs, a most shameful occupation for a Jewish man. The Hymn of the Pearl, a beautiful Gnostic poem about as old as the parable of the Prodigal Son, tells of a young prince who set out from the house of his parents to seek "The One Pearl." But, alone in an alien land, he forgot both his mission and his royal origins. More recently an idealistic young man, penniless in the city where he had expected to find fame and fortune, instead found himself in a seedy section of town working as a doorman for a strip joint.
So the wandering boy in "Iron Hans" came into town in a most unprincely situation. As a child in his father's palace, assured of having his every need met, he had no reason for acquiring practical skills. But alone in a place where he was just another stranger down on his luck, he could find no one willing to take on such a useless boy as he was. Finally he made his way to the palace of the king who ruled the city. Luckily for the boy, he was likable. As Iron Hans said, there was no wickedness in his heart and his naivete helped win over those who he approached at the palace. He was given a menial position in the palace kitchen. So the prince, once destined to rule a kingdom, became a cook's boy, his real identity lost and hidden from everyone, including apparently even himself.
Many a young man who has coasted along under the impression that everything he wants will come to him without the need for effort on his part has, much to his surprise, suddenly been confronted by the necessity of making his own way in the world. He discovers too late a most distressing gap between his expectations and reality, especially in what seems to be the shocking indifference of the world to him and his dreams.
Somewhere along the road to manhood, sometime during the course of his initiation (whatever form it takes), every boy will of necessity compromise his dreams as he is finds neither himself nor the world to be exactly as expected. Of the infinite number of possibilities that seemly lie just over the horizon in childhood, only a very few become adult realities, and fewer still realize anything like their full potential. Maturation is a in part process of disillusionment as one discovers the difference between life as imagined and life as lived.
While dreams often fall victim to the struggle for survival, some individuals settle into a position well below their actual abilities as a way of protecting their golden fantasies. Attempted realization of a dream entails the possible loss of both the dream and the possibility it holds. So long as grand plans and dreams remain pristine, uncompromised by concessions to unyielding actualities, they can continue to live on as possibilities which may someday, somehow come true. But one can cling to hopes of "someday" indefinitely.
Little boys often play at being superheroes, complete with mask and cape to conceal their real identity. Although they might be reluctant to admit to such "childish nonsense," many grown men continue to imagine themselves in such a role. Like Superman/Clark Kent, a man may split his life into inner and outer, heroic fantasy and mundane reality, with an impenetrable barrier erected between the two parts of himself. Such a life, split into halves that must be carefully kept apart and even secret from each another, is not a life to be envied. Each half is misunderstood and neither, without the other, will ever be whole.
The man whose specialness, the unique possibilities he has to offer the world by simple virtue of being who he is, is hidden by fears that he will be unable to live up to his fantasized potential is caught in a double bind. He feels secretly proud of what he might be, but at the same time is ashamed of his impossibly grandiose visions. He fears exposure, and at the same time longs for someone who will recognize and activate his hidden potential. Driven to conceal his true self, his secret hope that someone will someday penetrate his disguise is likely to go unfulfilled.
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.
Overcome by the summer heat and thinking himself safe from observation, the gardener's boy paused to rest and take off his hat for a moment. The princess, perhaps lying on her bed in a fit of boredom such as princesses are sometimes subject to, suddenly saw a flash of golden light. Jumping up to find its source, she saw not a gardener's boy but a young man with the most radiantly beautiful golden hair she had ever beheld. The princess, like the royal personage she was, called out her window to the startled boy, ordering him to bring her some flowers.
Would-be lovers bring flowers to the women whose love they seek - was the princess telling the boy to court her? Was she so bedazzled by his hair that she failed to notice his dirty, bedraggled clothes or his humble station? What would her father have said about her inviting a male servant up to her bedroom? There may have been more than a little rebellion and the excitement of stepping beyond a boundary, as well as just plain foolishness, in the princess' interest in the mysterious boy with the golden hair.
We see in others what we find lacking in ourselves. Intrigued by a life so different from hers, a princess may fall in love with a gardener's boy, much to the bewilderment of the princes who have been so eagerly competing for her attention. Beneath the humble appearance which everyone else takes at face value, she may see (or at least think she does) a prince in disguise.
A woman may hope to save a man from the destructive effects of his personal and family history, certain that she can bring out the potential that he himself apparently cannot see or activate. This, of course, neatly dovetails with the desire of many a man for a mother-lover to perform the impossible task of making him into "a real man" while also fulfilling his every need. But no man bound to a maternal figure, whether his actual mother or her stand in, will ever sense himself to be entirely a man, no more than the unfortunate woman to whom he is attached will feel that she is her own woman.
Almost all relationships involve some degree of co-dependency in which one partner's problematic behavior finds support in that of the other. If a couple is willing and able to wrestle with this difficult dynamic, it has the potential for transforming them both. The gardener's boy can reclaim his disavowed specialness while assuming responsibility for his own life. The princess learns about the value of ordinary things like wildflowers, and gardener's boys who may never be princes in anyone's eyes but hers.
The princess was perhaps foolish in the risk she took in bringing the gardener's boy up to her room. Beyond the fact of his enchanting golden hair, she knew nothing about him or what he might do. Still, she remained firmly in charge of the situation, making him come up to her rather than going down to him. Assertive women may frighten some men, but a man relatively secure in his masculinity will find a woman's clear expression of the power that is legitimately hers attractive.
The surprised boy, who may have been completely unaware of the princess' existence until the moment of her command to him, quickly covered up his head and gathered some wildflowers. But on the way up to the princess' room, he met the gardener who was appalled to find the boy taking up a bunch of ordinary wildflowers such as any peasant might have picked from the roadside. The youth's insistence that the princess preferred such flowers probably only added to the gardener's suspicion that his young assistant was affected by something much more serious than mere simple mindedness.
But the boy knew the value of wild things. The gardener had probably never met a wild man, let alone served an apprenticeship, however brief, to one. The gardener's time was spent with carefully cultivated, intentionally planted things. In his estimation wildflowers were weeds to be eliminated when they sprang up in his garden, and of no interest whatsoever in their natural habitat.
Perhaps it was the gardener, not the boy, who was the fool. At any rate, the youth took his wildflowers on up to the princess. But once he was in her room, it quickly became apparent that she was interested in something other than flowers, cultivated or wild.
As her father had done, she ordered the boy to take off his hat in her royal presence. And, as he had done with the king, the boy refused to bare his head. But she had seen what her father had not, and knew that the boy's head was far from being the disgusting sight that he claimed it was. Before he knew what was happening, she grabbed his hat and uncovered his golden hair. He fled, but not before she forced some golden coins into his hand. Caring "nothing for gold," the youth gave the coins to the gardener as playthings for his children, no doubt furnishing further proof of his craziness in the gardener's perception.
"Iron Hans" being a folk tale and thus bound to the rule of threefold repetition, the drama between the princess and the gardener's boy was acted out two more times. But the boy, apparently a faster learner than he had been at the golden spring, managed to dodge the princess' second and third attempts to expose him. He was determined to keep the golden mark of his failure hidden; she was almost as determined to see it. She lured him up to her room in an attempt to uncover his secret, and then seemingly tried to bribe him. He refused to show her what she wanted to see, and found no value in her gold. But still he took flowers up at her bidding.
If the genders were reversed, with a prince luring a servant girl up to his room to expose her in some way after which he pressed money on her, the obvious interpretation would be that this was an attempted seduction or even rape. The prince would be condemned for taking advantage of a poor girl whose resistance would be admired. But what are we to make of a princess who tries to seduce a gardener's boy or, perhaps even more puzzling, his refusal of her? No doubt there were many young men in the kingdom who would have willingly paid almost any price to gain access to the princess. Yet here was a young man, poverty stricken with no apparent hopes for improving his lowly position, who not only rebuffed the princess but had no use for her money.
Clear and direct communication about sexual attraction and desire is exceedingly rare. Sometimes it seems as if the object of courtship is not so much to love as to defeat the other. Adding to the confusion attendant on most affairs of the heart (affairs that also involve other, even more problematic aspects of the human anatomy) is the degree to which we tend to become unconscious, losing sight of our own best interests and intentions, when struck by the arrows of Eros. Many a man, and woman, has known at first hand the truth of Shakespeare's line (Much Ado About Nothing II,iii,8-9): "Man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love "
Inexperience in romance combined with sexual frustration may keep a man from availing himself of the usual ritualized subterfuges of seduction. Acting on mistaken assumptions, he may ignorantly rush in without regard for either the situation or the wishes of his intended lover. A man who rides roughshod over a woman's feelings may be in fact more naive than ill intended.
Having just left his mother, hoping to find the Court of Arthur and become a knight, Parzival or "Simplicity's Child," as Wolfram titles him, came upon a half nude woman asleep in a tent. Knowing nothing of male-female relations beyond his mother's advice of "whenever you can win a good woman's ring and greeting, take them. . . . You must haste to kiss her and clasp her tight in your embrace," Parzival tried to do just that with "this marvel of uttermost desire." After clumsily embracing and kissing her, he took a ring from the terrified woman. Then he went on his way, cheerfully ignorant of having done any wrong or of the difficult situation in which he had left the woman with her jealous husband (Von Eschenbach, pp. 73-77).
Naivete can also hold a man back from an advance that would be welcomed. Sometime after his encounter with the woman in the tent, having managed in the meanwhile to become a knight, Parzival came upon the castle of a most sad maiden queen. Having been "cured of his simplicity" by his knightly mentor who had "counseled him against questions," Parzival "sat there with that noble queen without opening his mouth to speak a word," much to the queen's discomfort and confusion.
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.
Like sex, war takes place in a primal realm where only the most basic instincts matter and a man's prowess is simply and directly tried. Sometimes we confuse sex with war, mistaking a sexual partner for an enemy whose conquest must be achieved at any cost. Archetypally sex and death, being mysterious biological processes representing respectively the beginning and end of the life cycle, are closely linked. Men at war are especially apt to mix up the business of creating life with that of taking it, for the same energy that drives battlefield exploits also fuels sexual aggression. The increased sexual activity so often noted during wartime makes biological sense as an evolutionary adaptation to an increased death rate. The soldier who impregnates a woman before marching off to his possible death ensures that something of himself will continue to live on, even if he does not.
The defense of women and children against an enemy who would rape and kill them is an often heard rationale for war. Yet the same men who willingly sacrifice themselves in defense of their loved ones often have no hesitation about raping the enemy's women. Rape has probably been an integral part of warfare for as long as there has been war. In Homer's Iliad, the wise old warrior, Nestor, rallied the discouraged Greeks with a reminder that the women of Troy would be theirs to ravish once the Trojan men had been disposed of. More recently, rape was intentionally used as a weapon in the Serbian-Bosnian civil war.
Throughout most of recorded history, women have been regarded as the property of the men for whom they produce children. In "plunder, rape, and pillage," the traditional behavior of victorious armies, winners reap their rewards in the form of the loser's property. In forcing the enemy's women to submit to him sexually and bear his children, the victor both adds to his possessions at the expense of his enemy and furnishes irrefutable proof of his masculine superiority.
Primal masculine energy, in its best and worst aspects, finds expression in war. By killing the enemy a warrior proves himself master of the most primordial of male challenges. He willingly sacrifices himself in defense of others. He knows at first hand the fierce freedom and horror of going beyond social constraints. He is rewarded for actions that would be condemned if done anywhere except on the battlefield.
To kill and risk being killed so that others may live is the ultimate expression of male power and sacrifice in service of community. This is especially true within the intimate community of the squadron, the basic unit of every army. In the shared ordeals of training and the battlefield, the men of a squadron prove their worth as men to one another. The manhood of anyone outside the group, not having been proven in company with them, is open to question. First and foremost, a soldier's loyalty is to the small group of men with whom he shares the rigors of basic training, the tedium of camp life, the horror and glory of battle. He fights to protect his buddies, and in turn depends on them to stand by him (Keegan, p. 53).
War has deep psychological and biological roots. The greater the difference, real or imagined, between ourselves and others, the easier it is to justify their destruction. We tend to fear and distrust those who are not as we are, forming groups, organizations, and neighborhoods to include people like ourselves and exclude those who are not. At times we are so ill at ease with otherness as to be unable to rest until those who differ from us have been exterminated.
Closely related to fear of the other is the biological drive to perpetuate one's own kind. In evolutionary competition, the winning male is the one who impregnates the most females and best ensures the survival of the resultant offspring. While attempts to reduce complex behaviors to "nothing but" biological drives are always simplistic, war in its essence is about surviving at the expense of the other.
The warrior is based upon an archetypal, hence natural, potential of the human psyche. But the warrior himself, the soldier who fights as he is ordered, is an artificial development, an exaggeration of that potential. Even more than the general run of men, soldiers are made and not born. The would-be warrior must learn to quell his reverence for life along with his fear of death. From ancient Sparta to contemporary boot camp, military training is designed to suppress a young man's softer, feeling side while exalting his capacity for phallic aggression (Gilmore, pp. 188-191).
Parallel with archetypal fear of the other is the desire to join with other individuals like oneself. The most obvious group to which we all belong is the human race. But we rarely regard others as our equals on the simple basis of shared biology. Normal narcissism leads us to value people who are like ourselves more than those who are not. Our group, being defined by qualities that we value, naturally seems superior to groups lacking those qualities. Since social rules and ethical standards apply more within the group than without, aggressive energies that threaten group stability tend to be directed out of the group. While killing a member of one's own group is regarded as murder, the killing of an outsider may be sanctioned as a necessary and heroic deed.
Perhaps in some long ago Golden Age there were wars, like that depicted by Homer, in which enemies both respected and slaughtered one another. But more often the enemy is despised. Not only is he (as the representative of a debased masculinity in contrast with the idealized manhood of our side the enemy is always "he") a consummate threat to all that we hold dear, he is not even fully human. Since the moral obligations that govern our relationship with the rest of humanity do not apply to him, we are free to kill him with a clear conscience. In fact, his destruction is absolutely necessary if civilization as we know it is to continue and any means, no matter how terrible, towards that end are justified.
As self-proclaimed civilized people, we take pride in going to war only when we can justify it as a necessary evil in defense of the good. Still, our ideals repeatedly lead us into wars in which we repeatedly betray them. Labored theological and political reasonings to the contrary, the existence of the truly just war is doubtful. As the distinguished historian of war, John Keegan (p. 60), puts it:
"Most wars are begun for reasons which have little to do with justice, have results quite different from those proclaimed as their objects, if indeed they have any clearcut results at all, and visit during their course a great deal of casual suffering on the innocent."
Life is much more than a Darwinian struggle for survival. Above all else, the human race is bound together by an abiding belief in the inherent sanctity of life. Few soldiers become the mindless killing machines, automatically and perfectly following orders, that are a commander's dream. World War II studies disclosed the startling fact that only about one quarter of the soldiers involved in combat actually used their weapons against the enemy (Keegan, pp. 73-74). Despite the compelling forces that draw men to the battlefield, despite the excitement and danger of meeting the enemy face-to-face, despite extensive training in the techniques of killing, men at war still hesitate to take the life of another human being.
It is tempting to renounce war and all that pertains to it as an evil that should not be, and leave it at that. But the problem of war is not so easily resolved. The potential for aggressive evil, if not its realization, seems to be inherent in human nature. Some human actions are truly demonic, and must be actively resisted if we are to have any hope at all for social safety and stability. Dismantling weapons and disbanding armies is, in itself, no more likely to eliminate war than dismissal of the police force would end crime. While we often see an enemy where there is none and the possibility of war clearly increases in proportion to the preparations made for it, history is littered with the ruins of peoples and nations who were unprepared when more aggressive people arrived at their door. Had there been no warriors willing to kill other young men in the name of freedom, Nazism may well have swept over the globe like a bloody tide to become the dominant ideology of our world.
Sometimes it seems that the terrible choice of "kill or be killed" cannot be avoided. Nowhere on earth is there a secure refuge from the darker side of human nature. So it happened that the country of the Grimms' tale was invaded by an enemy. As the king feared, the battle did not go well. Many of his soldiers had fallen, and those remaining were on the verge of a rout, when an unknown knight arrived with a whole company of iron armored troops. The fresh troops fell upon the enemy, slaughtering them as they turned and ran in panic. Having utterly destroyed the invaders, the mysterious knight and his army disappeared as quickly as they had come. The king was left bewildered, but grateful.
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.
But the man who is truly fortunate in his ability to see things as they are moves through and beyond his pain to ask what happened to the father who should have been there and was not. In the process of searching for the facts of his father's life, he is likely to discover his own identity and the life that he, and no one else, must live. The wounded son becomes a man, and the man becomes a hero.
Luke Skywalker, a sort of naive country boy at the beginning of the Star Wars saga, could have refused to follow the adventure that "just happened" to come his way. He might have excused himself on the grounds that he had no father to initiate him, and hence no way of knowing how to be the kind of man capable of rescuing a princess and saving the galaxy. Parzival too might have remained in the forest with his mother, resenting the lack of anyone to give him a ride to Arthur's Court. But instead, both boys set off for the unknown, following their fated course to the discovery and redemption of their true selves. In the process they also found, and in some ways redeemed, their missing fathers.
It takes a good deal of faith, and perhaps even a bit of naivete and foolishness, to follow after opportunity when it comes along. A man may have nothing beyond his own wavering intuition to guide him as he heads off into the unknown, taking a leap of faith that, for all he knows, could be a plunge to disaster. Parzival had no inkling of what lay beyond the paradise in which his mother sought to keep him. Luke Skywalker had no assurance that any good would come from answering the princess' mysterious distress call.
The gardener's boy had only the untried word of Iron Hans to support him in his declared intention of going to war. Probably there would have been no objection made had he remained in the garden, quietly daydreaming about heroic deeds while everyone else went out to the battle. He could have done the same during the festival, safeguarding his fantasies by avoiding the possibility of their fulfillment, and no one would have been the wiser. But instead, he took his chances and went out to the forest's edge to once again put Iron Hans, as well as himself, to the test.
The gardener's boy seemed intent on remaining unnoticed and unknown. After his rout of the enemy, he might have ridden in triumph to the palace where he probably would have been given anything he asked for. But, except for dropping of a few hints on apparently deaf ears, he kept his heroic identity a carefully guarded secret. Then, during the festival, he three times caught the golden apple and two, almost three, times escaped discovery.
There is always some degree of mystery about the hero. The actual men behind hero tales tend to disappear into the legends that grow up around them. Since the role is archetypal, heroes are of necessity larger than life. So long as the hero's real identity and personality remain unknown, he seems to be the embodiment of the idealized image projected onto him. No one will look upon him as just another man.
The superheroes of comic book fame are super by virtue of their hidden identity. Lois Lane's feelings about Superman would be quite different if she knew of his secret link to Clark Kent. While Superman is every woman's dream, the inept Clark is more an object of good natured pity. Superman can do almost anything. Anything that is except have a personal relationship. No woman, not even Lois, ever gets close enough to see the man behind the hero. Desired by every woman, accessible to none, his is a most comfortable position for a man who is uneasy with intimacy. It is also a most lonely one.
In the comic book saga, the link between Superman and Clark Kent is rarely suspected. Likewise, almost no one associated the lowly gardener's boy on the three-legged horse with the mysterious knight who come just in time to save the kingdom. Only the princess, who alone knew what the boy had hidden under his hat, suspected the truth. But while the disguised prince seemed intent on keeping his identity hidden, he also repeatedly risked exposure.
Like the gardener's boy waiting for someone to see through his disguise, we both long for and fear being known, not for what we appear to be, but for who we really are. Yet many people, women as well as men, fear intimacy even more than they do loneliness. The very possibility of love is a challenge to their habitually constricted sense of self. Pushing away the very thing they most desire and need, they dismiss love as an illusion capable of bringing nothing but pain. They are not entirely wrong in their perception, for love, like anything worthwhile, always brings with it the painful possibility of its loss.
In catching the princess' golden apples while continuing to frustrate the king's attempts to discover his identity, the youth seemingly sought to have his cake and eat it too . The golden apple is an ambiguous symbol. Since the Latin word for apple also means "evil," Christian tradition assumed that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bore apples. As the forbidden fruit, apples came to symbolize sin. But in the hand of Christ or the Virgin, an apple also represents the plan of salvation that the fact of sin - "the happy fault" - made both necessary and possible. Like the ball that fell into the wild man's cage, apples are spherical and thus symbolic of wholeness. Apples are associated with desire and death, as well as love, fertility, and joyfulness. Offering an apple is traditionally regarded as a declaration of love. It can also bring strife, as did the golden apple that indirectly led to the Trojan War (Cirlot, p. 14, Cooper, p. 14).
According to Greek mythology, the goddess Strife was not invited to an Olympian wedding. Angered by the slight, she threw a golden apple into the midst of the wedding party. Finding that the apple was inscribed, "For the Fairest," Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite disrupted the celebration with an argument over which of them it was meant for. Intervening in the dispute, Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris of Troy, the most handsome of mortal men, for his judgment as to their relative beauty. Aphrodite won Paris' favor by bribing him with the promise of the most beautiful woman in the world. As Aphrodite triumphantly carried off the golden apple proclaiming her supreme beauty, Paris set out to lure Helen away from her Greek husband, and unwittingly start the war in which Paris and his fellow Trojans would perish.
The princess' golden apples were in appearance much like the golden ball that the boy lost and then regained in his bargain with the wild man. The story says nothing about the ball after it was returned to the boy. Perhaps he took it with him as he journeyed from palace to forest and then out into the wide world, the palace kitchen and garden. Or maybe the golden sphere was lost somewhere along the way only to reappear, as is often the case in myth and dreams, multiplied threefold in the golden apples.
On each of the three days of the festival, the gardener's boy went out to the edge of the forest to be transformed, through Iron Hans' gift of horse and armor, into the mysterious knight. On the first day his horse and armor were red, on the second white, and on the last day they were black. Any number of associations can be made to these colors. One of the most obvious would be the colors of the three stages of alchemy. But the successive colors of the youth's horses and armor reverse the usual alchemical sequence (Jung, 1980).
Each stage of life has its own unique process. Alchemy, and its psychological parallel of the inner journey, is generally regarded as representing the process of a mature individual who, already established in the world, discovers a deeper reality. The process depicted in "Iron Hans", being that of a young man finding his place in the world, is perhaps better understood as a reductive one, moving like a consuming fire through successive stages of red hot, white hot, and finally cold black ash, the kind of experience every young hot bloodied male ego must pass through as youthful grandiosity is tempered and reduced to manageable proportions in the fires of reality.
Gold was the object of the alchemist's labors, yet the youth apparently had little use for it. He gave away the gold coins that the princess had forced upon him when he visited her room. One might have assumed that he went to catch the golden apples to prove his heroic identity. After all, disclosure of the mystery knight's identity was the stated objective of the festival. But the point of the contest was apparently missed by the youth as he showed his prizes to no one except the gardener's children.
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.
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 Chrétien 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.
Most obviously, the tale of "Iron Hans" is about the process by which a boy becomes a man. The story concludes with its hero a married man assuming his place in the world. But the story also outlines the lifelong process of individuation. Jung described a progressive encounter with persona (one's adaptation to the social world), shadow (aspects of oneself that are denied in adapting to the world), anima/animus (the inner image of the opposite sex), and self (the totality of the psyche). While this schematic description of psychological growth can, like any other, be twisted into a mechanistic formula, many people have found it a useful map.
In "Iron Hans", the king at the beginning of the tale corresponds to the persona, the social role with which one is identified. But the king was inadequate to the challenge of the wild man (the shadow), for the shadow requires a response from a level deeper than that of persona. The little prince with his golden ball is a beautiful image of the undeveloped, largely unconscious self of early life. The fascinating princess, who perhaps knows more about the boy than he does himself, is of course representative of the anima. Finally, the royal couple (multiplied threefold by the presence of the prince and princess' parents) at the wedding feast is an image of the realized self, a concept also represented by the figure of the Mighty King who came to the wedding feast to announce himself as Iron Hans.
In becoming the person he was meant to be, in fulfilling his destiny, the prince unknowingly restored Iron Hans to his real identity, and was rewarded by the gift of Iron Hans' riches without measure. Iron Hans was the prince's second, initiating father who did what his first father could not. As the restored great king, Iron Hans represents the highest development of the boy's golden potential, a development that could be realized only after the wild man, the shadow of the king, had been duly acknowledged. In effect, the boy redeemed both his father and the wild man, joining them together in the figure of Iron Hans the Great. The spell that had hung over the kingdom since the beginning of the story was broken as prince and princess, the two royal families, and Iron Hans joined together in joyful celebration. So always, redemption of the world proceeds hand-in-hand with redemption of oneself.
X: Not Happily Ever After
Contrary to popular belief, few tales recorded by the Brothers Grimm end with, "And they lived happily ever after." While a particular problem may be resolved or someone established in her or his place in life, the future is usually left open. So it is with "Iron Hans". The tale concludes with the arrival of Iron Hans the Great King. The transformed wild man is indeed a symbol of completeness. But the prince and the princess have, in the words of a song, "only just begun." Having wed the princess, the prince must learn to live with her, and she with him. If he continues to depend on her to draw him out, there undoubtedly will be trouble ahead. But that is another story, and the one we are telling has come to an end.
Every psychological commentary is to some degree a personal statement. My amplification of "Iron Hans" in relation to the problems of contemporary manhood is, of course, a product of my own experience and personal process. Looking back over what I have written, I recall a dream from many years ago that seems to me to reflect both my personal struggle and those of many other men whom I have known:
There is a terrible drought. To relieve it a glass vial must be filled with water from Niagara Falls and then emptied into a local stream. A young man is chosen to carry out the task. But I know that he often blunders, and am afraid that he will fall and break the vial. I follow him as he obtains the water and pours it into the local stream. I fear that he has done it wrong, but then a geyser of water erupts in the dry river bed, and a woman opens a sluice gate to let the water flow again.
The hero may well be a blundering fool. But he persists and, with the help of the woman, succeeds. So my dream continues in the hope that this, foolish blunders and all, will go out as a vessel conveying a few drops of the healing water of life to the parched land in which we, men and women alike, find ourselves.
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