During the last two weeks, I have been teaching a course of folk tales which, like the ancient mythologies, draw on symbols that seem to be embedded in the human condition, and so universal.. They seem to come from and speak to the deepest part of ourselves. In Sleeping Beauty, for example, we may not be able to say explicitly what is the symbolism of the door, but we know that when the young woman turns the golden key and opens that door to the room where the old woman is spinning, something is going to happen that cannot be reversed. Something similar is found in horror movies when someone descends a dark staircase and stands before a closed door. We know that something irreversible will happen when they open that door.
This awareness is also embodied in using images rather than flat statements to express the deepest things in life. As we have said before, when King Lear wishes to express the pain of his life, he does not just say that he has been hurt or that he has undergone a traumatic experience requiring counselling. Rather, he proclaims.”But I am bound upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears to scald like molten lead.”
One of the themes that emerges in the folk tales and many other stories is that of transformation. In Rumpelstiltskin, the task is to spin straw into gold. This can be understood as the task of taking the raw material of our life, which sometimes seems brief and passing and perhaps of little value, and fashioning it into a lasting work of art, something of enduring beauty and meaning. With the images of the string of pearls, the ring, and the future child, the story suggests that we do so by developing all our qualities, integrating them into a unified, but many dimensional person, and recognizing and struggling with our destructive tendencies.
Stories such as Pinocchio, tell of the gradual and difficult transition from a wooden puppet to a real boy. Science Fiction stories, such as Last Rites by Charles Beaumont, inquire about whether androids, human-looking robots, can actually be human. Folk Tales such as Little Red Riding Hood depict a process of being first swallowed and then released, indicating that this transformation is a process of death and rebirth.
Joseph Campbell sees the story of the hero or heroine as the underlying pattern of all stories. It involves for him a threefold process of leaving home, struggle and victory, and return with a gift. This pattern can be interpreted as going beyond our present level of growth and development. It involves the struggle especially with our fears and hostilities, so as to discover and live from their true and inmost self. We are then able to share ourr newfound wisdom and compassion with others.
In his book on folk tales, The Uses of Enchantment, Bruno Bettleheim writes that our greatest need and most difficult achievement is to find meaning in our lives. This task involves developing our inner resources, and sensing that we may make a significant contribution to life. He adds that what is most helpful for children in this process is the impact of those who take care of the child, and the cultural heritage, especially through stories, such as folk tales. These stories, he says, help the child, in that they provide images for the whole range of their positive and negative feelings and instill confidence that they can deal with and grow from their struggles.
It seems to me that the wisdom of these stories is their portrayal of transformation as a process of coming to a sense of self, of the worth of that self, and of the importance of sharing that self with others, both in the closeness of friendship and in a contribution to the wider society. They do so, I believe, by naming imaginatively, that is by images, the deepest human experiences and feelings.
In the ancient story of Gilgamesh, this king of the city struggles with the man of the wilderness, Enkidu. They wrestle to a draw and then become fast friends, Yet Enkidu dies and Gilgamesh is plunged into a profound grief that leads him to a unsuccessful journey in search of immortality. I think that the heart of this story is an insight about the experience of close friendship. It reveals to us that no one can replace someone who has become close to us. And so we become profoundly aware of the uniqueness of that person and, at the same time, of our own uniqueness . The story also also brings out a poignant awareness of the reality of death as part of the human condition.
In the story of Narcissus, the young man sees a reflection of himself in a pond, falls in love with the reflection, topples into the water and reemerges as a flower with a yellow sun-like centre. Unlike some interpretations, this story suggests, as we have said previously, that essential to becoming close to another person is an image of ourselves as loveable, that is as endowed with a sacred worth.
The story of Sleeping Beauty suggests that a person must see beyond the hedge of thorns in self and others to the beauty of who we are. That inner sacred self may be hidden, sleeping or dormant, and needs to be awakened in one another.
A theme that runs through these stories as well is that the path to understanding and caring, wisdom and compassion, runs through the dark woods of suffering. This theme is echoed in the blindness of Oedipus and Lear that precedes their inner vision, as well as that of the prince in Rapunzel. It is the conclusion of Viktor Frankl who found meaning in the inevitable suffering of his concentration camp experience.
The path to self-acceptance, wisdom, and compassion may pass through suffering. The words of theologian Richard Rohr come to mind here. “Suffering that is not transformed is transmitted.” Unless we recognize, name, and absorb our suffering, we will likely inflict it on others. There is a tremendous difference between inflicting and entrusting our pain. To inflict is an act of hostility; to entrust is an expression of caring. The first readily reflects an attitude to life as a burden that provokes resentment. The second reflects an underlying sense of gratitude for life, even though it sometimes hurts. Learning to be in touch with and even comfortable with our own sorrows as an inevitable part of life, whether these are great or small, can stretch our hearts and evoke in us a compassion for ourselves and for one another.
May your experience of life enrich and deepen your heart and soul, and call forth in you a gratitude fort the gift of life in yourself and in those who share your life in some way. And may that gratitude flow forth into wisdom and compassion that holds gently, and is not overcome by, any sorrows of your life.
Norman King, April 18, 2022