We left Fedot standing outside a tall mountain at the end of the world. The ancient frog who had been his companion couldn’t carry him further, but she was able to tell him how to proceed. She advised him to enter a cavern, hide himself, wait for two men to appear, and do exactly what they did.
Everything happened as the frog foretold. Two old men entered the cavern and called out, “Shmat Razum! Come and feed us.” Light blazed from candelabras, a feast appeared at the table, and the two men ate their fill. When they were done, they cried, “Shmat Razum, take it all away.” The feast disappeared and the lights went out.
When the men left, Fedot called “Shamat Razum, give me some food.” Instantly a feast appeared. Then Fedot did something exceptional. He said, “Shamat Razum, come, brother, and sit down with me, let us eat and drink together. I can’t stand eating alone.”
The spirit – for that is what he was – thanked the hunter and told him the old men had never once asked him to share a meal in the 30 years he had served them. Fedot said, “Come and serve me.” Shamat Razum agreed and they left the cave together.
All along, Fedot has shown two attributes that will save him, qualities that are keys to success in many fairy tales. Courage and conventional strength are not enough. First in importance, Fedot is willing to listen to all “the spirits,” all the creatures who offer help and advice. He also treats them courteously, as welcome guests and friends. It makes little difference whether we call them spirits or archetypes. Through his long career, James Hillman, the post-Jungian founder of Archetypal Psychology insisted we treat the figures in our dreams and fantasies with the same respect we would show to any flesh and blood visitor.
In modern terms, Fedot’s journey leads him steadily into the deeper layers of psyche. His dove-woman wife is closer to the human realm than her mother, and her mother is closer than the frog. More distant from everyday life than any of them is Shamat Razum, a spirit whose nature and shape we never know, even though Fedot calls him, “brother.” These are the critical characters of the story – the only two who are named. Shamat Razum is the “I know not what” of the story’s title. Through the rest of the tale, Shamat Razum manifests many qualities. He is prophetic, he is a spirit of wind and air, and above all, he is a trickster. The myths of many indigenous groups begins with a trickster who is their world creator. For some Native American tribes, history begins when Coyote dives into the ocean to bring up the soil to make land. No spirit is more fundamental.
Fedot and Shamat Razum leave the frog with the mother-in-law and journey on toward Fedot’s home. When the hunter says he’s too tired to walk, his spirit brother picks him up like a strong wind and carries him through the air. Shamat Razum finally stops at a small island where he lays out a scam to steal some magical implements.
“Three merchant vessels will sail by and stop at the islet,” he says. “Thou must invite the merchants hither, hospitably entertain them, and exchange me for three wondrous things which the merchants will bring with them. In due time I will return to thee again.”
The two of them pull off their con job, reminding one of Hermes / Mercury, the classical trickster god, who is also the god of thieves. We’re not in a world of classical heroes – no knights in shining armor. Fedot’s life depends on letting go of illusions like that. Shamat Razum has foreseen that the king will meet him with treachery, so he helps Fedot cheat the merchants out of objects that allow him to raise an army and navy. In the final battle, Fedot’s kills the king and scatters his troops. The people choose Fedot and his wife, who was hiding in the forest as a dove, to be their king and queen. Together they rule the land with “wisdom, peace and grace.”
James Hillman once said, “If we had more stories when we were young, we’d need fewer therapists as adults.” In his PBS series on myth, Joseph Campbell showed millions of viewers the treasures of wisdom that hide in old tales. So what do we make of Go I know not wither?
I think we have to approach interpretation with something like the courtesy with which Fedot meets the spirits. In stories that are alive for us, we don’t start by asking what things mean. We don’t ask what hobbits signify, or what part of the psyche orcs represent. If someone has written a dissertation on Batman and the Riddler, I’m in no hurry to read it. Older tales, like this one, are far enough removed in time and space that they’re not alive for us in that sense. I think it makes sense to ask what it means – carefully. Everyone has a right to their own answers. Here are some of mine.
I look at this tale from the point of view of transition points in our lives. When life and excitement drain from what we are doing, what then? I believe this story suggests we listen to the small creatures of dreams and fantasy. That we ponder the little impulse, the little whisper, the voice that says, “Wouldn’t it be nice to…?” It means not giving in right away to our “rational” voices, the ones that say we have no time for such nonsense.
In speaking of “voices” we’re not talking of taking these things literally. James Hillman insisted that literalism is the enemy of a soul-centered life, and Fedot does not wind up on a street corner, talking to imaginary friends. According to St. Paul, the ability to “distinguishing between spirits,” is a gift from God ( 1 Cor 12:10), yet one that people like Campbell suggest we can learn to some degree. Simply exploring and thinking about old stories, or keeping a dream journal, are ways to begin.
It’s a good bet that the answers we find, the paths we are shown, will not be ones we expect. Shamat Razum, the way-shower, is a trickster, as hard to pin down as the wind. If the answers to the turning points in life we’re easy to find, stories like this one would not have told for generations. Carl Jung once said, “We make all the important decisions in life on the basis of insufficient information.” Hearing the old tales and listening to imaginal voices may be one more way of getting a clue.
I welcome the comments of anyone who has read this far. What did you make of this story, and what of you make of old tales in general? Do you have any favorite collections or authors on the subject? Please take a moment to post them and leave your impressions.