The Water of Life, Part 2

If you have not already done so, please read the first part of this article in the preceding post.

The Water of Life by Rogasky and Hyman, 1991.

Marie-Louise von Franz, a close colleague of Carl Jung, wrote extensively of fairytales.  She believed that these “simple” stories reveal the core of the psyche better than the great myths and sagas, shaped by poets and spiritual thinkers.  Reading these tales with the same respect the young brother shows the dwarf can reward us with nuggets of wisdom shaped by generations of storytellers sitting beside the hearth fire.

The opening of The Water of Life reminds us that when we don’t know the way, it pays to admit it, at least to ourselves.  We need to pay attention to everything, listen to everything, for we don’t know the shape of the messenger who may show us how to proceed.  Here is the rest of the story:

The dwarf told the third son where to find the castle where The Water of Life flowed.  He gave the prince an iron wand to open the gates, and two loaves of bread to appease the lions who guarded the entrance.

The third son throws the loaves to the lions

In the great hall, he found men turned into stone.  As he left the hall, he spotted a sword and another loaf of bread and picked them up.  Venturing on, he met a beautiful woman who welcomed him.  She said he had set her free. “This realm will be yours and all the enchantments broken if you return in a year to marry me.”

The woman directed him to the Fountain of Life and urged him to leave with the water before the clock struck noon, when the gates would close again. The young man hurried on until he came to a room with a freshly made bed.  Realizing how tired he was, he settled down for a nap.  He woke at quarter to twelve, and just had time to find the fountain, fill a cup with The Water of Life, and race back to the gate.  As it swung closed, it sliced off a piece of his heel.

The dwarf was waiting and told him the sword would defeat any army, and the loaf would feed any multitude and never be diminished.  The young prince then begged the dwarf to free his brothers.  The little man said to forget them, his brothers would only betray him, but he gave in at last to the younger brother’s pleading.

On the way home, the brothers passed through three kingdoms plagued by war and famine, and the youngest used his sword and loaf to save them.  At the same time, he told his older brothers about his success and his betrothal to the Lady of the Fountain.  Before he could give his father the Water of Life, the older brothers swapped it for sea water, which made the king worse.  The older pair then gave the king the true healing draught and claimed the young brother had given him poison.  The king ordered a huntsman to kill his youngest son in the forest, but the huntsman could not bring himself to do it.

The kingdoms the young prince had saved sent riches by way of thanks, and the king began to reconsider.  As the year drew to a close, the Lady of the Water had the road to her castle paved with gold.  She ordered her servants to chase off anyone who walked up the side of the road but welcome the one who strode up the center.  The two older brothers, anxious not to scuff the precious metal, walked beside it and were driven away.  The young prince, able to think of nothing but his love, had no care for gold and walked up the middle of the road.  

The Lady of the Fountain. Detail of an English tapestry

The Lady ran out to meet him.  He became Lord of her realm, freed all the frozen men, and reconciled with his father.  The two older brothers sailed away and were never seen again.

***

If the start of the tale presents a fairly clear dynamic, what follows is more obscure.  The question of how and when to interpret folklore goes far beyond the scope of one or two blog posts.  Folktales may be more primal than myths, as Marie-Louise von Franz suggests, but they leave more open questions.  I tend to follow James Hillman’s advice – “stick with the image.”  When scenes in movies and books, or events in our lives leave us puzzled, we may turn them over in memory and imagination for years without rushing to ask what they “mean.”  In doing so, we let them nourish us without draining their power by settling for simple answers.

For instance, the Lady of the Water of Life gives the youngest son clear instructions to find what he came for and get back through the gates before noon.  So what does he do?  Hits the sack when he spots a bed.  Strange behavior for a lad who has gotten as far as he has through doing what he’s been told.

I’ve come to believe the bed is another trial on the way to the Water of Life.  It took warrior courage and dwarf tricks to get by the lions guarding the gates.  Here the trial is staying awake – not always easy in life.  At the wrong time, if you “look neither right nor left,” you miss the chance of renewal.  At the right time, it’s essential.  If the prince hadn’t made it out by noon, I believe he would have turned to stone like the others in the courtyard.  There is nothing in this text to support this a view; my opinions are based on other stories.  One is a fuller account of stone people in a tale from The Arabian Nights.  The other is a trial-by-bed that Sir Gawain undergoes on a mysterious “Isle of Women.”  When he succeeds, he too becomes the champion of the Otherworld queen.

Such hunches are tentative and subject to change.  It isn’t answers but wrestling with the questions that draws my imagination again and again to this kind of story.

*** 

Two decades have passed since I found The Water of Life, and since then, “Look for the dwarf by the side of the road,” has become something I tell myself every time I’m stuck.  Such renewal is open to everyone – it’s our birthright, though certain attitudes, embodied in the older brothers, will chase inspiration away.  Older brothers pretty much run the world:  they are the movers and shakers, the ones who get things done, which means they keep going even as the walls close in.

That’s one reason I love blogging.  It’s an excuse to discover and celebrate people who talk with dwarves:  those who build little libraries.  Those who buck the trend and open small bookstores.  Those who publish their own books, in the grand tradition of Walt Whitman, who initially sold his poems door-to-door.  People, in other words, who try to occupy their own lives, which is what this story is really about.

A world where the Water of Life flows is filled with individual acts of courage.  A world where the waters are choked off looks very different, for as Michael Meade observes:

“There is something incurable in this world that makes the soul long for the healing and beauty of the otherworld.  Each visit to the other realm requires stopping the business and busy-ness of the daily world in order to listen to the questions being asked from the inner-under-other sides of life…Unless the inner voice and the little people are heard from again, the world will continue to drain of meaning and will keep turning a cold heart to the immensity of human suffering.”

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