Jorinda and Joringel, Part 2

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

Photo by Jon Sullivan, public domain

This post continues my discussion of Jorinda and Joringel, a fairytale from the Brothers Grimm.  If you haven’t read Part 1, I suggest you do so.  What follows will make more sense.  Here is a summary of the story:

A young couple, betrothed to be married, stray too close to the castle of a witch in a dense forest.  The witch freezes the young man, Joringel, on the spot and turns the young woman, Jorinda, into a nightingale.  She cages Jorinda and carries her into the castle where she keeps thousands of other girl-songbirds.  

The witch then frees Joringel, who wanders to a strange town and works as a shepherd for a long time.  At last he dreams of a red flower enclosing a jewel which overcomes all enchantments.  After searching for nine days, he finds such a flower with a large drop of dew inside.  He uses the flower to free Jorinda and the other girls, and strip the witch of her magical powers.  Jorinda and Joringel marry and live happily for many years.

I have referred before to the writings of Marie-Louise Von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest associate, who wrote several books on folklore from a Jungian perspective.  In approaching this story, I reread parts of her Individuation in Fairy Tales (1977).

Individuation was  Jung’s central concept.  He used the term for the ultimate goal of inner-work, the lifelong struggle to realize the Self – not the ego-self but our unique totality, the union of all our tendencies, good, bad, and ugly.  This psychic wholeness can free us from the prison of neurosis.  

Jung and Von Franz listed numerous symbols for the Self:  the divine figures of all religions; the wise old man or wise old woman; the divine child, the helpful animal, mandalas, flowers, jewels, birds, golden balls, circular towers, and almost anything else that implies wholeness or completeness in itself. 

Rose windows in the cathedrals are well known western mandalas, symbols of unity in the cosmos, while our fairytale rose, which breaks all enchantments and hides a pearl, has a similar meaning for the lovers in this story.

English stained glass by William Wailes, ca 1865. Photo by TTaylor, 2006. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Jorinda and Joringel, when they finally marry, embody another symbol of the Self in the Jungian view, the divine pair.  The mystery of the male-female union of opposites was often illustrated as a hermaphrodite in the alchemical texts that Jung studied, a western equivalent of the yin-yang symbol.

Fairytales don’t feature hermaphrodites, just normal weird being like giants and dragons, but I think we can look for this theme of “higher union” whenever a folktale ends with a wedding.  But before the happy ending, Jorinda and Joringel have to experience loss and getting stuck.

At the start of the story, they seem very young.  Young people don’t know the dark regions in the forest.  They play with golden balls, their original wholeness, but that is destined to go.  In folklore and in life, innocence makes a fall inevitable.

Everyone goes through stuck times. – the unsatisfactory job or relationship.  What once sustained us loses its flavor.  Marie-Louise Von Franz gave the example of one of her patients – a 43 year old unmarried man who lived at home and took care of his mother.  She had spells of illness whenever he talked of getting a place of his own.

Jorinda is caught in a different but similar trap.  Her transformation into a songbird is unique in my experience.  I haven’t come across this motif in any other tale.  A songbird is a pretty, entertaining, and unthreatening creature – perhaps what our culture wishes for young women and girls.  Yet to interpret the story like that amounts to projecting our modern sensibility onto earlier generations who shared this story around their hearths for hundreds of years – a risky proposition at best.

The witch is old.  Freezing people and caging them as songbirds can be seen as similar strategies for stopping time.  If we want to read this psychologically, we can imagine the witch as those places within that hate change, that cling to youth and beauty as if grasping will prevent them from slipping away.  It’s interesting that the healing flower contains a drop of dew, one of life’s more ephemeral things.

As happens when people are truly stuck, the solution doesn’t come from the characters’ ego selves – it comes from a transpersonal source, a “big dream” that leads Joringel to the magical flower.  And it doesn’t come immediately, but only after this one-time golden boy labors for a long time as a lowly shepherd.  Robert Bly has written in detail about the sobering quality of menial work in folklore.  Von Franz wrote about the value of work in helping the flighty, “eternal youth” in us get grounded.

The historical Saint Patrick was captured at 16 by Irish pirates and sold into slavery.  He worked for six years herding sheep.  He learned to pray in the wilderness and found his way to Christianity.  When the time was right, he heard a voice tell him his ship was ready, so he made his rather miraculous escape.  According to Jung and Von Franz, our inner center, the Self, does things like that.

To me, there is a beauty in these stories that equals scripture.  Faith, trust, kindness, belief in oneself and in the goodness of life, are implicit.  The heroes and heroines have to learn timing and instinct, when to trust and when to be wary, when to speak and when to be still.  They generally learn things the hard way (like us) after taking a fall – if their attention doesn’t falter in the forest, they wind up with a stepmother.  But those who listen to birds, to their own hearts, and to the voices in the wind, find a way to keep going and chose the right path.

jorinda

I don’t have any definitive answers about what the stories mean – the paths through the otherworld shift too fast for that.  I’m not sure that folklore meanings have that much meaning – I offer the ideas of Jung, Von Franz, and others as maps of where other explorers have gone.  In the end, I think it is living with these stories that matters most.  And then, as Joseph Campbell, another great explorer said, we enter the forest at the point that seems best us and watch for the birds or small creatures beside the road who can guide us.

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11 Responses to Jorinda and Joringel, Part 2

  1. Rosi says:

    Very nice, thought-provoking post as usual. I do love your line, “Fairytales don’t feature hermaphrodites, just normal weird beings like giants and dragons.”

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  2. calmgrove says:

    A very thoughtful if tentative analysis which I enjoyed reading. Your mention of the transformation into a songbird is interesting and gave me some pause for thought, though like you I’m not sure if there is a definite solution.

    Of course transforming from or into a bird is a common motif (witness the many fairytales about swan brothers or sisters). I was also reminded of the Breton lai of Marie de France called Yonec where the knight who visits a lady, Rapunzel-like in a tower, comes in the form of a goshawk. The same motif appears in Italo Calvino’s marvellous collection Italian Folktales where the lover is called (as is the tale) the Canary Prince. Now, the canary is of course a songbird…

    I agree that many fairytales can be convincingly explained in Jungian terms, but I always find such interpretations, despite having a sense of rightness about them, incapable of suggesting the whole story, as it were. Reducing their appeal to psychological motifs or archetypes doesn’t explain how the narrative as well as the manner of narration matter to us, or why we need that mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar in the telling (after all, it’s not every day we meet a prince or princess in animal form) or how dreams don’t always match the script that traditional tales usually present to us.

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    • Thanks for your own very thoughtful comment.

      I wasn’t thinking of swan transformations, which are common as you say. Probably because the swans have mobility, while these songbirds are caged. In several stories too, swans transform into fairy women who dance and then change back and fly off. A mortal man sees them, falls in love, steals one of the feather suits, and is able to marry a fairy who stays until she finds her feathers again and leaves.

      And as far as Jungian analysis goes, James Hillman, who I regard as something of a mentor, was always skeptical. Not only did he argue against the concept of “The Self,” but his credo was always, “stick to the image,” as opposed to our ideas about it.

      None the less, I think Jung’s ideas for an essential point of departure or base camp in our times. When we’re barraged with digital special effects at the movies, we almost need a reminder for the simpler stories as well as our dreams, to stop and look at particular details.

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      • calmgrove says:

        Totally agree. And i do love your metaphor of Jungian ideas being “an essential point of departure or base camp in our times” as far as these stories are concerned.

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  3. 12ec says:

    It is truelly true that there is such example like the stories above, all fairytale stories are part of the real life exeprience in the uglyness of life that is masked with a picturesques of magics or other forces. This way the horror of reality does not hurt any individual that is already hurting enough. Since reality has a dark part which humans tends to savory from and give it out to another when one self is not satisfied to another.

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  4. Thank you for this Morgan! 🙂
    The songbird and the way the witch uses the power of the beautiful voice sounds very similar to The Little Mermaid. Also the way there are hundreds of beings transformed and trapped by the witch for her benefit.
    What does the songbird/the beautiful voice represent in your opinion? Perhaps the soul, but that may be too simplistic.
    Many thanks,
    Ivan

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    • I’m not familiar with the story of the Little Mermaid. I tended to avoid the stories of Hans Christian Anderson, because they’re so depressing. Also, I noted that Marie Louise Von Franz, whose chosen specialty was fairytales, did not look at the work of single individuals, preferring to study tales that are truly the product of the collective imagination. She also once said she couldn’t read Anderson because he was “so painfully neurotic.”

      That said, I have not considered this story in a while and really don’t have any unique insights. From the Jungian perspective, the bad witch represents the negative side of the mother archetype. I was friends once, probably mid-fifties at the time, who was the chairman of a state university art department. One of his paintings chosen for a group exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. When he called his mother to share the news, she said, “Oh. I guess all the great artists have their shows in Paris.” At that moment, the lightbulb went on for my friend and after five-plus decades, he saw through that aspect of his personal mother who would stifle new life and keep him stuck.

      As a Buddhist, I would also see the witch’s impulse as something that is common to all of us. When something good comes along we want to hold it, keep it, freeze it, which of course is impossible, for all circumstances change. This miserly, hoarding attitude will turn us and those we interact with sour if carried to extremes.

      So I’m no expert, Ivan. What do you think?

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  5. cjkiernan says:

    I know I come lately to this post, but I am blogging on Jorinda and Joringel. I am happy to see I am in good company in my reluctance about Anderson.

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  6. spikeabell says:

    Happy to have found your blog Morgan, I shall be reading it more in depth. Arrived here through a search for Jorinda and Jorindel on google. Good to hear your thoughts on the symbology in the tale. Gives me a bit to think about. (planning a sculpture based on the tale)

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