Swan Maidens and Fairy Lovers, Part I

When I was an active storyteller, I loved to tell one of the best known legends of Wales.  It’s found in many collections under various names, most often, “The Bride of Llyn y Fan Fach.”  Variations of this story are found all over the world.  A mortal man marries an Otherworld woman who breaks his heart, but sometimes brings marvelous children into the world.

Llyn y Fan Fach and the Bannau Sir Gaer by Rudi Winter. CC by-SA 2.0

I’ve started to write about this legend on other occasions, discarding drafts that rapidly grew beyond the scope of a blog post or two or three.  What prompted me to begin again was a visit to Barnes & Noble.

Barnes & Noble knows what sells.  An entire row is now filled with “Paranormal Romance.”  The covers feature illustrations of winsome teenage girls.  The genre isn’t new; Charles de Lint, a Canadian author, has written stories like this for thirty years.  The popularity is new, and almost all of today’s novels invert the usual folklore setup, in which a mortal man meets a fairy woman.  Not only that, but the odds of a happy ending in these tales are worse than the chance of hitting a single number at roulette.

The Swan Maiden

The Swan Maiden is the most widespread “mixed marriage” type of folktale.  It is also considered the most primitive, since the Otherworld woman’s native form isn’t human.  Usually it’s a bird.  Swan maiden stories are found all over Europe, as well as the middle east, Russia, India, China, and Japan.  There’s a parallel water buffalo woman story in Africa.  According to one researcher, the motif is 30,000 – 40,000 years old, as shown by a bison-woman cave painting.

In swan maiden tales, a man sees a flock of swans glide to earth at night.  Removing their swan robes, they change into beautiful women who bathe or dance together.  Enamored of one in particular, the man takes her robe so she won’t fly away, and eventually persuades her to marry him. Later they have children.  One day the swan-wife hears her children sing of where her husband has hidden the robe, or they tell their mother when they see her in tears.  The swan maiden puts on her robe and flies away forever, leaving the children with their father.

The Welsh Stories

I have a passion for Celtic stories, and those from Wales in particular, but Celtic fairies seldom give a mortal a break.  They put out a Scottish woman’s eye simply because she could see them.  When Thomas the Rhymer succeeded in pleasing the fairy queen for seven years, what did she give him as a reward?  A tongue that could only speak the truth!  Think about how that would serve you at work.  No mystery about why Thomas never married – “Does this make me look fat?”

In Welsh mixed-marriage tales, a mortal man wins the hand of a fairy wife who agrees to stay with him under certain conditions.  They have children, the husband accidentally breaks a condition, usually by touching his wife with iron, and she leaves.  He never sees her again, though she sometimes slips back to visit her children, whose descendants are beautiful and wise.  Here is the best of these stories:

The Bride of Llyn y Fan Fach

At the end of the 12th century, a young man lived with his mother, a war widow, in Carmarthensire in Wales.  Every day he drove their small flock of cattle to the lonely tarn known as Llyn y Fan Fach.  The cows preferred the grass there to any other pasture.

Llyn y Fan Fach, copyright Stuart Wilding, licensed for reuse CC by-SA

One morning, the man (who isn’t named in the tale) beheld a beautiful woman sitting on the water combing her hair.  All he had to offer was a bit of bread, but he walked to the shore and held it out.  She glided over the water and said, “Hard baked is thy bread.  Hard am I to hold.”  Then she dove under the waves.

Unable to think of anything else but her, he brought unbaked dough the next day.  She appeared at noon, glided to the shore, and said, “Unbaked is thy bread.  I will not have thee.”

The lady combs her hair on the water

The third time, the bread was just right.  The lady gave her assent and her father offered a sizable dowry of cattle, goats, and horses, after the young man agreed to one condition – his wife would leave him if he struck her three blows without cause.

Things went well at first, and they had three sons.  Then one day the couple was to attend a christening.  The lady delayed getting ready.  She sent her husband back to the house for her gloves, saying she would saddle the horse.  When she didn’t do so, the young man playfully tapped her on the shoulder with the gloves.  “Not ready yet?”

“Be more careful,” she said.  “For you have just struck the first blow without cause.”  [This incident echoes other stories where the husband touches his fairy wife with an iron bit while bridling a horse, but that detail is missing here.]

A few years later, at a wedding, the wife burst into tears.  The husband tapped her shoulder and asked why she wept.  “I weep for this couple who are now entering trouble,” she said.  “Be careful, my love, for your trouble draws closer.  That was the second blow without cause.”

The man stayed vigilant, and things went well for several more years.  Then one day his wife burst into laughter at a funeral.  He tapped her on the shoulder again and asked why she laughed.  “I laugh because this man has left a world full of trouble,” she said.  “But now your trouble is here.  Farewell, my husband.  You have just struck the third blow without cause.”

Ignoring his protests, she marched to the lake, and all her father’s animals followed.  A pair of oxen dragged a plow six miles to the lake, and the furrows can be seen to this day.  Of the unfortunate husband, we know nothing more.  Longing for their mother, the three sons went to the lake at night and she appeared.  “You are to be of help to the world,” she said.  “I shall instruct you in the arts of medicine.  You and your descendants will be great and skillful physicians.  Whenever you need my advice, I will appear.”

In time, they became the personal physicians of the Prince of South Wales.  The legend of the Bride of Llyn y Fan Fach comes from a book called The Physicians of Myddvai, 1861, by a Welsh printer named Rees.  The Welsh Historical Society has herbal recipes attributed to the lake woman’s descendants, and the last of the line, Dr. C. Rice Williams lived into the 1890’s.


What do we make of a story like this?  First, we can recall Marie-Louise Von Franz’s comparison of myth and folklore. The great myths and legends tend to be more polished.  Their plots are coherent enough to satisfy modern demands.  In contrast, folktales are more primal and more opaque.

One unique feature of this tale is the specificity of location and the lake lady’s descendants.  Greek families traced their ancestry to the heroes of Troy, and my mother had a coat of arms dating back to the Normal Conquest.  A similar dynamic is one explanation for the unique segue of this fairy tale into history.

The real mystery for me has always been, why is the husband is doomed from the start?  Who would count a shoulder tap as a “blow?”  Why do mortals never win when they give themselves to Otherworld lovers?

I’ve asked myself why since the day I found a book of local fairytales in a used bookstore in Wales on a visit 20 years ago.  Though I don’t have certain answers, I have some thoughts which I will offer next time.  Meanwhile, does anyone else have any ideas?  Why would the girl’s father set an impossible condition, and why would she actually leave over such a minor slight when the text says she really loves her husband?  I welcome any suggestions you may have.

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.”

The Water of Life

“Amidst a world increasingly disoriented and at war with itself, each person carries with them the seeds of a unique and valuable story trying to unfold. The youngest part of each psyche still longs to find the holy waters that can ease the pain of living and make life whole and meaningful again.” – Michael Meade

The Water of Life is a German folktale collected by the Brothers Grimm.  It shares a pattern with stories found all over the world:  the youngest brother or youngest sister, the one whom everyone else regards as incompetent, succeeds in a task or quest where the “wise” siblings fail.  In doing so, they bring new life to themselves and to the land.

Carl Jung analyzed The Water of Life in detail because it so neatly aligns with his theory of the four functions – thinking, feeling, intuition, and sensation – which are known to many through the Myer-Briggs Personality Profile.  Jung believed that at critical points in our life, renewal comes through “the inferior function,” the one that is least developed.  This “least competent sibling” lives closest to the unconscious where the healing waters lie.

The story has been a favorite of those who write about folklore from a psychological perspective.  One of these is Michael Meade, who wrote, Men and the Water of Life: Initiation and the Tempering of Men in 1994.  The original version, which analyzed six classic folktales, was based on the work he did hosting large men’s gatherings with James Hillman and Robert Bly.  In 2006, he revised the book and renamed it, The Water of Life:  Initiation and the Tempering of the Soul in an effort to broaden the scope to include both genders.  One more update preceded Meade’s release of an ebook last year.

A new urgency informs the latest version in light of the economic and ecological crises we face.  All along, Meade emphasized that the story speaks to cultures as well as individuals, for both can become rigid and stuck.

So let’s look at the story.  Here is the whole text for those who wish to pursue it: http://www.authorama.com/grimms-fairy-tales-51.html).

A king lies dying.  He calls his three sons and tells them only the Water of Life can save him.  The oldest sets out, looking neither right nor left and soon passes a dwarf by the side of the road.

“Where are you riding so fast, looking neither right nor left?” asks the little man.

“What’s it to you, runt?” asks the prince.

The dwarf is furious.  He speaks a few words, and before long, the oldest son finds the valley walls closing in on him.  He keeps going, looking neither right nor left, until he and his horse are wedged in the rocks unable to move forward or back.

The second son sets out, disrespects the dwarf, and soon he too is stuck.

When neither of his older brothers returns, the youngest begs permission to go on the quest.  Figuring his last son, who has  reputation for being odd, has no chance if the clever brothers are lost, the king is reluctant.  At last the third son wears him down and wins permission to venture forth.

When the dwarf asks where he is going, the youngest son gets off his horse and says, “I seek the Water of Life for my father who is dying.”

“Do you know where to look?” asks the dwarf.

“No,” say the prince.  “I have no idea.”

Because the youngest son is humble and shows him respect, the dwarf points out the road and gives him magical implements he will need to win the Water of Life.

The dwarf helps the youngest son

Others have written long chapters about this part of the story.  I could do the same but I don’t think I need to.  People who live with stories – most readers of this blog, in other words – are going to pick up the gist pretty fast.  Still, a few points that others have made bear repeating.

  • Jung used the dying king to illustrate the changes that come at midlife.  The energy that propels us into the world through our first three of four decades is often exhausted and in need of renewal.  Everyone knows the cliche of the business exec who turns 40 and buys a corvette and a trophy wife.  Most people are wiser than that, but it is the time when renewal comes from the parts of ourselves that we have ignored or suppressed while looking neither right nor left.  As Michael Mead put it, “Only when we are at the end of our wits do we turn to the deeper wit of the youngest brother.”
  • Students of folklore know that success most often hinges on finding a magical ally, and in many stories, the older and “wiser” brothers and sisters blow it as they do here, with arrogance.  It makes little difference whether we understand the dwarf as an archetype of the deep psyche or as our ancestors did, as a creature of the Otherworld which is never far away.  Respect is essential.  The unconscious can bring inspiration or neurosis; magical beings can bless or curse.
  • Meade calls the first two brothers, “the ego brothers.”  These are the “well adapted” parts of ourselves, the inner movers and shakers who get things done.  There are plenty of times in the modern world when you don’t want to look right or left, when you need to charge ahead.  But when our best ideas get us stuck, as they eventually will, we need the humility of the younger brother.  Free of ego, the first step he takes toward healing, both for himself and his father, is to admit, “I do not know the way.”

I read Michael Meade’s first version of this book in the early ’90’s, and it came to mind very powerfully last summer, when our government ground to a halt – as stuck as the brothers pinned between the rocks.  Wouldn’t it have been refreshing to hear even one of our leaders speak the truth and confess, “I don’t know which way to go?”  Unfortunately, no one gets re-elected that way; our leaders are still charging ahead, looking neither right nor left.

Intuitively we know there are times when business as usual no longer works.  As Meade puts it,“Once it has been lost, the Water of Life can only be found by wandering off the beaten path.”

To Be Continued

Angels Incognito

The local California Writer’s Club branch hosts an annual short-short story contest every year.  I hadn’t intended to enter until this morning when one of those end-of-the-night inspirations slipped into awareness.  A story idea:  A reprobate is convinced that “they” are stealing our memories, and he is probably right.

I wrote the opening with relative ease.  We’ll see how it goes; openings are easy, but I also have a great fondness for this kind of character – the guardian or the wise one whose appearance is humble or even repulsive.  You meet him – he is most often male – in various guises in movies and fiction:

Mel Gibson in "Conspiracy Theory," 1997

He is found  in myth and scripture.  John the Baptist is a classic example, who must have dismayed a lot of the city people who came out to hear him.

John the Baptist

Tilopa, (989 – 1069) one of Tibetan Buddhism’s greatest teachers, was expelled from a monastery and made his living as a sesame pounder, a pretty low rung on the social ladder.


Once in a while, you meet someone like this in real life.  I read an account by a man who wanted to go to India in search of a guru, but then found his teacher, a Zen master, earning his living by fixing washing machines in a laundromat 12 miles away.

When my wife was a social worker at Loaves and Fishes, a local center that helps the homeless, she was startled one day as a small hispanic man climbed out of a dumpster in a parking lot. Significantly, his name was Jesus. Mary’s eye’s still light up when she tells what a joyful man he was.  The meeting was so unexpected, but left such a vivid memory, that she thinks of him whenever the subject of angels comes up.

These reflections led me to think of one of my all time favorite fantasy novels, King of Morning, Queen of Day, by Ian McDonald, 1991.  The story features a pair of otherworldly guardians who look a lot like bums as they craft powerful magical charms from bottle caps and debris.  McDonald came to mind when he published his latest novel in December.  I haven’t yet read the new one, but I’ll discuss King of Morning next time.

Meanwhile, has anyone else encountered an angel, a wise man or woman, a mentor or a guardian who showed up disguised as an “ordinary” person but then turned out to be anything but?

Go I Know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What – Part 2

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.”


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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.

Go I Know Not Whither, Bring Back I Know Not What – Part 1

The title of this post comes from a Russian fairytale that has intrigued me for many years.  Like much Russian folklore, it’s complex and winds through many episodes, but the title summarizes the story.  Fairytale protagonists routinely draw difficult assignments – find the name of the little man spinning straw – but the task in this story seems impossible.  Life periodically sends us riddles like this.  At times we find ourselves on a quest for something, but we don’t know what it is or where to look.  This is a story for moments like that.

Illustration for Go I Know Not Whither by Ivan Bilibin (1876-1942)

Most folktales deal with the problems of youth – finding a place in the world, or a spouse, while avoiding giants and trolls.  Go I know not whither belongs to another class of tales that deal with the problems maturity brings.

Fedot, our hero, is an accomplished soldier, marksman, and hunter.  The king “favored him above all other soldiers.”  He’s at the top of his game – in other words, at the point in life where a mid-life crisis can hit.  But crises of disorientation don’t just visit at mid-life.  Fedot’s story relates to any time when the wheel turns, when life’s old answers no longer work, and the way forward is dark.

Ivan Bilibin illustration

Fairytale humans always need helpers – always.  These helpers are usually creatures that others despise, like wrinkled old women, dwarves, and frogs.  To succeed, a hero must see beyond appearances.  Courtesy is also a must to win the help of these beings who prove essential.

When Fedot wounds a dove in the forest and hears the little bird beg for its life, he listens.  The bird gives him special instructions.  When he obeys, the dove becomes a beautiful woman.  “You have won me,” she says.  “I shall be your wife.”

Fedot’s wife, lovely, clever, and skilled in the arts, soon draws the unwelcome attention of the king, who schemes to get rid of Fedot by sending him on a series of impossible quests.  Fedot’s wife is skilled in magic and helps him succeed in all but the final challenge, designed by the king with the help of the Baba Yaga, a notorious Russian witch.  On pain of losing his head, Fedot must “Go I know not whither and bring back I know not what.”

Though she cannot advise him, Fedot’s wife sends him to visit her mother, who also is at a loss, but calls the birds of the air, the creatures of land, and those of the sea, asking for guidance for her son-in-law.  By now, those who know Joseph Campbell’s work, will recognize a critical stage of the hero quest that Campbell called, “Meeting the Goddess.”  Fedot has met her in two aspects.  His wife first appeared as a dove, sacred to Aphrodite.  Now his mother-in-law is revealed as the Great Mother, for all creatures do her bidding.  Like her daughter, she doesn’t know the way, but she locates one who does.  A wrinkled old frog, with her deep and primitive wisdom, knows the way to “I know not whither.”

The frog leads Fedot to the end of the world where a river of fire surrounds a great mountain.  She carries him past the flames, then announces that she can go no farther.  Fedot must go on alone.  With all of his helpers inadequate to the quest, where is he going to turn?

Because this is a long story, I am going to break this post into two parts.  If anyone wants to peek at the outcome before then, here is the text of the story on Project Gutenberg:  http://www.gutenberg.org/files/34705/34705-h/34705-h.htm#ch7.  Enjoy!

To Be Continued

The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review, Part Two

If you haven’t already read it, please begin with Part 1 of this review:  http://wp.me/pYql4-1vt

We left the young king in a most unusual and disconcerting situation – carrying the corpse of a hanged man across a charnel ground.  The corpse was possessed by a spirit who asked the king a riddle and said that if he knew the answer but didn’t speak, his head would explode.

"The King and the Corpse," from a presentation at the Red Arrow Gallery, Joshua Tree, CA, Sept. 2011

The king answered the question and immediately, the body flew back to the tree and the king had to return and cut it down again.  Another walk, another story, another answer and the corpse again disappeared. The king, whose name meant, “Rich in Patience,” needed all he could muster, for the gruesome routine went on and on and on. If the ruler had been thoughtless as a youth, the corpse now gave him riddles worthy of Solomon.  He solved all of them except the 24th, which went like this:

“A chief and his son were hunting in the hills.  The king was a widower and the son unmarried, so they were intrigued to find the footsteps of two women, one older, one younger.  The feet were shapely and the gait suggested refinement.  “A queen and her daughter, I think,” said the father.  They set out in pursuit and agreed that if the women were willing, the father would marry the one with the larger feet – presumably the mother, and the son would marry the other.  The women were indeed a queen and her daughter, fleeing danger, but, the daughter’s feet were larger.  Holding to their vows, the king married the daughter, and the son married her mother.  When both women gave birth to sons, how were the babies related?”

When the king kept silent, the corpse said how pleased he was with the monarch’s courage and wisdom.  He warned him that the sorcerer was a necromancer who planned to use the corpse and the king’s blood – after killing him – in a black magic rite that would give him power over the spirits of the dead.  He told the king how to slay the sorcerer, and when he did, the ghost in the corpse revealed himself as the great god, Shiva, who honored the king, and asked him to name his reward.

The king asked that the 24 riddles should always be remembered and should be told all over the earth.  Shiva assented, and indeed, the story has travelled the world since 50 BC, the time of the Hindu king, Vikramaditya (“The Sun of Valor”), the hero of this and many other legends.  The great god promised that ghosts and demons would never have power wherever the tales were told, and “whoever recites, with sincere devotion, even one of the stories shall be free from sin.”  Shiva also promised the the king dominion during his life and gave him an invincible sword.  Far more important, he opened the monarch’s eyes of spiritual illumination, and so his earthly reign was a model of “virtue and glory.”

When the story opens, the king is young, handsome, rich, and rather heedless since he accepts the beggar’s fruits as if they are his due, without thinking very much about them.  According to the wisdom of the east, he is like a sleeping man whose house is on fire, since nothing – not fruit, nor youth, nor jewels, nor life itself will last.  Also, naiveté doesn’t work too well in this world,  It draws betrayal the way a magnet draws iron.  The “holy man” has been weaving the king’s undoing for ten long years.  Where is the king going to come up with that kind of cunning, and in a hurry?

He finds it as all the heroes and heroines of folklore do, in an unlikely place, from the voice of a being the “wise” would despise.  Stories tell us that is where our guiding spirits often hide at first, as if to test our ability to see beyond appearances.  In fairytales from around the world, it’s the ugly crone, the dwarf, the wild animal, or in this case, in the body of an executed criminal who serve as our spiritual guides  Stories remind us that when we are truly stuck, doing what we have always done will not help.

When life and happiness depend on spinning straw into gold, on finding the water of life, on “going I know not whither and bringing back I know not what,” we need the guidance of our better angels, our guardian spirits, our daemons, as the Greeks called them.  Or in the case of our king, in our tutelary deity, who hides in a corpse to test his student’s faith, courage, and willingness to trust his own experience.

The saving spirit is one of the key themes that Heinrich Zimmer ponders in the stories of  The King and the Corpse, for as Zimmer tells us, “the hidden magician who projects both the ego and its mirror world can do more than any exterior force to unravel by night the web that has been spun by day.”

I consider this an essential book in the library of anyone who wants to hear the voices of wisdom that hide in the old tales that people cannot stop telling.

The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review – Part One

Heinrich Zimmer (1890 – 1943) was a Sanskrit scholar, an Asian art historian, and an expert in Indian philosophy and spirituality.  After the Nazis dismissed him from Heidelberg University in 1938, he made his way to the US where he taught at Columbia as a visiting professor.  The young Joseph Campbell attended some of his lectures and became a close friend.  Zimmer died of pneumonia in 1943, and Campbell spent the next 12 years editing and publishing some of his papers.  Campbell finished Zimmer’s book on folklore, The King and the Corpse, in 1948.

I discovered Zimmer’s writing as a freshman in college at the same time as I discovered Jung.  The two men, in fact, were long time friends, but their writings on myth and folklore were different.  Jung and his circle largely used story to expand and validate their theories, while Zimmer, and Campbell after him, sought to find the living essence of ancient tales that will speak to us now if we learn to listen.

In his introduction to The King and the Corpse, Zimmer called himself a “dilettante,” from the Italian verb, dilettare, “to take delight in.”   The essays in the book he said, “are for those who take delight in symbols, in conversing with them, and enjoy living with them continually in the mind.”   When I read Heinrich Zimmer, I discovered I was that sort of person.

Heinrich Zimmer, 1933

The King and the Corpse is collection of tales from around the world presented, along with Zimmer’s personal meditations, in a style of exposition later popularized by Campbell.  There’s a story from the Arabian Nights, four stories from the Arthurian cycle, and the rest come from India. The one that has always stayed with me is the title story, “The King and the Corpse.”

For ten years, every day, as a king sat in his audience chamber, an ascetic beggar appeared and wordlessly gave  him a piece of fruit.  Thinking little of it, the king gave the gift to his treasurer who tossed it over the wall into the treasure house.  One day a monkey got loose and hopped onto the king’s lap.  Playfully, the monarch gave him the fruit.  The monkey bit into it and a jewel fell out and rolled across the floor.  The king and treasurer hurried to look in the treasure house, where they found glittering jewels in the pile of rotten fruit.

It had been years since I read this tale, but I’ve seen this motif in other stories, and this time, its power jumped out at me.  The king’s attitude toward the fruit mirrors my own attitude toward health and youth in younger days, when these gifts arrived every day, with little effort on my part, almost as if life owed them to me, and there was no end in sight.  In his essay, Zimmer takes a larger perspective, suggesting each day we are given is like a piece of fruit hiding a jewel that we might discover if we only stopped to look.

The next day, when the ascetic arrived, the king demanded an interview before he would accept the gift.  The beggar said he needed a brave man, a hero, to help in a work of magic.  He asked the king to meet him at midnight on the night of the next full moon, in the funeral ground, where the dead were cremated and criminals hanged.  On the appointed night, the king strapped on his sword and strode through the smoke and flames of the funeral pyres, ignoring the clamor of ghosts and ghouls.  He found the ascetic, in sorcerer’s robes, drawing a magic circle on the ground.  “What can I do for you?” the king asked.  The magician told him to cross to a certain tree, cut down the body of a hanged man, and bring it to him.

This too, according to Zimmer, is a sign of the king’s youth and naiveté.  The realm depended on him, but without a thought, he agreed to meet a magician that he didn’t know, by himself, at the dark of the moon, at the witching hour on dangerous ground.  Yet the king was nothing if not brave.  He cut down the hanged man and hoisted the body onto his shoulder, but as he did, the corpse began to laugh.  “What is it?” the king asked.  The corpse said the way was long and offered to shorten the king’s journey by telling a story.  When the king did not reply, the corpse began.  He told the king a complex tale, filled with moral ambiguity, and then asked which character in the tale had been right.  “And by the way,” the corpse added, “If you know the answer but do not tell me, your skull will explode.”

To Be Continued.