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.
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.
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.