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.


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.

Tales of the Dummling

Many of Grimm’s fairytales begin with three sisters or three brothers who have a critical task to perform.  Invariably, the youngest succeeds.    In her introduction to a story called “The Golden Bird,” Maria Tatar, editor of the recently published bicentennial collection says: “If the female protagonists of fairy tales are often as good as they are beautiful, their male counterparts often appear to be as young and naive as they are stupid.”

“The Golden Bird” illustrates the point.  The youngest son is so hopeless that even his animal guide, a fox, grows frustrated, yet in the end, the boy wins “complete happiness.”

Not all youngest sons are so dense, and sometimes the stories have great depth, like “The Water of Life,” which I discussed here last March ( and

According to Marie-Louise von Franz, Carl Jung’s closest colleague and author of five books on fairytales, the Brothers Grimm published  50-60 stories of dumb youngest sons.  Von Franz thought these stories were so important, individually and culturally, that she started her first book on folklore, The Interpretation of Fairytales 1970, with a detailed study of one Dummling tale, “The Three Feathers.”  The story is one of the better known Grimm stories, present in the new annotated edition as well.  What follows is a brief synopsis.  The tale isn’t long and those who wish can read it on Project Gutenberg:

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

*** Synopsis of The Three Feathers ***

Once an aging king had three sons. Two were clever, but the third didn’t say much and was considered dim-witted.  People called him Dummling [or “Dummy” depending on the translation].  The king decided to test the boys to determine who should rule his kingdom when he was gone.   He told them whoever returned with the most beautiful carpet would inherit the kingdom.  Then he took them outside, blew three feathers into the air and told his sons the feathers would determine which way they should go.

One son’s feather flew east and another’s west, but Dummling’s feather flew straight ahead a few paces and fell to the ground.  The other brothers laughed and set out, but Dummling just sat down by the feather and waited.  Eventually he noticed a trapdoor nearby.  It opened onto a staircase descending into the earth.  The boy followed the stairs down to another door on which he knocked.  From inside a voice called:

“Maiden, fairest, come to me,
Make haste to ope the door,
A mortal surely you will see,
From the world above is he,
We’ll help him from our store.”

Inside was a fat toad, surrounded by many smaller toads.  The boy said he needed the world’s most beautiful carpet.  The toad called out to the younger ones to “bring the box for the boy at the door.”  Inside was a beautiful carpet.  Dummling carried it home, his father was astonished, and declared that he should be the next king.

“The Three Feathers” from the Project Gutenberg ebook edition of Grimm’s fairytales.

The two other brothers, who had simply bought pieces of linen from the first peasant women they met on the road, protested so loudly that the king decreed another test.  He sent his sons out to find the most beautiful ring.  Again one feather blew east, another west, and Dummling’s by the trapdoor.  The fat frog called for a box in which the boy found a beautiful gold ring.  The brothers brought rings they had made from  nails they had taken from cart wheels.

Again the king declared Dummling the winner, and again the older brothers protested.  The king’s third test was to bring home the most beautiful wife.  Dummling won a toad bride who became a beautiful human woman after he took her home.  The brothers, who had married the first peasant women they met, complained again so the king ordered a fourth test.  The brides were ordered to jump through a hoop suspended in air.  Naturally, Dummling’s wife, who had been a toad, easily won.  Dummling received the crown and he ruled “with great wisdom” for many years.

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham

Jumping through the hoop by Arthur Rackham


In The Interpretation of Fairytales, Marie-Louise von Franz devoted three chapters to an in depth analysis of this tale.  She believed Dummling stories reflect the situation of individuals, cultures, and institutions that get stuck when certain rigid patterns and ideas cut them off from sources of renewal.

The first thing she notes is that all the Dummling tales begin with a father and three sons but no wife or sisters.  The feminine element is missing and regardless of what he sets out to do, the most important achievement of the younger son will be to bring home a bride.  In abstract terms, that is bringing Eros into a situation overweighted with Logos.  Von Franz cites cultural examples like the importance of the cult of the Virgin Mary in the medieval Catholic church.  She also says that third-son stories:

“compensate the conscious attitude of a society in which patriarchal schemes and oughts and shoulds dominate.  It is ruled by rigid principles because of which the irrational, spontaneous adaptation to events is lost.  It is typical that Dummling stories are statistically more frequent in the white man’s society than in others, and it is obvious why that is so.”

Once you start thinking along these lines, many characters spring to mind from history as well as the arts.  Saint Francis, who called himself “God’s Fool,” brought flexibility and Eros to the medieval church.  A classic movie example from recent times is  Forest Gump 1994.  Tom Hanks’ Dummling character succeeded where the smart people failed.  Gump, who lived in the moment and was close to his emotions, reacted to things as they happened rather than to his own fixed ideas.  Remember the movie’s opening shot of a feather?  If nothing else, that convinces me that Forest Gump’s creators knew the Dummling stories in detail.

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Tom Hanks as a modern Dummling

Von Franz amplifies the detail of the feather, saying it was a common medieval practice in many countries.  “If someone did not know where to go, if they were lost at a crossroads or had no special plan, he would take a feather, blow on it and walk in which ever direction the wind took it.  That was a very common kind of oracle by which you could be guided.”

It isn’t as apparent in this Dummling tale as it is many others that the older brothers are modern A-types.  They don’t have time to fuss with insignificant creatures like frogs, or dwarves, or old ladies, or any of those helpful beings who guide the youngest brothers on their way.  Youngest brothers have time to listen because their calendars are clear.  They sit by their feathers or walk through the forest, paying attention and waiting for new ideas to arrive.

Von Franz used the feather analogy in discussing her method of therapy.  She said when her patients were stuck, she would listen to their dreams to see which way the winds of the psyche were blowing.  When I studied psychology, one of my teachers spoke in the same vein, of the importance of listening to the little impulse, the small thoughts that are easy to ignore, like “Oh, that looks interesting,” or “Wouldn’t it be nice to take a few hours off for a walk beside the river?”  Smart older brothers, working on their MBA’s, don’t have time for things like that, which is how they get into therapy in the first place.

I’ve heard that when he was president, Harry Truman once said, “We’re going to try X, and if that doesn’t work, we’ll try something else.”  Our government might not be so stuck if politicians dared to admit that sometimes they don’t know the answers and need to see which way their feathers blow.

Sometimes being “smart” is a greater hindrance than being “dumb,” for the key thing is to be teachable.

I came upon the Dummling stories years ago, and they often come to mind when things are stuck in my own life or in what I observe around me.  “When you don’t know what to do, do nothing,” is a common and useful bit of advice.  I sometimes restate it and say, “When you don’t know what to do, sit by your feather and pay attention.”

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.”