In myths and fairy tales, the heroes and heroines are pushed towards change through crisis that most often manifest as an adventure they will live on their own, and which will ultimately lead them towards a state of completeness and self-knowledge they would not have been able to acquire without enduring a transformative crisis.
A crisis is the experience of sudden and often uncontrolled change forced upon one or emerging from one’s own depth. As a storm, it first comes surprisingly, devastates what stands on its way and leaves one shocked and desperate. There is then usually a floating time during which nothing is possible but paralysis, desperation and anger.
If there is really one thing myth and fairy tales teach us though, it is how to face the upheaval and navigate the trial, ultimately gaining perspective in the midst of it and shedding light where only darkness was to be seen.
In the tale East of the Sun and West of the Moon (which is a norse folkloric adaptation of the myth of Eros and Psyche), a young lassie (girl) is abducted by a mysterious white bear and brought in a castle in which her every desire will be fulfilled at her request. It’s not that simple though, because she must also sleep alongside an unknown man every night, whom she is instructed not to look at. After a while – humans being humans – she cannot resist the desire to see the face of her anonymous lover, yet instead of revealing the monster she would have expected, she discovers the loveliest prince one could think of.
But because of her action, the spell he had been upon gets activated, and he must now return to the castle which lays East of the Sun and West of the Moon (symbolically representing what lays beyond the realm of duality) and marry a terribly monstrous princess. She begs him not to go, but ultimately the choice is not his, and so she wakes up the next morning in the midst of the dark and gloomy forest, alone and with only the bunch of rags she brought with her. The illustration drawn by Kay Nielsen carries an immense force with it, for it displays the absolute desperation one feels in the midst of a crisis. The lassie is but alone, naked, helpless, confronted to herself in this dark forest where no light can shine.
From that point on, what option does one have? In the midst of darkness, there is nothing left but oneself. And it is precisely because there is nothing left that one can be tested at core. Who are you when you have nothing? How do you hold onto your beliefs when reality tests them over and over again? When confronted to your worst fear? When confronted to your most burning desire? When everyone urges you to conform? In the case of the lassie, it is her love for the prince which will be tested, and her motivation to be reunited with him. One could see this motive metaphorically as the motivation of the soul to be complete by uniting the feminine and the masculine within, thus reaching a state of inner fulfilment and wholeness.
The quest that now lays before her will lead her to the knowledge of herself, and through this ascetic period she sheds away the old aspects of herself, so-to-say leaves behind the simple girl from the beginning of the tale in order to evolve into the princess she ought to become. During her journey, as in the myth of Eros and Psyche, she meets supernatural beings (represented by witches) and eventually receives the precious help of natural elements (personified by the cardinal winds). Contrary to the masculine hero though, the feminine does not slay dragons. She is faced with trials of her own, and her success is made possible by her ability to mobilise the forces of nature, attract, unite and trust, as illustrated by her journey alongside the North Wind. Ultimately she reaches the kingdom beyond duality represented by the castle East of the Sun and West of the Moon, where she makes use of her wit to meet the prince, and finally frees him from the curse he was prisoner of. This last aspect is quite relevant in itself: by succeeding in her own quest, the heroin frees her masculine alter ego and attains wholeness in uniting the two that are one. The tale ends with the couple flitting away in bliss, which again is marvellously represented by Kay Nielsen on the last illustration, where both move away from their chains on a celestial rainbow-like bridge.
The masculine counterpart for this experience would be illustrated by the tale The Three Princesses in Whiteland (the fairy tale adaptation of the myth of Yvain or Owain and the Lady of the Fountain from the Celtic medieval romances of the Grail), in which a young hero finds himself in a magical land, metaphorically representing the realm of transcendence (that which lays beyond duality) where his heroism is tested and proven by his ability to bring down three trolls and rescue three princesses, the youngest of whom he marries. After a period of marital bliss, the hero feels the need to return visit his old worldly reality. Upon his departure, his wife offers him a golden ring capable of granting him two wishes, one of which had to be used for his return. But because he is still quite immature and cannot yet achieve a state of balance between both worlds, he uses both wishes by inadvertence, and eventually finds himself stuck in mundane reality, cut off from his wife and unable to find his way back home. The crisis in this tale appears through the realisation of the hero’s own mistake, causing his inability to return to his kingdom. In this instance the hero has been confronted to himself and tested against himself, and the first lesson he must learn in order to become the king he ultimately will be is that he ought to take responsibility for his own deed.
After the initial shock begins the actual adventure. Contrary to the previous tale, in this masculine quest the object is not solely the reunification of the prince with his wife but namely the retrieval of the entire kingdom, for his wife is its queen. This motive appears often in myth: the feminine principle is depicted as stable, passive and ultimately bounded with the land, whereas the masculine principle is the solar, noble active force which takes over and rules with impartiality and generosity. Through marriage, the king espouses then not only a queen but a kingdom (nature and people), which vitality he will then be accountable for.
In this tale, the hero was propelled into this kingdom by fate, not through his own action and will. His mistake reveals his inability to rule, and the quest he will then undertake reveals himself to himself and act as a catalyst for his transformation until he ultimately acquires the mastery of his kingly nature. While beginning his journey, the prince first starts by asking anyone around for the direction of the mythic kingdom of Whiteland, but no one knows. As in the departure of the knights in the Grail myths, who enter separately the forest which will lead each of them to their own adventures, our hero must find his way alone, for one’s journey is unique and no one but himself can find his path.
His adventures will then test him against the toughest trials, and reveal his own strength. His struggle is illustrated in the second illustration by his facing cold and night (as opposed to the warmth and abundance he experienced in his earlier bliss at the castle) with determination, his facial expression and impulse has been represented most beautifully by Kay Nielsen.
By overcoming the endeavours laid upon him he eventually proves his kingly quality, and achieves his goal by retrieving his kingdom and his queen. Yet upon his arrival, the queen cannot recognise him, for his appearance was transformed through his trials and his emaciated body was unknown to her. She then recognises him at the golden ring she had offered him, symbolic of their union.
At the beginning of both tales, the hero and heroin were propelled on their journey to the realm of transcendence by external circumstances independent of their will. The crisis they both experienced marked the turning point during which they could for the first time exert their free will: they could either turn back and refuse the call to adventure or face trials and accept their destiny. From this point on, their achievement would be entirely dependant on their willingness to initiate further developments. They would receive nature’s help or the help of external characters, forces and supernatural beings, but they had to act themselves upon the attainment of their own bliss or of unification of their souls.
Both conclusively proved their otherworldly quality. After having been called to adventure, they underwent what Joseph Campbell called the Hero’s journey, crossing through the unknown, where they would confront their fears, and ultimately meet themselves in the face of adversity. They both were at the beginning of their journey not yet ready to sustain the bliss they were plunged into: both acted with immaturity and could namely blame only their naivety for their troubles. But even here, what the tales stress is that some force within one’s self will always act as a catalyst for change when the time has come and the experience is needed. In the face of desperation, of course, one cannot see the necessity of transformation. Yet one has the choice between turning back or facing the trials which ultimately will lead to wholeness.
The most beautiful in myths and tales is the clear illustration that the pot of gold will always lie at the end of the path, that no struggle – no matter how hard – will ever last, and that courageous endeavours always will bring upon their lot of happiness and completeness in the end. This principle is indeed everywhere to be witnessed, whether in myth or in the simple observation of Nature: no matter how hard a winter, the Sun will always come back and shine anew, as each winter carries within it the seed of spring. This is this perspective we should keep in mind when all seems but dark, frightening and hopeless.
About the author
Mythology lover and founder of Mythopoetic.