Pursuit of Spirit in “The Golden Bird”


The_Golden_Bird_by_znodden

Image by znodden, a.k.a. Susanna. Visit her here.

For this month’s inspiration I’ve selected the fairy tale, “The Golden Bird,” (read it here, so I don’t have to summarize!) a story collected by the Grimm brothers and falling under the category of “supernatural helper” in the Aarne-Thompson classification system. The helper is not the golden bird of the title, but rather a speaking fox, who deserves the supernatural helper award of merit for his patience with the hero, who ignores his advice more often than he heeds it, and thereby gets himself into some very bad scrapes. Through the course of these predicaments, many other motifs arise as well, including the seeking of a princess and betrayal of the hero by his siblings.

One of the motifs I have focused on before in my post about “The Maiden Tsar” is falling asleep. In “The Golden Bird,” the youngest brother (son of the king’s gardener, not the king himself, which is interesting) is the only one of his siblings who can stay awake overnight to witness who is stealing the apples from the king’s “pleasure garden.” It turns out to be the radiant golden bird:

The gardener set his eldest son to watch; but about twelve o’clock he fell asleep, and in the morning another of the apples was missing. Then the second son was ordered to watch; and at midnight he too fell asleep, and in the morning another apple was gone. Then the third son offered to keep watch; but the gardener at first would not let him, for fear some harm should come to him: however, at last he consented, and the young man laid himself under the tree to watch. As the clock struck twelve he heard a rustling noise in the air, and a bird came flying that was of pure gold; and as it was snapping at one of the apples with its beak, the gardener’s son jumped up and shot an arrow at it. But the arrow did the bird no harm; only it dropped a golden feather from its tail, and then flew away. The golden feather was brought to the king in the morning, and all the council was called together. Everyone agreed that it was worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom: but the king said, ‘One feather is of no use to me, I must have the whole bird.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

Much later in the tale, when the hero is compelled to accomplish yet another impossible task, he must not stay awake and work to overcome the problem, but instead must sleep and let the trusty fox do the work. I would call this kind of helpful symbolic sleep, “the sleep of trust,” versus the harmful “sleep of carelessness” the hero avoided at the start of the tale. There is a time, suggests the story, for the ego-mind to be watchful, attentive and active, and a time for it to step aside and let another aspect of mind take charge. Creatively speaking, there is a time to stay sharp and do one’s work, however grueling it may seem, and a time to rest and incubate, secure in the fact that your inner storyteller, painter, poet, etc. is working with you and for you on the problem/project.

Coming back to the start, the psychological key to the story appears to be this golden feather, which is “worth more than all the wealth of the kingdom.” It represents, I think, a brush, a tickle of transcendence, a token of a psychic state or inner dimension of the psyche or soul that is unfettered, complete in itself, and indestructible. Those touched by this feather–for example, those who’ve had “near death experiences” or transcendent interludes during meditation, drug use, etc.–often value their experience, however fleeting, above all else. They too typically long for “the whole bird,” i.e. a way back to the experience, and a way to deepen it and integrate it into everyday life. In a bit of a different vein, taken as a metaphor for creativity, we might consider the feather as a glimpse of inspiration, with the golden bird representing a full-fledged gift of the muse. Whatever its precise meaning, as it is with spiritual things in general, the glorious bird is difficult to access and retain, and therefore its brief appearance precipitates a difficult quest involving many tests, for those who are willing.

Another theme in the story I’d like to highlight is the idea of shabbiness, that is, the quality of being well-worn, ordinary,  plain, mundane, cheap, perhaps even ugly. In the story the fox alerts the hero that he must enter the “shabby” inn rather than the bright and slick one, stick with the wooden cage for the golden bird (not the gold one), and the leather saddle for the golden horse (again, not the gold one). Inevitably the hero does not listen, and complications ensue.

This “embracing the shabby” instruction is, I would say, some good advice about grounding one’s spiritual impulses, aspirations or insights in the everyday, and not letting the gold one has found lead to pretentiousness, or becoming too “precious” for the actual lived world. Creatively, down-to-earth detail, disorder, and rough edges of different kinds are often what make a work of art sublimely interesting, rather than boringly perfect. Simply gilding the lily will not do, for as the alchemist Gerhard Dorn said, “our gold is not the ordinary gold.” It’s of a higher order, and conversely, it must have some muck in it. After all, what really begins our tale, if you think about it? It’s the earth from which the trees grew that bore the apples, which attracted the golden bird. And I’ll bet the gardener who dug in the earth and fathered the hero looked a bit shabby.

Finally, dismemberment figures in the tale, as it does in others, and often, as it is with the indispensable fox in our story, it is the supernatural helper who requests being slain and cut to pieces:

Then the fox came, and said, ‘Pray kill me, and cut off my head and my feet.’ But the young man refused to do it: so the fox said, ‘I will at any rate give you good counsel: beware of two things; ransom no one from the gallows, and sit down by the side of no river.’ (“The Golden Bird”)

It seems the hero’s refusal leads to the fox becoming more cryptic in his advice, which had previously been quite direct. For although it is repugnant to the hero, he must concede to dismembering his friend and companion. But why?

Dismemberment is a mythopoetic rendering of the process of fragmentation and dissolution, which may lead to differentiation and renewal . . . Surviving dismemberment  initiates one into the intimacy between sacrifice and creation, suffering and transformation. (The Book of Symbols, ed.s Ami Ronnberg & Kathleen Martin, 2010)

Putting things in psychological terms again, why would one consent to dissolve or fragment the very element of one’s psyche that has so enriched one’s life? The fairy tale’s answer is that it must be done to break a spell or curse, free the princess’ brother. Through dismemberment, the helper is not obliterated but humanized; what was before a wise, instinctive factor working mainly unconsciously or semi-consciously now enters full consciousness, in integrated fashion. Instead of lamenting and hoping the fox will show up to save the day, presumably our hero can now easily consult his brother-in-law before there is cause to lament. Psychologically speaking, with integration comes the possibility of consulting our own wisdom, or creative intuition, before taking action, rather than waiting for insight or inspiration to visit out of the blue.

Of course there are always those characters and animals running loose and wild in the forest of our stories and dreams who have no desire for full integration or humanizing, and it’s probably best to let them be, stay respectful, and heed their advice when it’s granted. Some of them may not be as patient as the helpful fox!

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