Sense and Music–Gifts of the Daimon: “The Piper and the Puca”

the_pooka_by_fiszike-d6dpjdu

“Pooka” Copyright Emese, used with permission. See: http://fiszike.deviantart.com/

 

What to do when you’ve hit a rut in your life? Get tipsy, find yourself a little bridge to cross, and wait for this guy (above)! This month’s folktale is called “The Piper and the Puca,” and it’s from Fairy and  Folk Tales of the Irish Peasantry,  edited and selected by W. B. Yeats. It’s in the public domain, so I’ve pasted it below. Give it a read, and then see what you think of my interpretation, which follows.


Croaghpatrick

Croagh Patrick, from Wikimedia Commons

 

THE PIPER AND THE PUCA

DOUGLAS HYDE.

Translated literally from the Irish of the Leabhar Sgeulaigheachta.

In the old times, there was a half fool living in Dunmore, in the county Galway, and although he was excessively fond of music, he was unable to learn more than one tune, and that was the “Black Rogue.” He used to get a good deal of money from the gentlemen, for they used to get sport out of him. One night the piper was coming home from a house where there had been a dance, and he half drunk. When he came to a little bridge that was up by his mother’s house, he squeezed the pipes on, and began playing the “Black Rogue” (an rógaire dubh). The Púca came behind him, and flung him up on his own back. There were long horns on the Púca, and the piper got a good grip of them, and then he said——

“Destruction on you, you nasty beast, let me home. I have a ten-penny piece in my pocket for my mother, and she wants snuff.”

“Never mind your mother,” said the Púca, “but keep your hold. If you fall, you will break your neck and your pipes.” Then the Púca said to him, “Play up for me the ‘Shan Van Vocht’ (an t-seann-bhean bhocht).”

“I don’t know it,” said the piper.

“Never mind whether you do or you don’t,” said the Púca. “Play up, and I’ll make you know.”

The piper put wind in his bag, and he played such music as made himself wonder.

“Upon my word, you’re a fine music-master,” says the piper then; “but tell me where you’re for bringing me.”

“There’s a great feast in the house of the Banshee, on the top of Croagh Patric to-night,” says the Púca, “and I’m for bringing you there to play music, and, take my word, you’ll get the price of your trouble.”

“By my word, you’ll save me a journey, then,” says the piper, “for Father William put a journey to Croagh Patric on me, because I stole the white gander from him last Martinmas.”

The Púca rushed him across hills and bogs and rough places, till he brought him to the top of Croagh Patric. Then the Púca struck three blows with his foot, and a great door opened, and they passed in together, into a fine room.

The piper saw a golden table in the middle of the room, and hundreds of old women (cailleacha) sitting round about it. The old women rose up, and said, “A hundred thousand welcomes to you, you Púca of November (na Samhna). Who is this you have with you?”

“The best piper in Ireland,” says the Púca.

One of the old women struck a blow on the ground, and a door opened in the side of the wall, and what should the piper see coming out but the white gander which he had stolen from Father William.

“By my conscience, then,” says the piper, “myself and my mother ate every taste of that gander, only one wing, and I gave that to Moy-rua (Red Mary), and it’s she told the priest I stole his gander.”

The gander cleaned the table, and carried it away, and the Púca said, “Play up music for these ladies.”

The piper played up, and the old women began dancing, and they were dancing till they were tired. Then the Púca said to pay the piper, and every old woman drew out a gold piece, and gave it to him.

“By the tooth of Patric,” said he, “I’m as rich as the son of a lord.”

“Come with me,” says the Púca, “and I’ll bring you home.”

They went out then, and just as he was going to ride on the Púca, the gander came up to him, and gave him a new set of pipes. The Púca was not long until he brought him to Dunmore, and he threw the piper off at the little bridge, and then he told him to go home, and says to him, “You have two things now that you never had before—you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

The piper went home, and he knocked at his mother’s door, saying, “Let me in, I’m as rich as a lord, and I’m the best piper in Ireland.”

“You’re drunk,” said the mother.

“No, indeed,” says the piper, “I haven’t drunk a drop.”

The mother let him in, and he gave her the gold pieces, and, “Wait now,” says he, “till you hear the music I’ll play.”

He buckled on the pipes, but instead of music, there came a sound as if all the geese and ganders in Ireland were screeching together. He wakened the neighbours, and they were all mocking him, until he put on the old pipes, and then he played melodious music for them; and after that he told them all he had gone through that night.

The next morning, when his mother went to look at the gold pieces, there was nothing there but the leaves of a plant.

The piper went to the priest, and told him his story, but the priest would not believe a word from him, until he put the pipes on him, and then the screeching of the ganders and geese began.

“Leave my sight, you thief,” says the priest.

But nothing would do the piper till he would put the old pipes on him to show the priest that his story was true.

He buckled on the old pipes, and he played melodious music, and from that day till the day of his death, there was never a piper in the county Galway was as good as he was.


bagpiper-1644.jpg!xlMedium

“Self Portrait as Bagpiper” by Jacob Jordaens, 1644

 

“The Piper and the Puca”: Interpretation 

Encounter with the Daimon

I believe this tale describes, in the character of the seemingly untalented and unsophisticated “half fool” piper, an attitude that constitutes a precondition for creative inspiration, but one that is insufficient in itself for artistic and psychological growth: enter the Puca. The Puca, in my view, is a fearsome but no-nonsense version of a genius or daimon, who bestows on our piper tremendous gifts. “You have two things now that you never had before,” says the Puca to the piper at the end of their adventure together, “you have sense and music (ciall agus ceól).”

Elizabeth Gilbert has given a tantalizing TED talk about this entity, and argues for adopting the idea of the daimon or genius that is connected to, but separate from ourselves. My favorite part of the talk is her illustration of the idea via the very visceral experience of poet Ruth Stone, who may have had her own encounter with a Puca:

[W]hen she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem,and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”

Who is this devilish being who rushes at us when we are least expecting it, yet somehow ready? “The ‘genius-daimon’ is that incorporeal, imperishable spirit of a place or person, possessing an inimitable character all its own,” says Stephen A. Diamond in Anger, Madness, and the Daimonic: The Psychological Genesis of Violence (p. 263) And William Desmond tells us:

The daimon is not a quaint exotism we find among unenlightened primitives. It may be the true word that describes the tutelary powers that aid us to become and be ourselves . . . We are in the care of something other, and greater. Transcending is not in our power, but our powers are in the power of transcending. The daimon must be with us, or we with the daimon, for our power of being to come into its flourishing. (Ethics and the Between, p. 205)

As an archetypal being, the daimon has many manifestations, but there is always a compelling or demanding aspect to contend with–not answering the call, not doing what one is called to is grounds for punishment. The Puca of our story, depicted as an anthropomorphised animal of some kind, perhaps part horse and part goat, is certainly not a comforting figure. He commands the piper, and makes no bones about the risk involved in going with him. Paradoxically, it seems, there needs to be an encounter with this “other” in order for a person to develop fully into their own selfness. If you take a depth psychological view, this makes sense, as under this view, the ego, the everyday going-about-our business mode of consciousness we spend most of our time in is very limited. According to depth psychology, without access to the larger and deeper structures of the psyche, and with only social adaptation to shape (and potentially warp) us, we end up, like the piper, playing the same tune over and over, treading the same path with stultifying predictability. But there is always this other force underneath, compelling us in one way or another, and giving us access to a different dimension of consciousness, and of life:

The daimon motivates. It protects. It invents and persists with stubborn fidelity. It resists compromising  reasonableness and often forces deviance and oddity upon its keeper, especially when it is neglected or opposed . . . it is out of step with time, finding all sorts of faults, gaps, and knots in the flow of life–and it prefers them. (The Soul’s Code, p. 39)

Fairies such as the Puca are shape-shifting, time-and-space bending entities who come from a psycho-cosmological place much vaster, more complex and more fluid than our own, and can be our living energetic connection, a psychopomp, to that wider domain. The force they embody is formidable, and like the piper we had better hang on tight, keep our egos open but intact.

But we might ask: how does the meager ego get access to these larger, richer structures, these bigger, more complex energies in the first place? Or, in the context of our tale, we may wonder: why does the Puca even bother with the piper, who is merely going about his business, playing his one tune incessantly, collecting his gold, and taking it home to mother in infantile fashion?

Creative Naivety 

There are two clues in the tale to the attitude needed, I think, to facilitate an encounter with the Puca/Daimon/Genius, two qualities or conditions that open the way, and these are foolishness and drunkenness. Drunkenness lowers consciousness, allowing unconscious material to rise. At its best it can be initiatory and loosen rigid boundaries. Foolishness, often a corollary to drunkenness, can embody a certain creative naivete, a willingness to do as one pleases, to be daring, or just plain odd, without care for the consequences or the judgements of others. It is key, I believe, that our piper has both of these qualities in half-measure, for if he were fully drunk and completely foolish, he would not have been enough of a match for the Puca. But had he been too sober and too proper–not drunk and foolish enough–the Puca would have had no entree with him.

So the piper has just the right disposition for a meeting with the Puca. But there are plenty of half-drunk, half-fools out there. What would make the Puca think of testing him, of giving him the opportunity to earn his gifts? The Puca sees in the piper, apparently, underneath the veneer of the silly, unambitious, mama’s boy tinkerer a gifted, mature musician and man. The sense and music were there all along, but the particular force, energy, and otherworldly knowledge of the Puca was needed to bring them out. The piper is also at the right place: a bridge, or place of crossing. The Puca himself is another kind of bridge, bridging the human and fairy worlds.

How did the Puca know of the piper’s potential, and see fit to unleash it? The answer, perhaps, is in this strange connection to the stealing and eating of the priest’s gander, presumably close to a year earlier. According to The Encyclopedia of Celtic Mythology and Folklore by Patricia Monaghan, geese, either domestic or wild were extremely important symbolically to the Celts: “So strong was the identification of Celtic people with the goose that it was a taboo food among the Britons, used for divination, and eaten only on ritual occasions. Some fairy beings could change by shape-shifting into geese . . . ” (p. 224) Perhaps we have a clue here, and may assume the gander to be a fairy being as well. So the consumption (integration) of the priest’s gander, we may conjecture, has a ritualistic aspect, and rituals, as we know, tend also to lower consciousness and draw out the divine or supernatural forces. The thievery, here, is also important, as acts of theft usually are in myths and fairy tales.

Stealing the gander seems in thematic terms to be the instigating action of the story. In psychological terms the piper stealing the priest’s gander likely represents the shift of energy or libido from a restrictive but ordered attitude (priest) to a more liberal, open one. Since there is no father in the story, and based on the authority the priest exerts over the piper, the priest can be slotted, in Jungian terms, as the father/father complex stand-in. The piper shares this stolen bounty with his mother, and gives a wing to “Red Mary,” likely a fairy-in-disguise and anima figure (female aspect of the male psyche) who repays him by tattling to the priest. (A whole other line of interpretation could be taken up around this peripheral yet key character of the story, but we’ll set it aside for now.)

The priest and the Puca, though opposites, are tied together symbolically: both hold a kind of otherworldly authority and power, and both, we should remember, require the piper to go to Croagh Patric, but with very different aims: the priest wants him to atone, restoring order and hierarchy, while the Puca wants him to shake off his restrictions and transform. To do this he must enter an underworld realm, and while there entertain, and pay respect toward, the wise old (grand)mother, who in this case manifests as a collective of faerie women living beneath Croagh Patric, in “The House of the Banshee.” Isn’t the Banshee a harbinger of death? Robert Moss has written recently of her, and reminds us that besides taking the form of the hag, she can assume the form of a beautiful young woman, and that she has a more complex role:

Above all, she comes to invite us or escort us on the Otherworld journey: not only the journey that follows physical death, but on journeys beyond the physical world from which we may return to the body with magic and power. (http://mossdreams.blogspot.com/)

Still, the visit to her realm is not without its dangers: Desmond goes on to warn that the daimon too is not only connected with creation, but also, necessarily, to destruction. It is is “connected to death. There is a demonic side the daimon, relative to the nihilating powers that rear up in us as creatures, that shadow all transcending.”

Marie Louise Von Franz reminds us that “demonism and creativity are psychologically very close to each other. Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.” (Projection and Recollection in Jungian Psychology: Reflections of the Soul, p. 106)

That bears repeating: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

We can assume our piper becomes sufficiently conscious of his creative impulses to ensure his daimon becomes a helpful force, and what’s known in fairy tale analysis as a “donor”–a figure who gives the hero some sort of magical assistance or bestows upon him or her some power. In return for becoming more conscious and giving something of himself to the underworld powers, the “hundreds of old women” whom he serves (an interesting contrast/parallel to his familiar mother and home), he receives the power of maturation, an accelerated ripening of his inborn potentials. The gold he receives, the real gold as opposed the illusory gold so often proffered by the fairies, is repeated access to inspiration, and the skill that evolves from having taken a path of “hills and bogs and rough places” instead of the familiar path, risking the difficult piece instead of the easy, well-worn tune.

So, in light of the wisdom embodied in this tale, here are some takeaways I’ve gleaned, things to tell myself:

  • Steal a gander: Be subversive to your “thou shalt” conventional thinking and sacrifice time and energy to feed the irrational forces
  • Sense (orderedness, thinking, rationality) and music (playfulness, emotionality, irrationality) are both necessary for growth and maturation of the personality and the development of one’s art, whatever form it may take.
  • Be half-drunk and half-foolish: Lower consciousness (daydream, but in an attentive way) and be willing to risk failure. If you do these things, the Puca, or rather, your own version of a daimon, will catch your scent and consider visiting you.
  • Be brave, trust the daimon and go with him or her: Inspiration can be frightening as well as vivifying, but when you are called, you need to answer. Opportunities for inspiration must be seized, and to do so we must trust the foreign-feeling energy enough to ride it, acknowledging that it knows better than us where to go.
  • Play up! Don’t think about it or doubt yourself. Just do that thing you feel you’re meant to do, even if you don’t think you can.
  • The warning from Von Franz: Nothing in the psyche is more destructive than unrealized, unconscious creative impulses.

Before I leave off, I want to bring up the oddness of the revivified gander, who, although eaten, is living with the wise women under Croagh Patric, and who gives the piper the unmelodious squawking pipes. Of course, if we know anything of fairies, we expected the gold to turn to leaves, but I for one did expect that the set of fairy pipes would be superior to the piper’s old set. But instead they sound atrocious. Why is that?

In terms of why the gander is still around, remembering the goose’s significance to the Celts and other peoples, perhaps this is an element of psyche that cannot be integrated, a mysterious fundamental energy that exists on multiple planes. In relation to the gander specifically and Hindu thought:

The cosmic gander (the divine presence in the universe) reveals itself through song, which is thought of as the breathing of the supreme being, the rhythm of inhaling and exhaling. (Funk and Wagnall’s Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, p. 460)

The conscious rhythm of inhaling and exhaling is quite important to pipers, so having this particular instrument in the story makes symbolic sense. But why the horrid sounds coming from the faerie pipes? Perhaps the divine element gives the squawking pipes to our lad to keep him grounded, to balance his newfound powers and prevent an inflation. (Maybe this is why his gold pieces must not survive as well.) Don’t we all have times in our creative lives, and our lives in general that feel awkward, frustrating and stymied, as well as times where things are beautiful and flowing? That is what human life is meant to be, it seems, and since we know from mythic and folkloric wisdom that we can’t stay in the nether realms indefinitely without penalty, we had better be willing to play the squawking pipes on occasion, so that our real music, when it arrives, sounds that much more melodious.

More to explore:

If you haven’t watched Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk pertaining to the daimon or genius, here it is:

The Sweet Sadness of Endings: November Montage

Fall always makes me feel melancholy, but not in a bad way. The pang of it lets me know I’m registering the passing of time and noticing and appreciating, for the most part, the experiences that come and go, especially the sweet moments with those people, creatures, and places I that I love. How to bear the existential crisis that comes with acknowledging every last person, creature and place will at some point cease to exist? I’m still working that out. I like this quote from the movie Don’t Look Down: “Your whole life you’ll always be saying goodbye. Don’t let that keep you from loving.” Love is the salve that eases that never-quite-healed wound that inflicts everyone the moment they are born; without it, the wound becomes infected with despair. With it, despair is muted and life, however ephemeral, feels significant, even holy.

 

 

"The Beautiful Has Fled" by Charles Sims

“The Beautiful Has Fled” by Charles Sims

 

My November

by Robert Frost

My Sorrow, when she’s here with me,
Thinks these dark days of autumn rain
Are beautiful as days can be;
She loves the bare, the withered tree;
She walks the sodden pasture lane.

Her pleasure will not let me stay.
She talks and I am fain to list:
She’s glad the birds are gone away,
She’s glad her simple worsted grey
Is silver now with clinging mist.

The desolate, deserted trees,
The faded earth, the heavy sky,
The beauties she so truly sees,
She thinks I have no eye for these,
And vexes me for reason why.

Not yesterday I learned to know
The love of bare November days
Before the coming of the snow,
But it were vain to tell her so,
And they are better for her praise

 

 

Opening scene of the film “Melancholia”:

 

When I am dead, my dearest

BY CHRISTINA ROSSETTI

When I am dead, my dearest,
         Sing no sad songs for me;
Plant thou no roses at my head,
         Nor shady cypress tree:
Be the green grass above me
         With showers and dewdrops wet;
And if thou wilt, remember,
         And if thou wilt, forget.
I shall not see the shadows,
         I shall not feel the rain;
I shall not hear the nightingale
         Sing on, as if in pain:
And dreaming through the twilight
         That doth not rise nor set,
Haply I may remember,
         And haply may forget.

Hold me tight, and fear me not: The rescue of Tam Lin

http://www.wyliebeckert.com/

Image “Tam Lin” by Wylie Beckert. Used with permission Please click on image to visit her portfolio.

 

Since I first became acquainted with the story of Tam Lin (or Tamlin), I’ve run across some different iterations of the tale in song and prose (to see the Child Ballad [39] in full, go here). Essentially, the story runs that Janet, a well-to-do but lonesome and rebellious young lady, sets off one day on her own to Carterhaugh, where she longs to be, despite the warnings of her father or parents. Once there, she offends Tam Lin by plucking roses, and after a little row between the two over this in which Janet asserts her rights to Carterhaugh and general independence, the two become lovers. The result, naturally, is that Janet, as her father suspects, becomes “with child.” But how can she love this baby, begot in such an unnatural way? She returns to Carterhaugh and declares to Tam Lin that she won’t bear the child, but that if it were a fully human baby, fathered by a man and not some otherworldly being, she would love and cherish it. Tam Lin then reveals that he once was human, before he was abducted by the fairy queen, and that this Halloween she may be sacrificing him as a “tithe to hell.” On the other hand, he tells her that if she can wait in secret until the fairy procession arrives on Halloween night, pull him from his white steed, and hang onto him as he turns into all manner of frightening creatures in her arms, that he will again, at the end of the ordeal, be a man, and she will be able to love him, and their child. Janet, of course, succeeds in this rescue. Afterwards Tam Lin reverts to a “naked man,” and Janet wraps him in her cloak and takes him home to be her true love.

I don’t want to analyse the images in Tam Lin too much, but rather let them continue to work in me as they have done since I first discovered the story. There are many elements of the tale I find compelling, including Janet’s defiance of her family, and following of her impulse–I don’t see this necessarily as healthy rebellion mind you, but I rather sense it as a giving in to what begins as an unhealthy longing or obsession, as when we do something rash out of loneliness and/or temptation that might end very badly. But this is a redemption story, and what is most touching to me is Janet’s bravery in not letting go as her fairy lover shapeshifts into multiple terrifying creatures.

This reminds me of the Jungian advice to pin down an image that comes to you in active imagination, to not let it go until some understanding of its meaning has been reached. More deeply though, I feel this motif of holding on to the shapeshifter to redeem him (seen in other tales as well) is a moving depiction of what it’s like to endure harrowing emotions without letting them run away with you, nor shutting them down. Sometimes it is scary to live in this world, and scarier still to face that we have brought on our own misery or ruin. Yet there is something deep in the mystery of it all that waits for us to recognise and love it, to cut through enchantments and disenchantment and hold on bravely no matter what. Then what began badly can end in the triumph of human love: at the end of the story, Janet manifests the positive, redeeming side of mother-love, wrapping her naked lover in her cloak. Such maternal love is probably the most healing form love can take, towards others and ourselves. The fairy queen, as a counterpoint, seems to embody destructive, possessive, dark mother-love. This is how she reacts to Tam Lin’s rescue:

The Queen of Faery turned her horse about,
Says, Adieu to thee, Tamlene!
For if I had kent what I ken this night,
If I had kent it yestreen,
I wad hae taen out thy heart o flesh,
And put in a heart o stane.

Yikes!

The following rendition of the ballad, for me, while leaving out the fairy element of the rescue plot, captures the soul of the story of Janet and Tam Lin. Enjoy!

 

Three Classic Creepy Stories

“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “The Telltale Heart,” were two of my favorites scary stories as a child. I believe there was an animated version of the former that came on at Halloween time, possibly the Disney version of it. I heard “The Telltale Heart” for the first time in grade five on a narrated lp that our teacher made available. A bit much for most fifth graders perhaps–I know it scared the pants off of me, but I was into that. Come to think of it that teacher was a bit creepy, e.g. he would hide in the closet of the classroom to catch kids who came back in there at recess, which was apparently a huge offence in his book.

Anyway, for your viewing pleasure, I found these gems on YouTube:

A third tale that I remember was about a man (a lord or count of some kind I think) who brutally traps and burns a whole village of people, but not before an old woman places a curse on him, which leads to him being hunted and devoured by a swarm of rats. I couldn’t trace this particular story, but instead found another supremely creepy H.P. Lovecraft story with a rat theme that I may have read during my Lovecraft phase. You just can’t compete with the guy for creepiness! Read it here: “The Rats in the Walls” full text by H.P. Lovecraft. I also found a condensed version of the story with illustration and narration. I love that the very talented visual interpreter of this tale is offering it free online (you can donate if you really like it): The Rats in the Walls.

Musings on “The Song of the Morrow” by Robert Louis Stevenson

Gustave_Courbet_-_Autumn_Sea_-_Google_Art_ProjectPainting “Autumn Sea” by Gustave Courbet, in the public domain. See Wikimedia Commons

Here’s another inspiration entry that comes out of The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. It was originally published in a collection of Stevenson’s called Fables, in 1902, and since it is in the public domain, and a quick read, I’ve reprinted it below for your convenience.

I could find precious little about this story online (there’s no Wikipedia page for it, nor for the collection). I did discover that a U.K. director called Digby Rumsey has turned the “fable” into a short film, but all I could find was this short clip online. I’d love to watch the whole thing.

As for the tale in question, it’s hard to even describe what happens plot-wise in the story, as it’s more abstract strangeness and inscrutable dream logic than sensible plot moves. What I can tell you: There’s an inexplicably solitary princess living in a forlorn seaside castle, a smiting crone, a lamenting nurse, a dubious piper, and a hauntingly odd refrain about having “no care for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men” that implants itself in the princess, leading to her doom–you’ll see. I find the story delightfully creepy in a pleasingly subtle way, and thus deemed it appropriate for our “supernatural horror” October theme. It’s short, so I hope you take the time to read it, and comment.

There are a few sources out there that allude to the influence of Stevenson’s Fables, and this particular story, on Jorge Luis Borges: an interesting connection. And I did find a reference to “The Song of the Morrow” in Alexander Japp’s (2009) book Robert Louis Stevenson, where he asserts the “feeling for symbol,” and “Celtic strain” of this and other tales in the collection. The effect, he says is “as though moonshine, disguising and transfiguring, was laid over all real things, and the secret of the world and life was in its glamour.” (p. 86) Poetically stated, and accurate, I would say.

Indeed, there are lots of symbolic elements, repetition, and a queer symmetry in the tale that works well with the theme of time as an all-powerful usurper and paradoxically, a potential liberator. See what you think . . .

THE SONG OF THE MORROW

The King of Duntrine had a daughter when he was old, and she was the
fairest King’s daughter between two seas; her hair was like spun gold,
and her eyes like pools in a river; and the King gave her a castle upon
the sea beach, with a terrace, and a court of the hewn stone, and four
towers at the four corners. Here she dwelt and grew up, and had no care
for the morrow, and no power upon the hour, after the manner of simple
men.

It befell that she walked one day by the beach of the sea when it was
autumn, and the wind blew from the place of rains; and upon the one hand
of her the sea beat, and upon the other the dead leaves ran. This was
the loneliest beach between two seas, and strange things had been done
there in the ancient ages. Now the King’s daughter was aware of a crone
that sat upon the beach. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead
leaves swarmed about her back, and the rags blew about her face in the
blowing of the wind.

“Now,” said the King’s daughter, and she named a holy name, “this is the
most unhappy old crone between two seas.”

“Daughter of a King,” said the crone, “you dwell in a stone house, and
your hair is like the gold: but what is your profit? Life is not long,
nor lives strong; and you live after the way of simple men, and have no
thought for the morrow and no power upon the hour.”

“Thought for the morrow, that I have,” said the King’s daughter; “but
power upon the hour, that have I not.” And she mused with herself.

Then the crone smote her lean hands one within the other, and laughed
like a sea-gull. “Home!” cried she. “O daughter of a King, home to your
stone house; for the longing is come upon you now, nor can you live any
more after the manner of simple men. Home, and toil and suffer, till the
gift come that will make you bare, and till the man come that will bring
you care.”

The King’s daughter made no more ado, but she turned about and went home
to her house in silence. And when she was come into her chamber she
called for her nurse.

“Nurse,” said the King’s daughter, “thought is come upon me for the
morrow, so that I can live no more after the manner of simple men. Tell
me what I must do that I may have power upon the hour.”

Then the nurse moaned like a snow wind. “Alas!” said she, “that this
thing should be; but the thought is gone into your marrow, nor is there
any cure against the thought. Be it so, then, even as you will; though
power is less than weakness, power shall you have; and though the
thought is colder than winter, yet shall you think it to an end.”

So the King’s daughter sat in her vaulted chamber in the masoned house,
and she thought upon the thought. Nine years she sat; and the sea beat
upon the terrace, and the gulls cried about the turrets, and wind
crooned in the chimneys of the house. Nine years she came not abroad,
nor tasted the clean air, neither saw God’s sky. Nine years she sat and
looked neither to the right nor to the left, nor heard speech of any
one, but thought upon the thought of the morrow. And her nurse fed her
in silence, and she took of the food with her left hand, and ate it
without grace.

Now when the nine years were out, it fell dusk in the autumn, and there
came a sound in the wind like a sound of piping. At that the nurse
lifted up her finger in the vaulted house.

“I hear a sound in the wind,” said she, “that is like the sound of
piping.”

“It is but a little sound,” said the King’s daughter, “but yet it is
sound enough for me.”

So they went down in the dusk to the doors of the house, and along the
beach of the sea. And the waves beat upon the one hand, and upon the
other the dead leaves ran; and the clouds raced in the sky, and the
gulls flew widdershins. And when they came to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages, lo! there was
the crone, and she was dancing widdershins.

“What makes you dance widdershins, old crone?” said the King’s daughter;
“here upon the bleak beach, between the waves and the dead leaves?”

“I hear a sound in the wind that is like a sound of piping,” quoth she.
“And it is for that that I dance widdershins. For the gift comes that
will make you bare, and the man comes that must bring you care. But for
me the morrow is come that I have thought upon, and the hour of my
power.”

“How comes it, crone,” said the King’s daughter, “that you waver like a
rag, and pale like a dead leaf before my eyes?”

“Because the morrow has come that I have thought upon, and the hour of
my power,” said the crone; and she fell on the beach, and, lo! she was
but stalks of the sea tangle, and dust of the sea sand, and the
sand-lice hopped upon the place of her.

“This is the strangest thing that befell between two seas,” said the
King’s daughter of Duntrine.

But the nurse broke out and moaned like an autumn gale. “I am weary of
the wind,” quoth she; and she bewailed her day.

The King’s daughter was aware of a man upon the beach; he went hooded so
that none might perceive his face, and a pipe was underneath his arm.
The sound of his pipe was like singing wasps, and like the wind that
sings in windlestraw; and it took hold upon men’s ears like the crying
of gulls.

“Are you the comer?” quoth the King’s daughter of Duntrine.

“I am the comer,” said he, “and these are the pipes that a man may hear,
and I have power upon the hour, and this is the song of the morrow.” And
he piped the song of the morrow, and it was as long as years; and the
nurse wept out aloud at the hearing of it.

“This is true,” said the King’s daughter, “that you pipe the song of the
morrow; but that ye have power upon the hour, how may I know that? Show
me a marvel here upon the beach, between the waves and the dead leaves.”

And the man said, “Upon whom?”

“Here is my nurse,” quoth the King’s daughter. “She is weary of the
wind. Show me a good marvel upon her.”

And, lo! the nurse fell upon the beach as it were two handfuls of dead
leaves, and the wind whirled them widdershins, and the sand-lice hopped
between.

“It is true,” said the King’s daughter of Duntrine; “you are the comer,
and you have power upon the hour. Come with me to my stone house.”

So they went by the sea margin, and the man piped the song of the
morrow, and the leaves followed behind them as they went. Then they sat
down together; and the sea beat on the terrace, and the gulls cried
about the towers, and the wind crooned in the chimneys of the house.
Nine years they sat, and every year when it fell autumn, the man said,
“This is the hour, and I have power in it”; and the daughter of the King
said, “Nay, but pipe me the song of the morrow.” And he piped it, and it
was long like years.

Now when the nine years were gone, the King’s daughter of Duntrine got
her to her feet, like one that remembers; and she looked about her in
the masoned house; and all her servants were gone; only the man that
piped sat upon the terrace with the hood upon his face; and as he piped
the leaves ran about the terrace and the sea beat along the wall. Then
she cried to him with a great voice, “This is the hour, and let me see
the power in it.” And with that the wind blew off the hood from the
man’s face, and, lo! there was no man there, only the clothes and the
hood and the pipes tumbled one upon another in a corner of the terrace,
and the dead leaves ran over them.

And the King’s daughter of Duntrine got her to that part of the beach
where strange things had been done in the ancient ages; and there she
sat her down. The sea-foam ran to her feet, and the dead leaves swarmed
about her back, and the veil blew about her face in the blowing of the
wind. And when she lifted up her eyes, there was the daughter of a King
come walking on the beach. Her hair was like the spun gold, and her eyes
like pools in a river, and she had no thought for the morrow and no
power upon the hour, after the manner of simple men.

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!

Inspiration of the Month: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop”

feathertopbowsSteveMorrison

Illustration (used with permission) by Steve Morrison. Here’s his Web site: and here’s his blog 

Read the story “Feathertop” by Nathaniel Hawthorne here

Before bed each night I’ve started reading a selection from The Oxford Book of Modern Fairy Tales. I seem to always like titles starting with The Oxford Book of—I could probably get some enjoyment out of The Oxford Book of Mushrooms or even The Oxford book of Tax Accounting—I think it simply comes down to stellar editing. Anyway, I can tell already that I’m going to like this volume a lot as I found the second story in the collection, which I’ve just finished, quite delightful: it’s Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “Feathertop,” in which an inventive witch decides to animate, via the smoke of a bewitched pipe, a scarecrow she’s just assembled and send it off to romance the town justice’s daughter, Polly. Explaining Hawthorne’s motivation for the story, Tom Quirk (how cool a name is that?) in his book Nothing Abstract: Investigations in the American Literary Imagination says that “in the grotesque figure of Feathertop he purposely fashioned a fit emblem to represent his distaste for the contrived characters of popular fiction.” (p. 72) This meta-level idea is interesting, but I think one can safely take his depreciating depiction of the character’s “illusory magnificence” as a comment about superficial and conventional values in general. The witch herself, when deciding on what to do with her creation muses: “What if I should let him take his chance among the other men of straw and empty fellows who go bustling about the world?” She is not talking about other enchanted scarecrows here!

The outcome of the tale seems to me a warning against trying to breathe life into an inherently lifeless persona, as there is something inherently grotesque in doing so. But grotesque or not, I have some sympathy for the character, who, after all, did not ask to be created, and who finally makes a stand for authenticity when he destroys himself after seeing his true reflection in a well-polished mirror at Polly’s mansion. Am I the only one to feel this way about poor Feathertop? I’d say not: certainly Feathertop’s creator has “motherly affection” for him, and maybe Hawthorne has a little affection for him too:

“To say the truth, whether it were chance, or skill, or downright witchcraft, there was something wonderfully human in this ridiculous shape, bedizened with its tattered finery; and as for the countenance, it appeared to shrivel its yellow surface into a grin–a funny kind of expression betwixt scorn and merriment, as if it understood itself to be a jest at mankind.”

I probably feel for the ungainly Feathertop because I myself have written a story about a strange creature that is living within an illusory world. Don’t we all wonder sometimes if we are not somehow living in the same condition, metaphysically speaking?

Leaving aside whatever the message of the tale might be, style-wise, the comedic tone of “Feathertop” is appealing, and I enjoy the presence of the narrator, who seems apologetic and incredulous about the story he’s telling: “Upon my word, if the legend were not one which I heard on my grandmother’s knee, and which had established its place among things credible before my childish judgment could analyze its probability, I question whether I should have the face to tell it now.”

I also relish the details of the story: the invisible servant “Dickon” who fills and lights the enchanted pipe, the animated “party of demons” that dance around the bowl of said pipe, the eponymous rooster feather in the scarecrow’s hat and the faded embroidery on his waistcoat. Fun!

Plot-wise, I’m also intrigued by the fact that Polly’s father, Master Gookin, knows what Feathertop really is, but is beholden somehow to the witch who created him, and therefore too frightened to alert his gullible daughter about what she’s getting into:

“Gladly would poor Master Gookin have thrust his dangerous guest into the street; but there was a constraint and terror within him. This respectable old gentleman, we fear, at an earlier period of life, had given some pledge or other to the evil principle, and perhaps was now to redeem it by the sacrifice of his daughter.”

It is left to our imaginations what this pledge may have been, which I think is a clever move on Hawthorne’s part; it would, however, be an interesting exercise to write another version of the story starring Master Gookin and his mysterious “pledge.” Hmm . . .