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!

 

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!

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part Three: The Promise of Redemption

800px-Mikalojus_Konstantinas_Ciurlionis_-_FAIRY_TALE_(CASTLE_FAIRY_TALE)_-_1909

Image by Mikalojus Konstantinas Čiurlionis, in the public domain (see Wikimedia Commons)

It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality. (J.R. Tolkien, “On Fairy-Stories”)

Ultimately, many traditional fairy tales, if not offering straightforward “happy endings” do frequently embody in their outcomes the themes of restoration, transformation, and redemption, and while perhaps complex themes for children to absorb, they are, psychically and spiritually speaking, indispensable ones that foreshadow the individuation struggles to come. Marie-Louise von Franz says that “[i]n fairy tales redemption refers specifically to a condition where someone has been cursed or bewitched and through certain happenings or events in the story is redeemed.” (Psychological Meaning of Redemption Motifs in Fairy Tales, p. 7) Why does this matter? Because all of us are bound to become doomed, cursed or “bewitched”—in other words, held back, distorted and tormented by something in our own psyches. Fairy tales dramatize this in a spare, elegant, but powerful way, and generally provide certain formulas for overcoming this predicament, and achieving redemption.

In the process of getting to that outcome, it seems to me that the message (not moral!) is usually that: 1. Things will not be easy or fair; 2. Being brave and bold, even a little foolhardy, is necessary to overcome this; 3. At the same time one should be humble, compassionate, observant, attentive and trusting (this is normally how to gain favor with the helper or “donor” character); 4. Things will not resolve right away, and one normally must fail multiple times (usually at least twice) in one’s goal. I think these messages can be taken as guidance for both outer and inner life, and are useful for both children and adults.

Not all fairy or wonder tales are of this caliber, though. Some promote values of obedience, conformity and punish intrepid characters for their initiative and curiosity. These are the sorts of tales (along with the overly “cleaned up” cutesy fairy tales that swamp us today) that I find more objectionable from a psychological point of view. I believe they may pose a different but significant sort of danger to children, because they undermine values of individuality, initiative, ingenuity, and choice. I tend to agree with Guillermo Del Toro when he says, “I don’t like fairy tales that have a moral teaching at the end; I like them with a more subversive teaching.” (Read more here.)

I will, for one, indubitably be reading fairy tales to my children, and to myself, and will probably continue to write them as well.

Let me leave you with Neil Gaiman’s Instructions, which does a better job than I have in expressing what is essential and life-affirming about fairy tales, for children and adults both:

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 . . .

Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children? Part One: Confronting Darkness

arthur-rackham-hansel-and-gretelImage by Arthur Rackham, in the public domain

As a writer who is in the process of publishing a collection of fairy or wonder tales, an article I ran across in Slate caught my attention rather keenly. It’s titled “Are Fairy Tales Out of Fashion?”  In it, Libby Copeland states more or less categorically that fairy tales (the authentic kind) are not suitable for young children, and that she refuses to read them to her young daughter. (She doesn’t like the Disney fairy tale versions either, for other reasons.)

Many commenters objected to this notion, and someone amongst them was astute enough to point out that when selecting fairy tales to read to younger children the age of the protagonists of the story may provide somewhat of a guide to determining what might be appropriate. Steven Swan makes this point in The Fairy Tale: The Magic Mirror of the Imagination. But bear in mind that appropriateness here does not mean necessarily censoring out the disturbing elements if the child is younger: it just means that the concerns and anxieties represented in the tale are those typically faced by individuals of a certain age. Of “Hansel and Gretel” Swan says that “[t]he problem they face is that there is not enough food at home to feed the entire family. The lack of food may be read as a metaphor for there not being enough love at home. In essence, the children feel unloved and unwanted, as reflected in their stepmother’s desire to abandon them.” (p. 23) I think the point here is that young children are very dependent beings and thus naturally face anxieties about not being loved and protected, even if they are, for the most part, loved and protected.

So does that mean “Little Red Riding Hood” or “Hansel and Gretel” are good stories for all little children to hear? No, not necessarily. I do think Copeland may be prudent in censoring some of the more brutal or scary fairy tales from her very young daughter, depending on circumstances. I’m remembering that the wolfish evil called “The Nothing” in the Neverending Story film gave my little brother nightmares for months after he watched it. (I’m not sure if reading the book, or having it read to him, would have produced the same effect; perhaps having to depict “The Nothing” with his own imagination would have triggered a buffering action in his young psyche. But I suppose the converse might also have been true.)

So, discretion may be a virtue when it comes to a certain age group or temperament. But to categorically banish all non-sanitized fairy tales completely from childhood? In my opinion that is a form of psychic hygiene that is unhealthy, and ultimately untenable. Unhealthy, because darkness is better acknowledged and confronted, not denied; untenable, because it will come out anyway, one way or another, in dreams, most likely, and fantasy-play. Copeland herself admits to being attracted to gruesome fairy tales at about age 9 or 10, and to hoping that when her daughter is considerably older “and possessed of that child’s fascination with darkness” that she reads the original, unsanitized versions of tales like Cinderella. There is ambivalence in her attitude, then, for despite all her discomfort with the supposed anachronistic violence of the fairy tale in general, at the same time she seems to be conceding the point that darkness with have its due. Consider this quote by in Tremendous Trifles by Gilbert Keith Chesterton:

I find that there really are human beings who think fairy tales bad for children. . . . All this kind of talk is based on that complete forgetting of what a child is like which has been the firm foundation of so many educational schemes. If you kept bogies and goblins away from children they would make them up for themselves. One small child in the dark can invent more hells than Swedenborg. One small child can imagine monsters too big and black to get into any picture, and give them names too unearthly and cacophonous to have occurred in the cries of any lunatic. The child, to begin with, commonly likes horrors, and he continues to indulge in them even when he does not like them. . . . The fear does not come from fairy tales; the fear comes from the universe of the soul. (pp. 129-130)

If you refuse the reality of this “universe of the soul” to begin with, or insist on characterizing it as a light-filled paradise of benign cherubs (real angels can be scary too), schmaltzy poetry, or cutesy baby animals, I guess Chesterton’s argument falls flat, but if you concede that the “universe of the soul” is anything but this simplistic or banal, then it is hard to argue with him. So in this vein I suggest that fairy tales are “bad” for children, not in the sense of causing them harm; rather they convey “badness” and “horrors,” as well as wonder, delight, and joy in the service of children’s (and adults’) own souls, to give them an outward reflection and make them, therefore, possible to relate to in a potentially fruitful way. Which tales to select for one’s child at a given stage in their childhood (assuming that fairy tales appeal to them in the first place), is another matter, and there are no parenting rules to help us here: only our intuition can be of service, as well, as, perhaps, taking a cue from what we observe about their fantasy play and their dreams, if we are fortunate enough to hear about them.

Stay tuned for Part Two of “Are Fairy Tales Bad for Children?”. . .

A Fool’s Blog Space: Let’s Jump off the Cliff Together . . .

Ivan_The_Fool_

Welcome to The Lilting Tree, a blog devoted to my own set of quirky interests, most of them related in some way to the imagination: dreams, fantasy, writing, music, film, television, literature, symbolism, mythology, folklore, fairy tales, depth psychology and all things fascinating, artful, off-beat, quirky, mysterious, and weird.

I thought April 1st* would be an auspicious day to begin the effort, since it is a day for good-natured mischief and caprice. I would like to see this day and what it stands for elevated in status, as I think we all need a bonafide vacation from mundanity and predictability. But then again, fools and tricksters are liminal and therefore marginal characters by nature, so maybe their day should fly low under the radar as well. How else would it sneak up on you?

Still, I proclaim that The Fool is no trivial personage. My glancing familiarity with the Tarot informs me that The Fool is a figure who, for better or worse, is not terribly bound by consensual, seemingly “concrete” reality, nor simply floating in a vaporous netherworld; he (or she) is somewhere in between in a free-flowing, organic reality of ripening potentials. It’s a nice place to hang out, and I’m hoping you’ll enjoy spending some time with me in this neither-here-nor-there ephemeral-but-grounded space.

Next week I will start the blog in earnest but for now, here’s a great little tale featuring “Ivan the Fool,” a common figure in Russian fairy tales. It’s called “Sivka Burka”: Read it here.

You won’t read it? Well, at least take in this highlight, advice from Ivan’s dead dad:

“Now go out into the open field and call: ‘Sivka-Burka, dun horse, magic horse, come when I call you.’ A horse will come galloping up to you. Crawl into its right ear and out its left, and you will be turned into a handsome young man. Mount the horse and ride it.”

Who knew the path to transformation lay in the ear canal of a dun horse?

* I actually posted on another blog platform on April Fools, and then switched, in case you’re wondering.