FROM WILD MAN TO KING:
ANOTHER LOOK AT MALE MYTH AND INITIATION
By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
BARGAINING WITH THE DEVIL
With the wild man safely locked up, people could again go safely into the forest. Once more the king's rule extended over both forest and palace. Primary among a king's duties is the maintenance of order in his kingdom. By upholding good and suppressing evil, he makes it possible for his subjects to lead orderly lives. At the core of the patriarchal systems that have governed much of the world for most of recorded history stands the archeyptal image of the good, wise, and just king who skillfully manages affairs to ensure that things are as they "should be."
But the proper order of things is determined by those who rule, and the temptation to further one's own power is often difficult to resist. As human beings are not archetypes, no real person can possess the superhuman strength and wisdom expected of the ideal king. However a man intent on playing king can easily use his authority to put down all challenges to the illusion of his archetypal identity. The ideal order is turned upside down with the kingdom made to serve the king instead of king serving the kingdom.
Like an absolute monarchy in which no challenge to the ruler's authority is tolerated, some families have room for only one "real man." To survive, a boy may find that he has hold himself back for fear of retaliation should he surpass his father. Unconscious apprehensions about a father's negative reaction to a son's success often continue to be very much alive, undermining a man's every attempt to realize his potential, long past the time when his father ceased to be an actual threat.
Not every son backs down in the face of paternal tyranny. Like the Greek god Zeus, who overthrew his oppressive father, Cronus, some young men claim their manhood in an angry, even violent confrontation with the man who stands in their way. But, as the Greek tragic hero Oedipus found, the defeat of one's father is a heavy burden to bear. Patricide and incest, literal or symbolic, are equally forbidden expressions of the darkest side of human nature. A victorious son may seek to evade his guilt, as well as a similar fate, by unconsciously identifying with the oppressor he overthrew. The rule of Zeus was little more enlightened than that of Cronus, and Cronus himself had begun his reign by castrating his own oppressive father. So tyrant follows tyrant through one generation after another.
In addition to tyrants, myth and history are also full of ineffectual rulers unable or unwilling to meet the challenge of maintaining their kingdoms. The king in "Iron Hans" appears to have been of this type. Rather than attempting to solve the mystery of his huntsmen's disappearance in the forest, he simply constricted his domain to exclude the area of danger. Even after the wild man was captured and caged, the king apparently had no direct dealings with him. Acting from the safety of his royal position, he issued a decree forbidding the wild man's release and made the queen responsible for the keeping of the key to the cage (more on this peculiar arrangement later).
The king described the forest that had swallowed up his hunters as "haunted." A man who has difficulty establishing or maintaining his place in the world may well be haunted by a persistently negative image of manhood. If his idea of adult manhood is based upon an abusive or inept, dysfunctional father, he may well be reluctant to take on the role himself.
Having a dysfunctional father, or for too many men essentially no father at all, further complicates the general societal confusion as to just what constitutes a "real man." Male behavior is simplistically sorted into the categories of "macho" or "wimp." A man trying to avoid being the kind of sexist, oppressive tyrant so many women (and men) complain about runs the risk of being labeled, in Bly's term, a "soft male" (i. e. wimp). We lack a masculine middle ground. If we are to create a viable modern model of manhood, we must find a way whereby strength and gentleness, courage and realistic recognition of the limits of masculine power can come together in acknowledgment of the richly complex and contradictory mixture that is manhood.
We must also recognize that each man is an individual, made up for better or worse, of a unique blend of the many varied traits that make us human. There is no "right" way to be a human being. Neither is there any single model for manhood, no master plan fitting each and every male, no initiatory process that, correctly done, magically transforms boys into men. Only as adult men are able to recognize and honor the multitude of ways in which they are men will they be able to assist boys in finding and following their own unique paths towards manhood. Nowhere is this more important than in the relationship of father and son, the place where a boy encounters his first and, throughout his lifetime, most influential example of what it is to be male.
The father who would be a guide to his sons must be willing to face his own inner wilderness. A man who refuses to recognize the existence of the many strange creatures that live out beyond the bounds of common sense and safety, who ignores the dark and frightening things lurking in the depths of his soul, is no more help to the next generation than is the aggressive tyrant who acts out the wildness he so desperately seeks to control. The sons of both will be left to deal with the wild man as best they can.
And every man's son will eventually, consciously or unconsciously, come upon the wild man, the dark, unknown side of the masculine that his father, and his father's father, refused to acknowledge. No matter how firmly entrenched the tyrant's rule, no matter how tightly constricted, well protected, seemingly safe and secure the kingdom, the other, the rejected, despised, and ignored will always somehow find its way in.
In the Grimms story, the king's son was eight years old when his golden ball fell into the captive's cage and brought him face to face with the wild man. In almost all cultures, children of the little prince's age are taught the fundamental skills needed to become productive members of society. Teachers, parents, and other children all demand that the child master new tasks and situations. The child's experience in responding to these challenges is a key factor in establishing a lifelong sense of his social competence and ability to make a useful contribution to the world.(1)
At home with his parents providing a protective environment, a child can freely imagine the realm beyond his front door and his place there to be anything he chooses. But when the time comes for him to actually venture out, he often finds that life is quite different from what he expected. For a small child, the world can be a very large and unfriendly place in which he is very small indeed.
Coexistent with the urge to discover and master the unknown is a desire for return to the comfort of the familiar. For a child unready to meet demands for independent action, these conflicting tendencies can result in an apparent developmental standstill or even regression. Since masculine worth is customarily evaluated in terms of mastery and independence, the boy who has difficulty leaving home learns early in life to regard himself as "less than a man."
Conflict between independence and dependence is not limited to early childhood. Times of uncertainty and change often bring nostalgia for some far away, dimly remembered paradise in a time when struggle and anxiety were as yet unknown. At the core of this archetypal yearning is perhaps a dim, preconscious memory of very early childhood and the womb, a time when all needs were automatically met by a nurturing environment so well attuned to one as to seem part of oneself.(2)
Birth, physical separation from the perfect environment of the womb, begins a lifelong process of coming to terms with the distinction between oneself and others. Every phase of life, from the infant's first tentative recognition of the world about it through old age and dissolution of self in death, involves an archetypally based tension between desire for merger with an all sustaining other and the drive to be an individual, whole and complete in oneself. These seemingly mutually exclusive needs are actually two poles between which the process of individuation, the unfolding of the unique potential inherent in each of us, occurs. In a dynamic, ever changing lifelong process, each individual works out a unique compromise between these seemingly opposing forces. When independence and dependence are perceived to be complements rather than opposites, energy that would otherwise be bound up in endless conflict is released to become the driving force of a well-lived life. Rather than a struggle, life turns into a dance, moving now towards dependence, now towards independence, fixated on neither.
Both sexes, of course, face the challenge of finding a viable balance between independence and dependence. Women in our society are generally expected to be every bit as independent as men. However, traditionally a much greater degree of independence has been demanded of men. In the often hostile environment in which our race evolved, man as heroic protector, ready and willing to stand alone and, if need be, sacrifice himself in defense of women and children, was of vital importance to the survival of humanity. The ability to act independently, fearlessly, and aggressively while repressing feelings was of necessity a basic requirement for our distant male ancestors.
But modern urban life has few of the dangers that were immediate, everyday facts for our forefathers. Few contemporary men ever face anything more dangerous than a rush hour freeway commute, a setting in which traditional male traits such as aggression and fearlessness are dangerously maladaptive. Yet the old ways and expectations, as always, live on, shaping what we feel we should be and what we are. What boy or man has not at some time imagined himself as a hero fearlessly holding back the forces of evil as he sets right all that is wrong?
However, there are limits to heroism and a point beyond which the heroic attitude is self defeating. After the wild man's capture, the hunter was apparently not much help in furthering relations with the captive. In the modern world, the heroic technological conquest of the environment, while making our lives comfortable to a degree unimaginable only a few generations past, has ironically created an evil apparently greater than that which it banished. While the heroic attitude may well have made possible the survival of our species in times past, it is now represents the single greatest threat to the future of both ourselves and our planet.
Creation, the shaping and rearranging of primal material into something new, is the prototypical heroic deed. In mythic accounts, the state before creation is a unified, yet chaotic mass of infinite possibility. Chaos takes on definite form as the process of creation proceeds, and possibilities become limited by emergent form. Chaos, however, continues to exist with a hidden life of its own separate from the created realm. At any time chaos may reemerge to reduce form to original formlessness. The hero's task is to prevent such a catastrophe or, failing that, lessen its impact. But since creation has its source in chaos, some sort of ongoing contact with the unformed regions of infinite potential is a vital necessity for the continued well being of creation. If there is no channel open to the flow of creative energy from the other side, the ordered realm becomes lifeless and brittle, easily swept away when chaotic forces unexpectedly arrive on the scene.(3)
Like the king who thought that he had the wild man safely locked away, we like to think that we can control any and every threat to our orderly existence. We do our best to ignore the many indications that it might be otherwise, that there are some things that do not conform to our desire for a predictable, reasonable universe. But denial never renders a thing nonexistent. The non-rational and chaotic, the messy bits of life that refuse to fit neatly into the formulas by which we try to define what is real, turn up regularly in the unbelievable but real horrors we hear about in the news and, more mundanely, in the countless little horrors we daily perpetrate against ourselves as well as others.
Sometimes it takes a crisis, a breakdown in the usual way of being, to bring about recognition of the other side of things. New life and meaning rarely occur without dissolution of the old. Such an experience, full of chaos and confusion, is dangerous in its threat to the established order, but is also rich with possibility. Often the most difficult and chaotic times prove, in retrospect, to have been the most important.
In the Grimms' tale, the crisis began when the little prince's golden ball strayed into the wild man's cage. Seeking to regain his treasured ball, the boy entered forbidden, dangerous, and unknown territory. The wild man in his cage only seemed to have been brought under the king's control. While confinement may have constricted his domain, it had not curtailed his power. The wild man, not the king, ruled the space within the cage and everything that came into it. The boy's ball, following whatever natural laws governed its movements, left the realm of the king for that of the wild man, and its owner soon followed.
With the loss of his golden ball, the young prince also lost his golden boyhood. His privileged status as a royal child passing his days in carefree play about his father's palace was gone forever. In his encounter with the forbidden, devil like creature in the cage, the boy discovered another, much darker side of life. A frightening, fascinating darkness led him deep into the unknown.
Almost all cultures have a tradition of some sort of fall or decline from an original state of innocence, perfection, and wholeness. According to Judeo-Christian myth, the first humans lost their original innocence and perfection as a result of their disobedience to divine command. Gnostic Christians, declared heretics by the early Catholic Church, pondered the Genesis story and came down on the serpent's side. According to Gnostic theology, the creator, far from being the good, just, and all powerful being he claimed to be, was an ignorant and evil fallen minor deity. Inverting the traditional interpretation, the Gnostics claimed that the serpent was actually a savior sent to bring salvific knowledge of the real nature of the world and its maker.(4)
In both orthodox and heretical accounts, the pre-fall state was one of ignorance as well as innocence. Consciousness, the awareness of who and where one is, rests upon the ability to make distinctions, to be aware of the passage of time and the changes that it brings. In the eternity of Eden before the fall, none of this was apparent, for nothing changed. Only after eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil did Adam and Eve become aware of the constantly changing interplay of opposing, yet complementary forces - good and evil, light and dark, self and other - that, inextricably intertwined one with another, make up the human condition.
As in the Genesis account, the gaining of new knowledge, the opening to new ways of being, often follows a violation of established boundaries. Like the serpent lurking in the garden, a tempter of some sort, through a combination of seduction, guile, threats, and promises, urges the forbidden. He may be a trickster, like Coyote, Raven, or Rabbit in Native American stories, who never follows the rules. His utter disregard for the accepted principles of proper behavior often results in disaster. Yet the trickster is also a savior who brings new life, healing, and knowledge.(5)
Yielding to temptation, breaking through the rigidity of established norms, can be an important and liberating step on the way to finding one's own identity and way of life. It can also be confusing, frightening, and disillusioning. There is, of course, often genuine danger in attempting the forbidden which, after all, has likely been placed off limits for good reasons. For all the Grimm's little prince knew, the wild man might have eaten him for lunch. Beyond physical dangers, there may be even more serious psychological risks. A boy lacking a relatively secure, stable sense of self, and an awareness of the difference between constructive and destructive risk taking, can easily become addicted to the thrill of rule breaking for its own sake. Compulsively defying convention in the company of other young rebels, he establishes a pseudo-identity based primarily on what he is not, avoiding the more difficult question of who he really is.
The transformative power of an encounter with the shadow comes not through blindly following it to act out the forbidden, but from consciously engaging the challenge it presents to everyday morality. As anyone who has paid attention to his dreams knows, the unconscious is not governed by the considerations that govern actions in the outer world. The wild man, coming as he does from the same regions as dreams, likewise has little regard for the rules of daily life. If we are to have any hope of acquiring the treasure that he holds for us, we have to find some way to bridge the gulf between his world and ours. This, of course, is much easier said than done. When we sit down to bargain with the wild man, we come face-to-face with all the terrible ambiguities and moral dilemmas of the no man's land between the prescribed and the forbidden, the known and the unknown. It is here that the real struggle, the real work that leads to transformation, occurs.
Only after three long days of deliberation, bargaining, and, one imagines, deep inner turmoil, did the boy get the key from under his mother's pillow and open the cage door, receiving his golden ball in return. Even then the boy did not just stand by while the wild man made his escape. Following after him, the boy insisted that the wild man take some responsibility for the uncertain situation their bargain had left him in.
One could say, as those who insist on following "common sense" and doing "the right thing" often do, that the boy should have known better than to get into such a situation in the first place. If he had only stayed away from the wild man's cage, which he must have known was dangerous, his ball would not have come into the wild man's possession. Even when it did, the boy might have sought his parents' help. Then again, maybe he remembered the king's helplessness before the terror out in the forest, and knew that his father's authority had little weight in the regions into which his ball had strayed.
Whatever the reason, the boy dealt with the problem of his lost ball alone and, in so doing, discovered something that seemed to have eluded his elders. In his childish naiveté, not knowing that wild men are supposed to lack all human qualities, including understanding and speech, the prince asked the wild man for his ball. For the first time in the story, the wild man was spoken to and, in response, he for the first time spoke. For three days the boy and the wild man bargained. Then on the third day (for three is always a charm), the prince gave in, and boy and man were set free.
(1) Erik Erikson, Childhood and Society, 2nd. ed. (New York: W. W. Norton, 1963), pp. 258-260.
(2) Mario Jacoby, Longing For Paradise (Boston: Sigo, 1985).
(3) Mircea Eliade, Cosmos and History (New York: Harper & Row, 1959 ). David Maclagan, Creation Myths (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1977).
(4) Kurt Rudolph, Gnosis (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), pp. 94-102.
(5) Lewis Hyde, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1998).
©1999 James C. Moyers