FROM WILD MAN TO KING:
ANOTHER LOOK AT MALE MYTH AND INITIATION
By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
Life's most important events often occur when least expected, with little indication at the time of how important they will eventually prove to be. A chance encounter, a turn down a wrong street, the random bounce of a ball can suddenly and forever alter the course of a life. For the prince, merrily going about his play with no inkling of what was to come, the adventure started when he followed his straying golden ball to a meeting with the most unlikely of mentors.
Once out of the cage, the wild man kept his half of the bargain and returned the boy's ball. For a moment it seemed as if the problems of both wild man and boy had been resolved. But then the boy realized that there would be serious consequences when the king came home to find the empty cage. Rather than risk his parents’ anger, the boy decided to take his chances with the strange man from the woods. From the perspective of the king and the queen, the wild man was a most dangerous creature. But the prince, in his childish innocence, was not bound by his parents preconceptions. Approaching the wild man as a fellow human rather than the monster the king and queen believed him to be, appealing to his kindness, the boy found in him a mentor and an ally.
The wild man had no evil intentions. He was not even interested in turning the prince into a fellow wild man. Once in the forest, the boy was not made to beat a drum, perform an ecstatic dance, or do any of the other "wild" things some men seem to think are essential to male initiation. Far from encouraging a display of wildness, the wild man demanded a demonstration of the boy's ability to be still, to control the naturally restless energy of youth. The boy was led to a spring where life giving waters, "bright and clear as crystal," welled up from somewhere deep within the earth. Traditionally, springs are magical places where anything at all can and does happen. Visions of strange and wonderful things regularly appear in their waters. But underground streams, even when pure as gold, are never completely isolated from the world above. If not carefully protected, the water of life can turn into a deadly poison.
The boy's assigned duty was to sit quietly by the spring, watching to make sure it remained uncontaminated. For a while, all went well as he let nothing fall into the water. From time to time he caught a glimpse of the golden creatures to which the water gave life. But then one of those things that in retrospect should never have occurred happened.
In opening the wild man's cage, the boy had pinched his finger. In the excitement of the moment, the injury was probably overlooked. Besides, everyone knows that "real men "never let anyone, including themselves, know about their pain. But a day later the finger, likely by then swollen and throbbing, was very painful. Instinctively the boy plunged it into the spring's cold water. Quickly realizing what he had done, he jerked the finger out. But it was too late. The spring was contaminated, and his injured finger had become golden.
Plunging a swollen member into pure waters in hope of finding relief has unmistakable sexual connotations. The association of penis and finger requires no great imaginative leap - boys sometimes delight in shocking others by waving a finger through their open fly. The possession of fingers and a penis is, from boyhood on, a continual source of wonderment, pleasure, and pain.
The most basic and direct sense of self is physical. We are first and foremost flesh and blood beings bounded by an exquisitely sensitive surface of skin. A man's most direct experience of himself as male is a bodily based sense of his ability to stand tall, take the initiative, and push on through. Being as it is "not very nice, "this phallic self is for the most part relegated to the unconscious, and hence often a source of trouble. Purely phallic masculinity is grandiose and narcissistic. Focused solely on itself, driven by an urgent need to quickly reach its goal regardless of cost, it relates to people and the environment only as they serve to further its own ends. If not constrained, raw phallic masculinity would, as it often has, plunge society into chaos. But in initiatory experience it is tempered and shaped so as to constructively serve, rather than destroy society.
The central ordeal of many initiatory rituals is circumcision. Deliberate wounding of the most obvious indicator of the initiate's masculinity marks his movement from boy to man. The altered penis becomes an outward mark of a necessary inner wounding of youthful phallic grandiosity, a lifelong proof and reminder of the expectation that he be willing to sacrifice his needs to those of the community.
Even when unmarked by formal rites of passage, puberty is itself a process of initiation. Physical changes, some for the better, some for the worse, bring a changed perception of oneself. Sexual maturity creates new possibilities for delight and torment. For most teenage boys, sex is an almost constant obsession. Try as he might to banish forbidden fantasies and control his actions, a boy's attention is repeatedly drawn to his all too often swollen member and its insistent demand for relief. Throughout his life, his penis - erect at inconvenient times, limp and useless when he most needs its power - is a constant reminder that there are some very basic aspects of his being over which he has very little control.
For a shy, repressed boy, inwardly seething with lust that he is not supposed to feel, let along express, the mere existence of his sexual interest can be a shameful secret. Fearing that his fantasies will be exposed for all the world to see, he may avoid as best he can all situations that have even a remote possibility of becoming sexual. Only in compulsive, secret, and shame filled masturbatory fantasy does he find momentary relief. But almost immediately, relief gives way to the guilt and shame of once again having failed to control his secret urges. Always he fears discovery and, like the boy at the spring concealing his golden finger, does his best to hide all evidence of his obsession.
While sexuality is an important part of every boy's transition to manhood, it would be a serious mistake to reduce the prince's experience at the spring to "just sex" (as if anything so richly complex as sex could be so described!). A phallic symbol is much more than a penis; a pool or spring is much more than a symbolic womb or vagina. In addition to their physical resemblance, a penis and a finger are alike in being instruments of power, penetration, and creation. The rhythmic rubbing of masturbation resembles the repeated friction that produces fire, the creative act that perhaps first set humanity apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.(1) Some creation myths describe a divine masturbatory act as the beginning of the world.(2) While it can be a refuge from the difficulties of real intimate relationships, masturbation is creative in its potential for generating a rich inner world of fantasy. In fantasy the many possibilities, sexual or otherwise, presented by life can be safely explored. As one quietly watches, there appear, beneath the surface ripples and reflections, shinning images of what might be, and uneasy questions about what is. While most fantasies never see the light of day, some eventually emerge to be realized as a vital part of who one is.
The golden creatures and reflections the watching boy saw in the spring resemble the golden dreams of youth. For a boy discovering his ability to penetrate and engage the world, nothing seems impossible. Where others have failed, he will succeed. No doubt there will someday be for him a golden princess, a perfect image of womanhood to match his perfectly realized manhood.
But it is one thing to see possibilities, and another to make them realities. No matter what one does, no matter how great the degree of one's success, there always seems to be a gap between life as envisioned and life as lived. While many a young person has been dismayed by the discrepancy between his daydreams and actual life, maturity brings recognition of the fact that success in life does not consist in the realization of every fantasy. But the road from youthful dreams to mature realities is for most people a long and often painful one.
At the end of the boy's first day at the spring, the Grimms' tale, in an abrupt, seemingly unconscious manner, as if it had somehow been known all along, for the first time uses the wild man's proper name. Up to that point he is referred to simply as "the wild man," the generic representative of a type. As "Iron Hans," the wild man becomes a particular individual with a specific name that sets him apart from other wild men.
The "Iron" of his name most obviously refers to the wild man's rusty brown color. But, like all symbols, a name can carry a multitude of meanings. The word, "iron," may refer to the metal itself, its particular properties, or certain objects made from it. Iron is considered a base metal, but is of great value in the many uses to which it can be put. Although sometimes representative of evil, iron is also said to guard against it.(3)
The German name, "Hans," is both the diminutive form of Johannes and a generic term for a man. Perhaps "Jack," as in the "Everyman Jack" of English folklore and slang, would be a better translation than Bly's "John." The wild man's name combines the ambiguous nature of iron - at once base and precious, good and evil, capable of furthering either war or peace - with plain everyday Hans. Iron Hans is Everyman, with all the complex, ambivalent potential for exaltation, degradation, and the ordinary present in each of us, and hence the perfect mentor for the prince.(4)
Following the usual fairy tale rule of three, Iron Hans gave the boy two more opportunities after his initial failure at the spring. On the second day, all seemed to be going well. Then the boy, once again without thinking, ran his painful finger through his hair. A hair dropped into the water and, like his straying finger, became golden.
On the third day, the boy managed to keep his injured, now golden finger under control. But then, in one of the most beautiful images in the story, he became entranced by his own reflection in the water. Trying to look into his own eyes, as if to peer into his very soul, the boy bent over closer and closer to the golden image of himself. Unlike Narcissus in Greek myth who drowned in the reflecting pool, the boy was released from his self absorption before it was too late. As he leaned down, his long hair suddenly fell over his shoulders and splashed into the water. The reflected image broke into ripples, and the spell was broken. The boy jumped back in alarm, but once more consciousness came too late. His hair had turned to gold that glittered like the sun itself. For the third and final time the boy had failed the test. He tried to cover up the golden mark of his failure, but Iron Hans knew what had happened.
Traditional initiations usually make little or no allowance for individuals who fail the test. A boy who does not perform as expected (if he in fact survives, for failure sometimes means death) is a humiliating embarrassment to both himself and his family. But failure is something that everyone, at some time or another, experiences. Ashamed of his inability to do what was expected of him, a man may turn away, like the boy sent out after his failure by Iron Hans to "learn what it is to be poor," to what seems to be his miserable lot in life. But in the shame of his failure, perhaps, like the boy's golden hair, in the very marks it leaves upon him, there may be something of immense value, the significance of which will be realized only after he has traveled much farther along the difficult path that lies before him.
While the need to hide a pathologically shamed self can severely impair one's ability to effectively interact with the world, an appropriate sense of shame is vital to social functioning. To be shameless, without regard for the generally accepted limits of self centered behavior, is rightly considered the worst of social sins. Without the ability to be shamed, to sense that some things are beyond the parameters of acceptable behavior, it would be impossible for any group of people to live together for very long.
The experience of shame is associated with the loss of ignorance as well as of innocence - Adam and Eve knew no shame until they tasted the forbidden fruit that expanded their awareness so that they became “like gods . . . knowing good and evil.”(5) While pathological shame produces hopelessness, healthy shame can push us on to realize our hopes. As with any increase in knowledge, the realization that one has fallen short of expectations has the potential to be either disillusioning or enlightening. Often it is both, although the enlightenment may be a long time in coming.
In the Grail story, at the apparent peak of his knightly success, Parzival was honored at a feast given by King Arthur. But, just as the celebration got under way, it was interrupted by the arrival of a most hideous woman astride a bedraggled mule. Riding into the midst of Arthur's Court, she bitterly denounced Parzival, revealing to all his failure in not having asked about the suffering of the King at the Grail Castle.
Parzival was devastated. "What help to him now was his brave heart, his manliness, his true breeding? Still, another virtue was his, a sense of shame. . . . Shame brings honor as reward and is the crown of the soul. The sense of shame is a virtue above all others."(6) Utterly overwhelmed by the shame ironically and wisely described as his only remaining strength, Parzival left the Court of Arthur vowing to "know no joy" until he once again saw the Grail.
Shame is a central male experience. Manhood, not being a natural state (for "men are made, not born") and lacking in definite criteria, is subject to continual challenge and proof. When a man fails to meet the challenge, whatever it may be construed to be , when he cannot furnish satisfactory proof of his manliness, he feels the shame of being "less than a man." Lacking any clear social consensus on just what constitutes manhood, most men, most of the time, have a vague suspicion that they are lacking some essential masculine quality, and that their way of being male may at any moment be exposed as shamefully inadequate.
Impotence, being the inverse of masculine prowess, often seems like the most shameful thing that can happen to a man. But, as many a man has learned to his regret, indiscriminate display of phallic potency can bring shame equal to or greater than that of the inability, literal or symbolic, to use his phallus. Exhibitionism and impotence, being two sides of one coin, are always linked. The exhibitionist's worst fears often come true when the psyche's natural tendency towards balance acts to check his overextended potency. So it was when the Grail King, with the bold cry of "Amor," rode out in pursuit of knightly conquest only to be castrated.
There are other men who, far from being exhibitionists, seem to be hopelessly stuck in a state of impotence with their only apparent ambition being one of getting through life without being noticed. But beneath most failures to engage the world lurk secret visions of the superman one might be if only things were a little bit different. Unconsciously convinced that his masculinity, judged by the impossibly high standards of his heroic fantasies, will be found lacking, such a man avoids as best he can any challenge of it in the real world.
Traditional initiation is a carefully controlled, artificially induced experience of shame. To stand exposed before peers and elders, admitting to one's ignorance and need for instruction, to willingly submit to painful and humiliating ordeals at the hands of others, is to face shame and learn from it. A man constrained by fears that any action on his part will shamefully reveal his less than adequate masculinity is not an initiated man. So too is the shameless man who recognizes no limits to his grandiose display of potency. Through initiation one learns, often in the most painful way, to respect shame without being overwhelmed by it. Shame becomes a guide rather than an enemy.
No matter what process may be revived or invented to guide them, modern initiates will never be finished products, with their manhood and place in society securely established to the degree that we imagine occurs in more traditional cultures. Initiation into a culture as complex as ours is of necessity an ongoing, lifelong process. The test at the golden spring was only one of many stages of the initiation that started with the boy's pursuit of his straying ball. Failure, and the shame which accompanied it, is a vital part of the process.
Had the boy succeeded in his task, he presumably would have remained in the forest with Iron Hans. Perhaps he would have become the permanent guardian of the spring, and spent the rest of his life beside it. Some boys never leave the spring in the forest. Well into adulthood and middle age they are still seated at the water's edge, gazing intently into the depths, entranced by the beautiful creatures and golden reflections that appear there. They dream many wonderful dreams of what might be, but never touch or disturb their golden fantasies. The water remains pristine, and its gold never becomes theirs.
To realize his potential, the boy had to fail the test. Seemingly no longer a prince, he was sent away, apparently without a friend or possession in the world, to "learn what it is to be poor." But he took with him Iron Hans’ promise of help should he ever need it and, carefully hidden away under his hat, the golden mark of his redemptive failure at the spring.
(1) C G. Jung, Symbols of Transformation (in Collected Works Vol. 5), (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976 [1911-12/1952]), pars. 180-192, 329-332.
(2) R. T. Rundle Clark, Myth and Symbol in Ancient Egypt (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1978), pp. 42. Stella Kranrisch, The Presence of Sįva (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), pp. 3 ff., 100-101, 370.
(3) J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (New York: Thames & Hudson, 1978), pp. 88, 105. Maria Leach & Jerome Fried (eds.), Funk and Wagnall's Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology, and Legend (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1972 ), p. 528.
(4)Harold T. Betteridge (ed.), Cassell's German-English/English-German Dictionary (New York: Macmillian, 1978), p. 182. William Morris (ed.) The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1980), p. 691.
(5) Genesis 3:5, 22.
(6) Wolfram von Eschenbach, Parzival, trans: Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage (New York: Vintage Books 1961) p. 172.
©1999 James C. Moyers