FROM WILD MAN TO KING:
ANOTHER LOOK AT MALE MYTH AND INITIATION
By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT
OF GOLDEN HAIR, WILDFLOWERS, & FOOLISHNESS
Although no longer the stranger who had come to the palace door begging for a job, the boy had not exactly improved in social standing. Given his low status, strange refusal to remove his hat no matter what the circumstances, disgraceful dismissal from the royal kitchen, and unknown history, the boy may well have been regarded as some sort of undesirable eccentric. Not only had the former prince descended to the level of a common laborer, he had apparently also become a simpleton! In the usual course of things, the daughter of a king would have had nothing to do with such a lowly creature. It is no accident that the story has the princess one day in her room looking down upon the boy as he went about his tasks in the garden.
The princess' elevation no doubt served to set her apart from the more mundane world as well as from the boy in the garden. But, unlike some other fairy tale princesses, she had no need of a rescuing prince. It was more the other way around, as she ordered the boy up to her room. Unlike him, she seemed to be quite sure of who she was and what she wanted.
There are, of course, many women who while away their lives dreaming of the prince who will someday come to rescue them from their dreary lives. There are also more than a few men who long for the day when some princess will look down from her window and extend an invitation to (in the words of Mae West) "come up and see me sometime."
Unlike Rapunzel imprisoned in her remote forest tower or Snow White seemingly dead in her glass coffin in other Grimm tales, not all princesses separated from the world of ordinary mortals are the victims of some malevolent force. A shy boy, a prince only in his dreams, may so idealize a girl as to raise her, in his perception, to a position hopelessly beyond his reach.
"To love pure and chaste from afar" was the ideal of the Courtly Love tradition that swept through the royal courts of twelfth century Europe where the stories of the Grail and King Arthur were also created. According to rules devised by the women who ruled the Courts of Love, a knight was to devote himself to a lady, often the wife of his lord, in whose name his exploits would be done. But the lady, at least in theory, was to remain always above and beyond him. She became in effect a more or less divine being beyond the reach of any merely mortal man.(1)
But ideals are often one thing and reality another. This too is reflected in the old stories. The downfall of Camelot followed the consummation of the love between Lancelot and Guinevere, the queen of his lord and best friend, Arthur. In another tale from the Arthurian corpus, the young knight, Tristan, was given the task of conveying Iseult, the intended bride of his lord and uncle, to her wedding. But during the journey, Tristan and Iseult unwittingly drank a love potion intended for the wedding night. The resulting forbidden passion, along with the guilty couple's attempts to keep it secret, eventually brought about the ruin of just about everyone involved.
Logic and reason have little to do with romance. In spite of our best intentions to be fully aware of the choices we make, falling in love is not a conscious decision; it is more on the order of something that just happens. Try as we may to dismiss our infatuations as illusions, they refuse to leave us in peace. A man may believe that he is well beyond the age when romantic notions could make him behave like a love stricken fourteen year old. But then he catches a glimpse of the princess in the tower, and is hopelessly lost.
For the man who has serious difficulty separating fantasy and reality, who cannot give up the promise of transformation represented by the object of his fantasies, an unrequited infatuation can become a dangerous obsession. The woman he loves in vain is to him, at one and the same time, an angel with the power to save him if only she would and a demon who mercilessly torments him. Convinced that life without her is impossible, he may end by destroying her as well as himself.
Throughout the history of human culture, men have approached women with a great deal of ambivalence. On one hand women are idealized to the point of looking to them in hopes of salvation. On the other, women and the troublesome desires that arise in their presence often seem to represent a potential source of male damnation. Male fear of women is much more than a fear of sexuality. With roots in the male child's need to separate from his mother to prove himself a man, it is above all else a fear of the apparent ability of women to lure men away from their dutiful (and often dubious) allegiance to male values and the male establishment that defines their status as men.
Established standards of male behavior exalt the virtues of sane and sober responsibility. The ideal man is one who is always in charge of both himself and the situation. But men often do lose control. Sometimes they even make fools of themselves. Since so many of us seem to become fools (or even worse, swine, like Odysseus’ men in their encounter with Circe in the Odyssey) when in the presence of women, who better than women to blame for our follies? In the classic German film, "The Blue Angel," a staid bourgeois professor is utterly ruined through his infatuation with a cabaret singer who seductively toys with him. While few end up in as sad a state as the professor, reduced to playing the fool in a cabaret show, almost every man has at one time or another done something foolish in pursuit of sexual or romantic fantasy.
Appearing foolish is the last thing most men would freely choose to do. But foolishness is not necessarily a bad thing. In many myths the hero starts out as a naive fool who, completely unaware that he is doing anything wrong, innocently violates all the rules of acceptable behavior. According to some traditions, the Grail could only be found and the Wounded Fisher King healed by a perfectly innocent fool such as Parzival proved to be. By innocently ignoring the rules, foolishness opens the way for possibilities that adherence to the way things "should be, "and are, precludes. As a threat to the established order, foolishness is always condemned by the powers that be.
The attempt to conceal one's foolishness can itself prove foolish. Like the boy who kept his golden hair covered, fearing exposure of his shameful failure at the spring, a man may hide his real self for fear that he will be unmanned by disclosure of some "foolish" weakness. Maybe the gardener's boy, as he went about his work, sometimes imagined, with a mixture of hope and dread, what might happen should his real identity become known. But then the king's daughter, through what might seem to be mere coincidence, looked out of her window and saw what no one else had seen.
Overcome by the summer heat and thinking himself safe from observation, the gardener's boy paused to rest and take off his hat for a moment. The princess, perhaps lying on her bed in a fit of boredom such as princesses are sometimes subject to ("nothing ever happens in this castle!"), suddenly saw a flash of golden light. Jumping up to find its source, she saw not a lowly gardener's boy but a young man with the most radiantly beautiful golden hair she had ever beheld. The princess, like the royal personage she was, called out her window to the startled boy, ordering him to bring her some flowers.
Would-be lovers bring flowers to the women whose love they seek - was the princess telling the boy to court her? Was she so bedazzled by his hair that she failed to notice his dirty, bedraggled clothes or his humble station? What would her father have said about her inviting a menial male servant, particularly one he had banned from the royal presence, up to her bedroom? There may have been more than a little rebellion and the excitement of stepping over a boundary, as well as just plain foolishness, in the princess’ interest in the mysterious boy with the golden hair.
We tend to see in others what we find lacking in ourselves. Intrigued by a life so different from hers, a princess may fall in love with a gardener's boy, much to the angry bewilderment of all the princes who have been so eagerly competing for her attention. Beneath the humble appearance that everyone else takes at face value, she may see (or at least think she sees) a prince in disguise.
A woman may hope to save a man from the destructive effects of his personal and family history, certain that she will be able to bring out the potential that he himself is apparently unable to activate. This, of course, neatly dovetails with the desire of many a man for a mother-lover to perform the impossible task of making him into "a real man," while simultaneously fulfilling his every need. But no man bound to a maternal figure, whether his actual mother or her stand-in, will ever sense himself to be entirely a man, no more than the unfortunate woman to whom he is attached will feel capable of being her own woman.
Almost all relationships involve some degree of co-dependency with one partner's problematic behavior finding support in that of the other. If a couple is willing and able to wrestle with this difficult dynamic, it has the potential for transforming them both. The gardener's boy can reclaim his disavowed specialness while assuming responsibility for his own life. The princess learns about the value of ordinary things like wildflowers, and gardener's boys who may never be princes in anyone's eyes but hers.
The princess was perhaps foolish in the risk she took in bringing the gardener's boy up to her room. Beyond the fact of his enchanting golden hair, she knew nothing about him or what he might do. Still, she remained firmly in charge of the situation, making him come up to her rather than going down to him. Assertive women may sometimes frighten men, but a man relatively secure in his masculinity will find a woman's clear expression of power that is legitimately hers attractive.
The surprised boy, possibly unaware of the princess’ existence until the moment of her command to him, quickly covered up his head and gathered some wildflowers. But on the way up to the princess’ room, he met the gardener who was appalled to find the boy taking up a bunch of ordinary wildflowers such as any peasant might have picked from the roadside. The youth's insistence that the princess preferred such flowers probably only added to the gardener's suspicion that his young assistant was affected by something much more serious than mere simple mindedness.
But the boy knew the value of wild things. The gardener had probably never met a wild man, let alone served an apprenticeship, however brief, to one. The gardener's time was spent nurturing carefully cultivated, intentionally planted things. In his estimation wildflowers were weeds to be eliminated when they sprang up in his garden, and of no interest whatsoever in their natural habitat.
Perhaps it was the gardener, not the boy, who was the fool. At any rate, the youth took his wildflowers on up to the princess. But once he was in her room, it quickly became apparent that she was interested in something other than flowers, whether cultivated or wild.
As her father had done, she ordered the boy to take off his hat in her royal presence. And, as he had done with the king, the boy refused to bare his head. But she had seen what her father had not, and knew that the boy's head was far from being the disgusting sight that he claimed it was. Before he knew what was happening, she grabbed his hat and uncovered his golden hair. He fled, but not before she forced some golden coins into his hand. Caring "nothing for gold, "the youth gave the coins to the gardener as playthings for his children, no doubt furnishing further proof of his craziness in the gardener's perception.
"Iron Hans" being a folk tale and thus bound to the rule of threefold repetition, the drama between the princess and the gardener's boy was acted out two more times. But the boy, apparently now a faster learner than he had been at the golden spring, managed to dodge the princess’ second and third attempts to expose him. He was determined to keep the golden mark of his failure hidden; she was almost as determined to see it. She lured him up to her room in an attempt to uncover his secret, and then seemingly tried to bribe him. He refused to show her what she wanted to see, and found no value in her gold. But still he took flowers up at her bidding.
If the genders were reversed, with a prince luring a servant girl up to his room to expose her in some way after which he pressed money on her, the obvious interpretation would be that this was an attempted seduction or even rape. The prince would be condemned for taking advantage of a poor girl whose resistance would be admired. But what are we to make of a princess who tries to seduce a gardener's boy or, perhaps even more puzzling, his refusal of her? No doubt there were many young men in the kingdom who would have willingly paid almost any price to gain access to the princess. Yet here was a young man, poverty stricken with no apparent hopes for improving his lowly position, who not only rebuffed the princess but had no use for her money.
Clear and direct communication about sexual attraction and desire is exceedingly rare. Sometimes it seems as if the object of courtship is not so much to love as to defeat the other. Adding to the confusion attendant on most affairs of the heart (affairs that also involve other, even more problematic aspects of the human anatomy) is the degree to which we become unconscious, losing sight of our own best interests and intentions, when struck by the arrows of Eros. Many a man, and woman, has known at first hand the truth of Shakespeare's line: "Man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love."(2)
Inexperience in romance combined with sexual frustration can hold a man back from availing himself of the usual ritualized subterfuges of seduction. Acting on mistaken assumptions, he may ignorantly rush in without regard for either the situation or the wishes of his intended lover. The man who rides roughshod over a woman's feelings may be in fact more naive than ill intended.
Having just left his mother, hoping to find the Court of Arthur and become a knight, Parzival or "Simplicity's Child," as Wolfram titles him, came upon a half nude woman asleep in a tent. Knowing nothing of male-female relations beyond his mother's advice of "whenever you can win a good woman's ring and greeting, take them. . . . You must haste to kiss her and clasp her tight in your embrace," Parzival tried to do just that with "this marvel of uttermost desire." After clumsily embracing and kissing her, he took a ring from the terrified woman. Then he went on his way, cheerfully ignorant of having done any wrong or of the difficult situation in which he had left the woman with her jealous husband.(3)
Naiveté can also hold a man back where his advance would be welcomed. Sometime after his encounter with the woman in the tent, having managed in the meanwhile to become a knight, Parzival came upon the castle of a most sad maiden queen. Having been "cured of his simplicity" by his knightly mentor who had "counseled him against questions," Parzival "sat there with that noble queen without opening his mouth to speak a word," much to the queen's discomfort and confusion.
That night, wearing what Wolfram delightfully describes as "raiment of combat" - a sheer nightgown - the queen came to kneel weeping at Parzival's bedside. As his mother had taught him that it was proper to kneel only to God, Parzival, apparently still somewhat simple, told the sobbing woman to arise and join him in bed. With Parzival carefully lying on the other side of the bed, the queen requested his help in averting a grave threat to her and her kingdom. Being a good knight, Parzival the next day met and vanquished her enemy. The couple spent another night together, and again Parzival "left the queen a maiden." Not until the third night did he recall his mentor's description of man and wife as one, as well as his mother's admonition (which had caused so much trouble before) to embrace women. "And so they entwined arms and legs . . . . and he found the closeness sweet ."(4)
Perhaps the most basic of the many standards by which men judge the masculinity of other men is that of sexual potency. The traditonal proclivity of males to boast about their conquests is notorious. This is particularly true in adolescence when a boy's masculine identity, especially when challenged by his equally uncertain peers, is still very tenuous. A young man who does not brag at least a little about his sexual exploits is apt to be poorly regarded by his fellows; a youth who fails to even attempt a conquest when he has the chance is likely to be considered a fool or worse by his more aggressive peers. In their world, no healthy and sane male ever passes up the opportunity to "get some."
For the women who find him attractive, the unresponsive man, like Parzival with the maiden queen and the gardener's boy with the princess, presents a puzzle, and perhaps a challenge. He may himself only feel tremendously frustrated by his apparent inability to act on opportunities that he allows himself to recognize as such only in retrospect. While some will see in him, like the Bible's Joseph spurning Potiphar's wife(5), a model of proper behavior, his restraint may well be due to something other than adherence to a strict moral code.
Human behavior springs more from archetypal predisposition than moral ideals. Intimate relationship requires the exposure of one's most private self, and yet we have an inherent reluctance to expose ourselves, as is literally expressed in the near universal association of nakedness and shame. Even more potentially shameful than physical nakedness is the psychological nudity without which there can be no real intimacy. No matter how well we hide those parts of ourselves that we want no one to see, being truly intimate means that sooner or later we will be revealed as who we really are.
We both long for and fear such an exposure. We so much want to be accepted for who we are, and fear that we will be found shamefully unworthy of acceptance. We desire to be known, and are afraid of what might become known. Our fear is not so much of the other as it is of what the other might see in us. As with any potentially transformative experience, intimate relationship "is not comfortable and harmonious; rather it is a place of individuation where a person rubs up against himself and against his partner, bumps up against her in love and in rejection, and in this fashion learns to know himself, the world, good and evil, the heights and the depths."(6) Resistance to intimacy is in its essence resistance to the potential pain of such an encounter.
While both sexes resist intimacy, they tend to do it in different ways. Cultural conditioning makes it relatively easy for a woman to assume the role of nurturer. At first glance, nurturing might appear to be anything but an avoidance of intimacy. But a woman continually focused on her partner's needs is not likely to have her own exposed.
Men are generally well trained from an early age in the techniques of concealing their real selves behind a facade of rationality and emotional distance. The mysterious stranger, as a romanticized ideal, appears in countless myths, novels (including romance novels whose female authors and readers do their part in maintaining male stereotypes), and films. Many men try to live up to this expectation by being mysteries even to themselves. The man who responds to the stereotypical psychotherapeutic inquiry of "What are you feeling?" with "I don’t know" or "I think . . . ." may truly be unaware of his feelings or lack the vocabulary to describe them. If he believes, as do most men on an unconscious level, that being masculine means being always in control, emotional detachment will seem almost as essential an aspect of his manhood as his genitals. Asking such a man to freely express his emotions may well be experienced as the symbolic equivalent of a request that he castrate himself.
In the early stages of therapy the therapist may have to acknowledge a man's emotional life for him. In intimate relationship this part is usually played by a partner who, on a mostly unconscious level, bears the burden of his emotions along with her own. But fewer women these days are willing to serve as emotional nursemaids to men who evade responsibility for their own inner lives. A woman's steadfast refusal to nurture without being herself nurtured in turn can mark the beginning of a painful, but ultimately rewarding change for her mate as well as herself.
The initial relationship, like many beginning relationships, of the princess and the gardener's boy was an ambiguous one. Perhaps the gardener's boy was foolish in not valuing the princess and her gold. Then again, maybe he was wise. The story leaves us to draw our own conclusions. In any case, he continued to be an intriguing mystery to her and, while the story says nothing about it, we may well imagine that he found himself from time to time thinking of her and her room.
(1) Freidrick Heer, The Medieval World (New York: Penguin, 1962), pp. 32-55, 157-196
(2) Much Ado About Nothing, II, iii, 8-9
(3) Wolfram Von Eschenbach, Parzival (trans., Helen M. Mustard & Charles E. Passage) (New York: Vintage Books, 1961), pp. 73-77.
(4) ibid. pp. 103-111
(5) Genesis 39
(6) Adolf Guggenbuhl-Craig, Marriage Dead Or Alive (Dallas: Spring Publications, 1977), p. 61.
©1999 James C. Moyers