By Jim Moyers, MA, MFT



At a loss as to who had saved his kingdom, the king proclaimed a three day festival. As a high point of the festivities, the princess was to throw out a golden apple to an assembled, group of knights.  Since the unknown hero had already proven himself superior to the other knights of the realm, it was assumed that he would be the one who caught the apple, thus revealing his identity.

The contest, as a means for obtaining otherwise inaccessible knowledge, was a form of divination.  Whether involving a test of skill, as in our tale, or elaborate consultation of oracles, divination is based upon the belief that there is no such thing as chance.  Behind every event, great or small, it is assumed that there is some hidden directive process at work.  The goal of traditional divination is not so much to gain control over such transpersonal forces as to come into alignment with them.  Life generally goes well when attuned to the powers that govern its fate, and poorly when they are ignored.

Whatever their actual ability to control the patterns, chaotic or otherwise, that mark their lives, most men have an ingrained belief that they should be "captains of their fate," heroically following a well charted course through the sea of life no matter what storms they may encounter.  The man who wanders off course, or worse fails to set and follow any course at all, is condemned as lacking the most essential qualities of manhood.

But life is not a journey from one given point to another.  It more resembles a voyage of discovery with the exact route and destination unknown.  Anyone who ventures into unexplored territory, which of course every life is, must be ready to alter his plans in response to what he encounters there.  A life rigidly governed by preset plans is no more likely to succeed than is the life driven entirely by chance.

Paradoxically, a man's belief that he can and should direct every aspect of his life may keep him from finding any direction at all.  Overwhelmed by the sheer impossibility of achieving the perfect control he believes he must, a man governed by such a belief will tend to feel inadequate to every task that comes his way.  Unconsciously convinced that any assumption of responsibility is doomed to end in failure, he becomes quite proficient in avoiding the burdens of life.  At the same time he feels hopelessly weighted down by his existence in a world that seems to have no place or use for him.

A man's difficulties in assuming responsibility for himself can often be linked to an absent, whether physically or emotionally, father.  Children idealize parents, endowing them with godlike power and goodness, even when realities are very different.  Without a real and involved parent with whom to compare and contrast the idealized parental image, abandoned children often feel, on some mysterious but very real level, that they are to blame for a parent's absence.  If they had been better sons, perhaps their fathers would have stayed around.  As adults, they continue to condemn themselves for the same reasons that they imagine their fathers rejected them.   Mistakenly assuming responsibility that was never rightfully theirs in the first place, they come to believe that they are inherently inadequate to the responsibilities that do belong to them.

The rage and grief of a man abandoned by his father can be immense.  Expressing anger towards the father who went away, mourning a loss that went so long unrecognized can be a wonderfully liberating step towards leaving the past behind.  But, as with any developmental stage, one can get stuck in it.  Some abandoned sons never move beyond identification of themselves as victims of their absent fathers and, by extension, an uncaring patriarchal society.  Caught up in a past that can never be undone, they overlook the things that need their attention in the here and now.

But the man who is truly fortunate in his ability to see things as they are moves through and beyond his pain to ask what happened to the father who should have been there and was not.  In the course of searching for the facts of his father's life, he often discovers his own identity in the life that he, and no one else, must live. The wounded son becomes a man, and the man becomes a hero.

Luke Skywalker, a sort of naive country boy at the beginning of the original Star Wars trilogy, could have refused to follow the adventure that "just happened" to come his way.  He might have excused himself on the grounds that he had no father to initiate him, and hence no way of knowing how to be the kind of man able to rescue a princess and save the galaxy.  Parzival too might have remained in the forest with his mother, resenting the lack of anyone to give him a ride to Arthur's Court.  But instead, both boys set off for the unknown, following their fated course to the discovery and redemption of their true selves.  In the process they also found, and in some ways redeemed, their missing fathers.

It takes a good deal of faith, and perhaps even a bit of naiveté and foolishness, to follow after opportunity when it comes along.  A man may have nothing beyond his own wavering intuition to guide him as he heads off into the unknown, taking a leap of faith that, for all he knows, could be a plunge to disaster.  Parzival had no inkling of what lay beyond the paradise in which his mother sought to keep him.  Luke Skywalker had no assurance that any good would come from answering the princess’ mysterious distress call.

The gardener's boy had only the untried word of Iron Hans to support him in his declared intention of going to war.  Probably there would have been no objection made had he remained in the garden, quietly daydreaming about heroic deeds while everyone else went out to the battle.  He might have done the same during the festival, safeguarding his fantasies by remaining hidden, and no one would have been the wiser.  But instead, he took his chances and went out to the forest's edge to once again put Iron Hans, as well as himself, to the test.

Although he had saved the kingdom, the boy seemed intent on remaining unnoticed and unknown.  After the rout of the enemy,  he probably would have been given anything he asked for had he only made his identity known.  But, except for dropping of a few hints on apparently deaf ears, he kept his heroic deed a carefully guarded secret.  Yet he joined in the contest to catch the golden apple.  Three times he caught the golden apple and two, almost three, times he escaped discovery.

There is often some degree of mystery about the hero.  The actual men behind hero tales tend to disappear into the legends that grow up around them.   Since the role is archetypal, heroes are of necessity larger than life.  So long as the hero's real identity and personality remain unknown, he seems to embody the idealized image projected onto him.  No one looks upon him as just another man.

The superheroes of comic book fame are super by virtue of their hidden identity.   Lois Lane's feelings about Superman might be quite different if she knew of his secret link to Clark Kent. While Superman is every woman's dream, the inept Clark is more an object of good natured pity.  Superman can do almost anything.  Anything that is except have a personal relationship.  No woman ever gets close enough to see the man behind the hero.  Desired by every woman, accessible to none, his is a most comfortable position for a man who is uneasy with intimacy.  It is also a very lonely one.

In the comic book saga, the link between Superman and Clark Kent is rarely suspected.  Likewise, almost no one associated the lowly gardener's boy on the three-legged horse with the mysterious knight who arrived just in time to save the kingdom or the one who caught the golden apple.  Only the princess, who alone knew what the boy had hidden under his hat, suspected the truth.  But while the disguised prince seemed intent on keeping his identity hidden, he also repeatedly risked exposure.

Like the gardener's boy waiting for someone to see through his disguise, we both long for and fear being known, not for what we appear to be, but for who we really are.  Yet many people, women as well as men, fear intimacy even more than they do loneliness.  The very possibility of love is a challenge to their habitually constricted sense of self.  Pushing away the very thing they most desire and need, they dismiss love as an illusion capable of bringing nothing but pain.  They are not entirely wrong in their perception, for love, like anything worthwhile, always brings with it the painful possibility of its loss.

In catching the princess' golden apples while continuing to frustrate the king's attempts to discover his identity, the youth seemingly sought to have his cake and eat it too .  The golden apple is an ambiguous symbol.  Since the Latin word for apple also means "evil," Christian tradition assumed that the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil bore apples.  As the forbidden fruit, apples came to symbolize sin.  But in the hand of Christ or the Virgin, an apple also represents the plan of salvation that the fact of sin - "the happy fault" as it has been theologically termed - made both necessary and possible.   Like the ball that fell into the wild man's cage, apples are spherical and thus symbolic of wholeness.  Apples are associated with sin, desire and death, as well as love, fertility, and joyfulness.  Offering an apple is traditionally regarded as a declaration of love.(1)  It can also bring strife, as did the golden apple that indirectly led to the Trojan War.

According to Greek mythology, the goddess Strife was not invited to an Olympian wedding.  Angered by the slight, she threw a golden apple into the midst of the wedding party.  Finding that the apple was inscribed, "For the Fairest," Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite disrupted the celebration with an argument over which of them it was meant for.  Intervening in the dispute, Zeus sent the goddesses to Paris of Troy, the most handsome of mortal men, for his judgment as to their relative beauty.  Aphrodite won Paris' favor by bribing him with a promise of the most beautiful woman in the world.  As Aphrodite triumphantly carried off the golden apple proclaiming her supreme beauty, Paris, cursed by the losing goddesses, set out to lure Helen away from her Greek husband, and unwittingly start the war in which Paris and his fellow Trojans would perish.

The princess' golden apples were in appearance much like the golden ball that the boy lost and then regained in his bargain with the wild man.  The story says nothing about the ball after it was returned to the boy.  Perhaps he took it with him as he journeyed from palace to forest and then out into the wide world, the palace kitchen and garden.  Or maybe the golden sphere was lost somewhere along the way only to reappear, as is often the case in myth and dreams, multiplied threefold in the golden apples.

On each of the three days of the festival, the gardener's boy went out to the edge of the forest to be transformed, through Iron Hans' gift of horse and armor, into the mysterious knight.  On the first day his horse and armor were red, on the second white, and on the last day they were black.  Any number of associations can be made to these colors.   One of the most obvious for anyone versed in Jung's writings on the psychological meaning of alchemical symbolism would be the colors of the three stages of alchemy.   But the successive colors of the youth's horses and armor reverse the usual alchemical sequence.(2)

Each stage of life has its own unique process.  Alchemy, and its psychological counterpart of the inner journey, is regarded by Jung as representing the process of a mature individual who, already established in the world, discovers a deeper reality.  The process depicted in "Iron Hans", being that of a young man finding his place in the world, is perhaps better understood as a reductive one, moving like a consuming fire through successive stages of red hot, white hot, and finally cold black ash, the kind of experience every young hot bloodied male ego needs to pass through with his youthful grandiosity tempered and reduced to manageable proportions by the fires of reality.

Gold was the object of the alchemist's labors, yet the youth apparently had little use for it.  He gave away the gold coins that the princess had forced upon him when he visited her room.  One might have assumed that he went to catch the golden apples to prove his heroic identity.  After all, disclosure of the mystery knight's identity was the stated objective of the festival.  But the point of the contest was apparently missed by the youth as he showed his prizes to no one except the gardener's children.

The young man's experience with gold had so far not been particularly good.  Attachment to the golden ball led to his exile from home.  From the golden spring, where his finger and hair had turned to gold, he had been further exiled into what appeared to be sure and utter ruin.  Perhaps he had good reason for his disregard of generally accepted values.  As the more perceptive alchemists insisted, alchemical gold is not the ordinary gold treasured by the worldly wise.  Insistent on following his own idiosyncratic process, the youth honored neither the princess’ gold nor her father's authority.  But eventually he had to come to terms with both.

On the third and final day of the festival in "Iron Hans", the outraged king determined to put an end to the mysterious knight's continued defiance of royal authority.  The king's men were ordered to bring back, by force if necessary, the man who caught the golden apple.  The stranger still managed to escape, but not before his leg was wounded and, much to the astonishment of all who saw it, his wonderful golden hair exposed to view.

The wound by which one is known is an element in many stories.  Odysseus, finally arriving home disguised as an old beggar, was recognized by his childhood nurse when she saw a scar, the mark of an adventure early in his life, on his thigh.   The resurrected Jesus proved his identity to the doubtful Thomas by showing him the wounds of his crucifixion.   In an Italian variant of "Iron Hans", the youth was so weakened by his wounds that he was unable to change back back into his gardener's clothes, and thus gave away his secret.(3)

A man unmarked by life, who has never known the pain of having fallen short of his ideals, is a man who has not been touched by the fires of initiation.  Like the circumcision scar that marks the successful initiate, the wounds that life inflicts on a man remind him of his limits as well as his achievements.  Bly(4) claims that the wound to the youth's leg is not symbolic of a genital wound.  But he also makes reference to the Grail King's wound, an injury which, in Wolfram's telling of the tale, is explicitly castrating.  In a not uncommon displacement of a disturbing image, other accounts describe the Suffering King as having been pierced through the thighs.  As we have seen, the road to manhood is often a painful one.  That a young man's sense of himself might be wounded in the course of his journey along that road is not surprising.  But, if all goes as it should, the injuries he receives will leave him, while perhaps scarred, not crippled.  So in "Iron Hans," the young knight is marked but not disabled.  If his was a genital wound, perhaps it was circumcision rather than castration.

In initiatory circumcision, the initiate's manhood is wounded by elders who act to check his chaotic and potentially dangerous adolescent masculinity while instructing him in its appropriate use.  So in the Grimms' tale, the youth was wounded and his defiance of the established order brought to a halt by the king's order.  The youth was made to recognize the authority of the king, and was in turn finally recognized for who he was.  With the setting of limits on the youthful grandiosity of the hero, the unruly masculine energy furnished by the wild man was brought into conscious service of the kingdom.

No one gets through life without being wounded to some extent.  Some receive more injuries than others.  Some wounds quickly heal; others, like that of the Grail King, are a lifelong source of torment.  Wounding experiences can bring a more realistic view of the relationship between oneself and the world.  While they may seem devastating from the standpoint of his inflated ego, the hero's wounds open the door to adventure far beyond his wildest dreams.

The boy received his first wound in releasing the wild man from his cage.  That wound led to the shame of his failure at the spring, and his subsequent acquaintance with suffering and poverty.  It also brought the promise of help that he drew upon to save the kingdom.  His heroic exploits in turn led to another wounding, the revelation of his secret, and a royal wedding.  After having repeatedly risked being exposed, he was revealed as who he was, and no one else.  And who he was proved to be something far greater than anyone, including himself, had imagined.

GO TO PART IX: Union and Reunion


(1) J. E. Cirlot, A Dictionary of Symbols, 2nd edition (New York:  Philosophical Library, 1962), p. 14.  J. C. Cooper, An Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols (London:  Thames & Hudson, 1978), p. 14.

(2) C. G. Jung, Psychology and Alchemy (Collected Works Vol. 12), (Princeton:  Princeton University Press, 1980 [1944]), esp. pars. 1-43.

(3) "The Mangy One" in Italo Calvino (ed.), Italian Folktales (New York:  Pantheon, 1980), pp. 398-403.

(4) Robert Bly, Iron John (Reading, MA:  Addison-Wesley, 1990), pp. 207-208.

©1999 James C. Moyers




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