Fairy tales and myths are peculiar and beautiful medicines. Their narratives bring up storylines that are otherworldly and yet recognisable in our own personal experience. Using the allegory of a tale in a therapeutic setting allows us to dance with possibilities, villains, wickedness and magic – elements of our own lives which we struggle to own or fear to battle in the ‘real world’. They connect us to millennia of humanity telling each other stories to soothe, reassure, warn, and ignite both imagination and courage.
Within the archetypal characters and predicaments, lies a language of adaptive thinking and paths out of paradox that is neither patronizing nor judging.
Perhaps it is for these reasons that I find using myths and fairy tales so valuable when working with clients struggling to change. It places the hero/client on a path with difficult battles, but a path with a direction and a momentum. It highlights the journey and what is sculpted and honed within us through difficulty, rather than focusing only on the terror and fear of the moment. In my book, Leaving the Castle, I have used the fairy tales of Sleeping Beauty, Bluebeard and the Greek myths of the Judgment of Paris and Aeneus’ journey after the fall of Troy to explore what is happening in our subconscious lives when considering divorce.
For many women, the thought of divorce itself opens up a world of shame and judgment in addition to the overwhelming practical, legal, financial and emotional costs. It is often a time of upended paradigms – and an entry into the unknown. In fairy tale terms, we are leaving the castle.
The castle in the title of this book is a metaphor for the structure we’ve lived our lives in; it is where we have a clear image of what is expected of us and what our role is. Leaving the castle suggests leaving our touchstones (hollow as they have become) of sturdy assumptions and beliefs. But we have to leave the castle and venture into something new before we can fully trust that new foundations will take the place of the old ones. This will be uncomfortable, to say the least.
When you try to leave the castle, your unconscious mind, an unarticulated repository of your history, beliefs, fears, attitudes, automatic skills, and shadow aspects of repressed emotions, will rear up to shepherd you back indoors. It will terrorise you with looped reels of worst-case scenarios, your subconscious will set anxieties loose to haunt you as you’re drifting off to sleep at night and, when you’re feeling weakest, it will lure you back into old patterns.
As it turns out, no one ever got anywhere by ruminating in the hall closet. Starting over demands the courage to step out of the castle and expose ourselves repeatedly to different ways of thinking, and learn how to deflect the natural tendency to push us back into the crippling status quo. It’s not easy and this is where the imagination that stories open up for us proves most useful. It is almost impossible to make a huge life change using only the conscious, logical mind. The old tales get past the firewalls of your defences and your attachment to the details of your angst.
What makes taking the unknown path so frightening? What is going on in our heads when we feel frozen in place, unable to make a decision? It is as though we have fallen under an enchantment that keeps us spinning through the same thoughts and conclusions repeatedly. Where would such enchantments have come from and how can we break the spell? When looked at archetypally, the tale of Sleeping Beauty is a parable about falling into unconsciousness and then waking to yourself.
The following is a much-abridged version of my therapeutic telling of Sleeping Beauty.
Sleeping Beauty – A Baby is Born
Once upon a time there lived a king and queen who had no children, which was the source of a great and unquenchable longing in their hearts. One day as she sat next to a deep pool of water, the queen was joined by a purposeful and plump green frog with golden eyes.
“My queen,” he began. “Let your heart be easy. By Spring you will be holding a beautiful baby girl in your arms.”
And so it came to pass that the queen did give birth to a most beautiful young girl. The king announced that a huge feast would be held in honour of her birth.
All fairies in the land were to be invited to the banquet to bestow their blessings on the child. The thing was, there were thirteen fairies in the kingdom, but only twelve golden place settings fit for fairy folk to dine from. And so it was that only twelve invitations were sent into the lair of the fairies.
On the day of the great feast the fairies approached the baby one by one. With a shimmering swish of their wands, Aurora was honoured with grace, beauty, joy, and kindness. She was swathed in blessings as soft and reassuring as fur.
Just as the stream of fairies receded, there came a great thundering from the hall followed by a black smoke that slithered from the doorway, across the floor – snaking this way and that, until finally rising cobra-like above the golden bassinet in which the baby Aurora lay.
The dark smoke became thicker, congealing into the form of the neglected fairy – who was clearly neither dead nor in a forgiving state of mind.
“My liege,” she intoned, “what a beautiful child.” Her bony fingers dragged along the lip of the bassinet.
“My apologies for dropping in on such a pivotal day. I hadn’t realised I would be imposing.” Her gnarled cane chafed ominously against the stone floor.
The king, feeling more like an errant schoolboy than a powerful monarch, feverishly welcomed her – insisting he couldn’t imagine how she had not received an invitation.
The old fairy turned to the baby. “As I’m here, I too will convey a wish. This baby, so beautiful and bright, will grow into a graceful young woman. But in her sixteenth year she shall prick her finger on a spindle and die!”
The queen screamed and ran to pull Aurora close. The evil fairy vanished into a puff of acrid fumes.
Just then, the youngest of the fairies stepped out from behind a velvet curtain. “I cannot fully undo the dark fairy’s curse, but I can soften it. My gift for this child is to hold back her death. Upon pricking her finger, she will fall into a deep sleep. When the time is right, she will be found by a prince whose kiss will awaken her.” With a swish of the fairy’s wand, the princess was surrounded by small silver stars that circled her and then popped like soap bubbles.
Though the king and queen were very grateful to the fairy, the fate of the little princess was still quite terrible, so the king sent proclamations demanding that all spinning wheels and spindles in the kingdom were to be burned.
The story of Sleeping Beauty begins – as do many fairy tales – with a couple unable to bear a child, an inability to conceive a new being, a new life. In our exploration of how to handle being at a crossroads, we’re going to look at this story archetypally. We’re going to stay flexible and know that there are as many ways to interpret a story as there are people. Fairy tales and myths exist in a judgment-free zone.
I’m going to tell you about common archetypal explanations for some of the symbols used in the Sleeping Beauty story but, if an explanation doesn’t click with you, ask yourself what would feel more right. We’re using the fantasy world of story to look at the problem, so that your thinking mind can take a much-needed rest.
The king and queen have been trying unsuccessfully to create new life. Isn’t that what being at the crossroads and returning time and again to a dying world feels like? We know something needs to change, but either we can’t say exactly what, or we know, but the thing that needs to change is so enormous it would take more courage, money, energy, and power than we have in us. Perhaps we could make the change, but we want a guarantee of happiness and success.
Archetypally, kings and queens represent the established modes of being. The king symbolises our established masculine directives – how we live in the world, order and rationality, our default courses of action, and the way we go about achieving our goals. The queen embodies our established feminine aspects – how we intuitively value our world, how we heal ourselves and connect to the people around us.
The king and queen in this story have already been accepted as the rulers of the established kingdom. Their lives are steady, with the exception of that terrible longing – the crack that is making each day difficult to bear. With their inability to birth new life, we know that something that used to work has ceased to function. In our own lives, here at the crossroads, we are stuck. We have not been able to fix the issues in our marriage, nor have we been able to make a change. The cycles of life have stopped.
Whether we are men or women, to function properly in this world we need to honour both the masculine and the feminine aspects within us. Without the masculine aspects of our personality we would find it very hard to form goals and take action toward them. Our masculine side will rationally weigh up alternatives and judge the best way forward. The masculine side takes our plan from an internal fantasy to a reality in the outside world. It takes action and cuts through the morass of what-ifs. When he is not functioning properly, we get lost in our heads and are unable to make up our minds or commit to a plan of action.
Without the feminine aspects operating in equal measure, actions taken will likely be pointless and look like charging out on horseback before realising we haven’t a clue where we’re going or why we left in the first place. The feminine aspects, our inner queens, provide us with subjective value judgment. The queen is the part of us who knows what will serve the kingdom. She knows what feels right and what does not. She is the one who will connect with others when we do venture out. When she is not happy we feel hollow, as if life has lost its meaning.
So, here we are, with a king and queen unable to conceive a child – illustrating the very human issue of being caught in a place where the heart’s desires cannot be fulfilled. The masculine, goal-oriented, take-action logical side, and the feminine side of feelings, instinct, and nurturing are not connecting in a way that is fertile. Why? What makes it so difficult to allow our inner kings and queens to create new life for us? Why is choosing another path so difficult? It is because we are blinded by our own form of a sleeping sickness.
Our own personal enchantment keeps us walking the same path and making the same choices, keeps us in the same place, a place that is no longer tenable.
Where Enchantments Come From
The royal castle is a metaphor for our life as it exists now. We can ask ourselves, “What does the castle I live in look like? What are my expectations? What is expected of me? Who built this castle?” Out of necessity, we begin our lives in the castle – in the family and society we’re born into. We all begin our stories from a specific background that informs how we see the world. As we are implicitly initiated into a culture’s paradigm, we learn the shared fantasy of safety that runs through habitual choices and activity. We’re assured that nothing bad will happen if we have been good and have done what we were told to. Justice will prevail. But what kind of justice? Again, that is determined by our own perceptions although justice often doesn’t feel like a perception; it feels real and immutable. Straying out of those lines of what our culture tells us is right feels wrong. We become successfully bewitched into narrowing our input to reinforce what our community has taught is acceptable and what to turn away from. Yet there will always remain a part of us that takes in everything, a part of the mind that sees all and then filters out what the operating system will not accept; it notices what not to notice.
However, laws are dynamic things that bend with circumstances and predicates. If there were truly objective laws, we wouldn’t need a legal system to argue and defend. So what happens to the parts of us that are deemed by our culture (including the culture we’ve internalised) to be not good enough, not acceptable? This is how our shadow is formed. It’s not that the system we learned and lived by was incorrect but frozen and rigid systems are fragile and unless they are allowed to evolve – to form new ideas, to give birth again – they become maladaptive.
As the queen sits in the forest, she is approached by a frog. Water and forests are both archetypal symbols of our unconscious, the part of us that is wild and unknown. Frogs are amphibious, are able to breathe through their skin while underwater or buried in soil; in this way they are a symbolic bridge figure, able to span the gap between our unconscious – deep water, the underground, the as-yet-unknown – and our reigning consciousness, the queen. The castle is being granted new life.
What can you do to bridge the gap between your conscious and unconscious, to invite the frog into your life and to bring up new ways to handle this crossroads decision?
The king orders a huge party to celebrate Aurora’s birth. The shadow fairy arrives. She has power, to be sure and, because the king and queen have not honored her powers with the acknowledgement that they’ve shown to the other fairies, she’s going to ruin the day and much more. But one of the fairies has hidden behind the drapery like a little, winged secret weapon, waiting to soften the curse. After the angry fairy’s curse, the king proclaims that all spinning wheels are to be burnt. Bargaining with fate has begun. This king’s bargaining means the whole kingdom will need to compensate for the clothes that can no longer be made.
This part of the Sleeping Beauty story is an illustration of what happens when we reject a part of ourselves; the further we’ve pushed a natural part of ourselves away and disowned it, the more strenuously it snaps back. What bargains are you making to stay in your marriage? What parts of you need to be repressed to be able to stay?
Please return in the next issue for the arrival of the prince, the ability to take action and an alchemical union of masculine and feminine sides that allow new kingdoms to be born.