Monday, June 4, 2007

The Fool who Saves the World

Illustration from 'The Princess on the Glass Hill'

As midsummer approaches, a Midsummer tale may be appropriate.

People are familiar with Sufi tales of the fool Nasruddin and how his folly often conceals great wisdom. These tales have become very popular in contemporary Western spiritual 'circles', yet there is a long Western tradition of the fool who saves the world. Fairy tales often are based on older myths and the tale of the Princess on the Glass Hill is one of these.

This tale follows a familiar pattern. A man has three sons. The eldest and middle sons are both diligent and ambitious, a source of great pride to their father, who encourages their rivalry, as many parents do, in the hope that it only will drive them to further excellence. The third son, nicknamed 'Cinderlad' by his brothers, is a dreamer who sits all day in the ashes of the fireplace, watching the flames. He apparently has neither skills nor ambition.

It is Cinderlad, of course, who ultimately wins the Princess, who alone of all men is able to climb a hill of glass, not once but three times. Too foolish to be afraid, he alone is able to solve the secret of the disappearing grass, thereby winning for himself a horse with extraordinary powers to go where no others can.

Magic often works in threes. For three years, Cinderlad keeps watch over the field of grass, and each year finds a horse more glorious than the last. The first is caparisoned with copper, the second with silver and the third with purest gold.

In fact, you will find the number three in this story again and again, from the three sons to the three horses and finally, the three golden apples.

As to the significance of the number three, Aristotle wrote:
'magnitude if divisible one way is a line, if two ways a surface, and if three a body. Beyond these there is no other magnitude, because the three dimensions are all that there are, and that which is divisible in three directions is divisible in all. For, as the Pythagoreans say, the world and all that is in it is determined by the number three, since beginning and middle and end give the number of an 'all', and the number they give is the triad. And so, having taken these three from nature as (so to speak) laws of it, we make further use of the number three in the worship of the Gods. Further, we use the terms in practice in this way. Of two things, or men, we say 'both', but not 'all': three is the first number to which the term 'all' has been appropriated. And in this, as we have said, we do but follow the lead which nature gives. Therefore, since 'every' and 'all' and 'complete' do not differ from one another in respect of form, but only, if at all, in their matter and in that to which they are applied, body alone among magnitudes can be complete. For it alone is determined by the three dimensions, that is, is an 'all'.'

When the local monarch declares that only the one who climbs the hill of glass should marry his daughter, Cinderlad, disguised first as a knight in copper, climbs a third of the hill, and the princess tosses a golden apple to him.

Next, disguised as a knight in silver, he climbs two-thirds of the hill and the princess tosses him a second apple.

Finally, disguised as a knight in armour of gold, he climbs the hill to the top and takes the third apple, only to ride away immediately.

When the King announces a search for the man with the golden apples, every man in the kingdom is required to appear at court. Cinderlad's family mock him, and declare that he is not fit to appear before the king, besmirched with ashes and soot as he is.

Nonetheless, Cinderlad goes to court with his brothers and when challenged by the king, throws off his rags and appears then in his armour of gold, producing the three golden apples for the king.

'Thou shalt have my daughter and the half of my kingdom and thou hast well earned both!' declared the King.

It is the lad who never showed any ambition or interest in worldly matters who ultimately wins the highest position and greatest honour. Many readers of fairytales simply consider them to be nonsense or 'wishful thinking' but in fact, they contain spiritual principles that are at the very heart of Western civilisation.

Although Christianity obviously has influenced Western culture with its declarations that 'The first shall be last' and 'The meek shall inherit the Earth', these principles predate Christianity in Western Europe.

It is not only in Western Europe, in any case, that the motif of the king or god 'in disguise' can be found. It is the orphan, in many cases, who ultimately is crowned King and who founds dynasties in myths throughout the world. It is the child in a casket that floats upon the waters, homeless, rootless, cast by fate adrift who, when he finally reaches shore, becomes the greatest hero.

The hero is some one who is an outsider, some one who has been deprived of the security of home and society, who does not even know who he is. He is a 'tabula rasa' on which fate alone writes his destiny.

Two separate threads can be followed here and both have a place in the tales and rituals of midsummer. First there is the idea of the fool as the one who is most 'pure of heart' and who therefore is most worthy. Then, there is the idea of the hero as sacrifice.

In fact, the type of hero who is 'found' rather than brought up among his people often meets with death, becoming a sacrifice in one way or another for the people who adopted him. Is it because he is a 'nobody' that he is chosen for this fate? The Aztecs chose their sacrificial god from their captives, treated him with the greatest honour and love, then cut his heart out and hacked him to pieces, consuming his flesh in an act of sacred 'communion'. He who was chosen for this role was not the beloved son of his people. He was an outsider.

In this tale, Cinderlad is not a sacrificial figure, although arguably the motif of the ashes and fire does hint at rebirth. What he represents is the hero in stasis, awaiting the appointed time of his fate. In many traditions, the hero is not known from birth. He becomes a hero at a specific point, when the reason for which he was born is made manifest.

Even in history, there are those who had to reach a certain stage in their lives before they became heroes or prophets. For example, the Prophet Muhammad became a prophet only when he was forty years old. Although it is said that his destiny was determined before he was born, it did not manifest itself until his 'middle age'.

In fairytales and myth, often the finding or acquisition of a special talisman or object of power represents the 'coming of age' of the hero or god. In the case of Cinderlad, it is the horse that awaits him outside the barn that propels him to glory. The fact that there are three horses, each more valuable and glorious than its predecessor, symbolises the stages of 'becoming'.

More on this tale later...

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