Sunday, January 20, 2008

king of the golden mountain

One of the nice things about fairy tales is that it’s usually not that hard to find something redemptive about them if you make that your focus.

Whether it’s because there’s something archetypal about the divine Logos and its story of redemption that has permeated the whole of creation, or it’s because Christianity has become so foundational to Western civilization, philosophy and literature the past 1,700 years, the fairy tales that we’re familiar with in Europe and North America lend themselves readily to a christocentric interpretation.

Thus we can see Christ figures in the Prince Charmings who awaken Snow White and Sleeping Beauty from deathlike sleeps, or who free Cinderella from a life of bitter slavery and oppression in a family where she doesn’t belong, and in each of those women we can see types of the church, pining for redemption at the hands of its true bridegroom.

Less overtly, fairy tales often contain lessons about justice, fidelity and courage, or even simple warnings about the dangers of evil. Messages often convey themselves through anthropomorphic animals or magical enchantments, but if you listen to the story, it's easy to find rich veins of meaning just waiting to be mined.

“The King of the Golden Mountain” is a curious exception.

This story, told by the Brothers Grimm, begins much the same way as the classic story of “Beauty and the Beast,” with a merchant who has lost his wealth in a series of shipping disasters. As the tale begins, he makes one of those Faustian bargains common to folklore with a dwarf, or manikin, promising to restore the man’s wealth if in 12 years he gives him the first thing to rub against his leg when he returns home that day. The man agrees and, of course, that thing turns out to be his son.

As the story goes, the manikin is unable to hold his claim to the boy when the 12 years have passed, and the boy is set adrift down a river, where he ultimately comes to an enchanted castle, complete with a princess under an enchantment, at the Golden Mountain.

There the youth has to suffer a series of indignities in silence over three nights, ending in his death, without ever breaking his silence. When he completes this act, the spell is broken and the enchanted princess and has been freed, she pours the Water of Life on the dead youth and restores him to life.

Tom Stoppard once wrote that any story, if you let it go long enough, will end in death. That’s a great thing for tragedies, but the truth is that stories end best if you know when to stop telling them. “The King of the Golden Mountain” would be a much better story if this were where it ended, with the enchanted princess rescued, the youth restored to life, and the two of them happily married.

Alas, the story continues.

What happens next is that after more time has gone by and the youth is a father, he convinces his wife against her better judgment to let him visit his parents. She does, by presenting him with a magic ring that will transport him anywhere by twisting it and wishing to be there ― with the condition that he promise not to use it to wish her and their son there.

Being a fairy tale, he ends up doing just that, and it turns his wife against him, so that her love turns to contempt and she returns to the mountain with their son by using the magic ring. During the rest of the story he has to work his way back to the Golden Mountain, which he accomplishes by stealing the inheritance of a trio of giants. When he returns home, he finds his wife about to marry someone new, prompting him to kill everyone.

I like to deconstruct fairy tales when I read them to my girls, because it makes it easier to retell them later on. This is a story where it’s hard to find any way to do that reasonably.

The man dies to free the princess and her castle from enchantment; there’s definite Christ imagery there, especially when you consider his resurrection. The princess brings him back to life, and that’s Christ imagery too. Despite these obvious connections, there’s virtually nothing Christlike about these people.

The king's behavior is monstrous. He steals the inheritance of three orphans, breaks an oath to his wife, and then slaughters dozens of wedding guests and his wife.

The wife is jealous and petty. She has no reason for her husband not to see his family, but she hates the idea anyway, and then abandons him far from their home when he lapses in his judgment and magically whisks her to his side despite his promise.

This is one of those stories where no one is commendable, decent, or noble, and it makes a piss-poor story unless you just want a story with lots of fantastic things happening with seven-league boots, magic rings, and dwarfs. As an adventure story, it could work with some embellishment, but there’s still nothing satisfying about the protagonist unless there is some sense of moral compass added to him beyond getting what he wants.

You could embellish the tale of the three nights in the castle, and the torment he goes through to free the enchanted princess, and that could be a good story if it ends on their wedding, or even with her release, whether she restores him to life or not.

That actually would be an interesting story, to be honest; where a hero does the right thing, dies by it, and never gets to experience the joys his victory brings to others.

Or if there something more to the several-years marriage between the man and the princess that explains why she is so incensed by his breach of promise. I’d welcome that story too, where he throws away everything she gave him and has to win it back ― as opposed to conquering it back.

It’d even be decent as fairy tales go if it follows the story the Brothers Grimm set, and after he regains his kingdom ― which is his only stated concern when he sets out again, not to find his wife and child ― and his existence proves empty and barren without his wife and child, and all these people’s ghosts haunting him. That, too, would be a nice story.

I like all those retellings to an extent, but I keep finding myself drawn back to the Water of Life the princess uses to restore her rescuer after he is beheaded on the third night. The water, which in another story restores an ailing king to his full health, is a typological reference of Christ, whom the gospels say brings life to the dead, sight to blind, and so on.

I haven’t taken the potential for retelling as far with this as the other options, but the story might have an interesting reinterpretation lying in the opportunity the water itself brings for new life, a new beginning ... and the ways we often squander those new beginnings. Redemption and forgiveness are so easy to find, and yet we too often pass it by when the chance comes.

Copyright © 2008 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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