Image description & a brief explanation: A hand is holding a Tarot card—The World by Pamela Colman Smith for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot—in front of a colorful rug, a side table with books on it and a mint green ottoman. In the image, a person is dancing nude with a flowing purple scarf wrapped around them. They are holding a baton in each hand and surrounded by a laurel wreath. In each corner of the card are four heads, in clockwise order from the top left they are human, eagle, bull and lion. I’ve chosen this card to signify the idea that worlds are all over, waiting to be made through the stories we tell, perhaps especially in the moments that feel bizarre, out of order or at-odds with the dominant story.
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When I read or listen to old stories I watch for strange moments. Through this practice I’ve learned that a strange moment is an opening that makes way for wonder. It can have the energetic of a rupture, if you’re open to it.
As someone with an often ambivalent relationship to change and who is many times protective of the neat meanings in the stories I like to tell, finding strange moments has been a way for me to practice flexibility, and tolerance for new details that don’t fit the script.
I’ve been joking lately that whenever I hear myself say words like “the fact of the matter is…” that’s a clear indication that my aperture’s gotten too narrow and it’s time to seek what’s past the periphery.
I haven’t had much time for reading old stories this year, so when I had a quiet morning this past weekend it was an opening, and I threw myself in. I read a story called “The Princess with the Cat Face,” which is the seventh of twelve tales in Carlo Mulas’ collection Sardinian Folktales.
“The Princess with the Cat Face” is—in some ways, and not others—a Sardinian version of the Grimm’s “Rapunzel.” One of those ways is that it begins with what turns out to be a raw deal between an antagonist and a woman over a piece of food that the woman wants which is, in this case, a mushroom.
The antagonist is an orc, which is like an ogre or a giant. The orc agrees to give the woman, who’s pregnant, the mushroom if she promises to give him her child when the child is four. The woman, “whose desire for the mushroom was stronger than anything else, agreed.” No strange moments here, really. Just another fairytale image of woman as irrational and impulse-driven.
As promised, at the age of four the girl is given over to the orc and moves into a “beautiful palace.” The orc loves the girl—whose name is Maria—and is also jealous of her, which is also nothing especially unique. For these reasons, he keeps her locked away, high up in a tower. She grows long golden hair which the orc uses to climb in and out. One day, a man comes by the window. When Maria sees him, she falls in love immediately.
Now, here’s where things get weird. One day Maria is digging around and she finds three balls of wool. She asks the orc, what are these for? And the orc tells her, straight up, the balls have powers. The orc says, “They help you when you are being chased and prevent those who are chasing you to catch you…when you throw the first one it will turn into a sea of water, the second into a sea of fire, and the third into a sea of thorns.”
I’ve seen this motif before, and have written about it. I think I read about it as motif before I ever encountered it in a story, firsthand. In her book The Interpretation of Fairy Tales, Jungian analyst Marie-Louise von Franz has written about how, when fleeing from an enemy, discarded objects sometimes turn out to be aids; turning to bodies of water, flaming forests, and the like.
On the act of relinquishing, von Franz writes, “There are situations where one absolutely has to give up wanting anything, and in this way one slips out from under; one is not there any longer, so nothing more can go wrong. When one is confronted by a hopelessly wrong situation, one must make a drastic leap to the bottom of open-minded simplicity, and from there one can live through it.”
You might be wondering what’s more bizarre about this moment than any of the others, thus far. To me it’s the way this orc—the same orc who has held Maria captive for most of her life—is now giving her explicit instructions about how to escape.
Maybe the orc knows a thing or two about learned helplessness, or read an article about Stockholm syndrome, and assumed she’d never leave and he had no need to worry. We can’t be sure because those details are un-storied. All we know is that Maria took the wool balls and ran, away with the man from the window.
As soon as the orc realizes she’s gone, he gives chase. As she sees him coming, Maria throws the first ball and a sea of water forms between her and the orc. The orc, who has a huge mouth, opens wide and slurps it all up in an instant. Maria throws the second ball, this one which turns into a sea of fire. The orc, having a mouthful of water already, simply spits and the fire goes out. Finally, she throws the last wool ball and a sea of thorns crop up around the orc, trapping him inside. When the orc begs her to look at him one last time—now himself in captivity—Maria does. And the orc turns her human face to a cat’s.
There’s more to the story—which is maybe as close to a true and enduring statement as I’ve ever been—but I’m going to leave the rest out, for now. I love von Franz’ ideas about letting go of precious things in bad situations as a way to ensure that “nothing more can go wrong.” Maria certainly could have held on to the magic balls, for another day maybe, to ensure some imagined future success.
And while it was not necessary for her discard them in order to achieve greater lightness, agility, or speed, in letting go of something which she understood as fundamental to her survival, she put herself some place simple, essential, and vulnerable. Recalling von Franz’ words regarding this motif of discarding objects while being chased, “When one is confronted by a hopelessly wrong situation, one must make a drastic leap to the bottom of open-minded simplicity, and from there one can live through it.”
I have to note that I struggle more than ever with these kinds of absolute statements. I don’t want to name life this way: If you do this you can go there, and such-and-such will be waiting. I don’t really believe reality works that way and I don’t want to pretend that I do just because it’s comforting to a reader or a person is looking to me to tell them something sure.
At the same time, there are lots of moments when I’m seeking comfort and something sure. I’m no less drawn than anyone else to stories and statements that allow me to rest a little in the feeling that I’ve named something final, and true. And there are absolutely times when I do want to be told how it is, so that I might be relieved of the perpetual and exhausting task of making meaning.
Narrative therapist Jill Freedman has described a kind of double-listening, that seeks to understand a problem being articulated as well as to hear any details that don’t align with the story that’s being told about the problem.
In a way I feel like this is kind of what I do when I read stories. I look for the anomalies. Like when the wizard rushes in with the sensitizing balsam vial, despite being the one who laid the numbing curse in the first place. Or when the orc, who’s held a girl captive her entire life, only to tell her exactly what to do to escape. And if you think it’s because he had a change of heart, you have to think again when you see how he protests her escape, down to his last act of turning her human face to a feline’s.
I think I’ve always been interested in these kinds of moments when I work with folktales and legends. I’m interested in them when I work with people, too. In narrative work there’s a name for them: unique outcomes. These are moments that don’t line up with the story being told. They are openings, inside of which lay whole neglected and overlooked worlds. Parts of experience that have been marginalized or un-storied.
I imagine the orc in therapy, describing the problem of possessiveness. Most of what he says, thinks, feels and does seems to line up with the story about how the possessiveness controls his whole life. That is, until he mentions this conversation he’s had with the captive Maria, about the magic wool balls. The one where he tells her everything she needs to know to be free. Why does he do this? Is it a mistake, or in Freudian terms, parapraxis? An error which reveals the precise location where desire meets limitation?
Narrative therapists, from what I can tell, would not put much stock in the idea of this behavior as representing some sort of Freudian slip. But I think they might take seriously the potential to develop a moment like this in a way that shines light on parts of the story where the orc is ambivalent about the possessiveness, or even in resistant to it. I bet there are other times when he’s challenged its authority over him. A whole set of stories no one’s ever thought or bothered to ask about, in which he is secure, with a curious and supportive spirit.
This is an interesting thing about fairytales. They’re at times simplistic to a fault but almost always peppered with bizarre moments. Details that subvert the dominant narrative, like when the bad guy does a good thing. Our lives are not fairy tales but in this way, they are similar.
We live inside incredibly compelling and dominant stories which we want to believe are simple and linear with a beginning, middle and end. But none of us are free from those “sparkling moments.” Those ruptures, in which the mask of a neat narrative slips to expose a much more complicated reality. Those moments can be terrifying, but they can also be life-giving and world-yielding, a chance to see that we aren’t only what we thought ourselves to be.
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Mulas, C. (2016). Sardinian Folktales. Indibooks.
jessica-- i truly look forward to your weekly offerings. your substack just might be my favorite. the way you weave psychology any mythology create some kind of voltage in my brain connecting hemispheres. i tend to lean too far into logic and reason then i’ll bounce into witchy rituals which often make me feel like i’m back in church-- only this time i’m in a homemade temple with an altar of my deepest desires. your posts are my leveler. one foot in parapraxis and archetypes the other in my many stacks of tarot and celtic mythology. another way of saying i’m so grounded by your work.