This is the tale of a quest.
It is a tale for men. There is also a tale for women, but I am not
the one to tell that tale. Women who come across this tale may
ignore it or observe it, help or hinder the hero as they please.
It is a tale that may happen to you, as it has happened in its
various ways to many men before you and will happen to many after
you. It begins when you have a dream — or rather, a vision, for it
is more real than any dream. You see a maiden in a castle surrounded
by a barrier of thorns, a maiden who has been asleep for centuries.
You learn that the spell, which has imprisoned her, was cast many
generations ago by one of your forefathers. You resolve to find that
castle and awaken the maiden, for you realise that she will not be
freed unless you attempt that task, and that you must start at once
or else you will be too late.
And so you set out. Many are the perils that men have encountered on
such a journey, and many are the miracles, too. Perhaps you have to
cross a trackless desert, or climb a mountain of glass. How have you
treated those you met, whether stronger or weaker than you? Have you
shared your food, have you treated the animals you met as beings
with knowledge as valuable as yours? Perhaps you have helped others
because it is in your nature — perhaps it is not in your nature, but
you have nonetheless done so because you know it is right. Which of
these two is more pleasing I do not know. Some say only the first
will do, the other being no more than what one has learned is
useful; others claim there is no credit in what comes naturally, and
that choosing to do what is difficult must be what counts.
You have faced many perils, perils that have destroyed some and led
others to retreat home. You have passed through them with the aid of
those you have helped, perhaps not even being aware that the perils
were there. You have come by grace, or by luck which some say is
just another word for grace, to the edge of the lands surrounding
you find the way to the castle is barred by an immense growth of
brambles and thorn bushes. Perhaps you expect that a way will open
up before you, as you are the destined saviour of the maiden. If so,
you are disappointed. If you push forward boldly, hacking at all the
thorns with your sword or axe, it soon becomes blunted. If, being a
modern man, you chose instead a flame-thrower to destroy the thorns,
you find its power has died before you have got far. Tools do not
help you, and you must find another way.
If you search closely, you will see the remains of a path, and
notice that the bushes are less thick near it. As you follow the
path it twists and turns, perhaps going backwards for a while. At
times you have to stoop or even crawl, and sometimes you have to
clear away some of the bushes where they are too thick to make
progress, though usually you accept those scratches you receive. And
at last, tired and scratched, you arrive at the clear ground in
front of the castle.
You enter the castle, and make your way to the room where the maiden
lies sleeping. Remembering old stories, you kiss her in the hope
that the kiss will bring her back to life. Great is your joy as she
wakes up and stands to greet you But your joy turns to terror, for
she has been asleep for centuries and now she is awake those
centuries show on her: with each second she seems a year older until
you are facing a woman older than you thought was possible.
What do you do now? This is your tale, and I cannot answer that for
you. But I can tell you what happened to others. Many, in their
terror, rushed away from the castle, pushed their way through the
thorns heedless of the deep scratches, and returned to the ordinary
world. There some shut out their terror by denying that they ever
made such a journey, while others bitterly regretted their
faint-heartedness and spent much of their lives searching for a way
back. I do not know if any of those ever found their way back; many
of them spent so much time searching that the rest of life made no
impression on them.
If you are one of those who remained, you will see that the woman is
not only older than you thought possible, but also wiser than you
thought possible and more fearsome than you thought possible. As she
looks at you it seems to you that she is weighing up every action
you have ever taken, every thought you have ever had, and will
deliver her judgement. It may be that now is the time you choose to
perhaps you realise that, though it was a maiden you came in search
of, this woman, frightening as she seems,
is still the one you sought. If you see this and remain, she changes
yet again. Neither a maiden nor an aged woman, she becomes now a
woman of your own age, full of strength and majesty and love. Many
have reached the maiden, and few of those remained to face the old
woman. Few even of those can face her now, and it may be now that
you run away. For what she demands of you is nothing less than
strength, majesty and love to equal her own, a thing you find harder
even than facing the judgement of the old woman.
If you remain and reach out your hand to
her, she takes it. Together you leave the castle of vision to live
together in the world outside. “And the story ends,” I hear you say
thankfully, “as all good stories should, with the words ‘And they
lived happily ever after.’ ” Of course not! This is not a story told
to pass the time when the TV is broken — it is a tale of reality.
But I can promise you that if you have succeeded in coming this far
then you will live more fully until your death, experiencing the
joyousness of your joys, the sadness of your sorrows, the wrath of
your angers, the pain of your
hurts, and that you will never lose (though you may need to forget
for a while) the knowledge of the world’s waking beauty.
Wood and Water
18, Summer 1986
© Daniel Cohen
The transformations when
the maiden awakes are based on the traditional story of The
Marriage of Sir Gawain (best known as Chaucer’s Wife of
Bath’s Tale), which is another story I have retold.
I think this story could be
used for guided meditations. I have much experience of taking part
in such meditations, but I have not led any. So I leave the details
of how this can be done to readers who have led meditations. I would
be glad to hear from anyone who does use the story in that way.
The Labyrinth of the Heart
First three illustrations for
Sleeping Beauty by Walter Crane.
Sleeping Beauty landscape by Wen Fyfe.