Valemon and the Wild Third Daughter is a jewel of a Scandinavian fairy tale. Epic, gutsy, funny, mysterious – it takes us through both the exhilaration and consequence of following your desire. One day a white bear arrives at the entrance to a castle and beckons you leap onto its back. There are no guarantees but your heart sings at the sight. What will you do? Safety or the deep forest?
Read an extract from Martin’s commentary on Valemon and the Wild Third Daughter, from A Branch from the Lightning Tree.
Pebbles Disguised as Apples
The daughter arrives at a cottage where children are circling their mother desperate for food, so hungry they are sucking on warm pebbles pretending they are apples…
The firebird inside the daughter is starting to flap its wings now. We sense that it has taken a long time to move through the three temple doors of the three cottages and be thus gifted. Our clearest signal that she is coming to the end of the wandering stage occurs when she arrives at the cottage of the children and the woman. From being in a state of passively receiving, she is now moving into the active stage of giving. Her suffering, seemingly random, has actually given her the capacity to provide warmth and sustenance for herself and others. We may not enter this stage till our forties or fifties in this world.
The scene of the ragged children heating pebbles to pretend they are apples is particularly alarming. The absence of what is juicy and water-filled means they must chew on something teeth-breaking, rough, and lacking any nourishment, with only the fantasy of sustenance to keep them going. Whole cultures chew on pebbles disguised as apples. A relationship can drag out for decades on the dim memory of that “one summer” so many years ago. The cult of the spin doctor testifies to this kind of activity. Much pebble-heating is required on a national level to persuade a people to go to war, dangling the flimsy scent of righteousness around a core of something the body naturally resists swallowing.
That pebble-eating culture is what many of us face today. There are so many pebbles rattling around on television I’m amazed the sets don’t break. The curious, wild, and abundant third daughter is, by her very authenticity, opening the door to real food for that family. A deeper fall altogether occurs when we forgot what a real apple was ever like, forget its texture and vitality and settle for the hard nugget of fragrant nothingness.
The Sobbing of the Beloved
We know that ability to move into grief carries great significance mythologically. In certain Lakota creation myths, the rivers and great lakes of America are the tears from the Creator’s eyes. Our weeping can be a meeting of inner and outer worlds, an external expression so clear in its message that it can arouse the same in others. Tears can be a vital tool in any significant ritual; they peel back the surface of expression to its tender center.
Many great forces can anaesthetize us to the tears of the soul’s opening. Years sucking on heated pebbles can do that, or a sense that to attend to the soul’s weeping would bring too much grief. Best to swallow the draught of the great Swallower of Continents and stay en-tranced. For both men and women, lack of a real soulful life, or too much attention to the bone wearing minutia of the things of this world can leave us feeling as if something vast is draining us, but we don’t know what.
There are many changes of the mythological stage-set occurring in this story, as one awesome force takes the lead and the others a supporting role. Now it is Valemon who finds himself in a state of enforced passivity, frozen, his only hope the abundant powers revealed through an encounter with the deep feminine.
The Listener by the Door
In his slumber, Valemon appears to reach an impasse. The sleep is too strong to wake from, despite everything endured by the daughter—he cannot wake. This is where we encounter the curious figure of the Listener by the Door—the alerter to the hypnotized masculine. Jean Houston calls this the “observer self,” some part of us immune to the magnetic pulls of these contesting forces, standing outside the field of negotiation.
Looking at this moment from a larger perspective, we can say this is a fragment in time that has been recurring with increasing urgency over the last eighty or so years. The fierce up-swelling of feminism could be seen as attempting just that; the men’s work born out of the eighties and onwards is internal work in the masculine towards a similar, but not identical end. Both break out of a poisoned sleep into awakening, free from the great devourer. It is interesting that we need some third component for this to occur, to avoid polarization. It could be that on the everyday plane, myth and psychology embody that observer, that they illuminate enough complexity to diffuse the stand-off, the viciousness of all-out gender war.
Another larger interpretation is that the planet itself may be trying to awaken us from the thing that Eats And Consumes All. In this case the listener by the door is a tsunami, a flooded New Orleans—something that in the cold light of day says, “For Christ’s sake; don’t you hear the sobbing of your Beloved?”
Read an extract from Martin’s commentary on the Russian story of Ivan the Bear’s Son, from A Branch from the Lightning Tree.
‘This is a point in our lives where we decide (or are forced) to throw the anchor down, to live in one place, have a teacher, dig in…’
Throwing Down the Anchor
This descent is characterized by the “black” stage of the initiation process. When one enters the black, a kind of sobering occurs, an awareness of things lost in the scramble for power and affirmation. The stillness of a hospital bed can allow the space for a particular opening to occur, often into the deep arms of grief. There is a humanity in the black, knowledge of rupture, casualties of greed, lives burnt out by the heat of ascension. Ironically this is often judged in modern life as “going off the rails” and one is regarded as unstable and peripheral, “a shadow of one’s former self.” Rather than a stage of growth, it is a dead end; one is no longer of use to the corporation. Being trapped in the red and refusing to move will result in a kind of Rolling Stones’ posture, looking always backwards to when you had time on your side. In Baba’s terrain, the underworld, initiation, and the black, you feel the scythe pass through your bubble of immortality.
The Black Knight wields his sword reluctantly and only when he has reached the sober realization that it is necessary.9
We find in this often-terrifying place odd shoots of growth coming up through the bogs and the scorched earth. In his practice, Jung emphasized something called “amplification,” a focused exploration of specific images that arose from your life or dreams. By describing the use, look, or atmosphere of the object, one revealed its resonance. This is quite different from “free association” in which you allow your imagination to move outwards, such as cat-pet-home-warmth; instead, amplification narrows and deepens the pursuit.
We could say that the Black is a kind of amplification after the expansive associations of the Red. As Ivan descends, he limits his possibilities, he leaves light behind, he follows one specific road. The endless adventures and the myriad possibilities are over. As Baba enters the Giants’ lodge, she shatters the gilded fortress of their consensual beliefs and pulls them into direct experience of the unpalatable.
This is a point in our lives where we decide (or are forced) to throw the anchor down, to live in one place, have a teacher, dig in. We look around the studio and see many unfinished paintings, different languages attempted and abandoned. Meeting the black involves working by lamplight, understanding the alchemy of oil paint, filling the doorway of your hut with corpses so no happy relatives get in. I’m not saying we live here forever, but we abandon the paths of sun to pay attention to the moonlit trail. This is a gift the descent brings. As the Turkish Sufi Ummi Sinan sings:
I was heedless.
It came to me as disgrace and loneliness.
My own Beloved taught me what I know. . .
The life of Ummi Sinan
Is a living burning testament of Love10
The initiatory experience, while severing us from the familiar, bestows a boon. In the space created by strangeness, in the otherness of Ivan’s situation, is the capacity for him to recognize an encounter with soul, the silent guest in all descents. The crisis has a beauty core in it and this is what Ivan has met.
Winter gods lope the forest Strike you with their wolfskin glove And the counterfeit life Takes its carrion demands Back to the blue deceits Of the one who first folded you
I trust words like that more than therapy talk, or becoming-your-best-self, or some strangulated idea about enlightenment. That there is an owl that lands on your face as you gather sticks by the river and you fall into a trance for three days. Such an image thrills and alarms as it can’t be franchised, or easily fetishised because the mandate of suffering is so clearly part of the mix. And that such an encounter could lead god knows where.
What follows is something of what I’ve experienced over almost twenty years as a wilderness rites of passage guide. Fragments of it have appeared in other places, but it’ll lope differently here, shake the snowflakes from its wet, black fur. I hope it provokes and excites and absolutely does not pretend the endeavour is anything less than highly mysterious.
Natural, yes. But mysterious. What follows is a glimpse through the three stages of the process: severance, threshold, return. It is this triad that constitutes the architecture of wilderness rites of passage. There may be ways to crowbar a more above-ground perception of the process, but I suggest that is grabbing hold of the wrong handrail. And I think that’s already been done. That’s village stuff, and you’ve just entered the forest. In fact, there is no handrail at all, save maybe poetics-in-extremis.
We’ll get to the return to the village later. When we get there I’m going to bang on about seemingly antiquated values: compassion, upstandingness, vocation, grace under pressure. That we actually raise our kids. That we live cleanly in our relationship to others. That our enchantments and befuddlements are limited in impact, that we don’t pass them on. The village is essential for the distillation of epiphany into wisdom. Human contact. But I’m not there yet.
Right now I’m defending the strange and usefully dangerous elements of the vigil. The moments that may never sift into daylight illumination but are like a rook pecking on your liver down in the pure animal of your body. Peck peck peck. It’s that pecking that keeps us restless. It’s a good thing to be restless. It’s that kind of thing that gets folks out on the hill in the first place.
To be buffeted by weather, to have hands pink as the flesh of Galway salmon as you splash freezing water in your just-woken face. To be a million nerve endings reaching out to darkness, rain, and white-crack lightning storm. To sleep a-jumble in your clothes because of the freeze, spend weeks without seeing your reflection, with no devices that beep and glow anywhere near. To feel jubilant, grief-struck, maybe even wild.
And as she sleeps he talks to himself, that old abiding friendship.
In a brownstone in New York City, he once dreamt that a fairy tale was a kind
of breast milk from the earth to us humans. A song-line that pours troublesome
nutrition into our pretending-to-be-modern hearts.
So all day long he thinks about this.
That afternoon in Brooklyn it rains so hard you can barely walk upright, so he
shelters in the doorway of a dive bar scrawling what he just thought on a napkin.
The rain seems to banish a lot of static, and for a few hours he gets just a glimpse
of the spirits secreted in lively Iranian hand gestures, sees little furry faces furtively
peer up from under a rain mac as Jenny scuttles for the bus.
Just a few miles away, something like the Iliad is erupting within the power
squabbles of Wall Street, and a distant relative of Beowulf is wandering Central
Park looking for his Grendel.
He watches with his peregrine eyes; seeing knights in panther skin erupt from the
subway speaking swiftly in a kind of bardic hip-hop, he spies pummelling battles of
seething love almost on the scale of Tristan and Isolde taking place at low volume
and high intensity in the dark corner of the coffee shop. You’d have to be mad not
to see it. It’s not whole stories he’s beholding but moments, images, something of a
frenetic jumble. Not quite a myth, but mythic. Hints really. We have the image but
not the narrative. For a myth you’d need a more sophisticated pattern. Something
you could build on. Not a leap but a bridge. For a myth you need something more
than an entirely human point of view.
As humans we’re not living myth, we’re living myths. Plural. They compete. There
are differing stories constantly trying to be told through us, different temples that
seek our libation. That send us crazy till we blurt them out. There are perspectives
in us that aren’t even human; there are thoughts that swoop wonkily through with
the bright flashes of a jungle bird, or are preserved perfectly in peat until we are
ready to be thought by them.
Some thinking is very patient. It will wait years for us to catch up.
But the hour is getting late now. And when the stories we tell only have a human
directive peering back at us we start to get very lost. We hypnotise ourselves with
our own gaze. In such a moment it is quite possible to bury your heart under a rock
and quite forget where you put it.
But he means what he says: some of the rough gods are still amongst us—and
not just the porcelain ones that look a little like us on a good day, but the big bad
bunch—the raggle-taggle, rhino-tusked menagerie of the Original Ensemble, the
Other Folk, the Gentry, the Benji. He knows you’ve glimpsed them, once or twice.
They are gnawing on the edge of these sentences.
The Otherworld is this one, when it chooses.
It’s a convenience to believe that the Old Gods are leaving. Gives us permission for
all kinds of nonsense. That they are sitting in the departure lounge of Heathrow
and LAX with hurt feelings, waving old bones about and shaking their heads.
Clambering into some metaphysical elevator that’s going to deposit them in a
nursing home for Abandoned Primordials on the other side of Pluto.
We have to stop saying that they die if we stop thinking about them. That’s a
Yet that’s what so many claim mythology is—us thinking these beings up.
But what if they were allowing us to think them? What if we were getting thought?
Not as manikin puppets, but as part of a profound conversation we can barely
remember the moves for anymore.
If they are fled, we can indulge sentimental feelings about them and not worry a jot
about crafting a life beautiful and unexpected enough to make them purr.
If they are fled, then we can start to feel sorry for them. That’s very foolish.
If they are fled, we can’t remember which temple we serve in anymore. And we’re
all serving something.
One of the canoes they love to travel in is myth. One of the runways they land on
is the tongue of the storyteller. That could be you.
Let no one tell you that the old stories don’t work our bones over. That all we
have is bled out photocopies and cheques that the soul can’t cash. Whilst that’s
occasionally the case, it’s by no means the rule. Take courage.
Magic is simply messier and more agile than that kind of morose timeline. We can’t
be telling our kids that.
Trust the bone house of your own body in this regard. When you flush, wince,
shriek and swell your heart to a tale well told, there is torchlight on the wall of
Chauvet Cave. It’s a form of cruelty to the story to suggest otherwise.
But friend, you have to know that the old stories come with consequence. They
will ask they will ask they will ask something of you. They will ask you to change
They are talking to our left brain, right brain, serpent brain, gorilla brain, elegantcloud-
over-moisty-hills brain, old brain, new brain, skeptical brain, exhausted
parent brain, terrified brain, celibate brain, horny brain, hands extended into the
nourishing dark that hangs over a late summer cornfield brain, strategic brain,
hang-it-all please god almighty let me taste real love one last time before they
throw me in the clay brain. All the brains.
He repeats: the gods haven’t fled, they’re not sulking, but they do want your