More Than True: The Wisdom of Fairy Tales

More Than True: The Wisdom of Fairy Tales

by Robert Bly


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National Book Award-winning poet and author of the internationally best-selling Iron John, Robert Bly revisits a selection of fairy tales and examines how these enduring narratives capture the essence of human nature.

Few forms of storytelling have greater power to captivate the human mind than fairy tales, but where do these tales originate from, and what do they mean? Celebrated poet and bestselling author Robert Bly has been asking these questions throughout his career. Here Bly looks at six tales that have stood the test of time and have captivated the poet for decades, from “The Six Swans” to “The Frog Prince.” Drawing on his own creative genius, and the work of a range of thinkers from Kirkegaard and Yeats to Freud and Jung, Bly turns these stories over in his mind to bring new meaning and illumination to these timeless tales.

Along with illustrations of each story, the book features some of Bly's unpublished poetry, which peppers his lyric prose and offers a look inside the mind of an American master of letters in the twilight of his singular career.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250158192
Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
Publication date: 03/27/2018
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.29(w) x 7.74(h) x 0.81(d)

About the Author

Robert Bly is an American poet, author, activist and leader of the mythopoetic men's movement. His book Iron John: A Book About Men was a key text of the movement, and spent 62 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. He won the 1968 National Book Award for poetry for his book The Light Around the Body. He lives in Minneapolis, MN.

Read an Excerpt



As the story begins, a King, who has hunted "too hotly," is separated from the rest of the hunting party and soon finds himself lost in the forest, where he comes upon an old witch. He asks her whether she can help him find his way out of the forest. "Oh yes, indeed I can. But there's a condition first. If you don't agree to it, you won't find your way out at all and you'll starve and die here." "What's the condition then?" "Make my daughter your Queen. If you agree to that, I will help you."

The King agreed and followed the witch to her hut, where the daughter was waiting. She was beautiful — though he did not like her. Still, he set her up on his horse and they made their way to the palace, where they soon married.

The King and his first wife had brought to birth seven children — six boys and a girl. They loved them all beyond telling. The mother had died, and since the King feared the new Queen might not treat them kindly, he kept the children so concealed in the forest that he himself could find them only by means of a ball of yarn a wise woman had given him. As the ball unrolled in front of him, he had only to follow the yarn to find the lonely castle where they lived. He went so often to see them that the new Queen grew suspicious. She commanded the servants to follow him and report back to her. They told her about the ball of yarn.

The new Queen had a plan: she made seven shirts of white silk and sewed a charm into each one. Then she found where the King had hidden the ball of yarn, took it, and followed it to the castle where the children waited for a visit from their father. When the boys ran out to greet him, the stepmother threw a shirt over each one and their bodies were changed into those of swans. The Queen didn't know about their sister. She thought she had done away with all the children.

When the King visited the castle, he found the little girl alone and he asked about her brothers. She said they had flown over the forest in the shape of swans and now she was by herself in the castle. The King wanted to take her home with him, but the girl was afraid of the stepmother and begged him to let her stay another night. That night she walked out into the forest and kept walking day and night until she found a little hut with six beds in it. Not daring to sleep in one of the beds, she lay down on the floor, where she slept until she heard the rustle of wings and saw swans coming in through the windows. As soon as they took off their swans' skins she saw they were her brothers. They greeted each other with great joy, but soon the brothers said, "You can't stay here. Robbers live here. If they come home they'll kill you." "You can't help me?" "No. We have only a quarter of an hour as humans. Then we're swans again." The little girl said, "Can't I set you free?" "Well, if you're willing to go for six years without speaking a single word, or laughing, and to spend the whole time sewing shirts of starwort for each one of us you could — but that's too hard." Then the brothers changed to swans and flew away.

The girl left the hut and went to the forest to sit all night in a tree. When she woke she began sewing the first starwort shirt. The King of a different country was out hunting, and when his men asked her what she was doing alone in the forest, she simply kept on sewing. They kept pestering her until she threw down her jewels one by one and bits of her clothing until she was there in nothing but her slip. The men climbed the tree and brought her down for the King to question her. But she wouldn't answer.

The girl was so beautiful that the King fell in love with her. He put his mantle around her shoulders, set her on his horse, and when he got her to his castle he dressed her so richly that she shone more brightly than his palace or any of his courtiers. The King decided he must marry her, and so he did.

Meanwhile the King's mother saw that the new Queen was mute and thought she wasn't worthy of her son, so when their first child was born she took it away and smeared the mother's mouth with blood. She wouldn't speak a word in her own defense, but the King refused to think ill of her. Still, when the same thing happened two more times, the King gave his wife over to the court and she was sentenced to die by fire.

The day she was to die was the last day of the six years that she was forbidden to speak or laugh. She had finished all but the sleeve of the last shirt and she carried all six over her arm to the stake on the hill where she was to meet her death. She looked up and saw six swans flying so close to her that she was able to throw a shirt over each one. The brothers returned to their human form, except for the youngest, who still had a wing descending from his shoulder. They all kissed one another and the girl went to her husband and said, "Dear one, I have been accused, but I am innocent." And then she told him that his own mother had taken away their children and had accused her falsely. The King had great joy when he saw his wife's six brothers. He ordered his mother bound to the stake, where she was burned to death. Then the King and the Queen and the six brothers lived in peace and happiness the rest of their lives.

* * *

In the ancient tales we receive as fairy stories, a human being may suffer transformation and de-evolution: through ill luck a man or a woman may be turned into a frog as in "The Frog Prince," or into a raven or a mouse, fish, ox, and so on. A bird is another favorite. Birds inhabit both air and earth worlds. In a bird we touch on the qualities of lightness, heavenliness, freedom from earth, flight from enclosure, and ascension into light. With the swan, we have joined the water world as well.

If we consider the characters of "The Six Swans" as making up a human family, or even a single human being, we see the tangled history of the swan boy. He will eat, work, sleep, and act in earthly ways, but without the help of a father. He will have fear of conventional relationships, fear of taking one job, one career, one artistic form, or one religion. He is full of longing, and he can fly long distances and migrate to other countries. He prefers light to dark and the transpersonal to the person. He feels himself to be special. Even when he becomes a man in body, his psyche will remain "the eternal boy" or the "puer aeternus." He senses something precious and secret inside himself, and he is aware that a relationship might destroy that precious thing. He becomes a "boy god." For a young male with such longings, fears, and abilities, a bird does very well as a symbol — and the long-necked swan even better.

I feel something immensely significant in the brief scene of the King's turning to a negative female power for help in leaving the forest. The King has been hunting too hotly and is lost. How much do we know of the early life of our fathers? This introductory drumroll to the story seems a true prelude for the lives of so many men I know. The King chooses protection from the risk of finding his own way and chooses magical escape over discipline and suffering. With that rejection of risk, he rejects his own destiny. This is a common choice in a culture such as ours in which the help that would have come through initiation has been lost.

Adults live in fear of one kind or another — fear of failure, poverty, isolation, fear of loss of soul in the destruction of the earth. Those fears create a mood of "being lost in the forest." Men in their twenties and thirties respond to those fears by leaning on a corporation, or an addiction, and sometimes by living off a woman, which can have the unanticipated effect of putting him in touch with a negative side of her nature. The King's solution, when fearing for his own life, was to accept the witch's way out.

After his children are hidden away in the forest, the King is in a relatively comfortable situation, and he dozes away and dreams of what actually needs to be done — while his Queen makes de-evolving shirts for his offspring. In fairy tales, a "dead" mother often continues to help her children through a prayer or a gift. But in stories that allow the mother to truly die, we the listeners can distinguish two sides of the mother that we spend so much childhood energy denying.

Though our mothers may have acted in a nourishing, supportive, protective, self-sacrificing, and empathetic way, we know that every human has a shadowy, hostile side that invades our lives at times and seizes us. It can be reckless, devouring, destructive, undermining, and self-aggrandizing. In fairy tales, this cluster of attitudes, impulses, and behavior patterns is called "the stepmother." In the swans' story, the death of the "good mother" lets us see this shadowy side clearly. Like her mother, the witch, the new Queen possesses moon magic — sideways, dark-winged methods of doing and knowing. This one knows about the longing to de-evolve.

If we apply this story to the family, we could say that the son who becomes ungrounded, flighty, airy, a puer aeternus or flying boy, has a father whose male destiny has already suffered a wound. Such a father can succumb to pressure to live a life others want him to live, or some twisting of his nature through religious heavy-handedness, or some squashing of his adventuresomeness by poverty and necessity. When there is this failure in the father, the young males never receive the grounding they need. The father removes himself from his sons, and he is unable to pass down the stiffening of the will, the strengthening of the soul, and the concentration of spirit that the old initiatory male groups worked to pass down to the young men. His entanglement with his own losses and distractions has already caused him to accept the witch. The son — our King — is acting out his father's wound and making it visible.

The witch force may take the shape of a general nervousness in the family, a sense of remoteness, or an unspoken desire that the son lead a higher life than the father is living. In a house where the husband lives no spiritual life or inner life, or the wife is left to take care of the physical or object world by herself, all her busyness becomes a form of not doing in her own life. She doesn't pray, she doesn't dance. Not praying and not dancing are forces in the house, forces for not doing — no creation of art, no drawing or painting, no intimate conversation with a spouse, no creation of grief-speech together, no poems written about paths lost or never found, no "depth" in the house. The power of non-doing is like a black hole — it is stronger than any of the galaxies.

I have experienced this grief, and I know it. Men who have lived as swans are aware that all human beings move toward their own fulfillment, and yet the swan man de-evolves. He seems to himself special. He wants special food, a special road without caring whether someone else has no food at all. He believes it is right for him to have what he wants. This callousness fits perfectly the fate that the cowardice of his father led him to. He is remote from all men. He feels himself a man among men for only fifteen minutes a day.

Rainer Maria Rilke, in the following poem, says that if a father leads a religious life, his children will bless him even if he has left the house. But if he refuses to lead a religious life, he remains in the house as a kind of dark force:

Sometimes a man stands up during supper And walks outdoors, and keeps on walking,
And another man, who remains inside his own house,
The little girl in the story — the seventh child — is most likely an inner female among the male aspects of the young man. If we wanted to call her "the soul," I think it would be all right. When a man has lost his destiny and flown away, his soul remains behind. It is this soul that grieves. It is often through our grieving that we first notice the soul at all. Once the de-evolving shirts fall on the boys, the threads back to their father, the King, are broken.

The scene in which the soul comes upon the forest hut moves me deeply.

My soul must have had this experience often. Perhaps the traveling psyche remembers the scene from dreams. Or it could be that some early civilizations created and lived a ritual around this hut and the afterimage lingers. The hut has an eerie quality. It is empty of people, and the objects — the beds, window frames, and rugs — wait for the spirit beings to return. The objects seem filled with some great sorrow and absence, as a body whose spirit has left. We remember that the shaman's body lies on the floor when his soul is flying elsewhere; and his relatives sit about, anxiously waiting, softly beating a drum in this world, holding it down, keeping it stable for the stretched-out, waiting body.

In the story, at dusk six swans fly in through the window where their sister rests stretched out on the floor, waiting. They settle down, blow the feathers off each other's bodies, and stand before her as six young men. In certain Japanese stories the storyteller has a goddess appear from the sky rather than swans. What we call "sky" they call the "celestial realm."

We imagine this little hut as a place of the divine, a temple, some sort of sacred precinct, in which exchanges between the human culture and the divine occur; or, as depth psychology has it, a place full of possibility, awe, and intensity where the archetypes, rising from levels of the psyche utterly inaccessible to the ego, meet, if briefly, with the fearful, frail, attentive human soul.

That meeting, like the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary, trembles with the future; the moment itself is pregnant. All possibilities inherent in our history hover over the roof or behind the half-open doors; the little beds and tables flow with secret life, penetrating the room from the other world. This intensity will prove too much for human beings and when the sister asks to stay with the brothers, they say that robbers live in the hut, too, and if they find her there they will kill her. They tell her they can only be human for one quarter of an hour each day and then they must turn into swans again. They are hardly in the world at all, and they cannot act as protectors for her during the time when they are not human. The girl says she would like to free them. "No. It's too hard. For six years you couldn't speak or laugh, and in that time you'd have to sew six little shirts of starwort. If a single word fell from your lips, all the work would be lost."

Then the brothers turn into swans again and fly away.

What does it mean, this detail: "This is a shelter for robbers: if they come home and find you, they will kill you"? From one point of view, the six boys are themselves the robbers: men like this, who are not earthly and are committed to nothing but their own ease of movement. They live at the edge of the world, and they prowl about the borders of society and take from it more than they give.

The business of living alongside robbers also seems to have a meaning. In The Golden Ass by Apuleius, important events happen to the hero when he is in the robbers' cave. And the male hero in the Brothers Grimm's "The Raven" finds himself among robbers. Robbers allow certain greeds to appear naked. Civilized people generally dress them up in pants and suits. Robbers take what they want, without worrying about what is best for the society as a whole; in that way, they resemble complexes that steal psychic energy when they can. A failure complex, a miser's complex, and a sexual complex absorb into their system libido that might have gone to other people, nature, the nation, art. Over the course of the psyche's slow unfolding, we experience what it is like to be among these naked energy-grabbers; their power over us and their ruthlessness become clear. We have experienced the robbers' fanatical energy absorption all our lives without realizing what it was. To know these robbers well and to humanize their complex is difficult and requires labor and constant insight.

So the soul has to leave this small hut where the dangers are too great and the inhuman powers too strong, and go about her work of redeeming the six brothers out of doors. Her tasks have been described to her.

Our whole grasp of the redemption or cure of the swan boys depends on how well we understand the metaphor of their sister's work and her silence. We could say that "recovering your destiny is like living for six years making entire shirts from delicate, easily broken blossoms." That is how it looks when we imagine that our job is to help the King, or the center of the psyche, rediscover our destiny. If we imagine that the task of the soul is to help the young male become human again, recover his ground, that is, to help the young male descend from his compulsive, rather heartless spirituality so that he can commit himself to hunting-gathering, or agriculture, or fatherhood, or husbandhood, or religious fierceness, or love itself, the task is like living for six years without talking or laughing, and it is like making entire shirts from delicate blossoms.


Excerpted from "More Than True"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Robert Bly.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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Table of Contents

Introduction xi


The Six Swans 1

The Frog Prince 35

The Lindworm 57

The Dark Man 79

One-Two Man 99

The White Bear King Valemon 125

Acknowledgments 169

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