We left our young man triumphant in battle. He returns the horse and army to Iron John, asking for the hobblety-jig in exchange. His return is far from appreciated at the castle, since he looks the same as when he left, and folks cannot imagine a gardener's boy on a lame horse as any sort of warrior. In explaining events to his daughter, the king tells her it was "a stranger knight" who carried the day. She asks who the stranger was, but her father is clueless. Like Cinderella's dances with the prince, our young man's going to get three tries, representing his development towards mastery, development which could take many years in one person's life. She's got some ideas about the stranger, though; she asks the gardener
"where his boy was, but he smiled, and said 'he has just come home on his three-legged horse, and the others have been mocking him...They asked, too, 'Under what hedge hast thou been lying sleeping all the time?' He, however, said,'I did the best of all, and it would have gone badly without me'. And then he was still more ridiculed."
Under what bush, indeed? Or perhaps more appropriately- what tree? Can't find the owner of this CG photo (Tezzan-10?), but it's kind of fun-
The unknown...ooooh...still unknown to him, anyway...
The golden apple is a symbol of immortality- but that doesn't surprise us, since gold itself is immortality, right? The first image here, of Idunn, is the Norse version of this archetype; Idunn keeps the gods immortal by feeding them apples from her tree. All those gods waiting in line, like businessmen at the coffee shop waiting to get a shot of invincibility... In Greco-Roman tradition it's either Hera or Juno whose golden apple tree or orchard supplies immortality apples. Hera was gifted the tree(s) of the Hesperides by Gaia as a wedding gift, in fact.
The apple is a fairly big symbol in European culture, in part because the word once meant "fruit". I did a bit on the golden apple for a Snow White interp on 10/14/13. Why are these apples feminine? The same reason flowers are, the same reason that goddesses like Hecate midwife initiations. Apples are here representing the sort of psychospiritual development which is part of our very natural embodied (read: earth element) human journeys. Human embodied experience mimics in many ways the natural developmental cycles of the life forms on Earth, part of the wisdom of earth element; there is not one organism on Earth we do not share traits and experiences with. That's why we can use this elemental approach to wisdom. Alchemy uses the very nature of human experience to expand consciousness.
Fruit, as in apples, is the mature end of the tree's yearly growth cycle. Thus they are "owned" by the more or less young adult Divine Mother archetype (flowers are more often attributed to the maidenly). So gold + apple= human psychospiritual maturation. Something was planted in the psyche, it sprouted, grew, flowered, and then fruited. Remember the key under Mom's pillow? Ta-da! Symbolic fun! The apple and the key are basically the same; the youth will have to catch the feminine apple just as he needed to retrieve the key. Notice the image above includes a key and an owl, wisdom animal- and the treasure chest it opens would be the soul-treasure Iron John possesses, a subset of Wisdom, or the Wise Fool, which implies the Wise King.
"'It is safe as if thou hadst it already'", he responds.
This easily ignored phrase is a great wisdom teaching in and of itself; the seed-blessings of the immortal life, the abundant life, we already have, safe "inside", like the regenerative seeds in the apple which will grow to be a huge tree, creating exponentially more and more and more. Who knows how much abundance has proceeded over generations from just one good apple seed?
"'Thou shalt likewise have a suit of red armor for the occasion, and ride on a spirited red horse'" , he adds.
Of course all goes as planned, and the mysterious Red Knight, with his female intimacy connection, carries off the golden apple thrown by the princess, like Idunn giving apples of immortality to the gods.
Within are three birds colored red, black, and white. So let's begin with the boy's finger; red. There are different ways to order the colors in the alchemical process, but here's the one I prefer; red, black, white. The theory is only that, anyway, and in real life the experiences the colors depict are neither particularly ordered, nor discrete, separate from the others, in themselves. Red in this view is the sacred wound, the boy's pinch in the door, Sleeping Beauty's bloody finger prick, the pain that cocreated our disconnection, fear, and suffering. In this case, then, red is the original stimulus to the whole process. It points out that the whole human transformational game would probably never happen if we were always comfy and cozy; thus the cosmic nature of the old Genesis sweaty toiling and the birth pains. Pain and suffering of all kinds is the universal transformational spur.
Similarly, red symbolizes sacrifice, the blood-letting. "Sacrifice" comes from "to make sacred". It refers to giving it up, giving it over to a higher power, transforming through realizing the ethereal, unified nature in something, viewing it from the immortal, golden apple perspective. The immortal perspective is, of course love-light-unity. Lest we get bogged down with the intellectual challenges of understanding alchemy;
After they are formed, the pains and traumas and wrong-doings become our egoic armor; they are actually a way of getting through the day, of relating to others, of keeping us safe from the overwhelming infinite possibilities of life, our personal hobblety-jig. And the personality is naturally in avoidance of disruptions in its beliefs and other foundational structures such as psychological suffering (suffering is not pain, but rather the interpretation of pain). It's hard to say whether it's the grief that follows loss which the stagnant personalty is avoiding, or whether the personality creates the grief through avoidance. It's all one event, really.
Suffering that's the result of loss is one sort of blackness or nigredo, next stop on the color-coded triad of transformation. There are other ways to experience the nigredo; for example, when we interpret our pain in certain ways, it creates shadow material, as when the boy lost a hair in the well. Shadow is the stuff about life and self that we have rejected or repressed or never met. It could be the existentially cocreated blackness, the rejected aspects of self. It could be conclusions drawn from the personality's perspective that we are small, powerless, that there's nothing lively in our experience, that we don't belong, etc. etc. These are all interpretations of our existential disconnectedness which lead us into the black, the nigredo. Sounds like a prescription for that increasingly common experience in my society, depression, right?
Nigredo in this story would initially be represented in the king's dark state of fear and restriction, of separation from the unified state. Later, his powerlessness is depicted in the losing battle he fights. If red, the rubedo, is the pain of separation which is remembered in particular ways (Mom ignored me, Dad hit me, my boyfriend left me, the kids made fun of me, I got asthma, I grew up in poverty, etc.), then its often long term results would be the nigredo. It's the blackness we created through our black-and-white ways of interpreting life. There's more to it, as there is to the rubedo, but this is a quickie.
The skeleton stands on the alchemical Black Sun, which has various symbolic interpretations. Mine is this; in the soul's dark, inner container, we can face our fears, transforming them, discovering the life-giving sun that hides therein. It's a sort of inner soul-sun that rises when we understand our immortality through the nigredo process. Notice how the angels raise the death-figure while the alchemical sun and moon, masculine and feminine, smile upon this inner event. It's like being psychically raised from the dead; I think those might be grave stones in the background.
And in the grave here's what happens; putrifaction, or putrefactio in Latin on the drawing. It's the process of dissolving biological matter back into its essential elements. It's the old identity falling away; in the nigredo sense this dissolution might be due to depression, illness, disappointment, a car wreck, career crash, some garden variety experience of loss which returns us to the old unadorned ground of our woundedness, our old rubedo begging to be transformed. We are returned to old feelings and thoughts of separation and negative self judgment, and in a sense are challenged to do battle with them, though the soul-battles are going to involve a form of losing from the personality's perspective.
Our suffering shadow and its nigredo state can become a habit; like the idea of arrested initiations, we can also get stuck in the middle of the alchemical process. Such blackness often manifests as judgement of others and how they have mistreated us, or the old "Hell In A Handbasket" attitude, as I call it. We imagine things are just going from bad to worse in the world, in the country, the human race, etc. etc... but since we are all One, that's got to affect our own experience of self.
However, sometimes our old sufferings are transformed through facing death, or fear, through traveling to those realms beneath the everyday, conditioned persona, and then we have the albedo, the white, ethereal, purified state. It's unity consciousness, since white is all colors. That's not the way it's going in this story, though the second outfit our youth gets for his apple-catching is indeed white. He snags the apple, gallops off, and the king is pissed.
"'That is not allowed; he must appear before me and tell his name.' He gave the order that if the knight who caught the apple should go away again they should pursue him, and if he did not come back willingly, they were to cut him down and stab him."
This whole stabbing thing is going to be the plot device for revealing the true nature of the youth, and therefore the insertion of white before black. In truth, there is no reliable progression to the three colors. In that plot turn regard, the stabbing hints at the albedo trait of clarity, of truth. The truth (or even Truth) will be revealed through the wound (the rubedo) itself. The petulant king is obviously still hung up in his hierarchical valuation of things; "That is not allowed". Mr. Bossy Pants- like when he ordered the wild man into the cage, ordered the boy out of kitchen service. He thinks he's better than everyone else; he thinks he's got to control things. Maybe he was thwarted overmuch when he was a toddler...
Next day the princess asks the gardener about his assistant; the gardener claims his gardener's boy was at the festival and had "'likewise shown my children three apples which he has won.'" She must have talked with the king about this, for he summons the garden-lad, who arrives with his usual cap.
"But the King's daughter went up to him and took it off, and then his golden hair fell down over his shoulders, and he was so handsome that all were amazed."
Now everyone else in this psyche, including the king, sees the beauty of the radiant masculine soul! Yay! No more self betrayals!
"'Art thou the knight who came every day to the festival, always in different colors, and who caught the three golden apples?' asked the King."
The youth takes the apples from his pocket and says "'If thou desirest further proof, thou mayest see the wound which thy people gave me when they followed me. But I am likewise the knight who helped thee to thy victory over thine enemies.'"
So the connections are all made; the radiant masculine and his humble inner connection with the feminine elements, the one who dealt masterfully with the king's unbalanced state of self-betrayal, the wounded one, and our original protagonist king, are One; that's an albedo moment! The king with the wounded thigh (as close as we can respectably get to those magic wand-magic sword-royal sceptre private parts) is a medieval theme found in the Arthurian cycle as the Fisher King or Wounded King. The gardener's boy goes on to inform the king that he, himself, is of royal blood, which doesn't surprise people who do Jungian style interpretations and assume all characters are inner figures in one psyche; "'... and gold have I in plenty, as great as I require.'" We recognize this statement; it's the teaching of the wild man, Iron John. The youth has matured, as the apples insinuate, to a level of mastery that allows him to embody the powers and abundance of the wild soul.
"The maiden laughed, and said, 'He does not stand much on ceremony, but I have already seen by his golden hair that he was no gardener's boy,' and then she went and kissed him."
Obviously she doesn't stand on ceremony, either; again soul centered disdain for social conventions and restraints, associated with the wild man, is referred to. The youth's mother and father come to the wedding
"and as they were sitting at the marriage-feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a stately King came in with a great retinue. He went up to the youth, embraced him, and said, 'I am Iron John, and I was by enchantment a wild man, but thou hast set me free; all the treasure which I possess, shall be thy property.'"
Well it seems rather obvious that, since Iron John is giving all his treasure to the youth, symbolically they are probably the same person. The word "reclamation" is popular in Jungian psych, as a way to think of the alchemical endgame. We reclaim our inner soul treasure; here the youth is deeded the same by the soul king. We can see this as an albedo-unification moment. The two (or many) are now one- in the case of the humble inner child being recognized as king, in the alchemical marriage between prince and princess, in the reclaiming of the infinite wealth of the inner soul centered wild man. "Enchantments" in fairy tales like this one are meant to represent the ways in which we cover over our true nature through identifying with the conditioned personality. The word hints at the magical cocreative partnership of intellectual mind, and soul or cosmic mind, in fact; "chant" means to sing. When the enchantment or spell is broken, we have uncovered truth, or maybe even Truth.
So that's a wrap! Thanks for hanging in there! By the way, my e book Poetry in Motion (link is on the sidebar) includes a symbolic review of The Fisher King starring Robin Williams and Jeff Bridges. You do not need a hand held device to read e books, all you need is a computer.
And here's another black knight who always wins...
After the lyric follows the group I first heard it from- Traffic, who titled an album after the song. Not a great recording, but it's nice to see a live performance on such a tune...a number of British groups recorded this tune at that time- late 60's early 70's- during the British Folk Revival. Traffic was a rock group.
There were three men came out of the west, their fortunes for to try
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn must die
They've plowed, they've sown, they've harrowed him in
Threw clods upon his head
And these three men made a solemn vow
John Barleycorn was dead
They've let him lie for a very long time, 'til the rains from heaven did fall
And little Sir John sprung up his head and so amazed them all
They've let him stand 'til Midsummer's Day 'til he looked both pale and wan
And little Sir John's grown a long long beard and so become a man
They've hired men with their scythes so sharp to cut him off at the knee
They've rolled him and tied him by the way, serving him most barbarously
They've hired men with their sharp pitchforks who've pricked him to the heart
And the loader he has served him worse than that
For he's bound him to the cart
They've wheeled him around and around a field 'til they came onto a pond
And there they made a solemn oath on poor John Barleycorn
They've hired men with their crabtree sticks to cut him skin from bone
And the miller he has served him worse than that
For he's ground him between two stones
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl and his brandy in the glass
And little Sir John and the nut brown bowl proved the strongest man at last
The huntsman he can't hunt the fox nor so loudly to blow his horn
And the tinker he can't mend kettle or pots without a little barleycorn