Why men need community and compassion: “The White Snake” fairy tale

(photo credit: Steve Jurvetson via Flickr / Creative Commons)

Fairy tales for men?  These four words seem guaranteed to turn off most men from reading any further.  But hold up – if you’ve ever felt alone, hurt or confused by a romantic partner, tremendously angry without explanation, or confused about what it means to be a man in our changing times – then please read on.

Fairy tales can teach us about our culture and what’s important for manhood.  We need a new understanding of manhood today, as in modern America we have almost no positive role models for men.  Instead, it seems that what’s been popular for the past several generations are celebrity and executive role models who are often chauvinistic, womanizing, ignorant of their children and/or spouses, hot-tempered, or even violent (in their words and/or actions).

Many men can feel stuck and not have the teachers, mentors, or advice about how to make positive changes in their lives.  Other men may feel tremendously hurt, for various reasons, and act out of that hurt in vociferous or even violent ways.  It is curious that almost all the domestic violence and public shootings are perpetrated by men.

One way forward is to dust off cultural stories that existed before the twentieth century and see what they have to teach us.  As odd as it may sound to anyone reading this under age forty, fairy tales have some credibility as reflection tools for adults.  Carl Jung, the psychiatrist who co-founded the C.G. Jung Institute Zurich and who pioneered “Analytical Psychology and Psychotherapy”, viewed fairy tales as helpful for revealing archetypes that exist in our subconscious and are informed by our collective experiences [see the Jung About page here].

Maria Tatar, in her introduction to her translation and annotations of “The Annotated Brothers Grimm” (2012), asserts that, “The tales not only reflect psychic realities and lived experience, they have also shaped lives through their construction of cultural anxieties and desires.”  In summarizing the work of scholars who have studied fairy tales, she writes that many fairy tales have been forged over centuries by a fascinating array of intermingling cultures:

“…each fairy tale presents us with a multivoiced [sic] discourse, blending the high with the low, combining the coarse humor of peasants with the bon mots of aristocrats, the racy style of a raconteur with the poetic turn of phrase from an author, the adventuring spirit of the seaman with the focused domestic concentration of the spinner.” (p. xliii)

In the nineteen eighties and nineties, a range of books emerged from writers like Robert Bly, Robert A. Johnson, and Marion Woodman– all influenced by Carl Jung – who explored the relevance of fairy tales to topics including self-awareness, masculinity, femininity, coming of age and initiation, and healthy families.  Examples include Bly’s “Iron John”, Johnson’s “The Fisher King and the Handless Maiden”, and Bly and Woodman’s “The Maiden King: The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine”.

Philip Culbertson’s book, “New Adam: The Future of Male Spirituality” (1992), can appear to be aimed only at Christian men.  But the book may appeal more broadly to anyone who has lost their faith but grew up in a Christian setting or who is looking for refreshingly universal insights on manhood.  Dr. Culbertson, who is a trained psychotherapist, ordained Episcopal priest, and skilled translator, writes with a clarity and perspective that is welcoming to readers of various faith backgrounds.

In the early chapters, Culbertson provides a compassionate, compelling, and concise assessment of the challenges for modern men (my only caveat being that he makes some claims of the role of embryonic development that aren’t clearly referenced and as a result, sounded more like conjecture than science).  Then he moves into “texts of terror” for men.  These are stories in which men wound, shame, and violently attack other men and violate women – stories that, it almost goes without saying, men need to stop reading and letting themselves be influenced by.  Examples include King David and Absalom from the Old Testament(2 Samuel: 13-18).

Next, Culbertson highlights Biblical stories that he believes still point the way to modern, mature manhood, focusing on Jesus and the relationship between Jonathan and David.  Finally, he ends with recommendations for how men can reconnect and form male-male friendships and men’s communities concerned with developing mature men.

He also responds to Robert Bly and “Iron John: A Book About Men” (1990), which was a New York Times bestseller at the time of Culbertson’s book.  Bly was then one of the most prominent leaders of the so-called “mythopoetic men’s movement” [for a helpful overview, watch this documentary by Bill Moyers, with Robert Bly].  Culbertson kindly but astutely picks apart Bly’s use of “Iron John” (originally “Iron Hans”), a Brothers Grimm fairy tale in which a “Wild Man” from a dark and dangerous forest takes away a young boy and initiates him into manhood.  Then the boy continues on adventures and ultimately ends up satisfying the challenges of a princess to win her hand.  There are some interesting aspects of Bly’s allegorical interpretation of the fairy tale, including his exploration of descent for men and of the value of reflection and meditation for men.

But Culbertson has several valid criticisms of the use of “Iron John” as a universal example for men.  Culbertson argues that the Wild Man of “Iron John” signifies nothing more than the “rugged individualist” model that has caused men so much pain in the last century.  Second, Culbertson’s experience as a therapist and spiritual counselor suggests that men who attempt to seek their “Wild Man” can’t always find it, nor may they want to find such a primitive and un-disciplined force in themselves.  Bly also seems to ignore the value of men’s community and the nurturing and compassionate energies that Culbertson feels are essential for men to develop and mature.

Here’s how Culbertson introduces the fairy tale, “The White Snake,” as a better example of behaviors that men can emulate:

“Bly, then, seems off-base in thinking that contemporary American men need to connect with the primitive and isolationist myths buried deep inside ourselves…Instead we need to do this individual work within a larger body of like-minded males, in order to keep ourselves honest.  The first step then is to connect with the community of men.  Such connection will be facilitated by replacing our isolation myths with stories of the value of men’s working together in harmony with creation.  To this end, I offer one possible alternative to [“Iron John”]…that emphasizes creativity, dignity, the value of a nurturing response, and the importance of being connected to those who share with us [an awe for the wonders of life]” (p. 161). (Ed’s note: word changes in brackets to generalize the Christian perspective).

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Time to judge for yourself — here is “The White Snake,” as translated by Edgar Taylor and Marian Edwardes (public domain):

“A long time ago there lived a king who was famed for his wisdom through all the land. Nothing was hidden from him, and it seemed as if news of the most secret things was brought to him through the air. But he had a strange custom; every day after dinner, when the table was cleared, and no one else was present, a trusty servant had to bring him one more dish. It was covered, however, and even the servant did not know what was in it, neither did anyone know, for the king never took off the cover to eat of it until he was quite alone.

This had gone on for a long time, when one day the servant, who took away the dish, was overcome with such curiosity that he could not help carrying the dish into his room. When he had carefully locked the door, he lifted up the cover, and saw a white snake lying on the dish. But when he saw it he could not deny himself the pleasure of tasting it, so he cut of a little bit and put it into his mouth. No sooner had it touched his tongue than he heard a strange whispering of little voices outside his window. He went and listened, and then noticed that it was the sparrows who were chattering together, and telling one another of all kinds of things which they had seen in the fields and woods. Eating the snake had given him power of understanding the language of animals.

Now it so happened that on this very day the queen lost her most beautiful ring, and suspicion of having stolen it fell upon this trusty servant, who was allowed to go everywhere. The king ordered the man to be brought before him, and threatened with angry words that unless he could before the morrow point out the thief, he himself should be looked upon as guilty and executed. In vain he declared his innocence; he was dismissed with no better answer.

In his trouble and fear he went down into the courtyard and took thought how to help himself out of his trouble. Now some ducks were sitting together quietly by a brook and taking their rest; and, whilst they were making their feathers smooth with their bills, they were having a confidential conversation together. The servant stood by and listened. They were telling one another of all the places where they had been waddling about all the morning, and what good food they had found; and one said in a pitiful tone: ’Something lies heavy on my stomach; as I was eating in haste I swallowed a ring which lay under the queen’s window.’ The servant at once seized her by the neck, carried her to the kitchen, and said to the cook: ’Here is a fine duck; pray, kill her.’ ’Yes,’ said the cook, and weighed her in his hand; ’she has spared no trouble to fatten herself, and has been waiting to be roasted long enough.’ So he cut off her head, and as she was being dressed for the spit, the queen’s ring was found inside her.

The servant could now easily prove his innocence; and the king, to make amends for the wrong, allowed him to ask a favour, and promised him the best place in the court that he could wish for. The servant refused everything, and only asked for a horse and some money for travelling, as he had a mind to see the world and go about a little. When his request was granted he set out on his way, and one day came to a pond, where he saw three fishes caught in the reeds and gasping for water. Now, though it is said that fishes are dumb, he heard them lamenting that they must perish so miserably, and, as he had a kind heart, he got off his horse and put the three prisoners back into the water. They leapt with delight, put out their heads, and cried to him: ’We will remember you and repay you for saving us!’

He rode on, and after a while it seemed to him that he heard a voice in the sand at his feet. He listened, and heard an ant-king complain: ’Why cannot folks, with their clumsy beasts, keep off our bodies? That stupid horse, with his heavy hoofs, has been treading down my people without mercy!’ So he turned on to a side path and the ant-king cried out to him: ’We will remember you–one good turn deserves another!’

The path led him into a wood, and there he saw two old ravens standing by their nest, and throwing out their young ones. ’Out with you, you idle, good-for-nothing creatures!’ cried they; ’we cannot find food for you any longer; you are big enough, and can provide for yourselves.’ But the poor young ravens lay upon the ground, flapping their wings, and crying: ’Oh, what helpless chicks we are! We must shift for ourselves, and yet we cannot fly! What can we do, but lie here and starve?’ So the good young fellow alighted and killed his horse with his sword, and gave it to them for food. Then they came hopping up to it, satisfied their hunger, and cried: ’We will remember you–one good turn deserves another!’

White Snake illustration men community
“White Snake 1” Illustration by Walter Crane (public domain)

And now he had to use his own legs, and when he had walked a long way, he came to a large city. There was a great noise and crowd in the streets, and a man rode up on horseback, crying aloud: ’The king’s daughter wants a husband; but whoever seeks her hand must perform a hard task, and if he does not succeed he will forfeit his life.’ Many had already made the attempt, but in vain; nevertheless when the youth saw the king’s daughter he was so overcome by her great beauty that he forgot all danger, went before the king, and declared himself a suitor.

So he was led out to the sea, and a gold ring was thrown into it, before his eyes; then the king ordered him to fetch this ring up from the bottom of the sea, and added: ’If you come up again without it you will be thrown in again and again until you perish amid the waves.’ All the people grieved for the handsome youth; then they went away, leaving him alone by the sea.

He stood on the shore and considered what he should do, when suddenly he saw three fishes come swimming towards him, and they were the very fishes whose lives he had saved. The one in the middle held a mussel in its mouth, which it laid on the shore at the youth’s feet, and when he had taken it up and opened it, there lay the gold ring in the shell. Full of joy he took it to the king and expected that he would grant him the promised reward.

But when the proud princess perceived that he was not her equal in birth, she scorned him, and required him first to perform another task. She went down into the garden and strewed with her own hands ten sacksful of millet-seed on the grass; then she said: ’Tomorrow morning before sunrise these must be picked up, and not a single grain be wanting.’

The youth sat down in the garden and considered how it might be possible to perform this task, but he could think of nothing, and there he sat sorrowfully awaiting the break of day, when he should be led to death. But as soon as the first rays of the sun shone into the garden he saw all the ten sacks standing side by side, quite full, and not a single grain was missing. The ant-king had come in the night with thousands and thousands of ants, and the grateful creatures had by great industry picked up all the millet-seed and gathered them into the sacks.

Presently the king’s daughter herself came down into the garden, and was amazed to see that the young man had done the task she had given him. But she could not yet conquer her proud heart, and said: ’Although he has performed both the tasks, he shall not be my husband until he had brought me an apple from the Tree of Life.’ The youth did not know where the Tree of Life stood, but he set out, and would have gone on for ever, as long as his legs would carry him, though he had no hope of finding it. After he had wandered through three kingdoms, he came one evening to a wood, and lay down under a tree to sleep. But he heard a rustling in the branches, and a golden apple fell into his hand. At the same time three ravens flew down to him, perched themselves upon his knee, and said: ’We are the three young ravens whom you saved from starving; when we had grown big, and heard that you were seeking the Golden Apple, we flew over the sea to the end of the world, where the Tree of Life stands, and have brought you the apple.’ The youth, full of joy, set out homewards, and took the Golden Apple to the king’s beautiful daughter, who had now no more excuses left to make. They cut the Apple of Life in two and ate it together; and then her heart became full of love for him, and they lived in undisturbed happiness to a great age.”

(via authorama / public domain; for comparison, see the full text of “Iron John” / “Iron Hans” by the same translators)

White Snake men community fairy tale
“White Snake 3” illustration by Walter Crane (public domain)

Why does Culbertson find this story so compelling for modern men?  He believes the snake is a symbol for a flaccid penis (unfortunately he cites nothing to confirm if this is a typical interpretation; Maria Tatar makes no mention in her annotations), and so by learning how to control his sexual impulses, the servant acquires a new awareness.  He practices humility, denying a tremendous promotion to a place in the court, and instead requests meager supplies to roam the land and find himself.  His journey appears to be distracted by various beings needing his help.  But he improvises and helps them generously, and it is only because of the “cooperative efforts of his community of support,” as Culbertson writes, that he finds new solutions himself and ultimately achieves an unexpected but wonderful goal of meeting a woman he loves, who has exercised her autonomy as well in reciprocating his love.

In Culbertson’s conclusion to “The New Adam,” he writes:

“Christian men may not find easy answers within our extant spiritual heritage about what the new relationships of [men] might look like, but they have a clear indication of the values these new commitments will reflect:  compassion, integrity, flexibility, humility, mercy, pacifism, patience, fidelity, generosity, cooperation, intellectual honesty, and dependence on others who are also within the new community of men.” (p. 167)

I agree that this reading of “The White Snake” is an improvement over “Iron John,” though there are elements in “Iron John” that still resonate with modernity.  Men need stillness and relaxation, and resting in Nature or even learning a practice of prayer or meditation can strengthen this stillness and bring it into daily life.  (Culbertson would agree, as he dedicates a few chapters to prayer in “The New Adam”).  Men need good mentors, usually male and not their fathers, and “Iron John” at least features an older man mentoring a younger one, albeit in a rather rigid and cold manner.  (I can’t see the Wild Man practicing gratitude with the boy, or a bro!)

Beyond either fairy tale, there is a need for men to cultivate emotional awareness – not so that they can mimic women, but so that men can at least interact with their inner worlds instead of repressing their feelings as generations of men (and even women) have taught them to for generations.  Related to this, we need to cultivate more tight friendships with other men where we feel comfortable talking about feelings and life’s genuine joys and difficulties, instead of the usual dusting of women-as-objects, sports, money, and the weather.  With how men hang out these days, one wonders when do the real conversations – fears of divorce, for instance, or of loneliness, or worries over a career-altering political battle at work – get talked about?

Readers, what do you think?  Please share below.

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