There are certain characters in fairy tales who suffer justifiable outrage. It’s easy to be sympathetic with the outrage of the 13th wise woman who isn’t invited to the christening feast of the princess in The Briar Rose. She was dropped from the guest list because, according to the king, there were only twelve golden plates in the kitchen. She was erased on the basis of symmetry, and she was so mad that she crashed the party, and cursed the innocent child to death by a spindle prick at the age of 15.
I remember once working with a woman who had become the thirteenth wise woman. I asked her to describe where she was in the room. She could tell me details about the feasting table, the queen, the king, the other wise women. When I asked her what she didn’t notice, there was a pause and then she said, “The baby! I didn’t notice the baby!” That was a huge revelation for her. Rage really is blinding. One doesn’t see the innocent that is taking the missile.
I think about this story as I’m reading the news. It’s horrific to see what human beings are doing to one another out of their deep wounds. Every side has its story, and can very reasonably justify its rage but is there any reasonable justification for killing innocents?
What is going on in the world outside is going on inside. Who doesn’t know what it feels like to be justifiably outraged? And what do we do with this outrage if we don’t want to inflict further injury on someone else? Go into therapy? Go to the gym? Bash in a pillow? Lash out at ourselves?
The most extreme case of justifiable outrage I have ever encountered in a fairy tale is Prince Lindworm. Prince Lindworm was the first of twin sons born to a queen who did not follow the instructions of the wise woman who had made her pregnancy possible. As a result, he came out as a worm, a spineless black snake who wriggled out from under the sheets and disappeared so quickly that his horrified mother denied what had happened. It was a bad vision, a dream. Then the other baby came out: a perfect boy, whole and hale, and everybody celebrated him as the son and heir to the kingdom.
The lindworm grew up alone, in a cave, building a fury. He’d slip out at night, and slide up the castle wall, look in the window, and see how his brother lived. When his brother set out to find a wife, the lindworm, now grown huge, met him at the crossroads.
“A bride for me before a bride for you, brother,” he hissed.
When the queen heard what the lindworm had said to her son, she made a confession. In fact, he had a right to marry first because, actually, yes, he was the firstborn son and heir. The king tried to get the beast married off to the first princess who would have him (sight unseen, of course) and he ate her on their wedding night. The same thing happened with the second bride. Finally, the king decided to find a real wife for the lindworm — someone loving, kind and beautiful, and he settled on the daughter of a shepherd who was known to be the most compassionate person in the whole kingdom.
She was understandably distraught to be ordered to marry the lindworm, and she had a good case for her own justifiable outrage. She ran out into a thorn hedge, tore her clothes and skin to ribbons, and wept herself dry. Then an old crone showed up out the bole of a tree, and she told her what to do to transform the wounded lindworm. On her wedding night, she was to put on ten slips, gather a bundle of whips, and prepare one bath of milk and another of lye. When the lindworm came into the bedchamber after the ceremony and demanded that she shed her slip, she must counter his demand by saying, “Prince Lindworm, shed your skin.” The lindworm would be affronted, but he would not be able to avoid the shedding. It would happen whether he liked it or not. When his first skin came off, she would shed her slip, and then repeat the demand until all his skins came off, and all her slips came off, and he was roiling on the floor, a spineless, white mass of flesh. Then she was to dip the whips in lye and lash his tender flesh, and after, she was to bathe his wounds in milk, gather him into her arms, and embrace him.
She followed all the instructions to the letter, and, in the morning, the king and queen found them wrapped in one another’s arms, two naked, noble human beings. Twins, newly born.
What can this story tell us about what to do with wounds and hurts that can’t be seem to be forgiven or healed? Is it possible to become shepherdesses of our own selves, and to submit our justifiable outrage to the same shedding?
The lindworm was terribly hurt by an unjust fate, and it is natural that he would become armored and defended.
His armor didn’t provide him with an inner spine, though. It only gave him an exoskeleton of hard skins. His security depended on keeping intact a nasty, defended stance, but it was a brittle stance because he was easily triggered and unable to accept challenge, criticism, or anything that might make him vulnerable.
He needed the focused, courageous love of the shepherdess to peel off the layers of defenses, and expose the terrible hurts that had wounded him in the first place.
I’m staggered by the degree of self-love that is necessary to allow oneself to be reduced to that undefended mass of flesh that the lindworm became when all his skins had been shed. He felt everything, every stinging lash, and, of course, it is the height (or lowest depth) of injustice that one who was so wounded in the first place, should be so wounded again in order to reclaim the humanity which was his birthright.
I’ve thought for a long time about the outrageous injustice that was Prince LIndworm’s fate. The story brings me to the brink of something that I glimpse through the veils at the world’s edge. It’s something that I need to understand about our shared humanity. We are all wounded, and we are all profoundly outside the places where we know we are meant to be. Those who go very deeply into suffering, as the lindworm did, are exploring hard matters that take a great of courage to explore, and a great deal of love to transform.
I’m left with the feeling that somewhere, in the midst of his excruciating shedding, the lindworm must have just let it all go. He accepted his annihilation the way the caterpillar finally accepts that he can’t win the struggle against becoming a butterfly.
He is a butterfly, after all. And so begins his freedom.