|Rossetti, The Damsel of the Sangreal|
Given that the magical objects won by slaying dragons represent transcendental values, it seems reasonable to assume that the humans rescued in the same way also represent something transendental. In many cases, indeed, this human is portrayed as differing from your average lovely princess in being or becoming immortal—transcendental. Gilgamesh seeks Utnapishtim because he has become immortal and must then know the secret of immortality. Andromeda is granted immortality by Athena, and becomes a constellation in the starry heavens. Ariadne is taken by Dionysus to Olympus to be made a goddess. Medea is the granddaughter of Helios, the sun, and, depending on sources, semi-divine. Sita, rather than dying the way a conventional woman might, is swallowed up by the Earth, her mother, at the end of the Ramayana.
What does it mean for a human to be a transcendental? After all, in this shared word, humans are actually rather commonplace.
But there is something else, which is not commonplace at all, and yet is best illustrated by a human face. Love.
Not romantic love, not sexual love, not married love, but what is also called agape, caritas, charity. “God is love,” as Jesus or St. Paul or St. Augustine put it. “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.” (1 John 4:8)
St. Paul famously outlines its form:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7, NIV)
This is not a common sort of love. It is the stark opposite of what a narcissist calls “love”: it is unselfish love.
|Tristan and Isolde|
But how to portray it? How to convey the point? What is our objective correlative here?
It is natural enough to portray it by the more familiar, more common affection of male for female, female for male (eros), or friend for friend (philios). So transcendent love may sometimes be portrayed here as the beautiful princess of the legends. Just as agape is expressed as romantic love in the Bible’s Song of Songs, or in St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul, or in the Krishna-Radha cycle in India, or in the Sufi poets, or indeed in Medieval romance.
As a matter of effective storytelling, too, note that simply gaining possession of some object is a far inferior motivation for a character, a far inferior climax for a story, to finding “true love.” We naturally care more about the latter. In comparison to the committed presence of a living, breathing person, any mere object, whether gold cup, fleece, apple, Maltese Falcon, or cache of coins, seems unworthy.
And this instinctive human preference perhaps tells us something important, about life, the universe, and everything. An object, after all, has only one dimension of existence, the physical. A person is both physical and spiritual. This gives humans a greater reality, a greater moral worth, a greater potential transcendence, and, I suggest, a greater potential beauty. William Blake argued that the greatest thing any person can conceive is necessarily a perfected person:
Man can have no idea of any thing greater than Man as a cup cannot contain more than its capaciousness. … Think of a white cloud. as being holy: you cannot love it. But think of a holy man within the cloud: love springs up in your thought. For to think of holiness distinct from man is impossible to the affections.i
Accordingly, the best image of the goal of life is a good and beautiful person. The best image of the divine is a good and beautiful person. And the greatest value, which transcends all transcendentals, is a perfect love—a living and complete relationship of love with a good and beautiful person.
However, portraying said true love by a lovely princess is also fraught with risks of misinterpretation. It is all very well to offer romantic love as an image of eternal love, but it is then too easy for literal-minded listeners to mistake the one for the other, and raise up either the possibly selfish, possessive aspect of marriage or the physical pleasure of sex as a golden calf.
|St. George and the dragon|
Accordingly, it seems wise for the legends to strike a note of ambiguity or deliberate contrast here.
And so Gilgamesh is probably wise to reject the goddess Ishtar. “Which of your lovers did you ever love for ever?” he asks. “What shepherd of yours has pleased you for all time?”ii Sexual or romantic love, which she represents—cognate to the Greek Aphrodite—is not the thing we seek. Nor, ultimately, is philios, the affection one feels towards a friend, represented here by the friendship with Enkidu. Such a love, although admirable, is not eternal. Enkidu dies.
Many legends seem to show the human transcendental as at once somehow the same as, and somehow different from, the transcendental object. Perseus wins Medusa’s head, his transcendental object, then battles a second opponent to win Andromeda. The two “prizes” seem to contrast: the fearsome dead Medusa, to look upon whom brings death; the lovely living Andromeda, who potentially offers children and new life. Jason’s two prizes are presented in parallel: “Proud of his prize, and taking with him a further prize, the one who had helped him gain it, the hero, and his wife Medea, returned to the harbour at Iolchos.”iii In killing the dragon Fafnir, Sigurd/Sigmund wins a horde of gold and a collection of nifty magical objects. No fair maid. But drinking Fafnir’s blood allows him to understand the language of birds, and the birds direct him to Brynhild.iv Herakles wants two immortal horses for killing his sea monster, but takes Hesione later as consolation, when he is not given his prize and sacks Troy in revenge. Gilgamesh reaches his human goal, Utnapishtim; Utnapishtim then directs him to the herb of immortality. And the Holy Grail, by its nature, points beyond itself to a human transcendent—to the perfected human, Jesus Christ.
|Jason returns with Medea and the Golden Fleece|
It is notable that the hero then often loses the princess in these tales. This is a sad note in many classic hero legends. They lack that fairy tale ending. They are closer to tragedy.
Jason, having pledged his life to Medea, dumps her for Glauce, leading to a terrible cycle of revenge. Theseus seems to abandon Ariadne on the next island, despite vows, and despite her having saved his life. As the epic poet Nonnus eulogizes her: “you know your thread was his saviour: for the man of Athens with his club would never have found victory in that contest without a rosy-red girl to help him.”v Ragnar Lodbrok slaughters dragons left and right to win the lovely Thora. But by the same feat, he deserts his lawful wife, Ladgerda; which seems less than honourable, and less than an advertisement for true love. Thora then, rather than living happily ever after, dies of a fever. Rama, having expended epic efforts to rescue Sita, rejects her over suspicions about her chastity. When Sigurd stifles Fafnir, and is led to the lovely Brynhild, they plight their troth, as the kids used to say. Sigurd then forgets Brynhild and marries Gudrun. Brynhild has him killed in revenge.
Herakles, mightiest of classical heroes, is also conspicuously unlucky in love. He kills his first wife, Megara, in a psychotic fit. Having won Hesione, he gives her away. He is killed by his last wife, Deianira, unintentionally, but ultimately because she suspects him of adultery.
Launcelot develops an unhealthy addiction to Guinevere, who is awkwardly already married to King Arthur. This does not go good places. Sir Tristan is passionate about Isolde, who is also married to his king. Indeed, the worthy knights of the Round Table seem to fall all over themselves for the opportunity to commit adultery.
Launcelot and Guinevere end their days not as lovers, but as priest and nun. They have, graphically, realized that their love was false love, and have embraced agape in the cloister.
Samson too, like Herakles, gives his first wife, won by killing the Timnean lion, away: “And Samson’s wife was given to one of his companions who had attended him at the feast.” (Judges 14:20, NIV)
His second marriage, you may remember, to Delilah, does not work out better.
For that matter, Hamlet had obvious difficulties coming to terms of endearment with Ophelia.
This relentlessly unromantic ending may be to pre-empt idolatry. Romantic love resembles, but is not, agape or caritas. And so the overly-simple solution must not be allowed to stand. True love itself is beyond the physical sphere; romantic love is only its physical image.
And perhaps too there is another reason.
|Tristan and Isolde|
Consider again the word of the abused child. He has not known love growing up. He has been betrayed by his first and greatest natural love, his parents. Love from then on is going to be a problem for him (or her). If, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says, the family is the school of love, he has grown up never having learned to read or write. He is bound to have problems in this field.
For one thing, he (or she) will feel himself ultimately unlovable. And so he will fear love. The other will sooner or later discover how awful he truly is. They cannot possibly really love him.
For another, he (or she) will have no good idea of how to express love, if he genuinely feels it. He is likely to be clumsy, naive, and awkward. He will flunk on “emotional intelligence.”
For another, having experienced abuse from those he (or she) loved most, he is liable to suppose abuse is all he deserves, or is a legitimate expression of love. Accordingly, he is vulnerable to an abusive, masochistic romantic relationship in adult life.
For another, having been taught by parental example both that all his own natural inclinations are bad, and also that hurting others is normal human behaviour and an inclination in the best of us—for we all want to believe our parents are the best of people—he is likely to develop a generally unfavourable impression of human nature. This obviously makes it hard to develop love for another.
For another, having experienced abuse and/or betrayal from those he most loved, he is likely to fear betrayal from anyone professing love ever again. One bitten, as they say, twice shy.
And last, but not least, these fears are fully justified. If the common motive for parental abuse is envy, resentment of a child who is exceptional in some way, that motive is going to apply as well with anyone else they meet in later life. Any other narcissist is likely to react in the same way as did their narcissistic parent: they will want to either destroy or possess them.
Success in some hero quest actually makes this last problem worse. With any public profile of accomplishment, this motive for malice has now grown. Narcissists in the admiring crowd will now seek them out to either kill or own them. As narcissists sought out Martin Luther King Jr., or the Kennedys, or Gandhi.
The various romantic troubles encountered by our various heroes and heroines can perhaps be seen as ringing the changes on these depressive difficulties.
Start with this last problem first.
In the case of Jason and Medea, Medea has betrayed her father, then killed and dismembered her brother, for the sake of her desire for Jason, a man she has just met. This does not bode well: that she approached Jason, rather than the reverse, reinforces the impression of willfulness. She sounds a lot like a narcissist. Creon, Jason’s father, says, “I fear thee, … lest thou devise against my child some cureless ill. Many things contribute to this fear of mine; thou art a witch by nature, expert in countless sorceries...”vi And Medea proves him right: she brings down the curtain in that play by slaughtering her own children for revenge. She was and is exactly the sort of person who caused Jason his trouble in the first place. And she has latched on to him.
Ariadne, similarly, although often portrayed as an innocent victim of Theseus’s betrayal, has shown similar disturbing character traits. She has betrayed her father Minos and helped Theseus kill her brother; again, for the sake of a man she has just met. How can she be trusted? On the evidence, she does not love anyone but herself.
Theseus suffers a terrible betrayal from his later wife, Phaedra. She develops a lust for his son Hippolytus. Hippolytus rejects her. She perjures herself to have Hippolytus killed. She, too, is obviously a narcissist. Theseus apparently attracts the type.
Ladgerda, Ragnar Lodbrok’s rejected first wife, offers a similar example. When Ragnar wooed her:
She spurned his mission in her heart, but feigned compliance. Giving false answers, she made her panting wooer confident that he would gain his desires; but ordered that a bear and a dog should be set at the porch of her dwelling, thinking to guard her own room against all the ardour of a lover by means of the beasts that blocked the way. Ragnar, comforted by the good news, embarked, crossed the sea, and, telling his men to stop in Gaulardale, as the valley is called, went to the dwelling of the maiden alone. Here the beasts met him, and he thrust one through with a spear, and caught the other by the throat, wrung its neck, and choked it. Thus he had the maiden as the prize of the peril he had overcome.
She had, in sum, feigned affection in order to kill him. For no decent reason, it seems, but only out of malice; she could have simply spurned his advances.
Ragnar’s response, in turn, perhaps illustrates a separate problem for the depressive: the tendency to suppose that abuse is normal to affection. He seems slow to grasp the significance of this assassination attempt. Only eventually, according to Saxo Grammaticus, “he thought ill of her trustworthiness, remembering that she had long ago set the most savage beasts to destroy him.”
She goes on to kill her second spouse, because she “thought it pleasanter to rule without her husband than to share the throne with him.”vii
Samson᾿s story hinges on the same problem: the abused hero (or heroine) is both prone to being latched on to by a narcissist, and constitutionally unable to understand that he is being abused. Samson is betrayed by his first wife, the unnamed woman of Timnah, as soon as she has the opportunity. She reveals to her countrymen the solution to his riddle at their wedding, costing him a large sum. His second wife, Delilah, betrays him in the same way, by revealing his secrets. Repeatedly. Nevertheless, he does not seem to learn the lesson. He does not seem able to accept that something is wrong here. To him, then, abuse is normal and what affection looks like.
So Delilah said to Samson, “Tell me the secret of your great strength and how you can be tied up and subdued.”
Samson answered her, “If anyone ties me with seven fresh bowstrings that have not been dried, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
Then the rulers of the Philistines brought her seven fresh bowstrings that had not been dried, and she tied him with them. With men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the bowstrings as easily as a piece of string snaps when it comes close to a flame. So the secret of his strength was not discovered.
Then Delilah said to Samson, “You have made a fool of me; you lied to me. Come now, tell me how you can be tied.”
He said, “If anyone ties me securely with new ropes that have never been used, I’ll become as weak as any other man.”
So Delilah took new ropes and tied him with them. Then, with men hidden in the room, she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” But he snapped the ropes off his arms as if they were threads.
Delilah then said to Samson, “All this time you have been making a fool of me and lying to me. Tell me how you can be tied.”
He replied, “If you weave the seven braids of my head into the fabric on the loom and tighten it with the pin, I’ll become as weak as any other man.” So while he was sleeping, Delilah took the seven braids of his head, wove them into the fabric and tightened it with the pin.
Again she called to him, “Samson, the Philistines are upon you!” He awoke from his sleep and pulled up the pin and the loom, with the fabric.
Then she said to him, “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when you won’t confide in me? This is the third time you have made a fool of me and haven’t told me the secret of your great strength.” With such nagging she prodded him day after day until he was sick to death of it.
So he told her everything. “No razor has ever been used on my head,” he said, “because I have been a Nazirite dedicated to God from my mother’s womb. If my head were shaved, my strength would leave me, and I would become as weak as any other man.” (Judges 16: 6-17, NIV)
The strange story of Herakles having to serve as a slave to Queen Omphale seems meant to make the same point. He is required for a year to wear women’s clothes and do women’s work, while she wears the skin of the lion and carries his club. Leaving aside what it might say about traditional sex roles, this sounds like a description of an abusive relationship. The name of Herakles᾿s last wife, Deianira, in turn, is, literally, “man destroyer” or “husband destroyer.” That sounds straightforward. And she does, indeed, destroy Herakles, by giving him the shirt of Nessus, which burns him alive. In her defense, according to the legend she thought it was a love charm. However, administering a love charm to a husband suggests a narcissistic desire to control. So does the image of a shirt: a fatally close embrace, a perfect possession.
|Herakles and Hesione|
The story of Herakles and Hesione seems to illustrate yet another depressive love problem: the inability of the abused to accept real love when offered. We have warrant to see Hesione as an abused child, like Herakles: she has been sacrificed to the sea monster by her father for his own sins. That ought to make them a good match. She is unlikely to be a narcissist; narcissism cannot, almost necessarily, emerge from an abused childhood or adolescence. In contrast to Medea or Ariadne, Hesione is dutiful. Rather than betray her father, she is ready to die for his sake. Rather than killing or helping to kill a brother, like Ariadne or Medea, she ransoms one of hers from death, Priam. Moreover, she seems by her situation to echo Andromeda, similarly rescued by Perseus, who was Herakles’s grandfather. One surely expects here a marriage and a “happy ever after” ending.
Instead, Herakles shows no interest. He does not seek her. When he acquires her, he gives her away.viii
Hesione, as the sister of Priam, is the aunt of another familiar figure, Paris. Later, when Priam becomes king, Paris is sent to bring Hesione back to Troy, in gratitude for her saving his life. Paris gets distracted, and brings Helen back instead.
This looks like a parable, of neglecting sincere and selfless love (Hesione) for the sake of sexual and romantic love (Helen). Paris earlier preferred physical attractiveness and sexual love in choosing Aphrodite over Athena or Artemis in the Judgment of Paris. It is his characteristic fault.
Perhaps, by extension, then, this shows the same mistake being committed by Herakles. He was unable to recognize real love when it was available. He seems to have made the same mistake with the loyal Auge. Instead, he chose or attracted abusive women.
Sir Launcelot too seems to have been approached by abusive women. At one point in his travels, the damosel Hellawes demands a kiss. When he refuses, she confesses “And, Sir Launcelot, now I tell thee, I have loved thee this seven year, but there may no woman have thy love but Queen Guenever. But sithen I may not rejoice thee to have thy body alive, I had kept no more joy in this world but to have thy body dead.”ix This is the narcissistic response: possess or destroy. At another point, Launcelot is kept for some months in prison by Morgana la Fey, who says she will kill him if he does not marry her.
Launcelot more famously had an improper relationship with Guinevere. Her character too is in question. When King Arthur explains to the all-wise Merlin that Guinevere is the woman he seeks to marry, Merlin warns: “Sir, ... as of her beauty and fairness she is one of the fairest alive, but, an ye loved her not so well as ye do, I should find you a damosel of beauty and of goodness that should like you and please you, an your heart were not set; but there as a man’s heart is set, he will be loath to return.” In other words, she is beautiful but lacks “goodness.”x
Obviously, both she and Launcelot are guilty of sin. However, of the two, her sin is the greater. Launcelot, frequently propositioned, shuns all other women for her sake; this demonstrates that his love for her, if misplaced, is not selfish. She is married, and is breaking her marriage vows; he is not. It is possible to believe here that Launcelot is emotionally naive, as an abused child is apt to be, and she is using him.
We have already seen that Guinevere drives Launcelot mad by a sudden emotional betrayal; wrongly accusing him of being unfaithful. This is triply problematic: firstly, as is explained to us, Launcelot has not really been unfaithful, but was deluded by a spell to believe he was sleeping with Guinevere herself. Secondly, as they are not married and may never marry, she has no right to demand faithfulness from Launcelot. Thirdly, she is herself being unfaithful to her husband King Arthur, and so is guilty of hypocrisy.
Dame Elaine, daughter of King Pelles, seems to stand in contrast to Guinevere here. Elaine is a figure more like Andromeda, Ophelia, or Hesione. To begin with, like them, she too has been abused. Launcelot himself rescues her from imprisonment in a tower, where she has been tortured for five years—since adolescence—for her great beauty. When she is rescued, her first thought—demonstrating her good character—is to go with Launcelot to a chapel for prayers of thanksgiving. She is associated with the Grail—it is in her father᾿s possession, and she might therefore actually be the otherwise unidentified maiden who regularly appears in the legends holding the Grail. She does, it is true, seduce Launcelot by sorcery, which is not a righteous act. However, she does this firstly, out of dutifulness, out of obedience, like Ophelia, to her father. And secondly, not out of lust but to conceive Galahad, another human transcendental.
“My lord Sir Launcelot, I beseech you see me as soon as ye may, for I have obeyed me unto the prophecy that my father told me. And by his commandment to fulfil this prophecy I have given the greatest riches and the fairest flower that ever I had, and that is my maidenhood that I shall never have again; and therefore, gentle knight, owe me your good will.”xiThen, like Launcelot and unlike Guinevere, like Auge when seduced by Herakles, she is strictly faithful to Launcelot from then on, despite the approaches of others; even though he rejects her for Guinevere. At one point she confesses to him, “I will live and die with you, and only for your sake; and if my life might not avail you and my death might avail you, wit you well I would die for your sake.”xii
She seems, in sum, an image of faithful, selfless love, in contrast to Guinevere. Despite this, Launcelot repeatedly prefers Guinevere. Even though Guinevere is at times cruel to him, enough so that it drives him mad. Even though, at the very time Elaine is testifying to her love, Guinevere is “wroth, and gave many rebukes to Sir Launcelot, and called him false knight.”xiii Perhaps, an abused child, he cannot recognize or accept the healthier, more sincere love of an Elaine.
There is a second Lady Elaine in the Launcelot cycle, Elaine of Astolat, and she seems a similar figure. Like Elaine the daughter of Pelles, she nurses Launcelot in illness. “Ever this maiden Elaine did ever her diligent labour night and day unto Sir Launcelot, that there was never child nor wife more meeker to her father and husband than was that Fair Maiden of Astolat.”xiv Unlike Guinevere, her character is not in question: “she is a full fair maiden, good and gentle, and well taught.”xv She asks him to marry her; he refuses. So she dies of grief:
I take God to my record I loved never none but Sir Launcelot du Lake, nor never shall, and a clean maiden I am for him and for all other; and sithen it is the sufferance of God that I shall die for the love of so noble a knight, I beseech the High Father of Heaven to have mercy upon my soul, and upon mine innumerable pains that I suffered may be allegeance of part of my sins. For sweet Lord Jesu, said the fair maiden, I take Thee to record, on Thee I was never great offencer against thy laws; but that I loved this noble knight, Sir Launcelot, out of measure, and of myself, good Lord, I might not withstand the fervent love wherefore I have my death.xviLauncelot allows her to die rather than forsake Guinevere. Who, in the meantime, is rejecting him: “Queen Guenever was wood wroth with Sir Launcelot, and would by no means speak with him, but estranged herself from him.”xvii
His attachment to Guinevere seems, in essence, a co-dependency, an addiction like alcoholism.
It is because of this adultery, and this choice of false love over agape, that Launcelot, despite his other fine qualities, is judged unworthy to win the Grail. And it is for their other various adulteries that all the other knights, bold and chivalrous as they are, are also found unworthy. The task is left to Launcelot’s son by Elaine, Galahad, because he is pure of heart. It is explained to Sir Gawain in these words: “Sir Galahad is a maid and sinned never, and that is the cause he shall enchieve where he goeth that ye nor none such shall not attain, nor none in your fellowship.”xviii
Hamlet seems to have a comparable problem with Ophelia, preventing him from accepting and returning her affection. He seems to have very little good to say about humanity in general.
To be honest, as this world goes, is to be
one man picked out of ten thousand. (Act 2, Scene 7)
Man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither, though by your smiling
you seem to say so. (Act 2, Scene 7)
Use every man
after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping? (Act 2, Scene 7)
What is a man,
If his chief good and market of his time
Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more. Act 3, Scene 4)
We are arrant knaves,
all; believe none of us. (Act 3, Scene 1)
Accordingly, he must doubt her motives, all mortals being scoundrels, and the very possibility of love, although her own reaction to his rejection seems to demonstrate that her motives were pure.
Ophelia, for her part, seems to illustrate an alternate symptom of being abused. She seems unable to judge Hamlet’s intentions, and unaware of how to respond; she is socially awkward. Low EQ. Leaving herself to be manipulated by her father Polonius. “I do not know, my lord,” she tells her father, referring to Hamlet’s approaches, “what I should think.” (Act 1, Scene 3). To which he responds, seizing the opportunity, “Think yourself a baby.”
It is hard here to miss certain lessons for the treatment of depression. First, the depressive can find initial relief in “art therapy”—our first helper figure. Which is also to say, in the hero legends—they are themselves this art therapy. This is the first line of treatment.
Second, the depressed should seek in fear and trembling a firm religious faith. This is the hero quest.
Third, they must take care to avoid the danger of new abusive relationships.
Fourth … it seems they must work their way towards agape, a true and selfless and fully reciprocal love. Besides being the final perfect transcendental, agape is the obvious remedy for a lack of love growing up. It directly addresses the problem. It answers the prophecy given to Telephus: to heal his existential wound, he must resort to the thing that caused it. True love is the cure to false love.
However, the hero legends do not clearly show us how to get there. They tend to end with the hero still in a state of suffering, or perhaps released from suffering only by death. Granted, the hero legends show that the abused child can have a meaningful, productive, life, but can he or she not also find happiness? This is a bit disappointing, if what we came for is a “cure” to depression, as opposed to a guide for living with it.
For this final solution, it seems, if there is one, we must still look elsewhere.
i William Blake, “Annotations to Swedenborg’s Divine Love and Divine Wisdom,” London, 1788.
ii Epic of Gilgamesh, Tablet 6, N.K. Sanders trans.
iii Ovid, Metamorphoses, Book 7, ll. 100-158, Kline trans.
iv Völsunga Saga, Chapter 19.
v Nonnus, Dionysiaca 47. 434 ff. Rouse trans.
vi Euripides, Medea.
viiSaxo Grammaticus, Gesta Danorum, Book 9.
viiiOvid, Metamorphoses Book 11, ll, 194-220, Kline trans.
ixMorte d’Arthur, Book 6, Ch. 15.
xMorte d’Arthur, Book 3, Ch. 1.
xiBook 11, Ch. 3.
xii Morte d’Arthur, Book 12, Ch. 5.
xiii Ibid., Book 4, Ch. 6.
xiv Ibid., Book 18, Ch. 17.
xvIbid., Book 18, Ch. 19.
xvi Ibid, Book 18, Ch. 19.
xviii Ibid., Book 13, Ch. 16.