The Damsel in Distress

  • “If silver mirrors because it is both receptive (moist) and solid,
  • then solid receptivity is the kind of consciousness that serves to mirror.
  • Notice how necessary it is for mirroring to have incorporated or digested one’s own moisture and to be limited by one’s own boundary.
  • One cannot mirror if one too easily flows;
  • and one cannot mirror everything,
  • but only what one can receive and to which one is solidly present within the limits of one’s own borders.
  • Mirroring is not blank receptivity; it requires focusing.”

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Women can be as dangerous to their partners as Blue Beard, although in slightly different ways.. The  Tale of the Dolorous Blow  tells us that a knight who carries a woman’s sword renders the Fisher King impotent. This knight meets the Fisher King alone, unarmed and defenseless, at night, in his own castle. The knight does not recognize his own King and strikes him such a blow in his groin that the King is rendered impotent and crippled, and his lands are laid waste.  Until I learned that in pre-Christian times highborn young women were trained as sword-maidens, and received armor, weapons, and horses as marriage gifts from their betrothed, I was unable to begin to make sense of this story. In that context, this knight carried a woman’s sword because she was a woman.  She met the King alone at night in his own castle when he was unarmed and defenseless because she was a woman.  However, she is no willing bride ready to be crowned as Queen, she is armed and on guard, taking her King for an enemy and lashing out.

That opened the door to wondering what could have happened to this woman that she would strike out with such blind violence?  I looked at the story of Tristan and Isolde dating from the tenth century, about the same time as the tales of the Fisher King. In this story, Isolde is the daughter of the Queen of Ireland. The King of Cornwall sends his nephew Tristan off to persuade Isolde to marry him. Tristan lies to her and says that he, Tristan, has come to marry her. She agrees, they begin their journey and the Queen sends along her serving girl with a love potion disguised as a bottle of wine to give to Isolde on her wedding night. Tristan and Isolde drink the wine by accident instead. Isolde is, understandably, angry and unhappy. She hates Tristan for lying to her, she cannot leave him alone because of the love potion, and she sends the servant girl into sleep with the King on their marriage night. The rest of the rather lengthy story details the tragedy that unfolds as a result. It is often regarded as commemorating the birth of the cultural ideal of romantic love as an affliction, as  inappropriate illicit relationships filled with fruitless suffering.

My first question after reading this story was why didn’t Isolde know what the drink was? And that leads to more questions. Why didn’t the Queen make sure her daughter knew how to make the wine, what its effects were, when to drink it, and who to drink it with? Why did she make in secret and give it to the servant girl instead of her own daughter? The magical drink  is one of the major pieces in the women’s initiation, so this is one place where things begin to go seriously wrong.  And we are faced with the issue of inappropriate sexual relationships as well where we have to ask why aren’t the King and Queen getting married?  Why did the King send his nephew instead of going himself? Why is the King tricking a princess when he should be courting a Queen? Why is inappropriate fruitless suffering romantic any way?

Isolde and Tristan end up dyeing with the situation unresolved, but Isolde’s isolation and betrayal is a recurrent theme in fairy tales.  In the tale of the Handless Maiden which dates from the same era, the daughter’s father makes a deal with the devil. When the Devil comes to collect his due, it is the miller’s daughter that he wants. When the father protests, the Devil offers to accept his wife’s hands.  The wife refuses and insists the Devil take her daughter’s hands. The daughter does not object in most versions of the story. Betrayed by both father and mother, if she refuses to give up her hands she becomes an outcast and must leave her home and family. Like Isolde, she agrees to sacrifice herself . She gives up her ability to direct her own life, and instead takes on the responsibility for the poor decisions her parents have made. Unable to care for herself, she is treated like a queen and given silver mechanical hands, but eventually cannot continue to live a lie, and neither can Isolde. They both end up in the wild woods, which is where they should have started. In the woods is where the woman’s initiatory journey begins, and that is the subject of many future posts.

But it is important to know that while the Handless Maiden is also known as the Damsel in Distress, until she goes into the wild woods and reaches deep into the wellspring of life to regain her own hands, she is a danger to any man who might wish to rescue her. We are told that it is the unstoppable tears of the Handless Maiden that drive her out into the woods. We are not told that the tears are the tears of rage and frustration as much as sorrow.  Nor are we told what the Maiden’s missing Hands are up too. However, she has made a deal with the Devil and the missing Hands are driven by her rage and frustration.  The anger that is rightly aimed at the betraying father blinds her and  instead strikes out at any man who gets near. The Handless Maiden must learn to take her own life in her hands, recognizing and managing her own aggression if she is not to strike the Dolorous Blow, castrating if not outright killing any man who gets  near her, for she is Blue Beard’s widowed weeping mother.

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