A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) famously asserted that the stages of what he called the Hero’s Journey offer a universal blueprint for the story of human initiation and development: a single underlying “mono-myth.” Taken up by Hollywood screenwriters like George Lucas (Star Wars) and lauded by pioneers of the 1990s men’s movement such as Robert Bly (Iron John) and Michael Meade (Men and the Water of Life), Campbell’s monomyth has exercised a significant and disproportionate influence on the western imagination, especially the western male imagination.
Perhaps, we shouldn’t be surprised: a call to adventure; fighting monsters; attaining manhood; winning the beloved; bestowing boons on our fellow men. What’s not to like? Who wouldn’t want to be a hero? The problem is not that these are not great stories but that they leave us in the limbo of “happily ever after” and those of us who have lived long enough know that such a state of grace does not last forever. The hero’s journey is a story for the first half of life, when the world is young and we can rely on native wit, raw courage, beginner’s luck and a bit of benign magic to see us through.
The question that has come to fascinate me as a storyteller – and as a man – is “what happens after happily ever after?” What sustains us when luck and magic have run out and wit and courage are no longer enough? What stories can guide us in the second half of our lives, when the world is no longer young?
Psychotherapist Allan B. Chinen has made a special study of folk and fairy tales that seek to answer these questions and includes some wonderful examples of “post-heroic” stories in his book Beyond the Hero. The most satisfying of these stories follow double cycles in which both the hero’s journey and the subsequent post-heroic quest are told. The two cycles have different qualities. The hero’s journey takes us out and back, but the post-heroic quest operates on a different plane, taking us down and then back up. It begins not with a call to adventure but by a fall from grace: something going wrong that causes us to lose our way. “In the middle of the road of my life I awoke in the dark wood where the true way was wholly lost” begins La Divina Commedia of Dante Alighieri.
To find the way back, the post-heroic protagonist must stay constant to what he really loves and endure long and difficult labours without the aid of magical interventions. Such are the soulful quests of the second half of life; they take us through the wilderness that lies beyond “happily ever after” to a place of strong, compassionate, maturity where we have found our calling and have learned to be true to what really matters in life rather than obey the dictates of others or the voices of our egos telling us how we ought to behave.
There is one particular story that I have been telling to groups of men for the past decade that sweeps through both heroic and post-heroic quests; that seems to speak to men facing the vicissitudes of mid-life as well as to those meeting the adventures of youth. It also says something profound about men needing to find a qualitatively different relationship with nature in later life, as an essential element of their initiation into mature masculinity. The story is a Norwegian wonder-tale collected by folklorist Jørgen Moe the mid 19th century. I came across it in Andrew Langs’ Red Fairy Book which was first published in 1890. I call it The Furthest Shore.
Contrary to Joseph Campbell, I believe that our collective heritage of fairy stories, folk and wonder tales, fables and myths is as complex and contrary as humankind itself. They offer no single message about the relationship between men and nature. Rather than presume to tell you “what the story means” (because such stories carry a wealth of meanings) here is the second half of The Furthest Shore – starting where the real trouble begins: beyond the hero’s journey; after happily ever after. I wonder what you will make of the traveller’s encounters with the creatures of earth, air and water, of the tricksterish energy that is needed finally to take him home, and of the work that lies ahead of him and his queen as this story ends and another untold story begins.
The fisherman’s son, who was brought up as the son of a king, braved the terrors of the night sea, defeated three fearsome trolls, rescued his enchanted princess and married her.
After living happily ever after – for a while – the young king turned to his queen one day and said, ‘I have been thinking about my mother and father. The last they knew of me I was heading out to sea. They certainly don’t know that I have become a king. Why, they probably think I am dead. I would so like to go back and see them.’
‘I don’t think that would be wise, my dear,’ said the queen. ‘Surely your place is here with me.’
But the young king would not let the matter drop and eventually the queen said, ‘Very well, if you must go then go you must. But I give you this warning: pay heed to what your father says and not to what your mother asks of you. I can help you make this journey,”’ she said and slipped a silver ring off her finger and onto his. ‘This ring has magic in it. It will grant you two wishes… you can wish yourself back to your parents’ house and return safely home to me.’
No sooner had the young king wished himself back to his parents’ house than he was standing outside the door to their cottage. He knocked and when the door was opened there stood his father and behind him, sitting by the fire, his mother. At first they did not recognise him in his fine robes. ‘Father, mother,’ he said. ‘It’s me, your son.’ When they could see who he really was, they wept. ‘We thought you were dead.’ Then the tears turned to laughter and they hugged each other and all talked at once. ‘Why, look at you in your fine clothes. Wherever have you been?’ said his mother.
Over the next few days they told each other about the lives they had led since they were last together. The fisherman and his wife had carried on much the same, though deeply grieved by losing their only son to the sea, as they thought, and they were astonished to learn that he had not only survived but had married a princess and become king in a distant land. ‘You should go to the palace,’ said his mother. ‘You’d show that old king a thing or two. Look at you. I’m so proud of you.’
His father counselled against it, ‘I fear we’ll have no more joy of you in this lifetime if you go to the palace. Enough is enough; let us simply enjoy being together until it is time for you to return to your queen.’
But it was his mother’s words to which he listened. His wife’s warning slipped from his mind. He wanted to go to the palace; he wanted to show the old king a thing or two, to show him that – fisherman’s son or not – he was as good a king as he.
So he did visit the palace where he had been brought up and he stood before the throne, not in the very best hand-me-downs, but in robes finer than those worn by the old king himself. He was graciously received and the two kings talked of royal matters: of the loyalty and warmth of their subjects; of the opulence of their treasuries; of the extent and prosperity of their lands. And on each point the young king bested his elder. Exasperated, the old king said, ‘Your subjects may be more numerous, your treasuries richer and your lands more extensive but I’ll warrant your queen is not as fair as mine.’
‘My queen is the wisest, most beautiful and virtuous woman to be found in any realm,’ boasted the young king. ‘I wish she was here before us now so that you could see for yourself.’
At that moment, a strange hush fell over them; the old king and his courtiers froze as if they were wax dummies in a tableau, the curtains covering the doorway swept aside and the young king’s bride stepped into the room. Looking only at him, she spoke quietly. ‘What have you done? The ring had only two wishes in it and now you have used them both. I cannot live here and how will you ever find your way back to the Furthest Shore without its power?’
Tears welled up in the young king’s eyes as he realised his terrible mistake. His queen went over to him and slipped the ring off his finger. Then she kissed his cheek and smoothed his head with her hand. ‘Remember me,’ she said and tenderly plaited the ring into his hair. ‘Farewell, dearest man.’ Then she turned on her heel and walked out the room, curtains swishing closed behind her.
Instantly the figures in the room unfroze. ‘What was that? Who was she?’ the old king asked. He got no answer because the young king had dashed through the curtains calling after his queen, ‘Come back, come back. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.’ It was too late, she had disappeared and no one, not even the palace guards had seen her come and go. They searched the palace and the palace grounds; soldiers were sent out to scour the countryside but she was nowhere to be found.
Desolate, the young king determined that somehow, no matter how hard and long the quest, he would find his way back to the Furthest Shore, he would be reunited with the bride he loved. He left the old king’s palace, said goodbye to his parents and exchanged his fine robes for hard-wearing breeches and traveller’s cloak. Not knowing where to go, he roamed the land aimlessly asking everyone he came across if they knew the way to the Furthest Shore but always he was met with a puzzled look and a shake of the head.
On and on he went, sleeping under hedges, in barns and outhouses, sometimes sharing food with farmers or the warmth of a campfire with hunters in return for his labour or the telling of his tale. The weeks turned into months and the months into years. His long hair and his beard streaked with grey, his face weather-beaten by the trail, his body lean and hardened by hardship and sorrow, he never gave up. He wandered far from the old king’s realm into lands unmapped and untracked, hoping always for some hint or clue of the way home.
One day, he found himself at a clearing deep in the heart of an ancient forest. Before him stood a bear of a man nearly twice his height, dressed in furs, his hand stroking the shoulder of a stag. ‘I don’t know who you are sir but I’m guessing this is your forest. Pardon my trespass, I am searching for the way back to the Furthest Shore; can you help me please?’
The man replied in a deep rumbling voice. ‘You are welcome here. I am the lord of the beasts of the earth. I do not know the way back to the Furthest Shore but perhaps my creatures can help.’ He pulled a great ox horn from under his fur cloak and blew a sonorous blast that echoed into the trees. All kinds of beasts appeared: wolves, badgers, porcupines, lions, deer, squirrels, boars, monkeys, snakes, all the beasts that run, walk, crawl or slither on the ground gathered around them. ‘Do any of you know the way back to the Furthest Shore?’ he asked. But none of the creatures knew the way.
‘I am sorry we cannot help you. Perhaps my brother will know; he is the lord of the birds and the beasts of the air. Put these on,’ he said, handing the traveller a pair of fur lined boots. ‘Follow where your feet lead and you will find him. When you do find him, give him my regards – and remember to send the boots back.’
So the traveller set off, letting the boots lead him, walking for many days and miles until he came to the bare summit of a mountain. Before him stood a tall, slender man with sharp aquiline features wearing a cape, a hawk perched on his wrist. ‘I’m guessing that you are the lord of the birds and the beasts of the air and that this is your domain. Pardon my trespass; I bring greetings from your brother, the lord of the beasts of the earth. He lent me these boots to find you. I am looking for the way back to the Furthest Shore. Can you help me please?’
The man spoke in a high lilting tone. ‘Take the boots off, they will return to my brother of their own accord.’ The traveller did so. ‘You are welcome here. I do not know the way back to the Furthest Shore but perhaps my creatures will know.’ From under his feathered cloak he took a pipe made from the wing bone of an albatross and blew a shrill note that echoed around the mountaintop. Soon, all manner of birds and flying creatures appeared: blackbirds, doves, eagles, bats, dragonflies, crows, humming birds, gulls, plovers and pigeons, all the birds and creatures that fly, buzz and flap in the air circled around their heads. ‘Do any of you know the way back to the Furthest Shore?’ he asked. But none of them knew the way.
‘I am sorry we cannot help you. Perhaps my brother will know; he is the lord of the fish and the creatures of the deep. Put these on,’ he said, handing the traveller a pair of soft downy boots. ‘Follow where your feet lead and you will find him. Give him my regards – and remember to send the boots back.’
So the traveller set off once again, letting the boots lead him, walking for many days and miles until he came to the top of a cliff. Before him, looking out to sea stood a lithe and willowy man with damp hair and a cloak of sharkskin. A young seal played about his feet. ‘I’m guessing that you are the lord of the fish and the creatures of the deep and that this is your domain.’ said the traveller. ‘Pardon my trespass; I bring greetings from your brother, the lord of the birds and beasts of the air. He lent me these boots to find you. I am looking for the way back to the Furthest Shore. Can you help me please?’
The man spoke in soft, liquid tones. ‘Take the boots off, they will return to my brother of their own accord.’ The traveller did so. ‘You are welcome here. I do not know the way back to the Furthest Shore but perhaps one of my creatures will know. Follow me.’ He led the way down a steep path to the sea. There he waded out until the water lapped round his waist. From under his cloak he took a long whalebone paddle and slapped the surface of the water sending shock waves through the ocean currents. Soon all manner of fish and creatures of the deep appeared: marlin, tuna, swordfish, octopus, crabs, whales, porpoises, shrimps and seahorses, all the fish and creatures of the deep swimming around them.
‘Do any of you know the way back to the Furthest Shore?’ he asked. But all were silent until up spoke an old pike. ‘Yes, I know the way. Indeed I am shortly on my way there. You see, in my human form I am a cook at the castle there and I must help to prepare a feast. They say the queen is to be married again. She has been alone these many years and now another man has come to take her husband’s place.’
Married again? Surely not; to be so close after so many years searching only to lose her at the last; the traveller could not bear the thought. ‘Can you take me there?’
‘I am sorry,’ said the pike. ‘It is not possible. I must swim under the water and you would drown.’
‘Perhaps there is a way,’ said the lord of the deeps. ‘My creatures cannot take you but if you go back up the cliff you will find, not far from here, a heath. On that heath are three brothers; one has a hat, one a cloak and one a pair of boots. They cannot decide which belongs to what or what belongs to whom. They have been fighting over them for many years. It is said that whoever wears the hat, the cloak and the boots together can wish themselves wherever they want to be. If you can persuade these brothers to part with them, perhaps you will be able to return to the Furthest Shore after all.’
The traveller thanked the pike and the lord of the deeps and rushed back up the cliff to find the three brothers and soon he spied them on the heath, yelling, shoving and pushing, wrestling each other to the ground, snatching the hat and the cloak and the boots from each other in turn in a mad merry-go-round of mayhem and discord.
‘Stop,’ called out the traveller. ‘What is this you are doing?’
‘We have been fighting for a hundred years,’ replied one of the brothers. ‘Ouch… those boots are mine… give me that hat… you are not going to have my cloak.’ Round and round they went.
‘A hundred years,’ said the traveller. ‘Aren’t you getting tired? I could sort this out for you. Let me try on the hat and the cloak and the boots and I will soon know which belongs to each of you, then you can stop fighting and go about your business.’
This seemed like a good idea to the brothers so they called a truce and handed over each item to the traveller to try on. He put on the hat and his mind became crystal clear; he wrapped the cloak around his chest and felt his heart open wide; he pulled on the boots and his will became indomitable. He wished himself back home on the Furthest Shore and as he did so, he rose into the air with the three brothers shaking their fists and cursing at him far below.
The North Wind caught him up in his arms. ‘I will take you home,’ said the wind. ‘And when we get there, I will put you down at the castle gate. Stand aside then and I will rattle and blow and shake the windows and doors so hard that that impostor will come to see what is happening and I will whisk him away.’
Flying high in the air above land and sea he soon saw ahead the white strand of the Furthest Shore and the castle where he had suffered so much and known so much joy. True to his word, the North Wind set him down at the gate and he stood to one side as the wind rattled and shook at the windows and doors. The castle gate opened and out stepped a man, not unlike himself, to see what was happening and the North Wind picked him up and whisked him away so that he never came back – in this story at least. The wind died away and the king of the Furthest Shore, in his traveller’s clothes once more, entered the courtyard and climbed the stone stairs to the throne room.
He stood by the doorway for a long moment. There she stood, turned half away from him, hand resting on the back of her throne. She turned fully towards him and looked quizzically as if she did not recognise him. She approached him slowly, her long dark hair flowing down her back, her eyes bright green just as he had remembered her each night and each day of his long quest. His breath caught and his heart quickened as he looked at her. He had no words to say and silent tears ran down his cheeks. She looked at his lined face, his grey streaked hair and beard, and saw the tenderness in his tear-filled eyes. Could this be him? Then something glinted silver in his hair and she reached out and touched the ring she had plaited there so long ago.
‘Oh, my dearest man; I hoped and prayed for your return. I waited such a long time for you that I thought you must be dead. You have come back to me and all is well.’ They fell into each other’s arms, hardly believing their good fortune after their long separation.
That evening, the feast that had been prepared was put to good use as they celebrated the true king’s return and renewed their marriage vows. After the food and drink came music and dancing, masques and merriment before retiring for the night. And the king and queen of the Furthest Shore lived in love and happiness, ruling wisely and well until the end of their days on earth.
Allan Chinen suggests that the archetypal trajectory of male development in the first half of life is from warrior to king, whereas in the second half of life, the developmental journey is from wanderer/pilgrim to trickster/shaman. The former perpetuates the patriarchy across succeeding generations, whilst the latter leads to a more equal relationship between men and women and to a more participative and generative relationship with nature through what the post-heroic protagonist learns on his long quest.
It was James Hillman who said that we can only lead the lives we can imagine. If he was right (and I believe he was) then we need to tell such post-heroic stories of the mature masculine to counterbalance the dominant heroic male archetype if men are to imagine and lead lives in which the quality of their relationship to nature is an integral part of their psyche and not just the backdrop to individualistic stories of derring-do.
We are coming slowly to realize that the story of our time and of our relationship with the planet is characterized by a fall from grace rather than by a naive call to adventure. To live happily ever after is an understandable aspiration for youthful heroes and heroines but beyond that lies a greater and more worthwhile challenge: to rule wisely and well until the end of our days on earth.
[This article first appeared in Earthlines, Issue 8, March 2014]