by Dr. Brian W. Sturm & Dr. William A. Sturm.
There was once a stonecutter who wanted to be the most powerful being in the world. As he was working, the king rode by, and the stonecutter wished to be that king . . . and so it was. He felt powerful as King, very powerful’ until he began to feel hot and realized that the sun was stronger than he. So he wished to be the sun. When the sun’s heat was blocked by a cloud, he became that cloud with a wish. When the cloud was moved by the wind, he became the wind. But the wind was stopped by a mountain, so he wished and transformed again, becoming the mountain. “At last’ “ he thought’ “I am the most powerful thing in the world.“ Then he noticed a stonecutter chipping away at the mountain, and, realizing his folly, he became the most powerful being of all, himself. (retold from Lang, 1967)
There are many stories such as this, where characters change form. Sometimes it is happily by desire or a wish, sometimes unwillingly by a curse, and sometimes
unwittingly by sheer accident, but the result is usually the same: The transformed character grows in knowledge, understanding, or awareness, and though he or she may return to the original physical form, the character is never the same for the experience; the stonecutter is a much wiser man.
What does it mean to “transform”? The word derives from the Latin words trans meaning “across, over, beyond, through, the other side” and form meaning “shape, structure, or appearance.” Combining these meanings sheds insight on the process of transformation and its result. The first part, trans implies motion or a journey. One must move in order to transform. Often this manifests as a character’s quest, a banishment, or some form of physical journey “across” great expanses, “beyond” the known realms, “through” harrowing ordeals, and ultimately to “the other side” of the world. If we combine trans with form, however, the landscape changes from the geographic to the personal and often psychic world. The character must move “beyond” his familiar shape or appearance to reach “the other side” of his personality before returning, deeply changed, to himself. The meek stonecutter plays with ultimate power in a physical and psychic journey, then returns transformed.
The dictionary offers the synonym “metamorphosis,” which, similarly, derives from the Greek meto meaning “between, after, over, reversely” and morphe meaning “shape or form.” A metamorphosis, then, can be considered a reversal of form from which we emerge profoundly changed, both in appearance and, more importantly, in character. What we meet in a metamorphosis or in a transformation is often the “reverse” of ourselves, the “other side” that we don’t know or care to know, but which we must confront, accept, and integrate to become truly changed.
Stories are marvelous vehicles for modeling this transformative process within the safety of a controlled world, from the safe distance of another person or character, and within a finite and condensed time frame. Within these boundaries, we feel safe enough to explore the potential similarities between the characters and ourselves, between the story and our lives, and to learn how the triumphs and tragedies of the story can empower us.
Folktales so typically show their characters transforming that we easily take it for granted and feel “well, of course” when Beast transforms to Prince, or Ella of the Cinders becomes Queen Dressed in Gold. Yet, to be familiar is not to be commonplace. Indeed, we feel these motifs are significant, even essential, when we contrast our felt joy and fulfillment as the classic Red Riding Hood survives her near-death to celebrate communion with old Grandma, with our felt disappointment and regret as the moralized Little Golden Hood slips back submissively into mother’s care and promises never to stray again. No transformation; no fulfillment; no enchantment for her or for us.
There are, of course, various types of transformation in the tales. The change of physical shape as the heroine becomes a fly or the hero becomes an ant is different from the transformation of relationships as the jealous father is reconciled to his resourceful son. And these are different again from the transformations of moral character as the timid heroine grows to self-sufficient womanhood or the impetuous youth learns the art of quiet, resolute strength.
These transformations may be more connected than at first appears. When the hero’s ally becomes a horse who carries him forth over great distances, this is, we feel, just as it should be; an ant or a hedgehog simply would not do, for what the story requires at this point is horsepower. The story releases precisely the energy required by offering it in just that image. For example, in The Wooing of Étain, (Gantz) when the Celtic princess Etain is successfully wooed by Mider, she is turned into a pool of water by his jealous wife, Fuamnach. The other elements (earth, fire and air) conspire to transform her into a worm, then into a gorgeous, scarlet (sometimes written as “golden” fly- notice the alchemical overtones). Far from being a punishment, this transformation is miraculous, resulting in a creature (and on a psychological level,a psyche) of extraordinary power.
This fly was the size of the head of the handsomest man in the land, and the sound of its voice and the beating of its wings were sweeter than pipes and harps and horns. Its eyes shone like precious stones in the dark, and its colour and fragrance could sate hunger and quench thirst in any man; moreover, a sprinkling of the drops shed from its wings could cure every sickness and affliction and disease. (Gantz p. 45).
Still, this transformation is not sufficient, and the fly- Etafn is then driven by a magical wind for 14 years before being reborn, yet again, in a distant land to become a woman with far more promising circumstances. The fly image serves as a metaphor, pointing to the precise energy necessary for her psychic transformation: the energy of “flying” and transportation. While a bird might suffice, the Celtic belief that the soul resided in the head may have influenced the choice of the fly, with its huge head and eyes, as the vehicle of transformation and transportation. Some renditions of this story use the image of a butterfly, but the description of the eyes and the buzzing of wings leads us to believe the creature is, indeed, a fly, though an enormous one (it is also reminiscent of CuChulain’s birth, when his mother-to- be swallowed a fly). The fly-form facilitates the physical and psychic journey to Étain’s rebirth.
Like these shape-shiftings, changes in relationship also seem to point beyond themselves. When the ingenious but lazy son is reconciled to his controlling father, it is because the character of both has been so changed by the drama of the story that they are at last reconcilable. Beauty can marry Beast because through suffering she has grown into a woman capable of loving his essence beneath appearances, and thus the essence can come forth for her. Beast, too, has changed from a man lost in his animal-nature to one who can participate in a loving relationship. And, of course, when the ill-starred lovers come to live “happily ever after,” they are not to be thought complacently contented but “happy” in the more ancient sense that their life-energies have so transformed that they can flow well together and be mutually enriching. In other words, their changed relationships reflect the transformations within themselves: their greater resilience and emotional maturity.
And so we are brought to the third type: the power of story to depict in its characters and, more importantly, to induce in its tellers and hearers those transformations of personality we call “gaining a wider vision,” “realizing a hidden potential,” and simply “growing up.”
Naturally, not all stories will consent to being cast in this or any other single mold; a glance at the history of the schools of interpretation serves ample warning that tales lend themselves to many levels of interpretation, each valid for some hearers some of the time, none binding for all. The interaction of this particular tale with this particular listener at this particular time is critical, for each of us brings his or her current deep need or readiness to the tale through the teller. In this respect, there is a vital difference between those tales emerging from the folk, whose images and motifs are so deeply laden with the archetypal human concerns, and the personal, literary fairytales whose energies are drawn from the personal life of their creator and so seem to speak merely to our own personal surface.
At the same time, it becomes a chief task of the storyteller to offer the storyline not for itself, but as a vehicle for the transmission of these powers. If he or she perceives and uses only surface feelings of shock or amusement, the hearers can be only shocked or amused. But if a storyteller is awake to, and has become a transparent carrier for, the deeper struggles and passions by which the very humanity of our life is moved forward, then the deepest voices and resonances in the story may flow forth to spark our own deep transformation.
The evidence suggests that this flowing forth is aided when the telling induces in the hearer a light trance state, a liminal space. This state shares with effective drama and liturgy the world over the condition called by some psychologists “psychic identity,” a lowering of personal thresholds so that energies flow freely across them. One is “caught up” in an identity with the drama’s power; “inner” and “outer” lose their sharp distinction in the ecstatic merging of energy fields. Uncontrolled, it can lead to psychosis, and in a group to collective fanaticism. But in the shaped world of the entrancing story, if there happens to be a “fit” between the powers inherent in the drama and the patterns of readiness in the hearer, these energies are free to flow across lowered thresholds, bringing to the hearer the possibility of comparable transformations. In simple cases, the change in the hearer may occur there and then, as the newly awakened energies spill out into attitudes and overt behavior. The case, however, is often more complex, awakening insight into the prospect of a new direction, but leaving the actual achievement to later conscious work. In either case, habitual energy forms are displaced by fresh forms in trance; this is truly a trance-formation.
One of our favorite images of empowerment is the swan: outwardly gentle while inwardly tough, graceful yet robust, the swan functions beautifully under nearly all life’s conditions whether water, air or land and has even acquired a reputation for lovely song without actually singing! A near-cousin, the phoenix, has mastered even the fourth element, fire, using it to effect its own renewal and rebirth. The story of “The Six Swans” from the collection of the Brothers Grimm should shed light on how characters’ transformations can influence our own.
Once there was a widowed king who had six sons and one daughter. He loved his children so much that he hid them in a castle in the forest for protection. He remarried a witch’s daughter, who sewed a white, silk shirt for each child and wove a curse into each. She put them on the six brothers, who instantly changed into swans and flew away. The daughter escaped and fled to a neighboring kingdom in search of her brothers. She found them in a hut deep in the forest, and they told her that to disenchant them, she must sew six shirts of starwort in six years without ever speaking or laughing. While she sewed, the king of that country found her, fell in love, and married her. The king’s mother was angry at the match, and she hid each of the couple’s newborn children, while accusing the wife of eating them. After the third child was “eaten, “ the king believed his mother and condemned his wife to be burned at the stake as a cannibal. On the last day of the six years, as the wife was being led to the stake, the swans returned. She threw their shirts over them, and they turned into handsome young men’ all save the youngest, whose snirt was missing a sleeve; his left arm remained a swan’s wing. The young woman then told her husband what his mother had done, and the mother was burned to ashes instead, leaving the king’ the woman, and the six brothers to live together in happiness and peace. (Grimm, 1987)
There are many transformations in this story. The principal physical ones are: boys to swans, king’s mother to ashes, and the swans back into young men. The relationship changes are: widowed king gets remarried; witch’s daughter becomes a wife; protected, happy child becomes an independent, sad, mute waif; the waif becomes a wife and queen; the queen becomes a suspected cannibal; and, finally, the accused queen becomes an exonerated, honored, and completely free woman.
There are many ways to interpret the images and archetypes of this story. There are, indeed, so many cultural and individual accretions in any particular rendition of a folktale that no single meaning can be ascribed to it. A Freudian psychologist might find this tale symbolic of the process of integrating the “rational order with the illogic of . . . [the] . . . unconscious” (Bettelheim, 1989, p. 66). The impulsive, animal nature of the Id (swans) must be integrated by the Ego with the morality and ethics of the Superego (symbolized by the dutiful sister); when, again, the destructive forces of the Id arise (this time in the form of a wicked mother-in-law who accuses the sister of unrestrained orality- cannibalism), the sister remains steadfast, unifies the three aspects of her personality, and achieves a “happily ever after” ending. A Jungian psychologist, on the other hand, might interpret this as the tale of an encaged womanhood (child in the tower) who suffers loss (brothers to swans), finds her own strength (through self-discipline and inward attention), and blossoms into a more completely self-actualized person. The most interesting analysis of this tale, however, is the deeply unique and personal one, possible only as an individual internalizes the motifs and metaphors to find the ways in which the story’s elements resonate. This internalization is facilitated by treating each character and scene in the story as “a part of me.”
Using this device, the story of “The Six Swans” becomes a story of the “king part of me,” the “young girl part of me,” the “swan part of me,” the “witch part of me that challenges my old habits and drives me to new awareness,” etc. As we listen or tell the story and identify with the various parts of ourselves, the story leads us forward to explore our self-perceptions, our awarenesses, and our “blind spots.” Ultimately, if the story is the right one at the right time in the right context, it can guide us toward self-understanding.
We must be careful, however, of interpretations that are imposed on stories by others. Symbol dictionaries abound that claim to interpret dream or story elements, but the real work (and the true revelation) comes from bringing our own meanings to each story. Your “blind spots” differ from those of others, as do your thoughts and feelings. Bearing this in mind, we offer this as a possible way to explore this story, not as the way to do so. If parts of this psychodrama make sense, our efforts are worthwhile.
There is a kingly (dominant, powerful, prosperous, controlling?) part of me that loves the childlike part of me (free, underdeveloped, spontaneous?) so deeply that it has sought to protect it by enclosing it in a fortress in the dark forest part of me (unconscious, unknown, earthy, primordial?). The witch part of me (magic, transformative, evil, good, painful, redeeming?) has found this childlike part of me and changed it into a swan (soaring, enchanted, mute, cursed, graceful?). The growing woman part of me (more aware, yet still mute and sad) must master the art of the witch and consciously apply it to redeem her brothers. When this happens, the queenly part of me can assert itself, become reunited with the revitalized swan-prince part of me, and thrive as a more fully realized person.
In short, a listener could hear this tale and take from it the psychic story of the integration of one’s childlike nature into the growing maturity of adulthood. The precise meaning, however, depends on the listener’s individual interpretation of each story element. The witch part of me may be negative for some people and positive for others, just as she can be the curse-giver, the transformative catalyst, or both. It is also important to explore gender meanings without getting caught in stereotypes. The actual characters are less important than the functions they play and the connections one makes with them. Thus, it is not woman saving man or masculine saving feminine, but one part of me that needs to interact with another, perhaps as the story suggests. We must tease out of the story the meanings we need at that moment.
Why, then, is it so precious to us as listeners and tellers that the characters transform? When we find ourselves confronted by a painful and crippling obstacle, if we have the good fortune or the wisdom to find enchantment in a tale such as the Grimm brothers’ The Six Swans, we may be led step by step through a reconstructive inner process of painful discipline and self- sacrifice that can culminate in a more mature, personally integrated and richer self.
And so we are suggesting that the deeply responsive hearer or teller of such a tale is doubly blessed. Consciousness becomes freshly empowered with a new sense of personal adequacy and self-worth in the face of once-daunting tasks. Still more precious is the fact that our hidden powers, no longer condemned to foment trouble in our unconscious, are redeemed and welcomed as valuable and creative players in our life’s journey.
Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Knopf, 1989.
Gantz, Jeffrey. “The Wooing of Étain.” Early Irish Myths and Sagas. New York: Penguin, 1981. 39-59.
Grimm, Wilhelm and Jakob. “The Six Swans.” The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. Trans. Jack Zipes. New York: Bantam, 1987. 182-85.
Lang, Andrew. The stonecutter. The Crimson Fairy Book. New York: Dover, 1967. 192-97.
This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 4, Summer 2003.
Brian W. Sturm received both an MLS in 1991 and a Ph.D. in 1998 from Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. He has served as the assistant director of the Indiana University School of Library and Information Science (LIS) on the South Bend campus, and he has been a children’s librarian in Rhode Island and in Indiana. Before choosing the LIS field, he worked as a wildlife rehabilitator, raising injured and orphaned songbirds in Indiana; as an outdoor educator, introducing sixth graders to the wonders of the coastal redwood forest in California; and as a wildlife biology assistant in the back country of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Brian has been a docent for a natural history museum, has presented planetarium shows, and has been been a storyteller for more than 12 years.
William A. Sturm retired from his lifelong passion of college teaching in 1993. He focused his scholarly work on the Greek and German philosophers, and finished his career with an interest in the healing strategies of Carl Jung. He found that the motifs in folklore illuminated the structures of the unconscious psyche and, if explored, could lead to personal development. The support of his wife, Betty, and his two sons, Jonathan and Brian, has been fundamental to his work and to the direction of his life.