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The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved

BY Bradley Olson February 27, 2022

Cover, The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved by John Ciardi. Edward Gorey, 1965.

Heroism and Adventure, the theme of this month’s MythBlast Series essays, seem to me to be a linked pair. Reflexively, I think, we imagine adventure as a going out, an extension into the world, a leaving of the known, familiar world of domestic routines for the unknown, unpredictable, unmanageable world. This, doubtless, constitutes the often invasive bearing of the hero. But the word adventure has its roots in the Latin word advenire, which means to arrive, to come to, a perspective that can be understood to be a bit more aligned with those who experience the arrival of the hero and the effects of the hero’s exploits upon them and their communities.

One of my most beloved books is a first edition copy of The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved. It’s a poem written by John Ciardi that was first published in the November 14, 1964 edition of The Saturday Review, and published as a book in 1965, charmingly illustrated by the marvelous Edward Gorey. To get a sense of this satiric poem’s chiding of heroism, let me quote from the inside of the book jacket:

The King was dozing and thinking about his money. The Queen was pampering a cold with aspirin pies. The Princess was safely in her tower listening to a lark. The Giant, a gentle creature, being at the moment unoccupied, was sprawling beside the brook smelling a flower. The castle, the Royal Family, and the Kingdom were at peace.

And then the Hero arrived, sheathed in armor, breathing flame, looking for a villain and a castle to save. He scared the lark. He woke the King. The Princess cried and the Giant hid in the closet. But the Hero went on stamping around and making heroic noises.

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The Hero, who in this case mistook a noble calling for a mere career, was making a general nuisance of himself and creating big problems in a place where before his arrival, there were none. “All over his head was his helmet,” Ciardi writes, “and in his head was, of course, a fight.” The King warned the Hero that he should move on, that he doesn’t want his Kingdom “saved in two,” and gave him to the count of ten to leave or be subjected to the business end of a cannon the King deployed to emphasize his seriousness. The Hero persisted, the cannoneer fired, and the King remarked, “Well, I tried to tell him. But I guess Heroes are hard to tell.” Ciardi writes, “The Kingdom was saved from being saved. The Giant was saved from a fight. The King was afraid that he had behaved in ways not entirely right.” Reflecting on the Hero’s demise the King went on to say, “As Heroes go he was brave enough, but I’m not sure he was bright.”

Moving out of one’s familiar sphere of existence and into situations, people, and environs with which one is not familiar, while at the same time stubbornly clinging to familiar values, mores, and dogmatisms, almost always results in catastrophic misadventures, as Ciardi’s intrepid, yet fatuous, Hero demonstrated. 

In myths, however, the movement from the known into the unknown is what Joseph Campbell called “crossing the threshold. This is the crossing from the conscious into the unconscious world, but the unconscious world is represented in many, many, many different images, depending on the cultural surroundings of the mythos.” This threshold crossing is, Campbell goes on to say, “simply a journey beyond the pairs of opposites, where you go beyond good and evil.” (Pathways To Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, 114-115)

We are commonly given to the understanding that space is wide and time is deep. We too often associate adventure and the heroic with space—it happens here, across these territories, at those places, etc. So where are we going when we go “beyond good and evil?” We are going, I think, to a place that feels entirely foreign to us, beyond distinctions between space and time, a place beyond individual will, where conceptual faculties like logic, reason, and differentiation are rendered powerless and we, perforce, achieve awareness of the fact we are an aspect, an artifact, of the dynamism of life. 

It’s not simply going beyond good and evil, beyond concepts. It is nothing less than, as Fredrich Nietzsche said, a revaluation of all values. “Crossing the threshold” means the achievement of a psychophysical awareness in which one experiences a transcendent overfullness. I imagine that the sensation is akin to William Blake’s sublime vision: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.”

Crossing the threshold means using one’s imagination as a vessel to explore the universe without and within. I’m reminded of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, who insisted that that which is not cannot be thought about. Conversely, anything that can exist and be thought about must exist. In other words, if something can be thought about, it actually does exist. The ungenerous reader may call this nonsense, but I would prefer to call this an example of mythic thinking, mythopoesis even, which expands and opens the universe rather than diminishes it. Isn’t the capacity to abstractly imagine a universe beyond concepts and oppositions—beyond good and evil—enough to encourage us to at least try to rethink, redefine, and reconsider what it is to be a self, what nature is, and who others are in the field of experience?

Of course, the Sufi poet Rumi got there a long time ago and, I think, got it exactly right when he said (as translated by Coleman Barks):

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense.

Isn’t the real adventure to attempt to be so present, so attuned to life, as to experience the overwhelming fullness of the world, the self, the world-self even, with all dogmas, illusions, and oppositions dropping away? In this way, the heroic adventure is always at hand. Anytime is the right time for threshold crossing if you simply say yes to the conditions of life and to imagination, making the effort to affirm things just as they are in each of the moments you happen to occupy.

 

Thanks for reading,

Best regards, Bradley Olson, Ph.D. About Brad  Bradley Olson, Ph.D., is the editor of the Joseph Campbell Foundation’s MythBlast series. Dr. Olson is a Depth Psychologist in private practice in Flagstaff, Arizona; his work with clients is heavily influenced by his interest in Jungian Analytical Psychology, literature, and Mythological Studies.
Myth or Dreams from The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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In his later work, Campbell would say, “Myth is other people’s religion, and religion is misunderstood myth.” Thus, in the opening paragraph of this piece, Campbell evokes in his midcentury American reader’s mind as foreign (and as stereotyped) an image of other people’s religion as he could: “the dreamlike mumbo jumbo of some red-eyed witch doctor of the Congo.” His point, elaborated through the rest of the piece, is to break down his reader’s “aloof amusement” at this outré figure and to show that, whatever the societal surface, all myth, dream, and religion flow from the same universal underground source. This is the subversive premise of The Hero with a Thousand Faces, even more radical than its laying out the structure of the monomyth, the Hero’s Journey® schema, for which the book is so justly lauded.

News & Updates

The Coast Salish people name the moon each month; during March, it is the Pexsisen, or “moon with the opening hands.”

Mahashivaratri, March 1, is a Hindu festival honoring Shiva, the god whose dance “creates, preserves, and destroys.”

Christians will feast for a day, then fast for six weeks starting with Shrove Tuesday, March 1, and Ash Wednesday, March 2.

Bahá’ís are also fasting from the 1st to the 20th in preparation for Naw-Ruz, or New Year, traditionally celebrated at the vernal equinox.

For Tibetans, March 3 (Losar) begins the Year 2149.

Impatient with sectarianism, women from Anglican, Orthodox, Protestant, and Roman Catholic traditions will unite in the World Day of Prayer starting March 4. They’ve been at it since the 19th Century.

Weekly Quote

We live, on this side of the mystery, in the realm of the pairs of opposites: true and false, light and dark, good and evil, male and female, and all that dualistic rational worldview. One can have an intuition that is beyond good and evil, that goes beyond pairs of opposites — that’s the opening of this gateway into the mystery.

 

-- Joseph Campbell

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Pathways to Bliss

In Pathways to Bliss, Campbell examines the personal, psychological side of myth. Like his classic best-selling books Myths to Live By and The Power of Myth, Pathways to Bliss draws from Campbell’s popular lectures and dialogues, which highlight his remarkable storytelling and ability to apply the larger themes of world mythology to personal growth and the quest for transformation. Here he anchors mythology’s symbolic wisdom to the individual, applying the most poetic mythical metaphors to the challenges of our daily lives.

 

Book Club

“I’m looking forward to the discussion constellated around this month’s selection, Treasury Of Folklore: Seas and Rivers. The text is a nice little compendium of folklore with an ocean or river view: stories we grew up with, stories that condition our culture, stories that provide a context for meaning, and stories that are just plain fun. Sticking with this metaphor, February promises to be a riverboat cruise, stopping at these themes like ports of call, as we make our way downstream to the ocean of understanding. Hm, was that too corny? Anyway, you get the idea! Looking forward to our adventure.”

Mark C. E. Peterson, PhD
Editorial Advisory Group
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