Why Do Girls Never Slay the Dragon? October 06 2016

During the Michaelmas season there are many stories of dragons terrorizing kingdoms. The pattern is, for the most part, repeated. A frightening dragon appears breathing fire and destroying whole villages, and a princess is inevitably frightened and weeps helplessly. A knight appears who courageously faces the dragon, slays the dragon, rescues the princess and earns her as a bride for his heroic actions.

Jost Haller - Colmar : Saint Georges terrassant le dragon, Olivier from FRANCE

This tends to make feminists among us uncomfortable.

“Why does the girl never slay the dragon?” is the question that comes up. Why, indeed!

To understand the answer to this question brings us to the power of fairytales and fables. These stories go back farther than written history and gather up pictures from the early consciousness of humankind, before the more intellectual capacities of modern minds long ago when pictures told the stories—pictures beyond words. In these stories the whole human being is represented. We all have within us the masculine and the feminine, a princess and a knight, a dragon, a dark forest, a hungry wolf, a dumbling, a king, a wizard, a witch, and a queen.

These ancient stories tell us, reflecting back to ourselves, the truth about the nature of being human—complete with an aspect of the higher capacities we all carry within us. The sun and the moon, the fairy godmother, the wise woman, and the forces of nature all speak in ancient stories in ways that give the characters knowledge of deep truths and answers to difficult situations.

One of the characteristics of legends and authentic fairy tales is that of transformation. Something always happens in these tales that allows the better parts of our lives to shine through. Good conquers evil, light prevails over darkness, animal qualities become more human, dumblings become kings, and scullery maids become queens. The power in the story brings this about so that the human heart knows hope, inspiration, determination, and trust. The human being understands from the stories all the potential that lives in all of us and the endless capability in each to bring about transformative change that allows the higher self to prevail over our lower dragon-like tendencies. Male and female aspects of every human being are portrayed as princess and knight, king and queen, witch and wizard, and boy and girl, Hansel and Gretel, Jorinda and Joringel.

Bruno Bettelheim, Austrian born, prominent American psychologist in the twentieth century and survivor of both Dachau and Buchenwald during World War II, wrote a wonderful book called, The Uses of Enchantment: the Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. In it, Bettelheim describes the power of the pictures in fairy tales and cautions against the modern tendency to tone them down, or to change them to be more feminist and gender neutral, to soften the stories to make them less frightening. He describes how children know how to take the meaning of these ancient stories as pictures of themselves and as assistance on understanding the presence of wickedness and the need to strive to be kind and enlightened and open to the messages from the natural world.

All ancient stories have, of course, these potent pictures and helpful descriptions of the many facets of each of us. Shiva, goddess from the Hindu tradition, and featured among other gods and goddesses in ancient Indian mythology told in the fifth grade curriculum in Waldorf schools, is both a deity of creation and of destruction, male and female, all powerful and omnipresent in the world of ancient people. Aphrodite in Greek mythology, also part of the fifth grade curriculum, the goddess of beauty, love and desire, is also capable of mighty “masculine” deeds of war when stirred to action. Nusayba b. Ka’b, a companion of the Prophet Muhammad, is most remembered for taking part in the Battle of Uhud, in which she carried sword and shield and fought against the Meccans. She shielded the Prophet Muhammad from enemies during the battle and even sustained several lance wounds and arrows as she put herself in front of Muhammad to protect him. The feminine aspect of the human psyche is also receptive and gentle and sensitive of course, these are the best parts of the eternal feminine, but this cannot be interpreted as weak, just as the physical prowess in our masculine side that stands against fear and fights in all circumstances cannot be seen only as strong. Both ancient and modern stories show us that the male side, unchecked by the inner feminine in us all can become destructive; just as the feminine unbalanced by masculine traits can become gentle to the point of weakness or unduly submissive.

The stories of dragons in this Michaelmas season are like these fairy tales, telling us about the different aspects of ourselves. The dragons of life that exist both inside and outside of us need to be seen as dangerous and necessary to tame or subdue or to transform or to slay. Unleashed and unchecked, dragon forces can become destructive. The best part of the Michaelmas lessons that distinguishes them is the intelligence of the being of Michael who requests action from us. He never usurps human initiative. As soon as a human being stands firm and faces the dragon down or takes an action of courage to walk up to the dragon, Michael steps behind and gives us strength. There are many beautiful legends involving little girls who, confronted with a dragon in the path, decide to walk forward and end up discovering an ally in what looked like a terrible force of danger when fear was the leading emotion.

Children, especially before the age of puberty, and surely before the age of nine, understand the meaning of the pictures and use the stories to educate their own feelings and their sense of rightful action and inner moral direction. Little ones hear the stories before the arrival of the intellect in the growing youth and experience truth beyond ordinary truth. One first grader asked after a teacher had told a story, “Is that story really true?” A classmate answered, “That story was truer than true!”

With stories from long ago, from ”once upon a time,” children weave meaning into everyday life that helps them to incorporate their own innate wisdom into ordinary, earthly consciousness. Without the stories children can often be left with no way to blend the ideas in them when they arrive with the strange and wonderful world they find as they grow. As adults we can often misunderstand the questions of children or marvel at some of the wondrous thoughts they articulate. Children often remind us of our higher capacities with their insights. Those insights find reflection in stories of dragons, stories of knights, stories of weeping princesses. As children play them out they recognize the many facets of their own possibilities, good and bad, and can digest these and learn to hope and strive into their own futures.