All of us must go into the mythic woods during our lifetime, usually more than once. In the opening song of the movie we hear, “Into the woods- It's time, and so I must begin my journey..... Into the woods, and who can tell what's waiting on the journey.” Dante Alighieri understood this when he began his Divine Comedy with the words: “Midway upon the journey of life I found myself within a forest dark, for the straightforward pathway had been lost.” These are not the woods we walk through on a sunny weekend day at local park for a bit of exercise and to enjoy the beauty of the natural world. These are the dark woods of our fears - the haunted woods, where scary and wild things live. these are the woods where we may encounter “Lions and tigers and bears, Oh my!” These are the woods in which we become a wanderer on a quest.
One of my favorite children’s picture books is The Enchanted Wood by Ruth Sanderson. This new fairytale follows the typical format and has some of the most beautiful artwork I have seen in a children’s book. The queen has died, the king is in grief and the kingdom has become a wasteland. The king’s three sons go on a quest to find the tree at the Heart of the World that can renew the kingdom. The Heart of the World is deep in an Enchanted Wood.
The first son goes on the quest and when he fails to return the second goes. Each prince is greeted by an elderly woman who gives him a warning: “Be true to the quest, at any cost. Stray from the path, and you will be lost.” Each son, in turn, treats the woman rudely and ignores her. The eldest son is enchanted by a magnificent White Stag moving through the forest and follows it becoming lost. The second son sees a knight in all black armor riding slowly through the wood. He follows the Black Knight to challenge him also becoming lost in the Enchanted Wood.
When the first two sons fail to return, the youngest son, begins the quest. When he is greeted by the elderly woman with the same warning: “Be true to the quest, at any cost. Stray from the path, and you will be lost.” he listens politely. The young prince is invited to join the woman and her daughter, Rose, for supper and to rest. The next morning, Rose joins the young prince saying, “I may be able to help you on your quest.”
During the journey, the young prince sees each of his brothers and his first instinct is to go to their rescue. But Rose reminds him, ““Be true to the quest, at any cost. Stray from the path, and you will be lost.” After some time, they come to a clearing and find “a wonderful tree, the like of which they had never seen. They understood that here was the Heart of the World, as old as the earth itself.” Their quest successful, the kingdom is restored to its natural lushness, and of course, the young prince becomes the new king with Rose at his side as queen.
There is great wisdom in this simple fairytale that can help us through our own journey into the woods. The warning of the wise woman is the place to start: ““Be true to the quest, at any cost. Stray from the path, and you will be lost.” The quest is always the same, whether it is symbolized by search for the Heart of the World, the Holy Grail, or the Pearl of Great Price. It is the journey of theosis or individuation. It is the search for the Self, for the Divine within.
In The Enchanted Wood, the four things that take the seekers off of their true path, are things we all deal with on our own quest in the dark wood. The first is pride, manifested in the story by rudeness toward the elderly wisdom figure and arrogance in not feeling any need to heed her warning. For us this appears when we think our religion, or political party, or knowledge, is superior to those who are “other,” and certainly not as good as us.
The second, is chasing the White Stag. The White Stag, according to Emma Jung in The Grail Legend, can be seen as patriarchal spirituality or religion (big horns). It may even be interpreted as the Shadow Christ, in whose name wars, the inquisition, and in the current times, when homophobic laws and laws suppressing women’s rights are passed.
The third thing is the meeting with the Black Knight. The Black Knight represents our shadow, that unconscious ‘‘dark side’’ of our personality. Whatever we deem evil, inferior or unacceptable in ourselves becomes part of this shadow.
The fourth lure away from staying true to the quest was the impulse for the young prince to save his brothers at the expense of the quest. This certainly seems good, but is paradoxical. In the movie, Into the Woods, we hear in song, “Morality is complicated: "Wrong things, right things ... Who can say what's true? ... Do things, fight things ... You decide, but ... You are not alone ... You decide what's right. You decide what's good."
Indeed we are not alone. The young prince in The Enchanted Wood is accompanied by Rose. A highly complex symbol, the rose represents both heavenly perfection and earthly passion. In Alchemy, it is wisdom. In the Hebrew Kabbalah, it emerges from the Tree of Life. The rose has always been associated with the goddess, including Isis, Aphrodite, and the Virgin Mary, who is sometimes referred to as the "rosa mystica." For us modern day wanderers on the quest, Rose can be thought of as the anima, the feminine wisdom energy of the psyche or soul.
By deepening our connection to the unconscious anima we will find that we have a great inner friend within us who will guide us through every step in the dark woods and on our path of individuation, theosis, wholeness.
"So into the woods you go again. You have to every now and then. Into the woods, no telling when, be ready for the journey." ~ From Into the Woods
Ruth Sanderson, The Enchanted Wood, Little Brown and Company,1991.
Emma Jung & Marie-Louise von Franz, The Grail Legend, Sigo Press 1986.