I have read this book twice, with many years in between. In my youth, I thought Robert Johnson understood the myth of the Fisher King exceptionally well, but did not really understand the handless maiden. I attributed this to his gender bias, which he mentions at...
I have read this book twice, with many years in between.
In my youth, I thought Robert Johnson understood the myth of the Fisher King exceptionally well, but did not really understand the handless maiden. I attributed this to his gender bias, which he mentions at the beginning. He understands men better than women, from personal experience. I re-read the book again recently. I have been researching sexism, and I now understand things I simply was not aware of before. This time when I read the handless maiden myth, I was astounded. One of the things Robert Johnson talks about are the silver hands the king has made for the maiden. This is a metaphor for technology! And I was previously so enamored of technology that I could not even see the metaphor.
The highlights of the book are Johnson''s re-interpretation of foundational mythology.
In the Fisher King, he tells the story of a king who is wounded in his feeling function. In modern terms, we would say he is damaged in his ability to experience emotions -- to relate to other people. He has respite from his pain only when he is fishing, hence the name. He lives in the castle of the holy grail. Direction to the castle are critical: the fisherman tells Parsifal (the youthful hero of the myth) that he should go "just down the road a little way, turn left, cross the drawbridge, and you will be my guest tonight." Johnson interprets these directions for us. "The specific instructions are to go down the road -- whatever road one is involved with at the moment -- turn left, which is to say go toward the unconscious or the world of imagination and fantasy, cross the drawbridge -- the division between our conscious world and the inner world of imagination -- and one will be in the grail castle, the miraculous place of healing." The book Johnson wrote -- all his books in fact -- are verbal guides to this process.
The story of the handless maiden is about a young girl whose hands were cut off as a consequence of her father''s unwitting bargain with the devil. In modern terms we would say she is denied agency, just as men are denied emotional connectivity. But the story is so much more than that! A king falls in love with her and marries her. He had silver hands made for her, and these hands are widely admired in court. The silver hands stand for the technology we use as a barrier between ourselves and our deep persona -- specifically that place that is "down the road a little way, turn left, cross the drawbridge". The agency the maiden particularly lacks is the agency to access this process. She, like many modern people, relates more closely to her iPhone than to her companions. Silver-handedness is unbelievably attractive, even addictive. (Johnson wrote this book in 1993, so his illustration of silver-handedness is more mundane: a lavish hotel with silver dinnerware and fawning servants. Johnson would have recognized our current technology as more a more telling example.)
Johnson mentions that Jung was asked "Will we make it?" -- meaning will we survive as a civilization. Jung replied "Only if enough individuals do their inner work."
This book is a part of that inner work.