Male Hero redeemed by Heroine
Such is one version of the plot of Rebirth. We may come across familiar stories
which present the theme of Rebirth in another way. We still see the heroine as the
central figure. Everything still hinges on a final liberation by the power of love
from a state of living death. But here it is the male hero who is the central imprisoned
figure of the story, trapped by dark enchantment, and it is the heroine (the shero, in some cases!) who eventually
liberates him. As the story unfolds, however, she herself also falls into a state
of imprisonment, trapped by the hero when he is under the dark spell - so that we
finally see each being liberated from the grip of the dark power by the other.
In The Frog Prince, a young Princess is out playing one day with her most precious
possession, a tennis ball, when it rolls away and sinks into a deep pool. She
is in great distress, not knowing how to get it back, when a frog hops up and offers
to recover it - on condition that she will take him home and allow him to share
her food and her bed. She lightly gives her promise, the ball is recovered and the
Princess goes happily off home, forgetting all about her promise to the frog.
Eventually there is a knock at the palace door, the Princess opens it and is horrified
to see the frog, come to claim his part of the bargain. In terror, the Princess
slams the door, but when her father the king hears what has happened he sternly
insists that she must fulfil her promise. With a sense of loathing she allows the
repulsive little creature to eat from her plate, and even to share her bed - and when
he disappears the next morning, she hopes she has seen the last of him. But her
nightmare is not over. The frog returns, to share her bed for three nights; and only
on the third morning does she wake up to find that he has turned into his true self
as a handsome Prince. He explains that he had been placed under an evil spell by
an enchantress, and turned into a frog; with the condition that he could only be
released if he could persuade a Princess to let him share her bed for three nights.
The Princess looks at the Prince she has unwittingly redeemed with almost
disbelieving joy and love, and he takes her home to be married.
A second familiar folk tale which expresses this same basic outline with rather
greater subtlety is Beauty and the Beast; and here it is more explicitly emphasised
that the heroine actually has to show love for the hero before he can be released
from his outwardly repulsive and dark state (although in The Frog Prince the
Princess's sharing of her bed is obviously symbolically related).
We begin with the familiar situation of a father and daughter. As in
Cinderella and many other stories, the point is to contrast two or three of the other village children, vain,
proud and hard-hearted, with the heroine, Belle, who is not only outwardly attractive
but also good-hearted, learned, and loving. The father goes on a journey and loses his way
one night in a forest. He is drawn to a mysterious, empty castle, where he finds every
kind of comfort and hospitality, although he never sees anyone until he is about
to leave - when he is set upon by a terrifying monster, in semi-human shape.
The Beast only allows him to leave on condition that he sends back his daughter to live at the castle. Up until then, he basically holds the father hostage.
Belle comes to the castle, full of dread, and although she is splendidly looked
after and even comes to like the friendly and kindly Beast, she cannot possibly
accept his proposal that she should marry him. She feels terribly trapped; but
eventually the Beast allows her to return home for a while to tend her father who
has fallen ill, and she delays, leading the Beast to believe she has broken her promise to come back. Then, in a dream, she
sees the Beast dying of grief. She rushes contritely back to the castle, just in time
to find him lying in the darkness in the garden, apparently dead. She is so overcome
by the love which has been secretly growing in her that she flings herself
down to embrace him. He stirs back to life, and says that he only wanted to see her
once more: he can now die happy. She says that he must not die, she cannot live
without him. At these words, the dark castle is suddenly filled with light, music
plays and she sees standing before her a handsome Prince - who tells her that he
had been turned into a monster by an enchantress, to redeem the error of his selfish ways, and that he could only
win his release if a beautiful virgin would freely consent to marry him. The Beauty and
the Beast have redeemed each other by the power of her love - although obviously
he had only been a monster in outward form. Inwardly his true self had been
there all along, waiting for the right woman to bring about the moment when all
his outward deformations would fall away and he could at last emerge in his perfect,
princely state, united with her forever.
The Snow Queen
In all these examples of the Rebirth story based on folk tales and familiar from
childhood, the central imprisoned figures have only become trapped in the state
of living death through the agency of some dark figure outside them. But eventually
we come across another children's story which takes the pattern of this plot
a stage further. In Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen we see a hero who
initially passes under the spell of darkness through the action of an evil enchanter. But
the consequence is that he becomes not just outwardly but inwardly infected by
the power of darkness himself. It is this which draws him in turn into the power
of another dark figure, the Snow Queen, and it is she who imprisons him in the
state of living death.
The story begins with a prologue, which tells how a wicked Magician/Troll/Goblin/Demon (depending on the version) once constructed
a most curious mirror. 'Everything good and beautiful, when reflected in
it, shrank up almost to nothing, whilst those things which were ugly and useless
were magnified and made to appear ten times worse than before.' The Magician's
followers carried the distorting mirror up into the sky, where it fell from their
grasp and shattered into millions of tiny fragments. Splinters of the mirror fell to
earth all over the world. Some entered people's eyes, which caused them 'to view
everything the wrong way'. Others entered people's hearts, which was even worse,
for 'the heart became cold and hard, like a lump of ice'.
The story proper begins when we meet a little boy Kai and a little girl Gerda
who live next door to each other in a big town. They play together and love each
other. Both are innocent and sweet-natured. But one day, towards the end of
summer, Kai feels shooting pains in his left eye and heart. They have been entered by
splinters of the magic mirror. The pain fades, but Kai's character begins to change.
He begins to see the roses outside their windows as ugly, and tears them down. He
scorns Gerda's tears, and starts to imitate people cruelly behind their backs. He
now likes 'rational' games, such as looking at snowflakes through a magnifying
glass, to delight in their cold, hard, crystalline perfection.
Winter has come and one day Kai takes his little sledge out into the square
where he sees a large and handsome sledge passing by, driven by a mysterious
figure all dressed in white. He attaches his own sledge behind the larger one,
hoping for a ride, and finds himself being whirled along faster and faster through
the streets, and eventually out into the snow-covered countryside. By now he is
very frightened, but he cannot shake his sledge loose. He tries to say a prayer,
but can only remember the nine times table. At last they stop, miles from
home, and the mysterious figure reveals herself as the Snow Queen. Kai sees her
as beautiful: 'a more intelligent, more lovely countenance he could not imagine'.
As they resume their journey, now flying over forests, lakes, and seas, Kai sits
beside her, his head filled with figures and statistics, until he falls asleep.
We then return to little Gerda, who is very unhappy at her friend's disappearance.
The winter goes by, spring comes, still he has not returned. Some say he must
be dead, but Gerda cannot believe it and she sets out to look for him. We now pass
into the familiar territory of a Quest, as she embarks on her long journey into distant
lands, with alternating episodes of ordeal and respite. For a time she passes
into the power of an enchantress herself, who like Odysseus's Calypso tries to
lull her into forgetfulness of her Quest. She meets helpers, a raven and a robber maiden,
who eventually sends her on the last part of her journey, on a reindeer.
Then at last we see what has happened to Kai. Far to the north, in the land of everlasting
cold, he is imprisoned in the vast ice palace of the Snow Queen. He sits
most of the time all alone, doing 'puzzles' with splinters of ice. 'Kai could
form the most curious and complete figures - this was the ice puzzle of reason -
and in his eyes these figures were of the utmost importance... but there was
one word he could never succeed in forming. It was "Eternity."' The Snow Queen
had told him that if ever he can put that word together, he will become his own
master and 'I will give thee the whole world'.
At last Gerda finds Kai, in the 'great empty hall of ice'. As he sits, 'cold, silent,
motionless', he does not recognise her. She is so overcome by love and pity that she
embraces him with hot tears, which wash the splinter of mirror from his heart. He
then weeps too, which floats the splinter from his eye. At last he can feel and see
straight again. 'Gerda, my dear little Gerda' he exclaims, as if waking from a long
sleep, 'where have you been all this time? And where have I been?' They are both
so filled with joy that even the ice fragments around them dance, and form the
word 'Eternity' by themselves. Gerda and Kai set out on their long return journey,
the world around them becoming ever warmer and more spring-like as they travel south. At last they arrive back in their old familiar streets, and as they come
home the only alteration they can find is in themselves, for 'they saw that they
were now fully grown up'. They gaze on each other happily, 'while all around them
glowed warm, glorious Summer'.
From earlier stages of our journey through storytelling we have no difficulty in
recognising what is happening to Kai in the course of this story. When the splinters
of the mirror enter his eye and his heart, two things happen: he can no longer
see straight and whole, and he can no longer feel for others. He becomes blind,
heartless, and egocentric. He has become 'dark' in exactly the same way in which
we saw figures being possessed by darkness in earlier types of story, above all in
Tragedy. And when Gerda finally finds her way to his lonely prison to liberate him,
the transformation which takes place in him is precisely that which we saw in
earlier types of story where a dark figure goes through a change of heart and
becomes 'light'. As the splinters are washed from Kai's eye and heart, he regains
both the powers he has lost: to see whole and to feel. He is once again able to love.
He is restored to his true self. United with his 'other half Gerda, he is complete.
And, as the closing lines of the story make clear, he has 'fully grown up'.
But still the darkness which possesses Kai is personified outwardly, in the two
dominant dark figures of the story who are ultimately responsible for placing him
under the dark spell and consigning him to the state of living death, the Magician/Troll/Goblin and the Snow Queen.
Each of these nineteenth-century novels describes its hero going through what is
essentially the same kind of inward drama. In each we see:
(1) a hero who, as a young man, falls under the shadow of the dark power;
(2) as the poison gets to work, it takes some time to get the upper hand and to
show its full destructive effect;
(3) eventually the darkness emerges in full force, plunging the hero into a state
of total isolation;
(4) this culminates in a nightmare crisis which is the prelude to the final
(5) the hero 'wakes from his sleep', and is liberated through the power of love.
In fact this form of the Rebirth story finally brings us back to the point where
we left off at the end of our exploration of Tragedy. As in a tragedy, we are looking
from the inside at what happens to someone when he becomes possessed by
the dark part of himself. We see him passing into the grip of an egocentric obsession,
which renders him both unable to feel for others outside himself and also
blind to the reality of what is happening to him. As he sinks ever further into the
darkness, however, he does not, like the tragic hero, just plunge on to final destruction. What marks out the Rebirth plot is the way we see the central figure eventually
frozen in his dark and lonely state with seemingly no hope of escape. And it is
here, as light stealing in on the darkness, that the vision appears which inspires the
stirring back to life, centred on a particular redeeming figure: invariably, where the
story has a hero, a Young Woman or a Child.
Again, as in The Snow Queen, what we thus see happening to the hero is that
familiar process which we have already seen in other types of story wmere the hero
makes a switch from darkness to light. He is being put in touch with some deeper
part of his personality which he has not previously been aware of. Firstly,
this opens his eyes, enabling him to see the world from a wholly new, non-selfish
perspective; it allows him for the first time to see everything straight and whole.
Secondly, it enables him for the first time really to feel selflessly. As he finally
moves securely to this new centre of his personality, love wells up in him like an
unstoppable force, giving him a sense of extraordinary liberation, of being linked
'with the whole world' - and he experiences this as at last coming to his true,
Rebirth: Summing up
We can now sum up this type of story in all the main forms which it can take.
Behind them all is the same basic sequence:
(1) a young hero or heroine falls under the shadow of the dark power;
(2) for a while, all may seem to go reasonably well, the threat may even seem to
(3) but eventually it approaches again in full force, until the hero or heroine is
seen imprisoned in the state of living death;
(4) this continues for a long time, when it seems that the dark power has completely
(5) but finally comes the miraculous redemption: either by a Young Person
or a Child.
The power of this type of story to move us lies in the contrast between the
condition of the hero or heroine when we see them frozen in their isolated,
imprisoned state and the moment when the liberation begins, as we see them
being released from the dark power's icy grip. Again and again we see the same
range of imagery being used to conjure up the former state, when the dark power
coldness, hardness, immobility, constriction, sleep, darkness, sickness, decay,
isolation, torment, despair, lack of love.
Finally, prevailing against that state as spring follows winter, we see the exactly
corresponding imagery of
warmth, softness, movement, liberation, awakening, light, health, growth, joining
together, happiness, hope, love.
On every count it marks the move from one universal pole of existence to the
other, from death to life: hence the reason why we see this mighty transformation
as 'rebirth'. But we can see this basic underlying drama presented in three different
Initially, corresponding to the kinds of story we come across early in life, we
may see the innocent but undeveloped young hero or heroine falling under the
shadow of the dark power as it is personified in a mysterious, malevolent figure
outside them. Nevertheless it is their own immature state and limited awareness
which renders them unable to withstand the dark power, drawing them inexorably
into its grip; and only after a long time are they ready to be released.
Eventually, corresponding to the kinds of story we are more familiar with in
adult life, we may see the dark power represented much more directly as something
springing entirely from within the hero or heroine's own personality: they
have been unable to withstand the evil spell cast over them by the dark part of
In the middle, as a bridge between the two, we may see the kind of story where
both these things happen: where the dark power is initially personified in magical
figures outside the hero, who place him under a spell: but where its effect is to turn
him into a dark figure himself.
Before we conclude this exploration of the Rebirth story we shall look at more examples of each of these basic forms which the plot can assume.
The first example shows how it need not be only in fairy tales, or in stories
written primarily for children, that we may see a hero who is trapped in a state
of living death by a dark figure outside him. The profoundly moving story of
Beethoven's opera Fidelio provides us with another instance of an imprisoned
hero being released by a heroine, seen from the heroine's point of view. But we are
not here looking, as in Beauty and the Beast, at a naive, relatively passive young
heroine who achieves the hero's liberation unwittingly. Here, as in the adult version
of Gerda in The Snow Queen, we see a heroine who is not just good-hearted; she
is the most 'active' figure in the story, determined, courageous and fully aware of
what she is doing, as she sets out to rescue her hero from a physical and spiritual
imprisonment which has reduced him to helpless impotence and despair.
The hero of the opera, Florestan, has been seized by an evil tyrant, Pizarro,
whose crimes he had been about to expose to the world, and thrown into the
deepest, most secret dungeon of the fearsome prison of which Pizarro is governor.
It is even generally assumed that the disappeared Florestan must be already dead
(as in The Snow Queen it was assumed that Kai must have died when he disappeared),
but Leonore his wife - like Gerda - refuses to believe it and determines
to rescue him. First she disguises herself as a young man, like the 'active' heroines
who play a chief liberating role in Shakespearean comedy, Portia, Viola, or Rosalind,
and talks herself into the post of assistant to the chief gaoler of Pizarro's prison,
Rocco. After a comparatively cosy domestic opening, as if the opera were Comedy
(with Rocco's daughter expressing her love for the 'young man'), we then meet the grim tyrant Pizarro himself, who learns that the mysterious 'Prime Minister' is on his
way to the prison to enquire into accusations that Pizarro has been exercising
his authority unjustly. Realising that he dare not allow the Minister to discover
Florestan, Pizarro makes preparations to kill his victim, ordering Rocco to dig the
grave and arranging for a trumpet to sound to warn him of the Prime Minister's
approach. The first act ends with all the other prisoners allowed briefly up into the
fresh air and sunlight, which they compare to emergence from the grave, before
they are plunged down into the darkness again.
It is only at the beginning of Act Two that we are at last, amid the atmosphere
of steadily gathering threat, allowed to see the hero himself - as we penetrate far
beneath the earth to the squalid dungeon where Florestan is confined in perpetual
darkness, in heavy chains. He is in the depths of despair, thinking he is about to
die: but briefly imagines that he feels a 'gentle, soft stirring breeze' and sees his
'tomb illumined' by the vision of'an angel, so like my wife Leonore, who leads me
to freedom in the Heavenly Kingdom'. As he sinks down again, exhausted, Rocco
and Leonore descend into the darkness to dig his grave. Even before she recognises
the shadowy prisoner, Leonore is overcome with pity for his dreadful plight. When
she sees who it actually is, she faints with shock, but recovers and manages to give
him a crust of bread. Then the fearsome Pizarro enters to murder Florestan. He
is about to stab his prisoner when Leonore rushes forward from the shadows to
throw herself in front of her husband. Pizarro is about to leap forward to stab
them both, when she pulls out a pistol - and just then the distant trumpet sounds.
In the nick of time the Prime Minister has arrived (deus ex machina). Florestan is saved.
The story ends with everyone back above ground, in the open air and sunshine.
The Prime Minister orders the monster Pizarro to be taken away for punishment for
all his crimes, and tells Leonore that it is her right alone to cut Florestan from
his chains. The opera ends on a blazing choral celebration of Leonore's courage
and fidelity, surrounding the central inexpressible joy of herself and Florestan at
being again united - but also with a sense that all the other denizens of the prison
have been redeemed by the victory of light over darkness which Leonore has
For a final example of the Rebirth plot we return to the kind of story where, as
in The Snow Queen, the hero falls under an evil spell cast by dark figures outside
him, but with the result that he becomes a dark figure himself. He is completely
possessed by darkness, both from without and within. In fact Ibsen's and Grieg's semiallegorical
Peer Gynt is not only the most complicated example of the Rebirth
story we have looked at, but psychologically one of the most ambitiously complex
stories ever written.
When we meet the hero, Peer Gynt, he is on the verge of adult life, 20 years old,
and an incorrigible liar and romancer (in both senses, a fantasiser and a womaniser).
He and his mother go off to a village wedding party, where Peer is jeered at
by everyone, like the hero of a Rags to Riches/Cinderella story - although in his case the scorn is justified, because he is a boastful teller of tales. A demure young girl, Solveig, enters with her family, and Peer is at once smitten: 'How lovely! I've never seen
anyone like her, with her eyes on the ground... and the way she... carried her
prayer book wrapped in a kerchief. But the incorrigible Peer still cannot resist
trying to take the protesting bride off onto the mountainside and here, while she
escapes from him, he meets a beautiful and mysterious Woman in Green. She
takes him off into the subterranean palace of her father, 'the Hall of the Mountain
King'. Peer has in fact descended into the kingdom of the trolls, where he is told
that 'among us... black looks like white and ugly like fair' (an echo of the magician's/troll's mirror in The Snow Queen, or the 'weird sisters' in Macbeth - 'fair is foul and
foul is fair'). The Troll King and his court try to turn Peer into a troll. One old
courtier tells him 'Outside among men and women, where the skies are bright, there's a saying: "To thyself be true". But here among the trolls the saying runs: "To thyself
be - enough".' This is to be the theme of the whole story.
Taking the view that 'one should fit in with the local ways', Peer agrees to undergo
various rites which will turn him into a troll, but he finally baulks at an operation
which will remove his clear sight forever. The younger trolls set on him,
rather like the moment in Alice in Wonderland when Alice is set on by the playing
cards, and he is only saved in the nick of time by the sound of distant church bells
which scatter the trolls in disorder. Peer suddenly finds himself alone on the
mountainside, and there follows a curious scene in which Peer has an exchange in
the darkness with a mysterious voice. 'Who are you?' asks Peer. 'Myself answers
the voice, 'can you say as much?' It is the shapeless Great Böyg, which tells Peer he
has a long journey to go, and that he will have to 'go round about'. Peer returns to
the world of mortals.
We next see him having built a hut in the forest and persuaded the lovely
Solveig to abandon everything to come to live with him. All seems well: Peer says
'My royal princess! I have found her and won her'. But then an aged troll woman
enters, the Woman in Green grown old, leading Peer's son, and she tells him that
he will not he left alone to enjoy his love with Solveig. 'When you sit with that
woman by the fire, when you're loving and want to embrace, I shall sit beside you
and ask for my share.' When Peer angrily shouts at her 'you nightmare from
hell', she replies that he has only been trapped by his own 'thoughts and desires'.
He realises that his royal palace has crashed to the ground. A wall has grown up
round Solveig, his 'purest treasure', and there is now no way which passes straight
to her. As the Böyg foretold, he will have to 'go round about'. If only he could
truly repent, everything might be all right, but there is no one in 'this savage
forest' to teach him how. He will have to leave Solveig. She promises that, however
long it takes, she will wait for him. He goes off down the forest path, leaving
her at the door of the hut, and, after the death of his mother, sets off 'for the coast'.
When we next see Peer it is many years later. He has become middle-aged and
enormously rich. He is sitting with four guests in Morocco and, in the expansively
self-indulgent manner of a millionaire, asks them 'What ought a man to be? Well,
my short answer is Himself... a thing he cannot be when burdened with other people's woes'. He elaborates that the 'self is a mass of 'fancies, cravings and
desires', in short 'what stirs inside my breast and makes me live my life as Me'. We
learn that Gynt has made his millions in a fairly disreputable fashion, trading in
slaves, arms, Bibles, anything that would make a profit, and has become totally
self-righteous (indeed shortly afterwards, after his guests have disagreed with
him, he is delighted to see their yacht sunk, by a thunderbolt). But he is still
inwardly troubled by what it really means to 'be one's self. In the desert he
observes some lizards: 'they bask in the sun and scuttle about with no worries at
all. How well they obey the Creator's behest, each fulfilling his own special
immutable role. They are themselves through thick and thin: as they were at his
first order, Be!' It is not long, however, before Gynt is dreaming of how he might
flood the desert to produce a great new country, Gyntiania, which would bring
him immortality ('a holy war against Death: that grisly miser shall be forced to
free the gold that he has hoarded'). In fact the next role he tries, in his search
for self-fulfilment, is that of Prophet, in the course of which he has an affair with
the dancer Anitra. She leaves him, and he decides to say 'farewell to the pleasures
of love' and to pursue instead 'the riddle of truth'. As one new interest leads
hectically on to the next, he is finally taken on a visit to a lunatic asylum by his
learned friend Begriffenfeldt, who observes that the inmates are all living for
themselves. 'No one here sheds tears for another's sorrows, no one considers any
one else's ideas', everyone here is 'enclosed in a barrel of self. The effect on Gynt
of seeing a world in which everyone is in a kind of caricature of his own egocentric
condition is like that of Raskolnikov's nightmare at the end of Crime
and Punishment. Surrounded by the gibbering lunatics in this 'Empire of Self,' Gynt finally sinks down insensible.
The final act begins with Gynt sailing back to Norway, determined to settle
quietly on a farm, but still he cannot resist dreaming of building it up 'until it is
like a castle'. The ship is wrecked, Gynt is rescued, and wanders up into the mountains.
He is now plunged in deep reflection, but can find nothing in himself to
hang on to. Suddenly he is passing a hut, which he vaguely seems to remember,
and hears a voice singing within. It is Solveig, singing of how she is still patiently
waiting. He goes pale: 'there is one who remembered and one who forgot, one who
squandered and one who saved'. But there is no turning back. He realises that it
was here, all those years before, that his 'empire was lost'.
He is now mocked by phantoms of his unfulfilled life: 'we are thoughts, you
should have formed us', 'we are songs, you should have sung us', 'we are deeds, you
should have performed us', 'we are tears that were never shed, otherwise we might
have melted the ice spears which wound you'. From far off Gynt hears the voice of
his dead mother, 'The devil has deluded you..."
Then the strange figure of the Button Moulder enters, who says that he has been
sent by his 'Master' to melt Gynt down. Gynt retorts that he will allow no such
thing, it would be the end of his selfhood, an 'affront to my innermost soul'. The
Button Moulder tells him that he had no need to take on so badly - 'up to now
you never have been yourself'. Gynt asks for the chance to find witnesses to prove
that he has been himself.
The first person he runs into is the Mountain King, who tells him that, on that
day in the mountains all those years before, Peer had in fact become a troll, without
knowing it. 'The motto I gave you - "to thyself be enough" - enabled you to
go through the world as a man of some substance'. Peer begins to realise with
horror that he has lived as a troll, all along. The Button Moulder returns, asking
for his witnesses, and Gynt, now in desperation playing for time, asks him whether
he can first define what it means 'to be one's Self. 'Being one's Self comes the
reply, 'means slaying one's self - but that answer's probably wasted on you'. Gynt
then has a nightmarish vision of the devil, and emerges in a mood of horrified
remorse: 'Do not be angry, O lovely earth, if to no purpose I trampled on your
grass... how lavish is Nature, how mean is the spirit'. He sees a group of churchgoers
singing a Whitsuntide hymn and shrinks away, imagining that he must be
damned forever. It is very early in the morning, the world is still dark, and he sees
a light shining in a hut up the mountainside. A woman is singing, and she comes
out on her way to church: it is Solveig, now aged and nearly blind. She is full of joy
at meeting Peer again, but he is now in total despair and tells her that there is a
riddle; unless she alone can answer it, he is doomed to go down forever 'to the
shadow land'. The riddle she must answer is 'where has Peer been since last we
met?' She answers, smiling, 'oh, your riddle is easy... he has been in my faith,
my hope and my love'. In other words, his true and inmost self had been with
her all along, while he had lived in the world as a false self which was not himself
at all. 'Oh purest of women' exclaims Peer. They joyfully embrace, and the sun
comes up filling the world with light.
The long, tortuous story of Peer Gynt's eventual Rebirth from his lesser, egocentric
troll-self into a deeper 'true Self, centred in the love of his faithful Solveig, is an
apt point at which to end this introductory exploration of the main patterns
underlying storytelling, because in a way it brings our journey full circle.
There are clear parallels between Peer Gynt and all the other types of story we
have looked at. In that it centres on the hero's prolonged struggle with a monstrous
figure who is the personification of egotism, it is like an Overcoming the
Monster story, except for the obvious point that the only monster Peer has to overcome
lies in himself.
Like a Rags to Riches story, it is based on a prolonged process of personal transformation.
Like Peer Gynt, a Rags to Riches hero/ine begins by seeming nothing very
remarkable: indeed s/he often seems to the world contemptible. S/He then glimpses
some glorious and elevated condition which s/he longs to attain more than anything
in the world and which even seems to come within their grasp: as when Peer
Gynt settles down in the forest with his 'princess'. But suddenly this vision of possibility
is snatched away, just as Gynt sees his 'royal palace' crashing to the ground
when he loses his 'purest treasure' Solveig. After this 'central crisis' the hero/ine of
the Rags to Riches story then has to undergo a further long period of testing,
before s/he is finally ready to achieve the sense of self-fulfilment s/he has longed for.
After a last great ordeal, s/he finally discovers the deeper self that has lain buried within them; and this is marked by his being brought together in lasting union with
the 'other half who makes them complete.
Again we see how Peer's adventures are shaped by the pattern of a Quest. From
the moment of his encounter with the Great Böyg, we see him embarking on a
long search for that elusive prize of his 'true self. Like the Quest hero he has to
go through the worst series of ordeals on the edge of his goal. And his final reunion
with Solveig may remind us of the moment when the most famous of all
Quest heroes, Odysseus, is at last reunited with the loving woman who for so long
has waited in obscurity for his return, the faithful Penelope. Like Odysseus, Peer
has 'come home'.
But still there is missing that centrally important element which we did not
come across fully in stories until we reached the plot of Voyage and Return. It was
here we first began to see that fundamental shift in the emphasis of the plot which
makes the hero himself the chief dark figure of the story. It was in the profounder
versions of the Voyage and Return story such as the Rime of the Ancient Mariner
and the Asinus Aureus that we first saw a hero, essentially self-centred and limited in
his awareness, being recklessly drawn into a series of adventures which ultimately
threaten him with destruction. Only as death stares him in the face does he go
through that change of heart which liberates him from his limited, egocentric state
of awareness and from the strange threatening world in which it has trapped him.
Peer Gynt certainly provides us with more than just echoes of such a Voyage and
Return story. The hero begins in a state of limited self-awareness, which leads him
to be plunged recklessly into the 'abnormal world' of the trolls. From here he
makes a 'thrilling escape', in the nick of time, as he thinks, from being turned into
a troll himself. In fact, as he only learns later, the trolls' dark magic has already
done its work; with the result that he has to make the second, much longer Voyage
and Return which begins when he abandons Solveig for far-off lands. Here, in this
distant 'other world', the initial Dream Stage of his selfish, hard-hearted rise to
great wealth turns first to frustration, then to the nightmare of his visit to the
lunatic asylum. But even the second 'thrilling escape' of the shipwreck which lands
him back in Norway only leads him to the final nightmare of his confrontations
with the Button Moulder and the devil, which force him at last to recognise what
a monster he has become. He thinks there is no longer any part of him which
remains uncorrupted, that he is now nothing but his hideous troll-self, a wrinkled
and deflated balloon of egotism, deserving nothing but death. Only now does the
reunion with Solveig finally teach him that all along there has been another quite
different part of himself, identified with her as she remained in remote obscurity.
He has come at last to that much deeper level of awareness which, as his 'other
half emerges from her long eclipse, shows him discovering his true self.
The next plot we came to, Comedy, gave even greater prominence to the hero
who becomes the chief 'dark' figure of his own story; and who must be brought
to 'recognition' of things hidden before he can achieve the happy ending. In this
light, the story of Peer Gynt is entirely familiar. As in so many comedies, we see a
hero and heroine who meet in the opening scenes and fall in love; but are then
torn apart by a terrible misunderstanding, rooted in the hero's egotism. The heroine passes into eclipse, obscured in the shadows cast by his selfishness. Confusion
continues to worsen until the impasse is finally resolved in the only way it can be:
by the 'recognition' which brings the hero to see the nature of his error and the
true, superior value of the heroine, thus bringing him to himself.
The essence of Tragedy, of course, is that it focuses on the process whereby
the hero is transformed into the chief dark figure of the story more starkly than
any other kind of plot. Indeed, as we saw, Tragedy can provide us with a kind of
mirror image of an Overcoming the Monster story, seen from the point of view of
the hero who has been transformed into the monster. Certainly the opening
scenes of Peer Gynt present us with a situation similar to the opening of a tragedy.
The hero is clearly a 'divided self, part drawn upwards by his 'good angel' Solveig,
part drawn downwards by the troll Temptress and the tyrant Mountain King of the trolls. The
'dark' side of Peer wins, he abandons his 'good angel' and is transformed into a
monster of hard-hearted egotism. We only infer the long Dream Stage of his
tragic course from the fact that he has risen to a position of enormous wealth and
power. In fact, after a long gap in the story of his life, we pick it up again at the
point where he is entering the Frustration Stage, as he begins to feel a sense of
inadequacy and meaninglessness in his self-centred existence. He thrashes around
more and more wildly for new realms to conquer, new roles to play: all of which
ends in nightmare, despair and the threat of imminent destruction.
But then, because his story is not Tragedy, and because his 'good angel' is not
one of the inadequate little rejected 'Innocent Young Girls' of so many tragedies
but a strong, mature and wise woman in her own right, Gynt is enabled at the
last minute to rediscover his 'light self buried for so long beneath the outward
monstrous shell of his egotism. He can move in the nick of time from the false
centre of himself to his true centre. Like Raskolnikov redeemed by the love of
Sonia, or Kai by Gerda, or the Beast by Belle, he has been liberated to become
himself. As he and Solveig embrace he is at last united with his missing 'other half
to make him whole.
It is appropriate that the story of Rebirth should conclude this sequence because,
in its simpler forms, it links back so clearly to the types of plot which began it,
where the dark power is presented as something wholly outside the central figure.
In the fairy tale versions of Rebirth we come across in childhood the chief source
of darkness in the story is personified in some mysterious older figure with
magical powers, such as the malign witches who in Snow White or Sleeping Beauty
place the titular heroine under an imprisoning spell.
Finally in the two Scandinavian versions, The Snow Queen and Peer Gynt, we
see both versions of the Rebirth story brought together. In each case the hero is
placed under an imprisoning spell by the combination of two dark, older figures
outside him, a wicked magician/troll and a powerful femme fatale. But in each case this has the
effect of bringing out the dark side of the hero's own personality, which is what
gradually draws him into nightmarish isolation. At last in each case he is released
from his prison by a shining personification of the 'eternal feminine', a woman
both strong and loving, who is all light. This is what finally inspires the shift from
the limited centre of his personality in which he has spent most of the story,
to that deeper centre which he consciously recognises to be his 'true self. Thus
it is that each hero can be shown ending his story in the warmth and light of a
glorious summer's day, joyously alive because he is united with the 'other half
who has at last both set him free and made him whole.
The masculine value
The essence of the Rebirth story is, firstly, that it shows its central figure imprisoned
by the dark power in any of its more familiar guises. We may, for instance,
see the hero imprisoned by a Tyrant, like Florestan lying in Pizarro's dungeons. He
may have fallen under a spell cast by a Temptress - like Kai imprisoned
by the Snow Queen, or the prince imprisoned in the outward form of the Beast by
an enchantress. We may see the hero trapped in a state of darkness which springs
more obviously from within himself, like Scrooge or Rodia Raskolnikov. Indeed in Peer
Gynt we see a hero who is the victim of all these things: the effect of his being
enchanted by the 'dark king' and the Temptress from the subterranean troll kingdom
being to bring out the dark part of Peer, his egotistical 'Gyntish self,' which
comes for so long to dominate his behaviour and to shape his life.
In each instance, what we see is a hero who is held back by his imprisonment
from assuming his proper state as a man. He may be presented as a weak, passive
figure, like little Kai in the Snow Queen's palace. On the other hand, he may be strong and powerful like Peer Gynt, the amoral head of a great business empire. But in either case he is in
the grip of a power which in some way stunts him and prevents him from living
in easy sovereignty over himself. In terms of proper masculinity he has been
reduced to a sad, two-dimensional caricature.
When a hero has fallen into the grip of the 'dark feminine', like
Odysseus languishing on Calypso's isle, or Tannhauser enjoying the sensual
delights of the Venusberg, or Marc Antony ensnared by 'the serpent of old Nile', we see
him unable to become masculine enough. For the time being at least, he is
not strong, disciplined or masterful enough to be a man. He has become
beguiled into losing touch with his masculine power, he has become weak and
dependent, no longer sovereign over his own actions. Worse still, his efforts
to get in touch with the masculine in himself may become wild, rebellious and
unresolved - like the increasingly desperate Don José/Josetxu, lashing out first at his
victorious rival Escamillo, then fatally at Carmen herself; or the impotent, sexually
frustrated Clyde, under the spell of Bonnie, trying to prove his manliness
with the gun. If such a hero does have genuine masculine strength, the results
when he falls under the sway of the 'dark feminine' may be most catastrophic
of all, as when the tough, successful general Macbeth succumbs to the lures of
the 'weird sisters' and of his dominating wife: his strength is turned to dark ends, he
kills the very thing he would like to become, the good legitimate/rightful king, the honourable
bearer of true masculine authority, and becomes in consequence a
Tyrant. In weaker men, their masculinity may remain all in the mind, as when
little Kai first turns verbally aggressive and cynical and then, under the spell
of the Snow Queen, sits all day spinning endless rational mental patterns of
words and figures with ice splinters, but can never get them to resolve into the
The only way the hero can achieve a completely triumphant resolution is by
fully developing his masculinity in a way which is positive: and this means in
perfect balance with his inner feminine. It is this which alone can bring masculine
strength fully to life by giving it the vital ingredient of connection, of joining up:
through feeling, which gives a link to others and to the world outside the ego;
through that intuitive insight which gives proper understanding, by allowing him
to perceive the wholeness of things and their mysterious, hidden connections.
When these are brought into balance and harmony with the masculine, then
what a transformation we see. When power is brought into conjunction with true
sympathetic feeling for others; when the sense of order is brought into harmony
with the capacity to see whole: then both are miraculously made life-giving. The
strength of power becomes a force making for life, not death, serving the whole
rather than the ego of he or she who possesses it. The patterns of the sense of order
and structure are imbued with life because they are no longer just dead mental
constructs spun out of the limited consciousness of the human ego, but connect
up with a living totality. We thus see how each of the four elements - strength,
order, feeling and intuitive understanding, or body, reason, heart, and soul/spirit - is
ultimately essential to all the others to make a living whole. And nowhere do we
see the balances of this delicate equation expressed more subtly than in the workings
of the plot of Rebirth.
The Light Figures
And of course in most instances the heroine herself represents the 'eternal feminine' - although in a more immediate, personal guise. The 'light' heroine in stories represents the anima in this personal sense, just as the more lofty, detached Athena-like figures hovering over the action represent the great universal power with which the male hero must align himself if he is to win her. Such 'active' redeeming heroines as Ariadne, Portia, Leonora, are classic anima-figures representing the numinous power of the feminine when it is directly involved in the action of the story.
The four-sided totality
The story of Peer Gynt is similar to that of Ebenezer Scrooge. He also loses touch with the feminine as a
young man, when he abandons Solveig, and passes into the deforming grip of the
'dark masculine'. As a result, he becomes an immensely powerful figure, obsessed
with using his power to dominate and reorganise the world. But nothing can ever resolve, or give him the satisfaction he craves. He then begins to find the capacity
to see the objective truth of his deformed state through the mysterious figure
of the Button Moulder. Finally, in his reunion with Solveig, he discovers not only
true feeling but also his inmost identity as a man.
Both Scrooge and Peer Gynt are thus strongly masculine figures, whose masculinity
has become dark and deformed because they have lost touch with the
inner feminine. They are 'active' figures, because to be strong in the masculine
qualities is what makes any character in a story 'active'.
In The Snow Queen when one splinter of the magic mirror enters Kai's eye
he loses the capacity to see whole (everything is seen distorted and in a mocking,
satirical light); when another enters his heart, it cuts him off from feeling (he
rejects Gerda). This places him under the spell of the 'dark masculine', in terms of
his newfound cerebral obsession with rational calculations and mental patterns.
But he has no real masculine strength: it is all in the mind, as with Raskolnikov;
and this also places him under the spell of the 'dark feminine' in the shape of
the powerful, heartless Snow Queen. Kai is now completely imprisoned, both
dead to the true feminine and stunted in his masculinity. At this point Gerda sets out to find him, representing in herself both the qualities he lacks: the femininity
of her feeling and, in her courage and spirit, the masculine strength he
needs as well. She is thus an 'active' heroine. And at the point of Kai's transformation,
when she has liberated him, he recovers not only contact with the repressed
feminine in himself, his ability to feel and to see whole, but also his independence
and manly strength. Thus we learn at the end, when both have returned home,
that the two former children have at last 'grown up'.
Finally, in Fidelio, we see the unusual case of a hero who, because of his special
circumstances, has become stunted in his masculinity while remaining strong in
his inner feminine. Florestan's imprisonment at the hands of the Tyrant reduces
him outwardly to a weak, passive dependence. But he retains his secure link to the
feminine in his unshakeable love for Leonore, and it is precisely this situation
which her own balance of qualities is best equipped to redeem. Leonore is not only
fully developed in her own femininity. She is also, in her fearless courage, irradiated
with 'masculine' strength, as is conveyed by her donning a man's disguise. In
this respect she brings to Florestan in his dungeon the very strength and spirit he
has lost. She is able to defy and to outwit the Tyrant, and thus to make the equation
complete whereby Florestan can be freed again to become a proper man. Like
Ariadne, or Portia, or Jane Eyre, she is the 'active' heroine who is so often needed
when the male hero is for some reason rendered in masculine terms weak and
lacking in power. The 'active' heroine is always a strong, independent figure, alive
to the positive inner masculine qualities in herself, which is why she so often
disguises herself as a man, or is associated with manly weapons (Ariadne bringing
the sword to Theseus) or 'masculine' skills (Portia showing her mastery of the
law). She is needed to redress the balance of the overall equation, where the hero
has been reduced to impotence, by helping to pull him out of his imprisonment
and restoring him to masculine strength. Because for any true, triumphant union
to take place between the hero and heroine of a story, a complete balance of all
four masculine and feminine qualities has somehow to be available between
them: to bring about the final flowering which can enable both, in each other, to
We can now see the nature of the equation which lies at the heart of stories
coming clearly into view.
When we come to Shakespeare we almost invariably see a division into an 'upper' and a 'lower' world in social terms, and it is even occasionally servants or others on the lower level, as in Much Ado, who expose the vital truth which eventually brings about the triumph of love on the upper level. But much more often as we have seen, the same result is achieved by characters from the social upper level who move onto a shadowy, 'inferior' level in a different way, by concealing their true identity beneath a disguise. The essence of Comedy is always that some redeeming truth has to be brought out of the shadows/darkness into the light. This often requires a temporary descent into some obscured or 'inferior' state in order that the truth may be established, and the retreat behind a disguise is one of the most obvious ways in which this is achieved (e.g., Julia and Viola disguising themselves as pages, Princess Rosalind as a poor country boy, the heiress Portia as a comparatively humble lawyer). The point is that the disorder in the upper world cannot be amended without some crucial activity taking place at a lower level, or in some other place beyond the consciousness of the 'upper world' character or characters who are in the grip of their life-denying state. It is from the lower level that life is regenerated and brought back to the upper world again.
(1) and (2) from the heroine's point of view
We may see either of these types of story from the point of view of the heroine
herself, in stories where she, rather than the male hero, is the central figure.
In stories where the heroine is 'active', such as Jane Eyre, The Snow Queen, The Merchant of Venice (which should rather be titled The Heiress of Belmont), or
Fidelio, and where it is the male hero who has most obviously fallen into the state of
imprisonment, it is the balanced heroine herself who introduces the element of
strength which is necessary to release him and to restore him to his proper masculine
state - even though she has only been brought up to her own full strength
and stature by the inspiration of her love for the male hero.