This is the fourth entry in my fairy tale series. Each entry attempts to analyze one archetypal element of myths legends and fairy tales in a short introductory essay followed by an original fairy tale utilizing some of the elements that have just been discussed. This time we’ll be talking about the call to adventure, the caller, and just exactly how much help they can give before the reader starts to wonder: “Damn Gandalf, why don’t you just go destroy that ring by yourself!”
The Herald and the Helper
Every adventure has its beginning, the precise moment when the hero has their normal daily life (be it the life of a peasant or a princess) interrupted by the extraordinary. From that instant onwards the hero has left the mundane world and entered the realm of adventure.
This “call to adventure” can be anything, from the mere sight of the surface world in Anderson’s Little Mermaid, to an actual letter from a school for Wizards in Harry Potter. What I would like to look at today is the common case of the call to adventure coming from another person. This “herald”, will appear in order to summon the hero to their destiny, and in many cases accompany the hero for the beginning of their journey. This dual herald/helper is most often of a venerable age that is a sign of their wisdom and power and it is their duty to both protect and teach the young hero as they progress on their journey.
But they can never accompany their ward to the end of their quest, for their power, great though it is, lacks the vitality of youth. This is the hero’s story and the old must make way for the young. The Mentor’s time is past, and their role is now to ensure the never ending cycle of heroism continues as it always has in the stories of humanity.
This is why Obi Wan Kenobe must die after Luke Skywalker finds him and begins to learn the force. Or to take an example from a superior story, why Frodo and Sam must continue on alone after believing Gandalf dead in Khazad-dum. Think also of Merlin, who surely was the herald to Arthur’s adventure by manufacturing his very birth. But as a helper he too could not stay by the side of his king forever and thus his doom (weakened by lust at the hands of another protege) is so ubiquitous amongst Arthurian legends. In the end, Arthur, like Frodo, Luke and so many others must meet his destiny alone, without the help of his all powerful mentor.
Thus someone like Dorothy must defeat the second Wicked Witch and discover the truth about the “Wizard” herself though her journey might be easier were the good witches by her side. For it is not only a question of passing the heroic torch from age to youth, but also a matter of what it takes to be a hero. Self reliance, bravery against all odds and determination; these are the things that make a hero. Anything else is strictly for the sidekicks.
The Princess and the Pack Horse
Once upon a time, when the world was new and all living things still marveled at the sight of it, there was a princess. She lived high up in a mountaintop castle and her days were full and happy for the life of a princess is one of ease and plenty.
Her parents, the king and queen, ruled all of the land the eye could see from their mountaintop castle; and the eye could see a great deal from the top of such a high mountain!
The princess was loved dearly by her parents, for nothing in their realm made them happier than their daughter’s presence. To them, the sun itself seemed less bright before her smile while even the birds in the trees hushed their melodious song to hear her joyful laughter.
One day, while the princess was still but a child, an oracle had come from lands far to the south. The oracle was a wizened old woman, bent and toothless, and the tidings she bore the king and queen were ill-omened. She foretold of a doom that was to come to the land and that the princess alone would have the power to save the realm—though it would only come at a sacrifice.
The king and queen knew fear at the oracles words, for there was a power in her aged eyes that lent weight to her grievous prophecy.
Thus, as the old woman returned from whence she came she left with the princess’s parents a great fear of losing their daughter to her terrible prophecy.
Sadly, the prophecy seemed to possess a truth to its words for the coming years proved not to be kind to the realm. As the princess grew in beauty and kindness the land about her mountain home withered and died in the grip of a terrible drought.
As each passing year came and went without a rainy season to renew the land, the princess found herself confined to the castle more and more, until finally her parents forbade her to leave the high east tower wherein her rooms were located. The king and queen knew her heart was ever with the less fortunate and they could not bear to lose her should she venture out to heal the land.
For as much as they loved their kingdom, they loved their daughter more and her cruel confinement seemed a lesser evil when compared to her certain doom should they allow the prophecy to fulfill itself.
There came a day, as the princess was approaching womanhood, that her parents agreed to let her leave her tower to ride on horseback about the courtyard as she had done as a child. For fear of her safety the princess was only allowed to ride an ancient packhorse, for fear that a more spirited animal might bear her away to her certain doom.
As chance would have it, a drought stricken family had made the long journey up the mountain to appeal to the king and queen for help to ease their suffering that very morning and they passed in full view of the princess as they made their way to the royal court.
The princess had never before seen the kind of hunger and hardship that was etched upon the faces of the family that had passed in front of her. Yet, though she asked many questions about their plight, the guards about the courtyard would speak no words to ease her heart, for they were under strict orders that the princess was not to be told of the drought upon the kingdom.
Thus the princess returned the old pack horse to his stables a good deal more confused as to the benevolence of her world than when she had set out. As she rubbed the pack horse down she vowed out loud that she would do everything in her power to make sure that no family would ever have to suffer like the family she had seen in the courtyard.
At her words, the pack horse turned his head and said that if she truly wanted to know the cause of the family’s suffering then he would show the princess what she wanted to see for few mark the passing of a an old broken down pack horse and his eyes had seen much that others often miss.
The princess did not start at the words of the pack horse, for the world was not yet so old that creatures had lost their speech. She told the pack horse that she would know what caused the family’s suffering if he would tell her. And though the pack horse warned the princess that if they left the mountain their path might be perilous to say the least and being a princess would be no protection outside of her mountaintop kingdom, she was not to be dissuaded and told the pack horse that if others had to live as she had seen, then she could never again enjoy the life of a princess.
Thus, traveling through secret passageways within the labyrinthine palace stables that were known only to the pack horse, the princess finally left the castle that had been her world from the day she was born.
As the princess and the pack horse traveled down the mountain, the land seemed to grow more barren with each step. The streams thinned to a trickle and then dried up completely while flowers wilted along their dusty banks.
The first town the princess came to was a destitute place whose well was nearly dry and whose granary contained but a few withered apples to sustain the entire town.
A small boy sat upon the cracked earth next to the well with thirst in his eyes. The princess’s heart was always closest to children for their innocence mirrored her own so she sat next to the boy and asked how long his town had suffered so cruelly.
The little boy did not know how long, for the drought had started before he was born, but he trusted the princess’s kind face and decided to tell her what a swallow had once whispered to him as it breathed its last breath after a great flight.
The swallow had told the boy that it had been beyond the great vast desert that lay far to the south (for the only villages that still resisted the drought lay close to her parent’s mountain). Beyond the desert was a new mountain, black as night with a tower in the center and ringed by lightning so fierce it was as if all the storms of the rainy season were bound to its peak.
The boy whispered the swallow’s tale to the princess for unlike the adults in his village who did nothing but despair, her face said that she would seek out this far away mountain and find some way to bring the rain back to the parched earth.
The princess turned to the pack horse and asked if he knew the way into the south where this great desert was. The pack horse nodded his head and together, the pack horse and the princess set out on the long journey into the scorched lands of the south.
The road was long, and beset by many dangers for the drought had brought with it fell beasts that fed themselves upon the endless sands (in addition to any unsuspecting travelers that might cross their paths).
But the pack horse was ever wise and always seemed to know the paths that would keep them from the greatest dangers and thus they came at last to the edge of the great desert.
Upon seeing such a limitless stretch of sand the grew uncertain for the first time. This desert was new to him and no matter how well travelled one is, there are no secret paths through a land that appears the same as far as the eye can see. , but she did no know how she would cross so vast a desert by herself.
Still, the princess would not turn back, for the eyes of the thirsty boy in the village drove her every step. So mounting the pack horse once more (for she was still but a little thing and no great burden for even an old pack horse) the princess set off into the endless dunes before her.
Great though his strength was, as the leagues passed beneath his hooves, the pack horse eventually began to grow weary as he trudged beneath the punishing sun. He was far too old to take such a taxing journey, and the heat was overwhelming. At last he could go no further and knelt next to a great boulder to ease his aching limbs.
Their water gone the princess resigned herself to despair since her quest seemed so hopeless at that moment. But the pack horse, his vision clearing as he rested suddenly cried out that he could see the black mountain far in the distance and that they were almost there.
Overjoyed, the princess leapt to her feet and asked the horse how long it would be before they could continue. But the horse, overcome with exhaustion could only reply that his journey was ended and that he could go no further without water.
Realizing the seriousness of their situation, the princess replied that the horse that he would have water, as much as he wanted just like all who lived in her parent’s kingdom were soon to have for they had gone too far to turn back and she would finish the quest alone. Wishing her luck, the noble pack horse lay where he had come to rest in the shade of the great boulder.
The mountain beyond the desert proved to be very different from her father’s mountain of lush forests, waterfalls and magnificent cliffs. This mountain was black as the earth after a rain, and smooth as glass.
Many times the princess slipped or lost her grip, but each time she found some small handhold or ledge to grasp at the last moment. Too many depended on the princess for her to turn back now, and so, inch by inch, she made her way up the treacherous black mountain.
As she climbed higher she began to hear a great cacophony of booming and crashing. Yet even that did not prepare her for the sight that met her eyes when she pulled herself up and over the final boulder.
The top of this mountain was not peaked but instead was a great valley filled completely with water. Above the valley was a black mass of clouds, miles high that seemed to contain every storm the princess had ever seen, pouring their anger and lightning into the black waters before her. In the center of the valley was an island, as black as the mountain and possessing but a single seat upon which sat a solitary figure.
The princess knew that this figure was the cause of the drought, and that she must find some way to release the storms so that the land might live again. And though the lighting crashed all around her and the waters that surged before her seemed blacker and colder than anything the princess had yet seen she stepped forward into the water to swim to the island in the middle.
But a strange thing happened and instead of sinking below the waves the black glass of the edge of the lake extended beneath her feet, growing further with each step she took. The great bolts of lightning that ravaged the waves to either side of her never crossed her path and soon she was standing before the throne at the end of her journey.
Upon the throne sat a wizened old lady, the very same prophet who had visited the king and queen so long ago though the princess knew nothing of this. The old woman peered down at the princess and perceived that her doom had come despite her attempt to scare the king and queen into keeping their daughter from ever leaving the safety of her mountain abode so long ago.
For while her prophecy had been truth, and foretold of the princess’s sacrifice, the old woman knew that it was a sacrifice that would end her own reign over the storms as well. Thus, the old woman told the princess of the prophecy and asked if the princess had come to claim the storm throne for herself though it would be at the sacrifice of all she knew.
But the princess was not scared of such words so obviously sculpted to put fear in her heart, for she possessed a wisdom beyond even her years and knew that prophecies did not always turn out the way you might think.
So the princess told the woman that she was here to claim no thrones but rather to free the land from the drought that was hurting so many people.
With those words the throne before her burst asunder, casting the old woman into the dark waters. But the fissures that had opened beneath the throne did not stop there but rather traveled on, under the water until they came to the sides of the great valley, shattering the walls of the mountaintop and causing the many years of horded rainfall to rush out upon the thirsty land.
And where the waters ran, new life followed. The great vast desert turned to mud and then exploded with fields of dewy grass, thick forests and berry covered undergrowth.
Atop the mountain upon the shattered remnants of the storm throne the princess looked down on the empty valley of black glass and saw no sign of the old woman whose evil reign had been washed away with the water she had hoarded.
It was then that the princess realized what her sacrifice had been. She was a princess no longer, and the sacrifice was the life she had led, high atop her parent’s mountain, a place she could never go back to since her duties now lay with the land beyond its walls. She was now tied forever to the land, its warden and healer.
And while the princess was overjoyed that none in the kingdom would have to suffer any longer, her heart ached for her parents who must stay upon their mountaintop castle to rule their kingdom. This was when the princess realized that her wardenship of the land had given her a mighty vision too.
The princess looked out from her lofty perch, past the lush fields of the desert where the old pack horse now grazed contentedly, through the village where the small boy played in a bubbling stream and the poor family that had started her journey danced in the fields of flowers, beyond the clouds and the singing birds to the very top of her parent’s mountain. And there she saw her parents, with tears of happiness in their eyes for the birds that were ever the princess’s closest friends sang of her great triumph over the storm tyrant.
And the princess knew that her parents too would always be with her, they on their mountaintop, she on hers. Thus the princess lived out the rest of her days in peace and harmony and she did truly live happily ever after.