Deena Metzger has a number of suggestions for working with the story. I've imagined it from the point of view of the youngest daughter and from that of the old woman in the woods. I've considered the deeper meanings of the story, what initiations it implies, and what the props of the tale might indicate. It has been intriguing, as I've never truly considered the significance of the story. What is most compelling to me is the figure of the old woman. Why would she help the soldier become the next king? How does she just happen to have a cloak of invisibility to bestow, and how does she know where the princesses go at night?
I began to see her very much as I see Gaia in the Persephone story. Gaia creates the fascinating flower for Hades as the means for him to capture the young goddess Why would Gaia do that? In all my studies of the myth, I never found an explanation for this, so I came up with one of my own. Gaia saw the big picture. She understood that Persephone needed to be in the underworld, and so she helped get her there. This is far from a sentimental decision, but rather one that will cause great suffering. However, it is ultimately necessary, and it places Perephone (who was originally an underworld goddess before the patriarchal culture took over) where she belongs.
So, I see the old woman of the woods as a Gaia-like figure. Perhaps the kingdom, which has recently been at war, needs the wounded and experienced soldier to be the next king, rather than another uninitiated and privileged young prince. Perhaps the princesses need to grow up. Could they really go on dancing their shoes off every night forever? Still, it is sad to see the end of their time in the magical world under the earth, as it is sad to see the innocent Persephone dragged down to her darker underworld.
If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I've been dwelling quite a bit on issues of aging. The old woman archetype has been and continues to be important to me. May Sarton's poem When a Woman Feels Alone has been working me for a few years now. Strength, laughter, endurance - these are the words of wisdom from the old woman. Here is my take on why we need her:
There is an initiation
you must receive if
you wish to know
the secrets of elders,
but few have received it,
so you must ask the right ones.
What they tell you
will make your walk into
old age bearable.
I cannot tell you the secret,
but I can say this:
Seek that initiation and
you will lose your fear.
May we all ask the right ones and get that initiation!