I had the great fortune of spending the last couple of days in a beautiful cottage near Killbear Park in Parry Sound in the company of some wonderful friends. While there, talk of bears was plentiful. Bears have been spotted at the local dumps and eating berries nearby. We warned our children about it (sort of) and kept an eye out for them but mostly relaxed into the gorgeous surroundings.
At night, we gathered the children in the beautiful covered porch, built so that you feel you are suspended in a forest canopy, and told them (what else?) a bear story. My source was the American poet Robert Bly who can touch you right to the tip of your soul with his readings of the mystic poets, Rumi and Hafez. All you have to do is find him on youtube and watch and listen and marvel. He is a force of nature and he will remind you—if you let him—of your need to wade in deep waters.
So the children were gathered and I read to them Robert Bly’s retelling of the story of the White Bear King Valemon. It begins with a young girl wandering around in the forest (unconscious) where she finds a white bear playing with a golden wreath. She takes one look at the wreath and decides she must have it. A golden wreath is a wonderful symbol of psychic integration, akin to the golden ring that features so prominently in Wagner’s Ring Cycle or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The young girl has hitherto been prancing about, skimming the surface of life, but now she has been “touched”. She has encountered the depths and will never be the same again.
So she asks for the wreath and offers her crown and her jewels in return but the bear is unimpressed. What would a bear do with those things, he asks? What the bear wants is the girl and she is willing to give herself for that wreath so she goes back to her castle and informs her father that she will be leaving with the bear when he comes calling for her.
Now what does the bear symbolize? As it is a white bear we can pretty well be sure the symbol is pointing to a deeper reality, a completely new attitude, one that wants to relate to the world in a holistic way. The father, on the other hand, represents the ego side and it is not too interested in this encounter with the bear, with the higher Self, as it threatens its dominion over things. So the king calls in for his troops and instructs them to shoot at the bear when he comes for his daughter.
When the bear arrives he merely swats his paw at the guns and the cannons and goes inside the castle asking for the girl. On two different occasions he does this and is duped by the king who gives him his two eldest daughters instead. The bear takes each of the girls out into the forest and asks them two important questions: “Have you ever sat more softly than now?” and “Have you ever seen more clearly than now?” Both girls respond, yes, they have sat more softly and seen more clearly from their father’s lap and the bear says, “Oh, hell, I’ve got the wrong one” and returns each to the castle.
Finally the father is forced to cough up the third daughter who says that she has never sat more softly nor seen so clearly than when she has sat on the bear King Valemon’s back and the Bear breathes a sigh of relief, knowing that he now has the right one.
Now, why is it the youngest child who can take the risk of breaking through the father’s way of seeing things and embark on the journey that will make her whole? In the world of myth and story, the youngest daughter or son is the one most likely to be gifted with curiosity and it takes this to break through to the heart of things. There is an interesting correspondence out in the world of form, noted by psychologist Frank Sulloway in his groundbreaking book, Born to Rebel. In that book, Sulloway posits the notion that firstborn children identify more strongly with power and authority and are more conforming, conventional and defensive, whereas younger siblings are more adventurous, rebellious and inclined to question the status quo. Darwin and Marx, for example, were younger sons and advanced theories that changed the world. It is, according to Sulloway, the only way the younger son or daughter can compete.
So the young girl heads out with her bear and lives happily in the castle with him. In the darkness, the bear becomes a vibrant young man with whom she spends many a happy night. The trick, though, is that she is not allowed to see him. The girl is alright with this until she goes to visit her parents and the mother instructs her to light a candle and take a look at him. The father—the ego once again—tells her to leave things as they are but the feminine as represented by the mother will not leave things alone. The feminine is never content with empty relationships, with living on the surface of things.
So the girl returns to the Bear King’s castle, lights a candle and looks into the face of the gorgeous man she has been sleeping with. When a light is lit in a story, you know that consciousness is creeping into things and consciousness reveals what is really at work in a situation, in a relationship, in any life choice.
The Bear King berates her. He has asked her not to do this and had she kept her promise for one more night he tells her, he would have turned into the handsome young man forever but now he runs away into the night.
Now why does the Bear King not want her to light the candle? What does it mean in the archetypal sense? Perhaps the Bear King knows she is not ready for this journey—after all, she has sat on his back and broken from her father’s way of seeing things but she has not yet suffered the thousand cuts that come from travelling in these depths and may not be ready for what is coming next. And so he leaves and she chases after him, travelling from house to house, asking if they have seen her Bear.
What does she do in each of the houses she visits? She asks questions, engages the children, shows concern for the misery of those around her. She gives of herself in the relational way that is central to the feminine spirit and is rewarded in the end for it. This, according to Bly, is symbolic of the journey we must all make between the years of 35 and 55. We can no longer tolerate the deadening career, the hollow relationship, the inability to connect with the depths. We must step into relationship with what feeds our hearts and souls.
If you ever find yourself near Killbear Park (or any park) take a moment to read one of these wonderful tales out loud to a child, to your dog, to yourself. It may just resonate with that part inside where the White Bear King Valemon lives and breathes and is waiting for you to tread the deep waters of the Self.