For those of you who don’t know, I am part of a ManKind Project (MKP) I-Group, which seeks to pursue healthy manhood in a small group format. Besides some more modern therapeutic techniques, the I-Group utilizes “non-linear” methods like ritual, poetry and working out emotions through kinetic activities.
Last month I brought to the group a classic fairy tale which, to no surprise, none of them had heard in years: Rumpelstilskin. I used the later version from Grimms’ compilation, one you can read here if you’re also having a hard time recalling the story. I had rediscovered the story in a German textbook (the story was originally named Rumpelstilzchen) and was struck by its multifaceted presentation of important life themes. Although (or maybe because) the story features a girl as the protagonist of the story, I wanted to see how a men’s group would respond to it.
After telling the story with as much flair as I could muster, I launched a basic question: “With whom did you resonate most?” Most of the men immediately said, “The girl.” “Why?,” I asked. “Because she was exploited again and again, and she did what she had to.”
But upon my pushing for more details it seemed that, while they liked the story and felt it to be somehow important, they couldn’t put a finger on why they resonated with the girl, or anyone in the story for that matter. We spent a chunk of time picking apart the significance of each character. All of them are men, and most of them seem like evil bastards. But did they have to be interpreted that way?
My own conclusion, one I had come to earlier, was that this story had pretty thick social meanings attached to it. I suggested to the men that any girl who heard the story would be learning about what it is like to be a woman in the world of men. Though people would expect her to have magical powers (even turning straw into gold), she would have to hope for resources beyond her, powers to deceive, manipulate and, through them, to survive in an androcentric world. Maybe it helped us peer into the world of women and the demands we as men make upon them.
This seemed to make sense to the men, but it didn’t make sense of it for a men’s group. Where was the value in it for us?
Still, I stayed with this tack. I wondered aloud if there might be a way to understand the story as an address to (or at) homosexuals. Could it be that both girls and boys alike in old Germany were being warned about strangers, in particular “strange little men” who had their own magic at work, but were, at best, strange, at worst, conniving paedophiles? The I-Group could agree to this hypothesis, at least cognitively. Or, I mused on, we could queer the story by telling it a little differently, that this strange manling, Rumpelstilskin, was trying to deliver the girl-queen’s son from the world of oppressive men; that the reason he wanted to take the boy away in order to initiate him into a different kind of manhood, one not based on the patriarchal tyrrany exhibited by the girl’s father and king.
This time no response from the I-Group.
The problem, I realize now, was not that these hypotheses were uninteresting to them. Nor were they unsavory (I would describe most of them as more consistently to the political left). The problem was that my interpretations were primarily sociological, not psychological. In a group dedicated to personal health (of five heterosexual men), social ramifications played second fiddle to personal application.
With the evening coming to a close, one of the older members of the group began a very productive line of thought along Jungian lines. He suggested that, perhaps, the bizarre character of Rumpelstilzkin could be interpreted as one’s “shadow,” that part of us which we suppress but comes out anyway as a kind of dangerous but creative alter-ego. That shadow must be honored in order to deal with crises in life. One must deal with the devil, so to speak, in order to meet the demands of the “king” (or father), that archetype which would direct us in life directions. The king’s men who go out through the kingdom to figure out Rumpelstilskin’s name are expressions of the “warrior,” the get-it-done part of the soul (or, externalizing a bit, maybe the king’s men can be our warrior brothers in ManKind Project). And, lest the shadow dominate our lives too much, at some point the shadow must be “named,” exposed for what it is in the limits of its power.
Now, you’ve got to admit, this is a pretty dang good interpretation. Thanks to the last minute personalizing hermeneutic, everybody felt edified by the activity, myself included.
Still, I feel a little uneasy about how the personal so often operates independently of the political. Can we hear the story of Rumpelstilskin and find in it something that speaks to us and addresses the situation of others?
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Next session we’re hoping to do some mask-making. Yes, I know you think that’s weird. If you find wearing a tie and watching ESPN makes you a whole man, more power to you. For some of us there are shadows to name – and who’s to say you don’t have one?