Reflections on “Sapsorrow”: Differentiating the Syzygy in Fairytales

I just rewatched the episode, "Sapsorrow", from Jim Henson's Storyteller and was reminded of how the conventional Jungian paradigms for fairytale interpretation stuggle to differentiate which character in stories should be labeled the hero and which the animi figure.  This confusion is especially common to a whole category of folktales known as "The Father Who Wanted to Marry His Daughter" or Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 510B (according to Ashliman's site).  See also "Donkey Skin" and its variants at Sur La Lune.  The story, "Allerleirauh" is very similar to "Sapsorrow".

Here we see a young woman who is compelled to marry her father and must escape this fate with various ruses (in "Sapsorrow", this involves the request of three fabulous dresses before she agrees to wed).  After the original ruses don't manage to dissuade the father, the woman disguises herself in tatters or animal skins and runs away, only to become employed as a lowly kitchen maid in a far away kingdom.  In this new kingdom she finds ways to "disguise" herself as the beautiful princess she really is to sneak out to dance with the prince or king (in other variants she cooks soup or bakes cakes for the prince/king).  This prince eventually figures out that the lowly kitchen maid clad in her animal skins is actually the beautiful but elusive princess, and they marry.

It occurred to me while watching Sapsorrow that most Jungians would probably see the story as a heroine tale, i.e., one in which the protagonist (princess) corresponds to the ego-as-hero, while perhaps the prince of the new kingdom would be an animus figure.  Although it is foolish to ever say in such psychologized interpretations of folktales that one interpretation is definitively correct while another is clearly wrong, I would have to disagree with what I suspect to be the conventional Jungian way of looking at the dynamic of the Syzygy.

It is seductive to think of the protagonist in "Sapsorrow" as the "hero" or ego character, since the story completely revolves around her and portrays her perspective.  But I would argue that this is not the best rule of thumb for understanding the figures of the Syzygy in folktales.  It is not always who the storyteller dwells most on that is the archetypal hero, I think, and it is not the distant partner of the protagonist that is always the animi figure.  I propose a different rule of interpretation (not meant to be free from exceptions, but still generally more valid than the conventional Jungian perspective): in the Syzygy of folktales, there is a devalued figure who is in some way "enchanted" and there is another character who learns to see value in or valuate the devalued character.  The devalued figure to be redeemed is the animi, and the valuating character is the hero.

This may seem a bit counterintuitive to Jungians at first, but after we learn how to look at tales through this lens, I think we will come to see how much it increases the psychological clarity in the interpretive process.  Beyond this, it helps us understand something fundamental about the psychology of individuation, which (as I have often remarked) is a process of valuation (the valuation of Otherness or non-egoness).  The attractiveness and potential value of the Other is symbolized by the animi figure, a premonition or prefiguration of the Self as it transitions (in the ego's perspective) from a devalued to an invaluable and essential entity.  Or we could see the animi as a representation of the Self's instinctual relationality or Eros.  The animi lets the ego understand how the Self can be related to and how the Self can relate to others through the ego (the heroic ego, generally speaking).

Interpreting Syzygy/individuation folktales through the lens of valuated and valuator offers us a much more reliable and easily-applied paradigm than the ever-confusing Demon/Self differentiations necessary in many tales require.  That is, it is much easier to suss out which character is the hero and which the animi than it is to determine (with desired clarity) what is Demonic and what Self-driven in the tale's characters.  Sometimes the Demon is a clear character unto itself in a fairytale, but other times, the Demon is an aspect of an animi figure (i.e., its enchantment).  Then, in many tales, no clear differentiation is made.  If these figures can be defined at all, we may have to resort to an approach of abstracting traits, running the risk of "reading into" the text something not at all indicated by the text itself.

Of course, non-advocates of the psychological interpretation of fairytales think that all psychologizations are "readings into", but a thorough study of fairytale motifs and variations definitely shows form and type/archetype (which is why folklorists have systems of classification like the Arne-Thompson).  What non-psychological folklorists don't include in their interpretations and classifications of the texts is how these stories and themes make us feel (or what they make us think, how they make us react).  This is considered beside the point.  But of course to psychologists, there can be no separation between a text and how we are inclined to react to it, its psychic resonance.  All meaning and human value in a text is a matter of how we are inclined to react to it.  A very significant (and mysterious) facet of folktales is why we enjoy them so much and keep passing them on in the retelling.  Why do they enchant us so?  These tales derive their form from the pleasure and fascination audience and tellers feel in relating to them.  Why does one re-teller make a specific edit of the version she or he learned?  Why does a listener enjoy one motif or theme more than another?  These largely unconscious and decidedly "collective" gut reactions are the true authors of folktales.  I.e., collective subconscious or unconscious psychology creates folktales (more so than any other single influence).  Only a "hardened" academic has the luxury or pathology of looking at texts as representations of abstract categories.  This is obviously a displacement of the object of study from its natural habitat.  And that natural habitat, I would argue, is psychological . . . and more specifically, it is the habitat of instinctual or depth psychology, the psychology of the dynamic, complex self-organizing process of memory, cognition, or psyche.  Which is why fairytales have so much in common with dreams, which are also unconscious, dynamic, complex self-organizations of memory.

In Sapsorrow, the "enchantment" the princess-anima suffers from is a matter of her father wanting to marry her.  I'm not sure we should psychologize this as we are no doubt tempted to (the psychoanalyst in us just can't resist the chance to pathologize).  Is this motif meant to suggest a traumatizing father-daughter incest?  Maybe, but I'm not entirely convinced this is how we should look at it.  Another element of the motif is that the mother of the princess was extremely beautiful, but she died and made her husband promise that he would only remarry someone as beautiful as her (or more so).  No one across the land qualifies except the princess.  No incest or abuse is actually portrayed in most of these stories, so we would have to take a "Freudian" interpretation to see it there (i.e., the fairytales are disguising the more traumatic, sexual nature with protective symbols).

But all we are really told is that the father sees his dead wife's beauty in his daughter and is "aroused" by it.  He recognizes her sexuality and doesn't know how to healthily relate to it.  We are not told that he abuses or seduces her.  Her enchantment and Fall into devaluation (her kitchen maid job and animal skins) come as a result of the sacrifice of and flight from her father's incestuous desires (inability to relate to her as a sexual being that is yet inappropriate to desire sexually).  If the princess represented the ego, we might say that her father projected his eroticized anima onto his daughter, and perhaps also blamed her for some kind of "inappropriate" sexuality unjustly.  It is like a form of sexual possession, where the father becomes the keeper of the daughter's sexuality.  In many romantic relationships as well as father/daughter relationships, there is a conventional desire in the man (and also in the woman) to possess the other's sexuality.  The man projects his vulnerability and fragility and impotence into the woman's sexuality and then feels he must dissociate and imprison it so that it is not violated by anyone else.  Even when the father is dissociating and trying to imprison his daughter's sexuality while not fully realizing he is sexually possessing her, the dynamic is the same.

But if the princess is an anima and not an ego figure, what do we make of the relationship with her father?  One way of looking at it is that the father of the anima would be the Self, and the incestuous father/daughter (or Self/anima) relationship might correspond to a state of psychological development in which the anima has not yet been recognized, the ego has not found value in either the anima or in the heroic attitude.  The anima is a mere hint or shadow in the dark abyss of the Self, utterly indistinct.  The Father-Self has not "given up" his Daughter-Anima to a suitable Other (the heroic ego) . . . as no suitable Other has yet emerged.  So the anima begins to grow "sexual" while still in the charge of her Father, resulting in incestuous tension between them and a "need" for heroic redemption by a suitable other.  If we could imagine the anima's perspective on this state, it might be one in which "she" has not been freed or differentiated from this abysmal Father-Self or "unconscious".  In that state, the Self is not only indistinct, seemingly chaotic, probably "dangerous", but it is also conflated with the Demon, with the instinctual imprinting (or mis-imprinting) with the tribe or culture.  The animi, when it emerges, is like a mirror or egoic/conscious recognition that the sexualized anima must be freed from the incestuous Father relationship and be joined to a suitable partner.  So the princess in our tales recognizes the problem of the father's incestuous intentions just as we might consciously recognize the incest taboo.  But the father does not recognize this.  He is unconscious, undifferentiated.  He is like the Old Testament Yahweh.  He will not differentiate himself, but needs the conceptualizing or humanizing heroic ego (or Syzygy) to do this individuating work (much as Jung suggests in his Answer to Job).  We are of course using metaphors here to describe a transitional psychodynamic of adolescent movement away from the Infant/Parent dynamic and toward the adult/heroic or tribe member/tribe or facilitator/facilitated dynamic where the egoic attitude shifts from the focus on narcissistic self-protection to devotional Other-facilitation (or system-facilitation).  This transition is an extremely laborious birthing process where transformational pain bears down on the individual, who is overwhelmed, defeated, dissolved and must rely not on egoic will and knowing but on the instinctual process and its sense of "Knowing".  That is, we cannot know how we survive this threshold experience.  We just do . . . or, more frequently today, we abort the transformation and come to live Demonically in Bad Faith, perpetuating and disguising our infantile adolescent attitudes.

To put it another way . . . if the anima is a representation of the Self's value-laden attractiveness or Eros, what and how does that Eros love before it loves the heroic ego?  What does the ego love or what defines egoic relatedness before the animi work begins?  Well, before the animi work or before the emergence of the animi (or Syzygy), an individual's Eros is significantly colored by a Child/Parent relationality.  I.e., what the individual wants from Others is in many ways like what a child wants from a parent.  Providence, narcissistic mirroring, the ability to be an utterly self-contained "me" without any hindrance from Otherness (the idea that "me" is something entirely apart from others or from relationships or that the unrelated "me" is something that should be preserved in some kind of specimen jar or glass coffin or other impenetrable prison . . . the idea that a "me" is something undynamic and unconnected).  So just as the egoic son might want some form of mothering out of his relationality, couldn't this be reflected or shadowed by an undifferentiated anima incestuously desired by her father?

I don't mean to propose this interpretation of the father's desire to marry his daughter in these folktales is the absolutely correct one.  There are other, equally valid ways to interpret this (although I won't pursue them here).  My most rational and conservative answer would be that it is impossible to perfectly map the father/daughter relationship either to incestuous abuse and seduction or to the Father-Self of the undifferentiated anima.  Either interpretation requires creation and conceptualization.

The prince of the new kingdom that shows up in the second act, though, is a legitimate partner and Other to the princess.  He struggles with her valuation and with his tendency to not look deeper than appearances.  But he does recognize her, even from their first encounter.  She is not a replacement for her mother, but a wholly unique if bizarre and unattractive creature.  And he has no difficulty being attracted to her when she is in her royal glory and fancy dresses.  In all of the stories with this motif, he valuates her piece by piece . . . but doesn't understand that all these features are attached to one person, one entity.

The prince in many of these tales doesn't get fleshed out very much.  His main claim to heroism is his curiosity regarding the enchanted princess (who is soundly abused and dismissed by everyone else) and his eventual ability to valuate and redeem her enough to allow her to fully integrate herself into one valuated being.  She does most of the work, while he acts more or less according to his princely station.  This is nothing like the heroic (Self-derived) acts of the hunter's wife in Nixie of the Mill-Pond (see my extensive analysis of this story on the forum) or in many other stories where the hero sets out on an "impossible" quest for redemption of the animi.  We could say he is a pretty weak hero, but he is the valuator.

I have to confess that I prefer my fairytale heroes to be a little cleverer and more complex than these princes are, but not every fairytale depicting the individuation process is saying the same thing about the individuation process.  Sometimes individuation seems a heroic enterprise . . . the ego alchemically creates many golden things and brings conscious valuation to the darkened Otherness of the unconscious.  But that is only one way of looking at the animi work, and if it is the only way one looks at the animi work, some kind of inflation is afoot.  Anyone who has been embroiled in the animi work knows (or in complete honesty must admit) that the "magical" or alchemical transformations and revelations that come (or seems to come) are not willed by the ego.  It is only in heroic Foolishness that the animi work progresses . . . and this means relinquishing control over the process.  But the process is instinctually driven, and it will organize itself only as well as the ego is able to relinquish control over the personality or obedience to the Demon.

Part of the ego is always a hapless and superficial prince during the anima work.  The ego never becomes the hero, it can only ever incorporate and valuate the heroic attitude into its complex of voices.  As the animi work progresses, we are borne along by the seat of our pants . . . and often against the will and sense of decency or rationality of our ego.  When the ego mistakes itself for a version of the hero sans any personal shadow, inflation has set in and the Demon has possessed the ego by wearing the hero's costume.

Many fairytales are about heroes primarily, about the heroic journey . . . but many other fairytales are more about the fascinating animi figure, the object of obsession during the animi work.  These are two ways of looking at the same process.

I will just end with one more thought in a similar vein.  There is a very good reason for the difficulty we might have when interpreting fairytales and deciding which character is a hero figure and which an animi figure.  The two halves of the Syzygy are on a path of increased twinning of each other.  This is not (as many of the mystical or spiritualistic persuasion have mistaken it) indicative of a twinning between ego and Self, in my opinion.  There are two major dimensions to the animi.  On one hand they are a prefiguration of the Self, but on the other hand, they represent all the valuated personality traits that remain stuck in the personal shadow, unintegrated by the ego.  As the animi work progresses, the ego brings more and more of these valuated traits or attitudes into consciousness and its sense of identity.  As this takes place, what remains of the animi may manifest as increasingly Self-like or divine.

Eventually, one is faced with removal of the last veil, which generally has something to do with relinquishing the attitude of providence/dependence on the Self.  The Self does not exist to drive and buoy up the ego.  What the animi work eventually shows us is that the ego exists to facilitate the Self.  The Self as Parent gives way to the Self as partner . . . and the animi represents the dynamic process by which this is achieved.  It is not uncommon to see folktales and dreams in which a Self figure is served or facilitated by an animi figure.  The animi is the envoy and translator of the Self.  But at the conclusion of the animi work, the heroic ego (which now houses at least some preliminary form of the reunited Syzygy) takes on the role the animi previously played.  The heroic ego must learn to be the envoy and translator of the Self, the Self's languager.  Which means that the ego must develop a creative language through which the Self can relate or through which instinctuality can imprint functionally with the environment.  This Logos is a conceptualization that is designed (and continuously revised) to smooth over the disconnect between instinct and modern environment.  Harmonize would be too extreme a word, but some kind of equilibrium is sought after by the Self and in the construction of the Logos.

The individual builds such a Logos merely by valuating and paying close attention to the reactions of the Self to various egoic propositions and "offerings".  This ancient archetypal religiosity takes on a very different shape in our modern world, but instinctually or foundationally, it is quintessentially human.  The main difference between us moderns and tribalists in this regard is that we must utilize the organ of individuated consciousness to conceptualize an adequate (i.e., Self-facilitating) Logos, whereas a healthy tribal dynamic allows for Self-facilitation to be largely unconscious and associated with (imprinted with) tribal Eros.  It is modern society that demands this complex individuation from us as a survival mechanism . . . and if we grew up and lived in a tribal society, we would have little use for this modern individuation process (unless we were shamans).

So we are likely to eventually come to see the animi's role in the psyche and relationship to the Self as heroic . . . and eventually we will have this heroic burden thrust upon us (if we do not abort the animi work process).  And just as the hero valuates and redeems the animi from the Demon and the darkness of the unconscious psyche, the animi's interest in and love for the heroic ego allows the heroic attitude to be valuated, and this valuates the ego to some degree, in turn.

Therefore the "rule" of folktale interpretation I proposed does have foreseeable limitations where the characters of the Syzygy in a story are very much twins.  But even in these circumstances, the direction of primary valuation usually flows from one character to the other, from hero to animi.  At worst, the interpreter will have to develop a creative interpretation of this valuation dynamic rather than resorting to a rule of thumb or some equivalent of a symbol dictionary or manual of interpretive theory.  The only real problem with that scenario is that, from what I've seen, the ability to make such creative, outside-the-textbook interpretations is dependent on having a source of reference for the psychological dynamics in one's personal experience.  One needs a star to steer by to do more than wildly guess or follow rules.  It is hard to see these patterns before the patterns have established themselves within oneself.  After these patterns become familiar touch stones, the folktale texts suddenly become much more ordered and sensible.  Otherwise, there is only some foreign, abstract "law" to which we are referring as a model, and this will only have minimal use in the interpretation of symbolic individuation narratives.  We must know (to some degree) what "should" come next in a process of individuation before we fully understand what has happened in the folktale narrative.  If we don't have a functional individuation paradigm to work from (and an intuitive sense or feeling about its dynamic form and logic), the interpretation of fairytales can be a matter of getting lost in the woods (where we must be fortunate enough to receive the magical guidance of something unconscious and Other).