by Jack McKeon
THE QUEEN BEE
The Queen Bee is a simple three brothers fairy tale; the first two are clever and confident, the third viewed as a Simpleton and held in contempt. The third’s simplicity serves him well. He befriends animals and through their assistance he triumphs and marries the princess.
This is standard fairy tale stuff and in this case in a tale that lacks tension and conflict. There’s no obvious evil – no witch or ogre, no murderous siblings, no clear moral conflict. The story moves rapidly through events without elaboration or commentary. It is simple, rather flat and lacking in drama.
Still it is one of the Grimms’ most famous and most often anthologized tales – up there with Rumplestiltskin, Rapunzel and Snow White.
So what’s going on here?
Most obviously we see differing attitudes towards the world of nature and the relationship we humans have with it, as shown by the three brothers. Early, myth-based societies saw the world as a living entity with which we had a personal, interactive connection. We had a mutual interdependence with the nature around us. The world was alive – the sun, the rain, the mountains and rivers, the animals – all had lives and wills of their own. Our well being depended on the respect we showed it. As we progressed, and as earth-based mythology evolved into belief systems with deities residing elsewhere, and we finally became a world of science, we began to view the world as something separate, a thing to be explored and analyzed, dissected and investigated, full of inanimate objects whose value depended on their benefit to mankind. While there have obviously been positive results from this more scientific approach, our superior, controlling attitude has had the negative consequence of detaching and alienating us from nature. (The day before, the WQXR opera had been Bernstein’s Candide. In one part Candide returns to Europe from South America with a magic sheep with red wool. He presents the sheep to the scientific community, who can’t explain it, so they cut it in half and put it on public display. I cited this as an example.)
So we have the two older brothers, who are proud of their cleverness and confident in it. In the very beginning of the story we see that it does not serve them well, though they don’t seem to learn much from their failure to thrive. Because of their arrogance, their confrontations with nature are self-serving and destructive. Their desire to disturb the anthill is a childish impulse, a sort of infantile scientific curiosity to “see what happens.” Their approach to the ducks and the bees is less random and more purposeful but still a manifestation of a self-orientation that reduces all else to what it can provide for us.
Simpleton, on the other hand, while his protection of the animals has no obvious motivation, seems to respect their independent existence as valuable in itself. He is not clever; his actions derive from the heart and an acceptance of life as precious without evaluating its usefulness. He is an emissary from the world of myth to his brothers’ utilitarian life view.
One of the puzzling things in the story for me has been that his brothers obey him. No reason is given and this runs against their initial contempt for him. It does appear, though, that the heart has an authority that the mind must bow to.
There are three brother tales from all cultures and almost always the elder two fail because of their belief in their cleverness and the arrogance that results from it. There is an understanding in fairy tales that real power lies elsewhere, in levels of understanding or feeling that underlie our rationality.
For Jung, logic and rationality are male psychic attributes. And this brings us to the problem that starts the story. Fairy tales begin with an issue that brings about a crisis, one that can be seen as a crisis of the psyche. Here, as in many stories, it is very simple: we have a king who has three sons. That’s the problem. Where’s the queen? Are there no sisters? The feminine, the emotive, relating, compassionate element in the psyche is missing. Where is it? It is under enchantment, sleeping and locked away in a room without a key in a lifeless castle. A scholar named Donald Karlsbad wrote in 2002:
Experiences in early childhood that can cause unbearable psychic
pain or anxiety can leave the personality and the human spirit
threatened with destruction. To avoid this, a defensive splitting
of the self occurs in which a “progressed” part of the self
casts a spell over the “repressed” part and locks it up in an inner
sanctum for safe keeping.
The enchantment in fairy tales is most often connected to the nature of the crisis. While it is not clear what trauma may have affected the brothers, it is usually the case in stories with male protagonists that the crisis situation results in the repression of the feminine at the expense of the health of the whole. We see the result in the behavior of the elder brothers. Simpleton, however, has retained it, indicating that the problem is not beyond hope. His connectedness is what gives him his power. In general, however, things are out of balance. It is the purpose of the tale, of the quest of the hero, to restore that balance.
For Jung, the feminine in the male psyche, the anima, is the call to life, the vital, invigorating, potentially chaotic force that draws us into involvement with the world. In this case it has been locked away, repressed, though the elder brothers can’t really escape its power. Their impulse to leave home and seek adventure shows it is here, and their descent into a disorderly life shows its negative power when not integrated in a healthy manner. One consequence of this is typically the exaggerated self-assurance and independence of the male; a deeper consequence is a stasis, a condition in which healthy growth and development have become impossible.
One of the effects of Simpleton’s protection of animal life is that each episode brings us closer and closer to the heart of the problem. Finally we arrive at a castle with a stable of stone horses. Horses typically in fairy tales are beings of great energy and power. Here they have been turned to stone. The castle itself is empty except for a voiceless little gray old man behind a triple-locked door. It takes three knocks to rouse him to unlock the three locks, one it seems for each brother. This little man is a last vestige of the animate in an otherwise dead or comatose environment. His presence is also an indication that not all is lost. One of the common figures in fairy tales is what Jung calls the archetype of the spirit, sometimes an animal, a dwarf, or often an unprepossessing old man or old woman. This figure is the force that can lead us through the chaos if we pay attention. In three-brother tales, the two elder brothers dismiss or insult such figures and are therefore blocked in their quest. The third brother often shares food with the figure and then listens to the good advice. In this case the spirit figure is small in stature and power, but is still able to grant access to the inner problem. He can provide nourishment and rest and he knows the process by which health can be restored, though he cannot perform the task himself. He is the gatekeeper, unlocking access to the hidden world.
So we come to the center of the problem. The sleeping princess, the one that counts, is missing her pearls, the key to her bed chamber and, in a sense, her identity. The two elder brothers, to their credit, work hard to perform the first task but they are foiled by their reliance on their own abilities. They actually try too hard. Their cleverness fails them again and they are blocked, turned to stone, unable to move, grow, develop or live. Still, they do succeed to a limited extent. Trying hard is a good first step.
Simpleton tries hard too, but he succeeds only when he stops relying on his own ability and gives up, opening the way for powers to work that are usually obscured by conscious endeavor. Sometimes we have to shut down the ego, give up the conscious drive to find the answer. Then we open ourselves up to the possibility of help, wisdom emerging from elsewhere, from deeper in our mental powers, from our unconscious. Respect for instinct, intuition, and the inner workings of the spirit gives us the insight we need to restore what has been lost.
What has been lost here with the repression of the feminine is generative power. When the two elder brothers wish to disturb the ants’ nest, they want to watch the ants rushing around carrying their eggs. It’s an interesting detail and our first introduction to the thread of fertility that runs through the story. It continues with the ducks, though perhaps more obscurely. Ducks pair off, marry in a sense, and lay their own eggs. They have obscure erotic associations in Europe. They are sacred to Sequanah the European goddess of the Seine whose strength is healing. In East Asia, maybe not relevant here, figures of ducks adorn wedding bed blankets and curtains. The beehive is overflowing with sweetness and nourishment, and, one imagines, humming with vitality and activity. More on the bees in a minute.
The service these creatures offer Simpleton is equally potent. The thousand pearls of the princess are scattered in the forest hidden by the moss that has apparently overgrown them as they lie unused. They must be retrieved before the princess can wake up. Now this may be a stretch, but picture for a moment ants carrying pearls. The image is an echo of the earlier vision of ants carrying their eggs. Pearls have symbolic lunar and feminine associations and in this context, creepy as it may seem, they suggest not just the value of the gem, but the precious reproductive capacity of the princess.
Following that train of thought, the ducks fetch the key to the bedchamber of the princess.
The bees have numerous associations. A beehive will collapse without a queen. We’ve seen what happens to the king’s family because of the lack of a queen. The queen bee is he only fertile female in the hive. She lays thousands of eggs. The bee was one manifestation of the ancient fertility goddess. Honey has been seen as both an aphrodisiac and a healing substance. The three sleeping princesses differ in only one way. They each tasted a different sweet before going to sleep. Of the three - sugar, syrup, honey – honey is the only one that is not processed by man but is a purely natural substance. When the queen bee lingers on the honeyed lips of the youngest princess she seems to be identifying the new queen, whose eggs have been gathered and who will now awaken to marry our hero and, we assume, generate future queens. The enchantment is broken. Those who have been turned to stone regain their living form. Life and balance, and the possibility of growth and a future, have been restored. There is something of an ecological and environmental parable here.
There is a psychic parallel as well. The story is filled with images of the unconscious – the forest in which the pearls have been lost, the lake in which the key has been lost, the underground tunnels of the ants (which we don’t see but which are part of what we understand about ants), the collective hive of the bees, the enchanted castle. When Simpleton gives up his conscious effort, he opens himself to the unconscious and to the creative forces of the spirit that emerge to heal the wounded mind. This healing is not something that cleverness can accomplish by itself. It needs power beyond our control. In the end, the repressed content has been freed, balance is restored, we are healed and a new creative energy, a new king and queen, assumes the throne.
This tale, like all fairy tales, is less a narrative than a series of connected images, a series of metaphors, as it were, telling us a story about ourselves that is universal in content and much more complex than the words would suggest.
As Joseph Campbell wrote: “The folktale is the primer of the picture language of the soul.”
|Illustrations by Walter Crane (top) and Arthur Rackham|