A story loosely adapted from A.S. Byatt’s story, together with a Homily by James Ishmael Ford, for the First Unitarian Church of Providence, RI, November 1, 2009
THE STORY OF THE ELDEST PRINCESS: A Life in Stories
Cathy: Here we are, at the time which in the ancient Celtic calendar is known as “Summer's end.” In more recent Western spiritual calendars it has become the time to recall all those who have died, and particularly those who became examples for us and showed the ways of generosity and love and attention.
One of those truths is that the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead are not so firm as we often say. How many of us have been touched by the dead one way or another? But within our hearts this is time where that already tenuous barrier wears so thin that small and occasionally large tears appear, and there is motion between the worlds, dreams become more wild and magic erupts into our lives.
James: This is a time for fires and for stories. This is a time to consider the deep currents of our lives, who we are, and who we might become. So, perhaps of course, the regular pattern of our Sunday worship shifts. Today we tell a story. And we reflect a bit on what it might mean for us within the context of knowing what our real goals are, and then finding our way. Then later we will within the context of meditation and the deep prayer that is attention recall those whom we love and who love us who have died.
But, let's begin with a story. This one comes from the writer A. S. Byatt.
(Byatt’s original words in regular type, additional materials by James in italics.)
Cathy: Once upon a time, in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains, between the forest and the desert, there lived a King and Queen with three daughters. Their eldest daughter was pale and quiet, the second daughter was brown and active, and the third was one of those Sabbath daughters who are bonny and bright and good and gay, of whom everything and nothing was expected.
Then one day the sky turned green.
James: The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might usefully be set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame… The witches and wizards on the whole favored a Quest.
Cathy: After thinking about it the King and Queen decided for the quest, which the wizards and witches said should be for a single silver bird in a nest of ash-branches. By general assent the only appropriate person to go on this quest would be one of the princesses. Each agreed, but as this is a fairy tale the parents decided to send their eldest first.
James: They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.
And off she went on the road which led to the silver bird’s nest.
Cathy: However she began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a traveling, princess. And she was well aware of stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person…
James: She sat down by the side of the road to work things through. That’s when she heard a small stone beside her cry out for help. She lifted the stone. Pinned underneath it, in a hollow of the ground, was a very large and dusty scorpion, waving angry pincers, and somewhat crushed in the tail.
Cathy: They had a long conversation. The scorpion knew of a wise old woman out in the forest who should be able to heal him. And, most important, they decided to leave the road, even though the rule for this kind of Fairy story dictated they should stay on that road. Instead they walked on into the forest. Well, the princess walked carrying the scorpion in her basket.
James: Turned out the scorpion knew what berries to eat or not. So that was a good thing. Then they came upon a big fat toad who had been attacked by a human and had a terrible gash on its head. They talked about the Quest, but mainly about the wise old woman who could heal the scorpion. They agreed she should be able to heal a toad, as well. The toad warned the princess it would not turn into a handsome prince, although it considered itself quite a handsome toad. They all agreed it was handsome, and that they were what they were and as they were, they would go on together.
Cathy: This is a fairy tale And we know the princess needs three magical helpers. And so, indeed, further out in the forest they stumbled upon a giant cockroach which had been snared in at hunter’s trap. As the princess freed it she saw its stomach had been torn in the trap. So, they all agreed they should go together to find the wise old woman who could heal. By this time they seemed to have forgotten about the Quest.
James: Then they came across a handsome young Woodsman cutting logs in a clearing. And the princess thought she would like to leave the shelter of the woods and talk to him. But the cockroach whispered a warning. He had five wives, all buried behind his hut. The other two agreed and added details. So, thanks to the companions she avoided occupying the sixth grave.
Cathy: And so on and so forth, the four companions wandered through the forest, the elder princess and her three wounded friends. Then finally, it seemed out of nowhere they came to the old woman’s house. She healed the companions. Then the old woman and the elder princess sat down with a cup of tea and had a long talk.
James: She said There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodsman… And maybe they would have been wise and maybe they would have been foolish: that is their story. But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can’t, and live quietly without striving…
We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.
Cathy: The conversation went on long into the evening. And eventually the elder princess decided the Quest to return the sky to blue wasn’t her work; that belonged to her youngest sister. Rather she would stay here and investigate the great mystery of life and death and become, in time, a wise old woman. This was her Quest, the quest of the heart.
And so she did.
James: And for those who want to know about that other story, the one about the original Quest, and how it turned out. Well, after the middle Princess had her adventure, which was really interesting, the youngest Princess finally left, and indeed she was able to turn the sky back to blue and was hailed as a heroine and lived happily ever after. Although they didn’t say it, there were some in her kingdom who found they missed the green sky…
Jan and I often while away the late evening propped up in bed with books resting on our tummies. When I have my way the television is also going, although Jan wants the volume really low. Me, I take comfort in the noise and pale dancing light, and sometimes with what is actually going on, on screen. Jan, not so much so. But, the real magic of the evening for both of us, requires that book held or resting. And, for Jan, I should add, a sleeping cat stretched across her midriff.
These days Jan reads several ways. She loves paper and boards. But she doesn’t disdain the Kindle Santa brought her last year. And, when she wants hands free reading, such as when she’s knitting, she’ll just use her iPod. Me, its always paper. Also, while I’m stuck nearly perpetually in the murder mystery universe, preferably those with the killing decently off stage and a clergy detective, or failing that, a well-drawn historical backdrop, Jan is literarily omnivorous. As they say you only need one intellectual in the family. And for us that’s Jan’s job. A quiet late evening supine in bed with our books is heavenly. Well, except for when the cat finds herself displaced for one reason or another. She can express resentment at her pillow moving, and it can involve teeth.
Among our small pleasures as we nest up there in the bedroom is sharing with each other a line or two from our current book. For instance having been tricked by a review on NPR I was reading a mystery by Philip Kerr where the detective is a Raymond Chandler type hard boiled but relentlessly honest private eye, in the first of this series trying to survive and do his job in Hitler’s Berlin. More shadow and a lot more violence than I usually like in my mysteries. But, what language! With unlikely metaphors piled high one upon another. “Jan,” I said. “Listen to this: He ‘sat at his desk, smoking a cigar that belonged properly in a plumber’s tool-bag. He was dark, with bright blue eyes, just like our beloved Fuhrer, and was possessed of a stomach that stuck out like a cash register… He shook me by the hand as I introduced myself. It was like holding a cucumber.’” That’s the sort of thing I read to Jan.
Jan, well, the sort of thing she reads to me tends to go more along the lines of, “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognize that you are under a curse – which is also a blessing – which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up.”
Okay, when she read that to me, it caught me cold. Wow, I thought, perhaps I should read more of that literary fiction. “What’s that from?” I asked. “A. S. Byatt.” She replied, waving the book at me, a strategic finger guarding her place. “It’s in a collection titled The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye. The story is the ‘Eldest Princess.’”
I had to wait ‘till Jan had finished the book, then I read the whole story. And I thought, as I’m inclined to do at such moments of discovery, “Oh, there’s a sermon in here.” Now you’ve heard it. The story is about stories. The Eldest princess is sent off on a Quest, but being well-read, she knows this is actually a story about a youngest princess, and wanting her own story, she steps off the path.
And it sure seemed this is the time to share it. I think about this season, both Halloween and All Saints itself. I think of the layers that are even more ancient that go back to my Celtic ancestors and their celebration of Samhain, “summer’s end.” All these celebrations are about the touching of the worlds, more, the meeting of worlds, where all our stories collapse into a mysterious presence. Ghosts and saints crowd up with us, that great cloud of witnesses. And to what do they witness? To the reality of the world we encounter, and to the truth we need not follow in the ruts that have been laid before. We can break free and see anew, to find a better way. We’re all invited to go off the path, into the woods, into our own hearts and imaginations.
We then get some advice along that way. Just look at her magical companions. Not doves and unicorns, not even scarecrows and cowardly lions; those all belong to people who stay on the path, who color inside the lines. No, her companions are those found when one wanders away from the well-trodden path, a scorpion with a crushed stinger, a toad with a hole gouged into its head and a cockroach with a tear in its stomach. There’s a lot to be gleaned from these magical creatures. The only point I’ll make here is that if you look at the lives of the saints, the magical companions of our hearts, few turn out to be made of plaster and without blemish.
But nothing caught me so much as when the Eldest Princess finally made it to the point of her story, not the story of the youngest princess, or of the middle princess, but to the point of her story, found in an old woman’s hut in the middle of the forest. And that point echoes for all of us, for you, and for me. It is the real secret at the heart of all stories.
There’s little doubt in my mind we live and breath and take our being within stories. I love stories. In one very true sense they’re how we think. We use metaphor to extract meaning. The catch is that stories often instead catch us like that cockroach in the hunter’s snare. I’m too small, I’m too weak, I’m not smart enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not good enough. There are snares for everyone in the stories that are laid out for us, but only as long as we’re willing to go along.
But, if we’re willing to step off the path, if we’re willing to listen to anyone who can speak wisdom, no matter who they might be; then we make our way to that hut in the woods. And there we can find something so, so important.
The most important line in that story about stories and about how to be free A. S. Byatt puts into the mouth of the old woman. “We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.”
Stories are woven out of our lives, and are meant to be used. Listen to them. Remember them. Sing them. Dance them. But know, in your heart of hearts, the stories are also just stories. Notice that, and magic follows like dawn follows the night. Holding the stories lightly, we find a certain freedom. Like last night when the children put on their costumes and wandered the evening streets, bands of witches and fairy princesses, spider-men and ghosts, among swirling leaves and brightly lit doorways. They collected their treasures. Then they returned home, took off their costumes, brushed their teeth and went to bed; once again boys and girls.
Just like that, we join the ranks of the saints.