The maiden King Roberty Bly and Marion Woodman’s version Chapter 3

You might wonder why I included this here as it is not my work. This story itself is important in understanding the Journey that we (Ivans all) have to go on to retrieve Soul (Vasallisa)

In the interest of getting the story out to a wider public,  I have included it here for your information.

In my unpacking of this story, I have turned the diamond to a different facet shining a light on the story in a different way as storytellers are supposed to do.

My desire is to highlight the Journey of the Heroic, our Ego (whether you are a man or a woman) to retrieve Soul from the “land of nine times nine on the other side of never”.


The Maiden King
The Reunion of Masculine and Feminine

Henry Holt and Company, Inc.

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Once upon a time” is the way a storyteller often begins a tale in English. By contrast, an old Persian storyteller might say, “At one time there was a story and there was no one to tell it,” or “At one time there was a story, but there was no one to hear it but God.” In other words, stories were in existence before human beings. That’s a strange idea, but lays a lot of responsibility on the good storyteller. “The Maiden Tsar” is one of the most magnificent of all stories.

    It has been preserved in the Russian language, but the storyteller does not say exactly where the story takes place: it is occurring “in a certain land, in a certain kingdom.” That seems right, because the narrative is happening, one could say, simultaneously in the other world and in this one. A storyteller might say, “Our earth has four continents, and we are going now to the fifth,” or “In our planet there are seven oceans; we are going now to the eighth.” If you, as a reader, adore literalism, you may as well close the book now–you’ll argue with our sallies so often that it will be bad for your health. Storytellers will mention that in “this kingdom” time is not linear, but persistently circular. When some event takes place in our world–a group of people walk into the desert–it never really happens exactly the same way again; new incidents replace the earlier incident. But in this “certain kingdom,” the same events happen over and over; and that is what is so beautiful about that realm. People who live there love the way stories happen over and over again. They get a good look at the characters that way, because they know the old miser will come back, the dog with three legs will reappear, utterly unchanged, the prince will be just as foolish next time, the obstinate old woman just as determined, the father just as absent.

The Opening Situation


In a certain land, in a certain kingdom, there was a merchant whose wife died, leaving him with an only son, Ivan.

The father is a merchant, and so we know he will travel a lot. We are told then that his first wife, who is Ivan’s mother, has died; so we could say both mother and father are absent in differing ways.

    The merchant father marries a second time, and as usual in fairy tales, he picks the wrong second wife. We’ve learned to expect that. The blessings the motherless child will receive will come, as we know from dozens of other tales, from the mother who has died, who sometimes leaves a doll for her child, which the daughter or son can speak to in difficult situations. The departed mother generally protects the abandoned child from evil.

    The trouble comes from the stepmother. It has to come from somewhere. If we omit literalism from our discussion of mother and stepmother, we can say that we are looking at two code words. “The mother who died” is a code word for the positive side of your own mother, which you probably felt deeply and unforgettably in the womb, and in very early childhood; and the “stepmother” is a code word for the dark side of that very same mother, who has, one might say, other invisible children besides you, and sometimes she prefers them to you. If you don’t like this extravagant way of understanding a story, you can always remain with the more literal way; that is, Ivan’s true mother did die, and a stepmother entered the family, and that’s the way it was. Either way will work fine in this story.


In a certain land, in a certain kingdom, there was a merchant whose wife died, leaving him with an only son, Ivan. He put this son in charge of a tutor, and after some time took another wife; and since Ivan, the merchant’s son, was now of age and very handsome, his stepmother fell in love with him.

    By the time we reach the word “handsome” in the second sentence we know that more than a little trouble is approaching. The father has hired a tutor to be a sort of mentor for the son, and that sounds fine, but it turns out that Ivan is handsome and the stepmother has fallen in love with him.

    Stuff like that happens sometimes when a father is absent. Our storyteller casually drops the tutor and the stepmother into the same sentence, but from this cool juxtaposition we don’t have any way of knowing what a team these two will shortly become. This team will undo the boy.

The Fishing Trip

Things move fast in a story like this.


One day Ivan went with his tutor to fish in the sea on a small raft.

    The father apparently has wisely asked the tutor to teach the boy how to fish. We each need to know how to “fish.” Psychologically, fishing amounts to an inquisitiveness about the “treasures of the deep.” We float in broad daylight, on our well-constructed, rationally engineered raft or boat, looking down into the cloudy waters–inhabited by God knows what–the same waters each dreamer fishes in at night. Teaching people to fish is a just aim in education. We are fishing right now.

    Fishing is a kind of dreaming in daylight, a longing for what is below. There are many mysteries down there in those waters over which these two dwarfed, half-abandoned people drift. I suppose we could say that as we brood over the story, we are fishing in the eighth ocean mentioned earlier, the ocean that amounts to a legacy left by our ancestors to living women and men. Novelists are fisherpeople; so are poets and psychologists. Many superb psychologists have been fishing in the last hundred years, among them Freud, Jung, Karen Horney, Marie-Louise von Franz, Marion Woodman, Heinz Kohut, Melanie Klein, Georg Groddeck, and Alice Miller.

    A lot of our joy and happiness has come from these investigators of our legacy. Just as the fish “accidentally” bites on the worm, so a life passion may rise from below our consciousness during “fishing,” evoked by an accidental reference noticed in a book that simply fell open. I know one man who found a book by James Hillman in a Goodwill dumpster, and it moved his whole life into psychology and mythology. Marie-Louise von Franz, at sixteen, the night before she was to have a brief meeting with Jung, dreamt such a powerful dream about “Virgin’s milk” that when she told him the dream, he invited her to translate into German the medieval Latin of some ancient alchemical texts he had just purchased, and a sixty-year-long friendship began.

    A casual reference to a spider interests a young boy, and soon he is ransacking encyclopedias, studying webs, learning the ninety species of arachnids. When you visit his parents’ house, he places a living tarantula in your hand. He has discovered his passion, or one of them, and in some way he is an individual.

    Painters are always going on fishing expeditions. Chagall was amazed at what he saw in the waters beneath his little Russian village, and he spent his life bringing those violinists and horses and brides up to the surface.

    Sometimes what we discover when fishing is a Presence. An event like that is about to happen to Ivan in our story. The boy and the tutor are looking down into the sea, one might say, for the Presence that swims about in the murky world below the surface of things; and all at once the Presence arrives on the surface of the ocean, coming in from the horizon, seemingly belonging to the sea itself.


One day Ivan went with his tutor to fish in the sea on a small raft; suddenly they saw thirty ships making toward them. On these ships sailed the Maiden Tsar with thirty other maidens, all her foster sisters. When the ships came close to the raft, all thirty of them dropped anchor. Ivan and his tutor were invited aboard the best ship, where the Maiden Tsar and her thirty foster sisters received them; she told Ivan that she loved him passionately and had come from afar to see him. So they were betrothed.

    This is an amazing event. A fleet of thirty ships arrive. The thirty women, who as we later find out are both swans and women, arrive, one on each boat, and there is a thirty-first Being as well, who is the “Maiden Tsar,” or the Maiden King. The phrase is meant to carry a contradiction: she is not a woman Queen, but a woman King. We know from other stories that this is a divine being, sometimes called the “Woman with Golden Hair.” She isn’t a Queen, for that term would imply a King of her same rank. She is the King. She doesn’t participate in opposites: the Queen vs. the King, or night vs. day. She does not belong to this world of opposites; the world we live in is a place of opposites, moon and sun, right and wrong, left and right, joy and sorrow, Democrats and Republicans, masculine and feminine. She is the unity of opposites.

    How could Ivan not be entranced? He is. She tells Ivan that she loves him and that they are betrothed. “Do you know my name?” “Oh, of course; we’ve known each other for a long time.” He and this Golden-Haired Woman are already betrothed. That’s the way it is in life.

    The moment the flotilla arrived must have been that instant the Greeks called kairos or “the right instant.” There is a certain particle of time in which the stars are lined up–then the shaman can actually heal the sick person, then silver will turn with the right tincture into gold, then the Holy One can be born. A fifteen-year-old can wake up one morning and for ten minutes understand all of mathematics in the world, or the principles of great art, or grasp ahead of time everything that will happen to her in her life. The kairos moment seems to be the moment when one world interpenetrates the other. It is hard to explain this in Freudian psychology, but it is very easy in Islamic psychology. Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina, said there was a world Aristotle didn’t know of, in which Spiritual Presences live. One world is mud and stone; one world is divine; and there is a third world, an in-between world. The name given to it so far in English is the Imaginal World. St. Francis and St. Teresa can meet a human being there. The thirty boats are arriving from that world.

The Moment When the Worlds Meet

The second when thirty silver and golden boats touch the boy’s raft is an astonishing moment; on the other hand, it is a playful magnification of certain heated moments we have all experienced. What are those moments like in human terms? Sometimes when one reads diaries written in one’s twenties, one finds written there accounts of sudden illumination, perhaps a moment or an entire morning when the spiritual goal of one’s life is utterly clear: the clarity is so amazing that we know we will never forget it. We feel a bit of inflation that morning, but inflation is merely a drawing in of breath, of air, of oxygen, which was always out there. It was actually an illumination; some sort of light came in from the other world, or from the stars. We were confused, but the visit amounted to a visitation. A spiritual woman–some sort of messenger, or angelos, as the Greeks called her–entered our house, interrupting those anxious hours when we brooded over our inadequacy, or schemed how to make some money. The angel said, “I am a spiritual being visiting you.” Some angel with wings whose tips are violet at the edges descends to the young man or woman. We understood our life had changed; we knew nothing would ever be the same. We knew now that we were a person with a calling–as St. John of the Cross was, or the author of The Cloud of Unknowing. We carried inside a new dignity; we felt related to Buddhist saints or to monks who stayed in the desert hut for thirty years. In that mood, I set down these lines, which I included in my first book of poems:


We know the road; as the moonlight
Lights everything, so on a night like this,
The road goes on ahead, it is all clear

    It was all clear, but two months later I wasn’t sure. A renewed need to pick up dry cleaning, or perhaps a return of our old habit of self-absorption, turns our eyes away from the clear road. The superficial, greedy part of the soul that retired for a few days returns with the fury of all pushed-away beings.

    Sometimes in early adolescence a love feeling will flood the brain with radiance again; a beauty glimpsed in another’s face will bring all the radiance forward, and once again we have a sense of a Presence. A child of ten sees an unusual light flooding the fields. Blake saw angels sitting in a tree when he was ten; Thomas Traherne recorded a moment when he looked on the street and saw “boys and girls like moving jewels.”

    Robert Johnson, in his new autobiography Balancing Heaven and Earth, describes a half hour when he stood looking down over the city of Portland, Oregon. A few weeks before he had lost part of one leg when a runaway car pinned him against a wall; he had come close to death, and he knew that. Standing on a hill, he saw that something had replaced ordinary sunlight, so that a heavenly light seemed to glow from behind every house and tree and person in Portland. The experience lasted only five minutes or so, but it determined the rest of his life.

The New Life

The arrival of the thirty golden boats and the meeting with the “divine woman,” who remarks that she and Ivan are already betrothed, reminds one of certainties associated with romantic love. Each person in love feels that he or she has known the other before, in some other life. This is the lightning bolt called amor celebrated so deeply by the Provencal poets of the thirteenth century, by Dante in La Vita Nuova, and by the Norman and Irish love sagas. The two lovers may feel so close that death together is–compared to parting–the lesser of two evils. Coleman Barks, in his translation of Rumi, depicts the mood well:


Come to the Garden in spring.
There is wine, and sweethearts in the pomegranate blossoms.
If you do not come, these do not matter.
If you do come, these do not matter

    This intense awareness of destined love, of a unity bypassing all class and gender lines, the ecstatic sense that something divine is hidden in the meeting of these two, that “you” may be God, that each separate and foolish human being is actually participating in a holy meeting, occurs. Wallace Stevens says of Aphrodite in adolescence:


She causes boys to pile new plums and pears
On disregarded plates. The maidens taste
And stray impassioned in the littering leaves

Romeo says:


But soft! What light through yonder window breaks?
It is the east and Juliet is the sun!…
The brightness of her cheek would shame those stars,
As daylight doth a lamp; her eyes in heaven
Would through to any region stream so bright
That birds would sing, and think it were the night

Juliet later replies:


Good pilgrim, you do wrong your hand too much,
Which mannerly devotion shows in this,
For saints have hands that pilgrims’ hands do touch,
And palm to palm is holy palmer’s kiss

    There is an ancient Egyptian saying that suggests that the divine power in woman is so strong that boys in some sense die simply from having experienced that power. “We must die because we have known them.” Rainer Maria Rilke imagines the boy as a mountain valley, earthbound, rather inert. The feminine wind makes “his body leaves rustic.”


The adolescent boy praises the death-givers,
when they float magnificently through his
heart-halls. From his blossoming body
he cries out to them:
Impossible to reach! Oh, how strange they are:
They go swiftly over
the peaks of his emotions and pour down
the marvelously altered night into his deserted
arm valley. The wind that rises
in their dawn makes his body leaves rustle. His brooks
glisten away in the sun

(Translated by R.B.)

    At a certain age, then, a boy’s emotional receptors become attuned to the wind of the feminine. And hers become attuned to the mountain valleys of the masculine, perhaps. How large is this attunement? Enormous. When two people are together, there are really four, so the attraction can happen many ways, between men and men, or women and women.

    The arrival of the boats is a good development for Ivan. The “betrothal” has begun. The feminine has shown herself, bravely, vulnerably, ready for serious life. The Goddess has arrived from the In-between World.

    The question is: What will happen to Ivan? When he got back on shore, he went to his room and thought about it. What did the stepmother do? She undoubtedly noticed a new expression on Ivan’s face when he came ashore. As we know, she called the tutor into her room, gave him some brandy, and asked, “What happened today?” “Oh, nothing much.” “Don’t be foolish. Something happened, man. Tell me what it was!” “Well, about two o’clock or so some boats did approach, twenty-five or thirty of them, and there was one beautiful woman on each boat. That was about it.” “Go on, have some more brandy.” “One of the women was especially beautiful, I must say. Not as beautiful as you, of course.” “Come to the point. What happened?” “The woman on the golden boat seemed to know Ivan, and it was quite a scene.” “What happened next?” “She told Ivan she was coming back to the same spot tomorrow, and he should come. That’s what she said. We pulled up anchor and came home.”

    How did the stepmother respond?

The Maiden Tsar told the merchant’s son to return to the same place the following day, said farewell to him, and sailed away. Ivan returned home and went to sleep. The stepmother led the tutor into her room, made him drunk, and began to question him as to what had happened to him and Ivan at sea. The tutor told her everything. Upon hearing his story, she gave him a pin and said, “Tomorrow, when the ships begin to sail toward you, stick this pin into Ivan’s tunic.” The tutor promised to carry out her order.

    “Tomorrow when the ships come into sight, I want you to slip this pin into the collar of Ivan’s tunic.” “Will it hurt him?” “How could a pin in his collar hurt him? Don’t be absurd.” The tutor promised to do what she wished.

    The pin is an old shamanic tool. We know that Siberian shamans still will prick the finger with a pin, and if it is done rightly, the person will fall asleep. This is an old magical trick, and it seems to be flowing out of the stepmother’s dark side, the power side. We notice the pin theme in many Central European stories as well, such as in “Sleeping Beauty.” In that story, a King and Queen plan to invite all the goddesses or wise women of the neighborhood to the christening of their new daughter, but something goes wrong–perhaps they have only twelve golden plates. The thirteenth goddess or “wise woman” is not invited. She appears anyway, but she feels insulted. During the christening ceremony, while others are blessing the daughter, she cries out, “This girl will prick herself with a spindle on her fifteenth birthday and die!” The goddess who speaks next does what she can; she cannot cancel the curse, but she softens it so that the fifteen-year-old girl will merely fall asleep, though the sleep will be a hundred years long. The parents from that day on keep all needles and pins away from the girl. But one day, when the girl is fifteen, she wanders into a room high in the castle. An old woman sits there spinning, and when the daughter tries out the spinning wheel, she pricks her finger, and the whole castle goes to sleep. Even the slow kitchen boy, plucking a chicken, stops with his fist full of feathers; the cook falls asleep with his hand halfway to the boy, about to hit him.

    The stepmother in our story comes forward as a practitioner of the magical arts. What is the insult or hurt the stepmother has received? Given the passion the stepmother feels for Ivan, perhaps the hurt lay in Ivan’s failure to reciprocate it. If a human being or a goddess reaches for love and doesn’t achieve it, he or she usually reaches next for power.

(C) 1998 Robert Bly and Marion Woodman All rights reserved. ISBN: 0-8050-5777-3

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