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Each Enters the Forest on Their Own Terms

Updated: May 20



On a journey to a cave in the midst of the Belizean forest, I lost my way. Mesmerized by the lush surroundings, I fell behind the procession. I looked ahead, and no one was in front of me. Alone, my heart started racing in fear. I did not know where I was or how to find my way out.


In myth, the forest is an unknown terrain that is both dangerous and transformative. Adventures lead heroines and heroes into the forest, and few leave unchanged. In Wolfram Von Eschenbach’s Parzival, one could argue that the forest is itself a character in the story. Parzival spends his childhood in the forest, born to a mother who has renounced society. And once Parzival establishes himself as a knight, he returns to the forest in search of his mother, which leads him to the Grail Castle—the adventure that is his destiny.


The Grail Castle is hidden in the forest. Others could walk right past it and never know it was there. Thus, one must gain the perception to see that which the forest hides. This magical space presents itself when the seeker is ready. Parzival, proving himself a worthy knight, is granted the ability not only to see the Grail Castle but to cross the threshold into its magical domain. Within its walls, the Holy Grail nourishes all inhabitants with the sustenance they desire. However, Parzival soon realizes that the Grail King is wounded, and so too is the land he presides over. 


The pinnacle of Parzival's quest is saving the wounded Grail King and the wasteland. When the grande procession brings Parzival to the Grail King, he is moved by the king’s suffering. His intuition tells him to ask about the king’s ailment, but he has been told by his mentor that it is improper to ask such questions. Parzival has to choose between his inner knowing and society’s expectation of him as an honorable knight. Maintaining his societal image wins the debate, and Parzival remains silent. This decision is a grave omission, and the Grail Castle, with all its bounty, disappears.


In failing to ask about the Grail King's ailment, Parzival fails his quest. He offends the Grail King, and, more importantly, he betrays his own soul. Because of his neglect to follow his intuition, Parzival is shunned from King Arthur’s court. Eschenbach’s story then shows a connection between one’s societal duty to the community and one’s inner duty to the soul. When one is sacrificed, the other suffers as well. It is as if we lose everything when we lose our own integrity, even our status in society. Parzival is driven solely by societal expectations of him, and thus, he is out of alignment with who he truly is. 


The Forest Adventurous

Failing the quest enrages Parzival, and he expresses his hatred of the cultural systems that have guided him to this moment. Determined to right this wrong, he returns to the forest. In Romance of the Grail: The Magic and Mystery of Arthurian Myth, Joseph Campbell refers to Parzival’s return to the forest as the Forest Adventurous (58). This adventure is not merely walking into a wooded area; it is the act of entering a space of not knowing with the openness necessary for personal transformation.


Each person enters the forest on their own terms. It is a magical space where Parzival searches within himself for his own answers, not the ones he has been told. Having found societal success, he is now embarking on a spiritual quest, what Campbell calls the “dark woods of the soul” (63). Social opinions and societal norms often compromise and limit the authenticity that drives one's life. The spiritual adventure requires that Parzival determine for himself the driving force in his life. 


Campbell states that the “forest brings forth our own world” (58). All the things we find therein are of our own making, so “If you hate, hate is going to come to you. If you love, love is going to come to you” (62). The forest reflects Parzival’s inner world. His contempt for the societal ideals that shaped him shows up as other knights whom he engages in combat. Eventually, he realizes that he is fighting his own blood. He is fighting himself. 


Society taught Parzival some of his greatest strengths: the fearlessness with which he enters a fight, his prioritization of his duty to society above all else, and his refusal to allow desires to consume him. And yet, Parzival lacks the knowledge of when to release these societal ideals for the greater power of his inner authenticity. 


The Power of Love

For Parzival and the Arthurian romances, love binds all things together. It is the life force that animates the world. The forest teaches Parzival to trust this life force. He learns that to heal the land, his actions need to be grounded in love.


Parzival spends five years wandering through the forest to earn a second chance to prove himself to the Grail King, a feat he was told was impossible. But, as Campbell tells us, “Through your own integrity, you evoke your destiny, which is a destiny that never existed before” (79). Driven by the force of love, Parzival now knows his purpose, both socially and spiritually, and therefore evokes his destiny without fear. 


Now that he is ready, figures begin to appear in the forest to guide Parzival back to the Grail Castle. Upon his presentation to the Grail King for a second time, Parzival asks, “What ails thee?” And this seemingly simple question, asked from a source of love, heals the Grail King and the land. It is such a compelling idea—curiosity centered in compassion heals.


Eschenbach’s Parzival shows how vital curiosity is to the human endeavor, in our societies and in our own psychology. From a centered space of compassionate listening, asking someone what ails them can be a transformational question. The text seems to tell us that conscious curiosity is capable of healing not only those we love but also the world in which we live.


As for my own journey into the Belizean forest, I reunited with my group—eventually. And while I observed a multitude of sites that day, one of the most profound takeaways at the time was to get comfortable with feeling lost.


Life’s unknown terrain, the Forest Adventurous, is terrifying and transformative. Getting lost is an essential part of finding our way.

Life’s unknown terrain, the Forest Adventurous, is terrifying and transformative. Getting lost is an essential part of finding our way. If the path before us is clear, someone else has paved the path. This is completely counterintuitive to my own sense of stability. I want everything laid out before me, with mile markers corresponding to the map in my hands. But to evoke one’s destiny and feel the heartbeat of the life force—the love that animates all things—I find that not knowing what comes next is essential. Self-discovery outside the bounds of social constructions means we are in uncharted territory, wandering until a path presents itself.

 

Developing the capacity to step into unknown terrain and consciously maintain a space of not knowing is a muscle I continue to stretch and grow. Eventually, the love that binds all things pulls me into its animating force, and another journey begins on the path less traveled.






MythBlast authored by:


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Stephanie Zajchowski, PhD is a mythologist and writer based in Texas. She serves as the Director of Operations for the Joseph Campbell Foundation and is a contributing author of Goddesses: A Skeleton Key Study Guide. Stephanie is also a co-founder of the Fates and Graces, hosting webinars and workshops for mythic readers and writers. Her work focuses on the intersection of mythology, religion, and women’s studies. For more information, visit stephaniezajchowski.com



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This MythBlast was inspired by The Power of Myth Episode 5, and Romance of the Grail

 

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In this episode, originally released in May 2023, JCF's John Bucher speaks with Elise Loehnen. Elise is a writer, editor, and podcast host who lives in Los Angeles. She is the host of Pulling the Thread, a podcast focused on pulling apart the stories we tell about who we are—and then putting those threads back together. Ultimately Elise is a seeker and synthesizer, pulling together wisdom traditions, cultural history, and a deep knowledge of healing modalities to unlock new ways to contextualize who we are and why we’re here. She’s also the author of the upcoming, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good (May ‘23, Dial Press/PRH). In this conversation, John and Elise discuss consciousness, what it means to be good, and of course...Joseph Campbell. To find out more about Elise visit: https://www.eliseloehnen.com/



 

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"You enter the forest at the darkest point, where there is no path. Where there's a way or path, it is someone else's path; each human being is a unique phenomenon."


-- Joseph Campbell,  Pathways to Bliss, xxvi















 





 

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