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Love & Marriage: Roses & Thorns

Updated: May 15

When it comes to love and marriage I have to say that, on a personal level, myth and metaphor have done me more good than anything else and, especially, Campbell’s observation:

“Marriage is not a love affair.” (The Power of Myth: “Sacrifice and Bliss”)

That is still the best advice I ever received, or ever heard, about how to keep a marriage working well. 

–but, apart from being a useful reminder that a good marriage depends on a good relationship (e.g. take out the garbage, empty the dishwasher, rub her feet, occasional roses), love and marriage are a useful bridge to grasping the relationship between myth, metaphor, and real life.

Here’s what I mean.  

Campbell once noted that understanding life isn’t as important as having the experience of living a life. It is equally true that many myths hover just beyond being fully meaningful–until, that is, you’ve had the experience of whatever the myth, or the metaphor, is pointing to. 

I have a favorite example.

Early on in life I discovered that one of the best guarantees of a happy long-term relationship was “random acts of flowers.” I confess this is a bit cliché, but there is no doubting the efficacy of random (and persistent) small gestures of love. To this end I would periodically stop by the local grocery store on the way home from work, rummage through the bucket of roses typically found in their refrigerated flower case, pick out a good one, and then leave it somewhere in the house to be discovered later: under a pillow, in the microwave, in her sock drawer.

It is always a good idea.  Just saying.

And then one day….

I’m on my way home, and I stop in at the grocery store to pick up a single rose. Digging through their selection, I discover that every rose is missing its thorns.

I’m sorry, but a rose without thorns on it just doesn’t work. 

“Hmm,” I think, “this won’t do. The metaphor requires thorns.”

At which point, the fourteen-year-old assigned to stock the flower section comes over.

“Can I help you find something?” she asks helpfully.

“Yeah, thanks,” I reply. “I can’t find a rose in here that still has thorns on it.”

“Don’t worry,” she reassures me. “We always cut the thorns off.”

I protest, “I see that, but I’m looking for a rose with thorns.”

Her face squinches up with confusion. “Why would you want thorns on your roses?”

“It’s a metaphor,” I answer.

“How is a rose a metaphor?” she wonders. 

[By the way, as a matter of metacommentary, do you see what an excellent question that was?  Just wait.] 

“Well, there’s the beautiful and intoxicating scent of the rose, the delicacy of the petals, and then you have the thorns…you know, to remind you about the rest of it.”

“The rest of what?” she persists, still confused.

At which point the idiot assistant manager comes over and says, “Uhhh, April? Is there a problem here?”

I interrupt him. “No, no problem. She was explaining why there aren’t any thorns on the roses.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” he croaks, misunderstanding the situation and turning his assistant manager’s irritability on the fourteen-year-old. “We cut the thorns off right away, you know, for safety–April? did you forget to cut the thorns off??”

“No, he wants a rose with the thorns still on it.”

Deep furrows appear on the assistant manager’s face.

“Why would you want thorns on your roses?” he queries.

“It’s a metaphor,” I insist.

“It’s a metaphor for love,” I repeat, as gently and slowly as I can.

And then the fourteen-year-old asks the Best. Question. Ever. 

“Why would anyone want thorns on their love?”

See?  Turns out the fourteen-year-old is a wizard. 

The assistant manager scoffs at what he takes to be the ignorance of her question–which probably tells us everything about assistant managers.

“Hey, that is exactly the right question,” I say. “Love has both a flower and thorns, so if you’re looking for a metaphor, you’ll need both of those.”

I was going to follow up by quoting something from Campbell on the Grail Romances like “the only thing that can cure the pain of love is the thing that causes it,” but the assistant manager was already too confused.

You’re probably ahead of me here, so let me cut to the chase. 

Here’s the interesting part: why didn’t the fourteen-year-old know that a rose, if it’s to be a metaphor for romantic love, needed thorns?

Answer: because she hadn’t experienced romantic love yet.

Only after we’ve had the experience toward which the myth is directing us does the myth become meaningful.

What’s required to understand a metaphor is the experience of whatever the metaphor is a metaphor for. The same is true of myth. Only after we’ve had the experience toward which the myth is directing us does the myth become meaningful.  Before that it’s just an interesting story; once we know what it means, it puts our lives into a new and richer context. 

Once you’ve been in love, you know full well why a rose needs thorns to be an accurate, adequate, meaningful metaphor for love. I hope the fourteen-year-old gets the chance.

When I go through this example in class I typically finish up with some Shakespeare, who provided a lot of metaphors in poetry I didn’t understand–until I’d fallen in love. 

This also taught me just how sophisticated Shakespeare could be and how, like mythology, it is most often an experience that reveals the truth of things.

I’ll just leave this here.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet 138:

When my love swears that she is made of truth,

I do believe her, though I know she lies,

That she might think me some untutored youth,

Unlearnèd in the world’s false subtleties.

Thus vainly thinking that she thinks me young,

Although she knows my days are past the best,

Simply I credit her false-speaking tongue:

On both sides thus is simple truth suppressed.

But wherefore says she not she is unjust?

And wherefore say not I that I am old?

Oh, love’s best habit is in seeming trust,

And age in love loves not to have years told.

 Therefore I lie with her and she with me,

 And in our faults by lies we flattered be.

Here’s a brilliant walk through of the sonnet itself and, as a public service, here’s the best ever analysis of Shakespeare’s work from the BBC’s Playing Shakespeare.

Thanks for musing along.

MythBlast authored by:

Mark C.E. Peterson, Ph.D. is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Washington County and past president of the International Society for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture ( Philosopher, gadfly, poet, cook, writing along the watermargins of nature, myth, and culture. A practitioner of taijiquan and kundalini yoga for over 40 years, Dr. Peterson is also a happy member of the Ukulele World Congress.

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


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A casual picture of Joseph Campbell

“But from a psychological standpoint—trying to recognize where humanity is, in all of this—one sees everywhere the same symbols, and this becomes then the problem of first concern. And what transforms the consciousness is not the language but the image; it’s the impact of the image that is the initiating experience.”

-- Joseph Campbell,  Myth and Meaning, 6



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