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The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved

Cover, The King Who Saved Himself from Being Saved by John Ciardi. Edward Gorey, 1965.

Heroism and Adventure, the theme of this month’s MythBlast Series essays, seem to me to be a linked pair. Reflexively, I think, we imagine adventure as a going out, an extension into the world, a leaving of the known, familiar world of domestic routines for the unknown, unpredictable, unmanageable world. This, doubtless, constitutes the often invasive bearing of the hero. But the word adventure has its roots in the Latin word advenire, which means to arrive, to come to, a perspective that can be understood to be a bit more aligned with those who experience the arrival of the hero and the effects of the hero’s exploits upon them and their communities.

One of my most beloved books is a first edition copy of The King Who Saved Himself From Being Saved. It’s a poem written by John Ciardi that was first published in the November 14, 1964 edition of The Saturday Review, and published as a book in 1965, charmingly illustrated by the marvelous Edward Gorey. To get a sense of this satiric poem’s chiding of heroism, let me quote from the inside of the book jacket:

The King was dozing and thinking about his money. The Queen was pampering a cold with aspirin pies. The Princess was safely in her tower listening to a lark. The Giant, a gentle creature, being at the moment unoccupied, was sprawling beside the brook smelling a flower. The castle, the Royal Family, and the Kingdom were at peace.

And then the Hero arrived, sheathed in armor, breathing flame, looking for a villain and a castle to save. He scared the lark. He woke the King. The Princess cried and the Giant hid in the closet. But the Hero went on stamping around and making heroic noises.

The Hero, who in this case mistook a noble calling for a mere career, was making a general nuisance of himself and creating big problems in a place where before his arrival, there were none. “All over his head was his helmet,” Ciardi writes, “and in his head was, of course, a fight.” The King warned the Hero that he should move on, that he doesn’t want his Kingdom “saved in two,” and gave him to the count of ten to leave or be subjected to the business end of a cannon the King deployed to emphasize his seriousness. The Hero persisted, the cannoneer fired, and the King remarked, “Well, I tried to tell him. But I guess Heroes are hard to tell.” Ciardi writes, “The Kingdom was saved from being saved. The Giant was saved from a fight. The King was afraid that he had behaved in ways not entirely right.” Reflecting on the Hero’s demise the King went on to say, “As Heroes go he was brave enough, but I’m not sure he was bright.”

Moving out of one’s familiar sphere of existence and into situations, people, and environs with which one is not familiar, while at the same time stubbornly clinging to familiar values, mores, and dogmatisms, almost always results in catastrophic misadventures, as Ciardi’s intrepid, yet fatuous, Hero demonstrated. 

In myths, however, the movement from the known into the unknown is what Joseph Campbell called “crossing the threshold. This is the crossing from the conscious into the unconscious world, but the unconscious world is represented in many, many, many different images, depending on the cultural surroundings of the mythos.” This threshold crossing is, Campbell goes on to say, “simply a journey beyond the pairs of opposites, where you go beyond good and evil.” (Pathways To Bliss: Mythology and Personal Transformation, 114-115)

We are commonly given to the understanding that space is wide and time is deep. We too often associate adventure and the heroic with space—it happens here, across these territories, at those places, etc. So where are we going when we go “beyond good and evil?” We are going, I think, to a place that feels entirely foreign to us, beyond distinctions between space and time, a place beyond individual will, where conceptual faculties like logic, reason, and differentiation are rendered powerless and we, perforce, achieve awareness of the fact we are an aspect, an artifact, of the dynamism of life. 

It's not simply going beyond good and evil, beyond concepts. It is nothing less than, as Fredrich Nietzsche said, a revaluation of all values. “Crossing the threshold” means the achievement of a psychophysical awareness in which one experiences a transcendent overfullness. I imagine that the sensation is akin to William Blake’s sublime vision: “To see a World in a Grain of Sand/ And Heaven in a Wild Flower/ Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand/ And Eternity in an hour.”

Crossing the threshold means using one’s imagination as a vessel to explore the universe without and within. I’m reminded of the pre-Socratic philosopher, Parmenides, who insisted that that which is not cannot be thought about. Conversely, anything that can exist and be thought about must exist. In other words, if something can be thought about, it actually does exist. The ungenerous reader may call this nonsense, but I would prefer to call this an example of mythic thinking, mythopoesis even, which expands and opens the universe rather than diminishes it. Isn’t the capacity to abstractly imagine a universe beyond concepts and oppositions—beyond good and evil—enough to encourage us to at least try to rethink, redefine, and reconsider what it is to be a self, what nature is, and who others are in the field of experience?

Of course, the Sufi poet Rumi got there a long time ago and, I think, got it exactly right when he said (as translated by Coleman Barks):

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I'll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn't make any sense.

Isn’t the real adventure to attempt to be so present, so attuned to life, as to experience the overwhelming fullness of the world, the self, the world-self even, with all dogmas, illusions, and oppositions dropping away? In this way, the heroic adventure is always at hand. Anytime is the right time for threshold crossing if you simply say yes to the conditions of life and to imagination, making the effort to affirm things just as they are in each of the moments you happen to occupy.


Thanks for reading,



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