Elder Tales: the Old Woman and the Dynamics of Widsom

Now we come to the old woman, who holds the key. In this tale, the prince initiates and drives the action, but the old woman’s advice enables him to complete it. She’s the catalyst: without her, he’d get nowhere. The tale spotlights the dynamic between warriors and elders that leads to social change. In the process, both achieve meaning and success. The old woman helps save the realm, and the prince goes on to marry the princess and govern. Since the tale is called “The Prince and the Ogre,” we suppose it must be about him, that is, a warrior tale. But really it’s just as much about her.

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The Old Woman (photo by Vaggelis Fragiadakis)

The most salient fact about the old woman is that she’s old, but that’s not all: she’s also a woman, and she’s poor. She’s been living in the forest, scraping by (since the king has privatized her social security and the ogre’s rampages have crashed the value of her cottage and wiped out her 401k). She’s socially marginalized in multiple ways, so no one thinks to ask for her help. What does she know? She’s no expert; she doesn’t have an advanced degree or teach at a tier 1 university. And of course she’s not going to come forward and offer her services; she’ll just let them all suffer, because it’s what they deserve.

Interestingly, the old woman’s special power arises from her marginalized circumstances. We normally don’t think of abjection, poverty, and age as opportunities, but here they prove instrumental. The old woman has been around a long time and has noticed a lot of things. She knows how the world works. She understands magic and knows that power always comes with vulnerabilities that the powerful go to great lengths to hide and protect. Her marginal status means she’s overlooked or ignored; virtually invisible, she has had freedom to watch and observe. Because the powerful don’t see her, they don’t realize she’s looking at them; they forget how much their behavior can reveal to a seeing eye.

Of course, the old woman’s knowledge can’t help her directly, because she lacks the strength to act on it. But the prince has strength, and his generosity and compassion draw her out. Her resentment thaws; she gives him the wisdom he needs. Combined, they make a winning team. The old woman understands that administration is always an exercise in character; she judges, correctly, that the prince would make a good king. It’s in her interest to foster civil order and good government. After all, she’s been living in the forest. She knows the king and the ogre represent two sides of the same coin, taking all the gold and power for themselves at the expense of the people. They’re the ruling class. But the prince and the old woman, together, can take them on.

From this perspective we can see that both the king and the ogre are looking to the past. They’re determined to protect the status quo and carry on with business as usual, which includes not only dominating the country but competing with each other. Every ruler needs an enemy in order to justify clinging to power. Focusing on an external threat distracts the masses from your own failures and depredations. The old woman knows this, and that’s another reason she helps the prince. She’s investing in the future, banking on social change.

This tale illustrates the dynamics of wisdom as it plays out across the stages of a career. Young warriors must gain wisdom or perish, and, since they lack a depth of experience, they must receive it from elders. Mature citizens must use wisdom or fail in their duties; since they have authority and responsibility, they must activity seek wisdom as lifelong learners and put it into action. And elders, who have moved on from positions of strength and responsibility, must pass on their wisdom to warriors and citizens, or else they will wither; they’ll turn into bitter curmudgeons or hungry ghosts. Keeping wisdom for yourself is like keeping gold too long in the vault or food too long in the fridge. It does no good and soon goes bad. It only works when you take it out and pass it along.

Citizen Failures: the King and the Ogre

When the prince begins his quest, things look pretty hopeless. The kingdom is devastated, the government paralyzed. The ogre burns and pillages at will; his magical power, cruelty, and greed represent an alternative to the “legitimate” order. Like the king, the ogre has a castle, treasure, and lands; he’s set up on his own, and he’s making a go of it. He may be horrible, but he has a certain charisma; the king seems bland and faceless by comparison. Their conflict amounts to a civil war, in which the people on both sides come out losers. The whole situation, we might say, represents a failure of the adult world—the world of citizenship—to fulfill its responsibilities for protecting and nurturing the community.

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The Downcast King (by Randall Smith)

Look first at the king. He’s not getting good advice. His NSA can’t figure out the ogre or his magic. His Defense Department can’t protect the realm. Not only that, but he’s desperate enough to put his daughter up for sale. What kind of a father does that? No wonder he’s depressed. Still, he does try to rule and it’s to his credit that he has a daughter in the first place. He may be an ineffectual king, but he does have a trace of humanity.

Basically, the king fails to understand the relation between power and authority. He has come by his office through inheritance, which may make him legitimate but cannot deliver obedience or order in the realm. Believing that right makes might, he has failed to learn the lessons of King Lear and Machiavelli (unlike the Prince, he does not seem to have taken World Civ). The king believes that authority confers power, whereas in fact power is something that is granted by the people he governs; it represents a gift from the general will. That’s why newly minted second lieutenants or deans so often run into trouble with their constituents. “Pulling rank” only reveals their desperation and lack of leadership. To gain power and exert leadership, you have to convince the people that you have their best interests at heart and possess the skills necessary to protect and deliver. Administration is all about dealing with people.

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The Ogre (by QuakeOne)

Now consider the ogre. In many respects he seems the opposite of the king. He has no family; he’s greedy and cruel, a real bully. Moreover, he’s gained his power by separating his soul from his body. The motif of the external soul occurs frequently in heroic tales across cultures; it makes one invincible, but at the price of one’s humanity. Modern-day versions include the pact Faust makes with the Devil in Goethe’s drama or Mann’s novel, Sauron’s Ring of Power in Tolkien’s epic fantasy, or the horcruxes of Voldemort, the evil wizard in the Harry Potter books, who tries to escape mortality by splitting his soul and encasing the pieces in various objects. Each of these antagonists gain demonic, single-minded power but have to give up the ability to change, grow, love, or learn. These desperate individuals all embrace the “fixed mind” of Milton’s Satan. Like him they care more about their career than anything else, and they always choose power over love.

Like the king, the ogre is a failed citizen, because he cares more about himself than anyone else. He can’t govern; he can only terrorize. He can’t run a kingdom, he can only destroy one. Believing that might makes right, he focuses entirely on strengthening his own position: taking prisoners, amassing wealth, defending his fortress, and pursuing his goal with demonic single-mindedness. But if you split off your soul from your self and encase it in some object of desire, such as a talisman or a career, then you can’t adapt to changing circumstances, you lose your nimbleness and flexibility, and above all you cut yourself off from other people and the information or wisdom they might provide. When the Wheel of Fortune begins to turn, no one will come to your aid. But of course the ogre has had so much initial success that he has forgotten all about Fortune. He believes that he’s invincible, that the usual rules no longer apply. And so, like the Dark Lord Sauron, he fails to imagine that someone small and inconspicuous could penetrate his defenses and seize hold of his precious soul.

Of course, neither the king nor the ogre even notices the old woman or dreams that she might hold the key.