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.

Privilege and Peril: a Warrior’s Tale

Looking more closely at this tale we can see how it turns on the interactions among people at various phases of their careers. Let’s start with the prince, who’s clearly at the warrior stage. He’s the protagonist as well; he initiates and drives the action. Of course he’s young, ambitious, brave, strong, and full of hormones; he just doesn’t know much about how the world works, and especially about magic and ogres. He’s full of good intentions and high aspirations; he’s willing to take a risk. But he’s not up to speed on the technical details.

 On the positive side, he has inner nobility. He’s a prince, after all; he’s been trained and educated. He enjoyed a life of privilege before he was exiled, but lately he’s had to learn how to fend for himself and live by his wits, both of which build character. He now knows that he can’t take anything for granted. But he also possesses innate qualities of generosity, mercy, humility, and compassion, as we see when he helps the old woman.

The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)

In fairy tales we tend to focus on what the characters do and say, but what they don’t say or do can be just as important. The prince has had a run of really bad luck, but we don’t hear him whine or complain. He doesn’t kvetch about losing his privilege; he doesn’t brood about injured merit. He’s not a snob; he doesn’t think it beneath him to help a distressed old woman. After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; he knows what it’s like to be poor. The stripping away of his royal privilege has allowed his true character to emerge.

 Notice, too, that the prince doesn’t try to second guess the old woman. He doesn’t ask what’s in it for her, or who else she might have told, or what she wants in return for her knowledge. Nor does he suspect her of being in league with the ogre or leading him into a trap. He’s not a calculating person. Now, some might call this naïve, and indeed the prince does put himself in danger by trusting her. After all, her information could be wrong. But once he gets to the castle and begins facing the perils, her intelligence checks out. He proceeds with greater and greater confidence toward victory. Any doubts he may have had at the outset he wisely keeps to himself. All told, it’s his kindness, respect, and trust that persuade the old woman to impart her secret knowledge

 By this point, then, the tale has already begun to redefine what it means to be a warrior. It takes more than a strong arm and royal blood to prevail. Character proves decisive. Strength must be combined with compassion, courage, and humility. You have to be willing to listen and learn. One lesson here for academic people is not to put too much faith in your pedigree; degree, position, indeed all past expertise may not help much in desperate situations. It’s wise to be able to think outside the box and, above all, to listen to elders and outliers, who may know a thing or two.

 In the next post we’ll take a look at the king and the ogre, both of whom represent failures of citizenship.