Bearskin ~ a commentary

BEARSKIN ( for the story

A commentary

It has been said that fairy tales are the dreams of a culture, and as is the case with dreams, the opening scene can be very revealing. In Bearskin the story begins with the return of a soldier from the wars, and with a contract made with a devil figure, which seems to stamp it very early as a tale of the masculine, but masculine what? The masculine pathway may take many forms, from that of Parcival and his quest for the grail, to that described in Russian tales where the hero must go, "they know not where in search of, they know not what."

A soldier he is a man of the world, brave and able to withstand opposition, laugh at adversity, yet be tough when required as he must in order to extract the other half of his bargain. Soldiers, who feature commonly enough in fairy tales, are closely tied to the archetypal image of the Hero, and many youths join armies seeking glory. The soldier is also  a product of the patriarchy which conscripts men into its service and then discards them, thus he is a figure who has been used and abandoned. In this story then the soldier represents a post-heroic figure, who now finds himself left in the lurch. A figure who is shunned by his brothers, alone and outcast, vulnerable, and poor, which suggests lacking in life energy, and who now must come into his own again.   Being poor, may also indicate a general closeness to his roots, he is further a man of humility, with a  particularly wry pragmatic disposition that is somehow endearing. The soldier in this story is also a man of courage which he displays when encountering the bear. And what of this bear from whom the story in part takes its name?

Bears are common enough figures in fairy tales, and compared to wolves for instance, theirs is a good literary "press."  A feature of medieval fairs, there were often pitted unequally in bloody contests against wolves, and/or fighting dogs, that they could not win. Their upright stance gives them a peculiarly human posture, and they usually figure as helpers, as in, for instance, The Two Brothers. The bear is also a key figure in Snow White and Rose Red where the bear is in fact a kings son, bewitched and clad also in a bearskin. "In alchemy, the bear corresponds to the nigredo of prime matter, and hence it is related to all initial stages and to the instincts." While being further "found in the company of Artemis it is regarded as a lunar animal."  (Cirlot, 1962)  Here the plot begins to thicken, lunar is universally synonymous with feminine and  given the absence of feminine figures in the story thus far, we might conclude that this tale is about the journey of the masculine seeking completion through the realisation of the feminine principle or anima.

As is the case in The Devil's Sooty Brother, the conversation is described as taking place between the soldier and the devil, but Robert Bly suggests that such references are probably Christian overlays to tales already thousands of years old, and that the term "devil" is really a reference to something else. The reference to the "cloven foot" suggests that the being is probably some old earth god of northern Europe, Pan perhaps. " A sculpture of the wild man built into the Spanish cathedral of the Middle Ages shows him being with one animal foot. 3" In touch with is wild pre-civilised aspect of being, the foot being ones contact with, and attitude towards, reality. Bly goes on, So we could call this underworld being a "dark man," a relative of the Wild Man. 4  A relative no doubt, of Bly's Wild Man from the tale Iron Hans, and Bly's book Iron John.

Pan is a very different figure from the Devil, as Jung remarked, the devil was never quite so evil in pre-christian times as he later became. In Greek times Pan haunted the woods and pastures of Arcadia and personified the fertile, phallic spirit of wild untamed nature, not evil, merely uncivilised, amoral and natural, dwelling in the most inaccessible realms of the unconscious where only crisis can break through. So it is no wonder he was appropriated into the figure of the devil! Note also that the Devil figure in the story requires the soldier to wear his green coat, suggestive again of his nature links and also that something fertile many come of this.

Thus far, the story seems to be suggesting some form of initiation for men, guided by an old earthy type, and that this requires the "young fellow" who is the Soldier, to take on, and grow into, some of the qualities of this Wild Man. "You shall for the next seven years neither wash yourself, nor comb your beard nor, nor your hair, nor cut your nails." It is through such a confrontation with such a Wild Man that masculine divinity manifests, through illumination, or visions or insights, with  younger men these are under the tutelage of other, older Wild Men. As mentioned previously such a Wild Man appears in Iron Hans, able to claim "My power is great, greater than you think, and I have gold and silver in abundance."( Grimm, p. 615)

Like dreams fairy tales can be very specific, Bearskin must stay as such for seven years, and as is also the case with dreams these numbers are very specific, and therefore very instructive and so worthy of examination. The number seven occurs in many contexts to suggest intervals of significant change. It represents a complete period or cycle, it is symbolic of perfect order, seven is the number of the creation myth in genesis, there are seven notes, seven colours, the seven planets and the god relating to them.  It is also sometimes related to the moon (cirlot) and to the cycles of saturn and the moon, thus it an be a feminine time, and thus linked again to the feminine, note that both Maid Maleen and The Handless Maiden, tales concerned very much with the processes of feminine integration, spend seven years in the forest, while Parcival, a male hero, is there for only five.

Thus begins, in common with all initiations, the passing or death of an old form, as Bearskin ventures forth. Going forth symbolises "the more active quest of the male hero, who has to go into the Beyond and try to slay the monster, or to find the treasure or the bride." Although with Bearskin all he is required to do is get by, which because of his appearance becomes more and more of a withdrawal. Withdrawal is a feature of all initiation rites or rites of passage, but the withdrawal of Bearskin is not so much withdrawal from the world as is the case in so many fairy tales that map the journey toward feminine wholeness. Rather it is a progressively isolating withdrawal from the world, yet within the world, traditionally the masculine areana. Bearskin does not retreat to the forest, traditionally places of the feminine, as do.  Maid Maleen, The handless Maiden, and Vasilissa, but rather has to remain in the world doing what a soldier knows best, his duty, and as all men learn very early, making the most of it. Peak time traffic is full of Bearskins, doing their duty, honouring their choices, in many cases choices made by default, simply because there were no models for any other choice available to them. Waiting for the next promotion, or resigned to having had their last. Nursing the wound to the soul one suffers when outer myth and inner truth conflict, yet afraid to get out of what is, as far as they know, the only game in town.

For the first year all went well for Bearskin, his appearance was passable, but time can be slow and unforgiving, for by the end of the second, "Whosoever saw him, ran away." As bit by inexorable bit his previous identity is dissolved and all vestiges of society, all appearances leave him, still Bearskin soldiers on, doing his duty, drawing into his pocket and paying his way with the gold of his soul. Soldering on is an often used term to describe the effort to keep going and doing, day after day, to elevate the ordinary into the grand and heroic. We often associate an unshaven, unwashed, unkempt appearance with depression, depressions of the soul, no matter that the body may soldier daily on, doing its work, paying its way.  In what James Hollis calls  the  daily batterering of (mens) working life. "No perks, no car, no key to the executive washroom, and even no raise will assuage the daily loss of soul, and no paycheck is large enough to compensate."5

 V. Walter Odajnyk suggests that depressions are a natural and meaningful part of the transition process, involving an undoing of the conscious psychic structure that may lead to an encounter with the unconscious. Characterised by a loss of energy, by darkness depression is expressed in alchemical language by Nigredo, or blackening.  " The nigredo therefore leads to an encounter with the shadow and then with the animus and anima, initially in their black, unredeemed and unconscious state. " 6 (1987)

Like Bearskin there is no other choice but that of having to go through it, to wear it. The devil figure explicitly says, "In no other bed shall you lie." What does happen though, is the shift that the process of individuation requires, as other, previously neglected parts of the psyche start hammering away, demanding equal time. For now the soldier, who previously unquestioningly, served only the patriarchy, obeying orders and defending its values, now acts and lives out of service to his feelings and inwardness, helping those individuals less fortunate than he. 

After four years Bearskin uses some of his money to redeem the fortunes of a indebted merchant, who in return offered Bearskin one of his three daughters in marriage. " The archetypal four is the number of totality…when you come to the four a new segment begins. " 6 (Woodman 1993) " Four equals wholeness, completeness, totality, the completion of a cycle." 8 (Johnson 1986). It is an interesting aside that the working life society attributes to its Bearskin men is forty years. While three, which is common number in fairy tales with regard to offspring, three sons, three daughters, stands for synthesis and the solution to a conflict 9 (Cirlot 1962).

True to form the first two daughters fail the task or in this context reject Bearskin because of his external appearance. Only the youngest, (often represented as our the inferior function, that least conscious part of ourselves) accepts him for his goodness, his innerness, and bearskin breaks a ring and gives her half, before continuing to serve out his time. 

The symbol of the ring is a very powerful one, obviously it is a symbol of union, of marriage, also "Its quality of roundness makes it an image of the self" 10 (Von Franz) while, "in its positive meaning , it stands for a chosen obligation toward some divine power." 11 (Von Franz) But this is no ordinary ring for Bearskin breaks it such that each part can only be a symbol of potential wholeness. The union is held in abeyance, Bearskin is not yet free to wed, he still has three more years in which he must, life fully  his Wild Man nature before the ring can be joined. Again we have the number three, three years to synthesise the experience of the first four, which culminates with the meeting with the merchants daughter. 

 For now then, there is another separation, a separation from a part of himself, in the from of the newly found feminine, that we now intuit the tales is moving toward. Separations are not new for men  as Shinoda-Bolen notes "For men, life is a series of separations and disidentifications." 12  From the loss of the first paradisical connection with their mother to the disidentifications with their body, feelings and physical pain as they hold in the tears in the school playground, to the adolescent urge to differentiate that begins around puberty. In traditional cultures tribal initiations began around this time, these were always more elaborate for boys than for girls, "girls were expected to leave their personal mothers but circle back to the hearth," in a continuing state of identification. While "the rites of initiation were decisive and powerful for boys, not only because of the power of the mother complex but because boys were expected to separate from the natural world, the life of instinct, for an artificial, man made world of culture." 13  "All his life, then, a man seeks reconnection. Since he cannot go backward to Her, he must seek Her, or her symbolic substitute, out there in relationship with individuals or institutions, in ideologies or in the sky-parent, God."14  

The anima is the name given by Jung to describe the interior feminine, it is the root word for animates, or gives life too, and because she (the anima) resides in that interior place she is almost a total mystery. I quote at length from Robert Johnson's, Lying with the Heavenly Woman (1994) "She is the inspirer, the bearer of poetry, the guide through the underworld, the essence of encouragement, and probably deepest of all, she is the carrier of meaning. It is she, with her magic and her interior connection, who bestows meaning and value in a mans life.  When a man is in her presence – inwardly in his deepest inner world, or outwardly when he is in the presence of someone to whom he has given this power – the slightest nod of approval or talisman from her hand is enough to give meaning and justification to the whole of his life." 15 Certainly she is able to inspire Bearskins existence with meaning. Meaning that men on their own find so elusive and difficult to hold for themselves and so project onto their partners. Or find someone else who will carry the projection for them.

As the tale goes on "The youngest, however, said: "Dear Father, that must have been a good man to have helped you out of your trouble, so if you have promised him a bride for doing it, your promise must be kept." It was a pity that Bearskin's face was covered with dirt and with hair, for if not they might have seen how delighted he was when he heard these words." For with these words Bearskin experiences the validation of his masculine world in her warmth, gentleness and understanding, for which all men so hunger. A hunger that can never be fully satiated if men unconsciously invest such an awful task on an outer woman, and so manifests as a sense of meaninglessness, depression and rage.

The next three years pass uneventfully, until on the heath once more he meets the devil figure who makes him clean, and we note with interest the change that has taken place, we notice that he is no longer the soldier who takes orders, passive and accepting, now he is competent and powerful, with a new assertion in his dealing with the devil figure, he is able to assert and insist on his own authority and demand, above and beyond the original agreement, that he,  "fetch water, and wash Bearskin, comb his hair, and cut his nails." After which he "was much handsomer than he had ever been before."  This is the culmination of the soldiers initiation, "the dark ones in the psyche do not act until asked to," 16 states Bly, he is on longer master but must now be the servant. As Joseph Campbell, states in The Hero With a Thousand Faces." The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals, and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for a passing of a threshold is at hand. 17 " 

The tale Bearskin closes with the union of Bearskin and the youngest daughter, who has been waiting demure, faithful and true. And given that "a man's incarnation of the inner feminine is a function of how he stands in relation to the life force that courses within him," (Hollis Under Saturn's Shadow. p 20) our sense is that this is no trivial union. Rather it is deep, abiding and will be fruitful because of the soldiers initiation into an experience of the wild masculine depths of his inwardness, out of which this union emerged. Bearskin is not a tale of descent in any obvious way and yet much of which his experience is contained within Nietzsche's phrase "Out of the lowest the highest reaches its peak."

There exists a parallel tale from the Russia called The Soldier Who Never Washed, 18 where these themes are explored in a slightly different way, the major difference being when the soldier calls to the devil figure, or in this story his emissary,  "Now my time of service is over; make me a handsome man again!" Whereupon the little devil cut him up into small pieces, threw him into a cauldron and let him boil. When he had boiled long enough he took him out and out all the bits together again where they belonged bone to bone, limb to limb, sinew to sinew. Then he sprinkled him with the water of life and death. 19 Alchemical imagery is again instructive here, for what this describes is the process of  breaking down, or more accurately the boiling down of the old self and then the putting together again prior to the conjunctio, or final joining together. While what better image could there be of a man emerged from his "ashes" time of withdrawal when he must daily live with, lie on and sleep in his own dirt, filth and stench. That is all that is outwardly rotten and base, while remaining true to himself and his word, that he might form, but not yet consummate his relationship with his inner feminine self. In the words of Rainer Maria Rilke " The hero keeps going and his ruin was only a subterfuge for his achieving final birth."

In conclusion it is, perhaps the most important aspect of this fairy tale, as with many tales pertaining to men, that the task is taken on by choice, the Soldier agrees to the terms set by the devil figure and enters into the contract willingly. In so doing Bearskin begins a deeply transformative depth experience, in other words an initiation.  This aspect of choice, usually reflected by the hero's position, contrasts starkly the heroine's situation, which is usually one of necessity.  Although it might be argued that given his circumstances the Soldier had no choice other than to accept his fate willingly. After all, free will, as Jung notes, is ability to do gladly that which one must do. 

Today such rites, or initiations are missing, such wise elders absent, I quote James Hollis, "such existential transformation driven underground." All we are left with are shallow attempts of youth to initiate themselves, find their own mentor figures where none before them stood, and do the best they can. Sadly it is not enough, and the result is a split, on the one hand, violent nationalistic regimes of both political and religious fundamentalism are on the rise the world over as men embrace the patriarchal world views that they offer. While on the other, we have "sensitive new age guys" rushing headlong into the indiscriminate arms of the Great Mother. Neither group seems to be able to come up with any definitions of what it is to be a man. Hollis goes on, "If we ask a man, 'Do you feel like a man?' chances are he will consider the question silly or threatening. He will know his roles, but he will neither be able to define what it means to be a man, nor will he likely feel he has measured up to any of his own partial definitions." 20 Today’s hero quest is not through the physical world but through the bad lands of the soul. That interior  landscape wherein one must be constantly vigilant and cognizant of the fact that

Consciousness only comes through the suffering inherent in the inner work of acknowledging one's woundedness, without which, we are all too content to rest easy.   Heroism then, might be redefined as the willingness to engage the inner worlds, to hold with strength and conviction the ambivalence and ambiguities of feeling and the feeling world, amidst uncertainty and paradox.  

Both tales end with what is both a satisfying and disquieting twist. Satisfying because the two elder sisters, unable to heed their fathers authority, or accept their sisters honour, and consumed with appearances, come to a fitting end. What though are to make of the devils final curtain call?  Was the outcome planned even from the beginning? Is it our own inner devils that must propel us on the Quest to wholeness, somehow orchestrating each step of the way? Or is it that this was no devil after all, but some ancient and powerful earth deity waiting for us to heed his call and don, like our soldier, the "skin of the bear." 

For the story



 All references:

2   J.E.Cirlot, A Dictioary of Symbols p 23

3   Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein, p

4   Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein,    955

5   James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 50 Inner City  Books 1994

6   V. Walter Odajnyk (1987 P350)

7   Marion Woodman,  Leaving My Fathers House p 281

8   Robert Johnson, Inner Work, p115

9   J.E.Cirlot, A Dictioary of Symbols p 235 

10  M.L. Von Franz Introduction To Fairytales p 58

11  M.L. Von Franz Introduction To Fairytales p 66

12  Jean Shinoda Bolen, Gods In Everyman p 283 Harper Perennial 1989

13  James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 20 Inner City Books 1994

14  James Hollis, Under Saturn's Shadow p 56 Inner City Books 1994

15  Robert Johnson, Lying with the Heavenly Woman p

16  Robert Bly, Psyche's Stories, Ed. Corbett & Stein,

17  Joseph Campbell,)  The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

18  Russian Folktales, Bell & Sons, 1971, The Soldier Who Never Washed.

19  Russian Folktales, Bell & Sons, 1971, The Soldier Who Never Washed. p

20  James Hollis Under Saturn's Shadow. p 20 Inner City Books 1994




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