Iron Hans

I've recently had cause to revisit this Grimm Brothers' Tale, and it's provided me with plenty of food for thought - which is not a bad thing in a story about psycho-sexual maturation.

One part caught my attention particularly. In the middle of this tale the young prince is carried off by Hans and told to look after a lake, to protect it for anything falling into it. The first day he forgets his task and puts his aching finger in the water, the same finger that got caught in the door of Hans' cage. It turns gold. The second day he looks in the water to see his reflection and one of his hairs falls in, and turns gold. The third day he sees creatures swimming beneath the surface, leans forward, and all his hair flops over his brow and into the lake. It promptly turns gold, too.

He's failed his test of keeping the lake pure, but what actually is this series of events signaling to us?

I'd suggest that for the adolescent there are three 'tests', the clearest of which is on the second day when, narcissus-like, the prince looks at his reflection and a hair falls into the lake. If one of the challenges of growing to maturity is to master the narcissistic aspect of one's temperament, then this may be the clue we need. The first day the boy wants to ease his painful finger, the wound he got when he opened Hans' cage and let him out. We can, at the adolescent stage, identify too closely with the wounded feeling that our parents and others do not see who we truly are. This is a real challenge. Feeling like a victim can blight one's life unless one decides not to dwell on it. The finger turns gold - just as the experience of being misunderstood can lead us to the gold of greater understanding - if we take the time to process it.

On the second day the narcissistic element of the boy looking at his own reflection is likewise a phase that needs to be dealt with in order to reach real maturity. He sees the hair that has fallen into the lake and recognizes with a shock that the task is not all about him. Teenagers preening in front of a mirror today may need to take note of this one.

On the third day the boy is attracted by something beneath the surface. And here, I'd suggest, is the most important event so far. It suggests to us that he now wishes to look beneath the surface of life, to find out about the things that exist beneath the surface of his own being. Knowing who one is, in depth, is a great blessing, and yet spending too long in the place of introspection can be a trap of its own. The boy pulls back and sees his hair is now all gold, and he seeks to hide it - which is exactly what any of us will do when we see the authentic essence of who we are. Knowing what our soul actually is feels like a huge gift, and it is. But others, who know only the material world, may give us a hard time about being our authentic self. This struggle is fairly acute during adolescence, which is where the boy is in his development. At the end of the tale, finally, he is able to reveal his hair to his bride - and so to show who he actually is.

I've gone into this tale in such detail because it seems to me that it contains hugely useful information about adolescent development, information we have often chosen to ignore in our school system. Teaching to the test and cramming for SATs will not replace the wisdom encapsulated in these ancient tales. It's time we recognized that.