By William Noonan Ph.D.
The metaphors of folktales help cancer patients in their therapy. Unlikely heroes and heroines lie in hospital beds. Living with cancer is hardly a fairy tale existence, yet the life portrayed in fairy tales metaphorically describes the inner journey traveled from illness to healing. The rich resources of these tales present a tremendous therapeutic benefit for patients trying to make meaning out of their experience of cancer. Like the heroes and heroines in fairy tales, after an arduous and dangerous journey, cancer patients find healing in the most unexpected places.
Emissaries from the Imagination
When we confront the reality of cancer, the questions “Why me?” or “What will become of me?” do not elicit rational explanations. Having cancer poses a crisis of meaning. The collective wisdom of folktales provides imaginative resources for making meaning out of illness. Charged with symbolic potency, the plot line and imaginary figures found in folktales tutor the imagination in new directions and offer containers of meaning to hold conflicting or disruptive experiences. The correct term to use for a tale is folktale because it refers to the tales that have come from the popular folklore of culture and encompasses more characters than fairies.
Fairies, dragons, and witches do not populate our ordinary existence. They belong to “once upon a time” which stands outside the realm of rational explanations and offers us another way to perceive reality. As emissaries from the imagination, folktale figures invite us to make meaning out of life from the vantage point of the fantastic. Belief in the extraordinary caters not to reason, but to the rhythm of dramatic form.
The Spell of Storytelling
Convinced of the therapeutic benefit of folktales, I tell these stories to patients in the hospital. I am amazed by their responses. Patients lose the glazed stare brought on from watching too much TV and smile with the glee and rapture of children. The spell of storytelling draws them into the tale and sets in motion a process of identification. Patients recognize themselves as unlikely heroes or heroines on journeys seeking life-giving goals. They hear timeless messages contained in folktales; ill-fated beginnings become vehicles of redemption, mistakes are survivable, obstacles are overcome, and most important of all, despite the bleakness of the worst circumstance, help will always come.
Beauty and The Beast
The tale of Beauty and the Beast aided a woman undergoing chemotherapy. She named her cancer “The Beast.” In the story, she was forced into a relationship against her will. She had to figure out what kind of relationship she would have with cancer. The folktale gave her the clue. After a period of separation, Beauty looks into a magic ring and sees that the Beast is dying. On her own volition, she returns to the Beast and confesses her love for him. With a kiss from Beauty, the Beast is transformed into a prince.
As a gesture of faithfulness transforms the Beast, the same happened with her experience of cancer. Through the folktale, she realized what cancer was teaching her about living. She understood the cancer was truly a prince in disguise and afforded her an experience of life previously unreachable. Only by going after what she truly wanted did she achieve the quality of life long sought. The story served as a metaphor describing the unwanted nature of cancer as well as the prince who taught her about what it is to live fully.
Once after telling an elderly patient the Arthurian legend, Sir Gawain and Lady Ragnell, in which King Arthur must solve the riddle of what a woman desires the most, I asked the patient if the answer to the riddle was true for her. (I am not going to give away Arthur’s answer.) After a few moments of reflection, a warm smile swept across her wrinkled face and she said, “You know, I have received all that I have desired in my life.” I felt the warmth of a fully satisfied life radiate from her. Arthur’s answer to the riddle was an insignificant detail of the story. The riddle itself caught her attention and triggered a flood of gratitude for a life lived well.
When listening to Dragonslayer, a composite of several dragon tales I have researched, patients easily identify cancer with the Dragon. “It had a body round as an apple when in contraction, but in bulk equaled some notable hill in its rough garb of bush and thickets. The dragon was able to feed upon both people and beasts without the least trouble to itself, as it needed not to move from the spot where it was lying. Its habit was to remain for several years in the same place, and not to move on till the whole neighborhood was eaten up. Nothing seemed to hurt it because its whole body was covered with bumpy scales which where harder than stone or metal.” Slaying the dragon cannot be accomplished by any ordinary means. Any cut or limb severed is instantly healed and the dragon returns to the fight more vigorous than before.
A tradition exists in the countryside that the dragon might be overcome by one who possesses the ring of the Wise King Solomon. Only no one knew where the ring was hidden. The hero of the story, a noble knight, sets out to find the ring. After many months of travel, he finds a wise wizard who informs him that by learning the language of the birds he will find the magical ring of the Wise King Solomon.
Birds: Symbolic of the Spirit
Birds are a folktale motif often interpreted as symbolic of the spirit. Speaking about the spiritual perspective, the wizard says to the knight (as well as to the patient), “From the language of the birds, you will learn many things which mere human knowledge can never teach you, for too often human knowledge cannot rise above the situation in order to gain a greater, higher perspective.” The knight learns the language of the birds by drinking a powerful potion brewed by the wizard. On a metaphorical level, the process is akin to chemotherapy. The wizard gives the knight “nine spoonsful each day. The potion was bitter to swallow and it made him sleepy, but in three days time, he was able to understand the language of the birds.” Wisdom gained from a spiritual perspective is only achieved by going through a difficult process.
On the advice of two “gaily plumed birds,” the knight discovers the ring to be in the possession of a sorcerer. Using the power of the ring, the sorcerer tempts the knight with splendid treasures which appear to be real, but actually are only illusions produced by enchantment. Declining the enticing offers of illusion, the knight remains single-minded in his pursuit of the ring. Relying on his own wit and skill, he tricks the sorcerer out of the ring and returns victorious, ready to do battle with the dragon.
The Knowledge of the Ring
The knowledge from the ring helps the knight to design the proper armor to defeat the dragon, and its magic bestows upon him sufficient strength to carry on the battle. A long and desperate fight ensues between the knight and the dragon without much advantage to either. Weary, but unwilling to be vanquished by the dragon, the knight discovers the victorious strategy by once again listening to the birds. He cuts off a part of the dragon and retreats to a quiet, still position. The birds fly down and scoop up the severed part before the dragon has a chance to rejoin the piece. Slowly, piece-by-piece, the dragon’s body is carried off by the birds until all that remains is the dragon’s head. With a single blow, the head is smashed.
Cancer patients hear in this story several embedded metaphors that lead them in the direction of overcoming some of the obstacles they face in dealing with cancer. As the knight refused to be tempted by illusions, cancer patients discover those things in life that no longer offer real satisfaction and discard them in favor of what truly brings enjoyment in life. Rather than trying to make the cancer disappear all at once, they learn from the story to take on the experience piece by piece, one day at a time.
Quiet meditation becomes valued over obsessive action when struggling against the cancer. Asking for help is an essential step on the journey toward healing, and learning the language of the birds is an exhortation to develop a spiritual perspective towards having cancer. In a self-guided meditation, one cancer patient reported her birds said nothing at all. When asked why they remained silent, the birds told her they wanted to sing, but she wouldn’t let them. These words of advice became her incentive to spend her days doing the activities she enjoyed the most so that her birds, her spirit, could sing.
The Magic of Folktales
Discovering personal meaning through the magic of folktales is an invitation to explore the enchanted and dense forests of our past. We need to look in unexpected places and rely on resources we never imagined possible. The heroes and heroines of folktales are usually the youngest, the dimwitted, or the rejected. In the story, The Golden Bird, the king says to his youngest son, “It’s useless, he’s even less likely to find the bird than his brothers and if he meets with an accident, he won’t know what to do. He hasn’t got it in him.” This is a refrain often written into our subconscience from birth, yet the wisdom of folktales reminds us that there are redeeming forces within our souls which are undeveloped, but must unfold if we are to find personal meaning in our lives. For people coping with cancer, the challenge is to integrate the reality of cancer into their life stories in a meaningful way.
This article first appeared in the March/ April 1992 issue of Creation Spirituality.
Reprinted with permission of Dr. William Noonan in the Words on the Wing: Issue 7, Spring 2002
Bill Noonan teaches at Marylhurst University in the Business Department, the Art Therapy Department and the Religious Studies Department. He also teaches the philosophy series of courses at Columbia Gorge Community College and is the chaplain for the Hospice of the Gorge where he comforts the dying and counsels the bereaved.