The only one who knows where the heart is kept is the Giant. The only one who knows how to get there is the Wolf. The one who travels there and retrieves the heart is the Prince. He cannot do that without the persistence and presence of the Princess. But if not for what had occurred before, the entire play of the story to this point, the prince would not enter the palace of the Giant. Inside this stone house embodied by power, where we meet the first female of the tale, the prince hears the truth.
When I teach storytelling I discover that my students are often seduced by the main events of the story and their immediate desire to understand and interpret what is taking place as if the events of the narrative were actual events that took place in the real world. They often identify with the prince, traveling his journey, and forget the clues in the story that reveal to us a vaster story of interconnections and past occurrences. The main thing they forget is that the events are not taking place in another place somewhere else long ago, but are happening in the present as the story unfolds in the conjoined imaginative manifestation of images. These images are drenched in association, spaciousness, and visualization in the moment, within each listener. Unaccustomed to trusting this shifting territory of deep responsive listening, the story is felt and occurs, but is immediately relegated to the analysis of the part of the mind that produces concept, theory, understanding based on what we already know—for example, we project onto the story an understanding of the characters as separate beings instead of parts of the whole. The energy sense of the story, so vividly known in the listening, is pleasurable, but easily invalidated.
This reminds me of work I often do as a consultant. Lacking a PhD, I am brought into situations to speak about my impressions of stories, or to create or uncover stories, to listen into language and help design projects that produce more penetrating stories. However, more often than not, if I do not have a repeatable theory validated in academic materials, the work I do is dissected and translated into another language—a kind of translation that drains the heart from the words so that it may be presented as familiar or with fixed meaning based on logic—not as the felt sense of connected experiences, based on awareness and insight, that I initially intended.
We are in the realm of story and not of text. Hence, we have to remain alert and compassionate about even our own habit of giving meaning, rather than allowing meaning to arise in its fullness. Here are some clues and reflections about this vessel of events in the Giant’s palace.
Once the prince enters the palace, the place of the princess during the day and the Giant and princess during the night, everything changes. The balance of power shifts because the princess has a companion in the day, and the Giant’s actions are seen, felt, and heard at night. In a strange way, we the listeners and tellers are the witnesses of what is actually taking place. We are the dreamers receiving the dream of the unconscious in our sleep. What was hidden before is revealed not only to the prince, but also to us. We are told that the Giant has no heart. We experience the deception and hubris of the Giant. We also feel his hunger and need for food and connection. He is dependent on the princess.
We are also told that he cannot be vanquished through murder or brute force. The princess knows what every peacemaker knows, that another war, another victory, another vengeance satisfied, will ultimately lead to more violence and more power. We are reminded of dictators and torturers, business people without conscience and sense of consequence of actions even on their own lives, and deniers of interdependence who murder wolves and drill beneath ice thinking it has no effect on anything as if ice and earth and air have borders.
Twice we experience his banal lies. The Giant does not know that the prince hides under his bed at night and hears what is said and how it is said. In fact, he has been deceived by the princess. When he arrived home and said (as so many Giants and monsters in stories have said before), “I smell a human being.” She lied and told him, “There may have been someone hours before, but no one is here now.” The Giant denies his own amazing sense of smell and instinct, and believes her. Perhaps he is even pleased by her regard for his great sense of smell. We are coming to recognize that the Giant lacks genuine intelligence and can be fooled.
Because the heart is not in his body and no one knows but him where it is kept, they plot to have the Giant tell his own story. Two times we are witness not only to the deception, but to the futile quest for his heart in obvious places in the palace: beneath the stones at the entrance to the castle and in the kitchen cabinet. Audiences seem to adore the moment when the Giant returns for the first night of a three night vigil in search of truth, and finds flowers over the threshold. He rages. She lies and praises, “Since it is the place where you keep your heart, I have made it beautiful.” The Giant, at least as I tell it, responds proudly, “I lied!” At Wonder and Wisdom my wonderful audience, including adults, burst into delightful laughter to have the Giant finally tell the truth. So, when on the second night after being fed the Giant says, “It is in the kitchen cabinet.” We already know he is lying and we enjoy the episode moving us closer to the truth. We now feel the power of our discernment. We trust that he is wearing down and it is a matter of time before the Giant gives away the story that might bring us to find out where he keeps his heart.
I love this part of the story in the telling. I emphasize the princess’ innocent pleas: “Please tell me your story. I could never find your heart. I am a prisoner. But I can’t stop thinking about where you keep it. When you tell me, I will be able to tell you more stories and things will return to as they were before.” We know, being more intelligent and informed than the Giant, that the prince is listening, the princess is finding out on our behalf the whereabouts of the great mystery, and that he will have to reveal the truth. Sometimes the process of revelation in a fairytale is much more complex and demanding with many twists and turns, obstacles and journeys to other worlds where other challenges risk the lives of heroes and heroines before they uncover the inconceivable place of the treasure. However, in the Giant story it is not that complex. So, so much of the depth of the satisfaction and transformation of trust of the audience, increases by the authenticity of the voice of the one telling the tale.
I also feel that if the storyteller has already made the journey through the story, there is knowledge of the complexity of connections (causes and effect) that drive the story forward. This awareness of how the story is actually taking place, not in a literal place with real people, but in the energetic, less fixed realm of imaginative response in the minds of each of us. There is no cheap characterization of Giant or monster as bad only. There is a realization of the interconnection of events, characters, unfolding in each person that renders us less biased. A responsibility is born in this recognition of how the story can heal, transform, delight, and penetrate our listeners.
In a public school in Manhattan burdened by an expanding problem of bullying, I was asked if I could tell a story that would help heal the problem. I agreed with some trepidation. My hesitation was that a one time only event might touch the point of transformation, but without continuity, would not change it. However, I agreed because there might be a teacher willing to take on the task of perseverance (like the princess and the prince.) I told an adapted Iraqi tale in which there are two older young men who are bullies. It is their heartless greed and reactivity and fear that drives them to act without thinking, steal from the youngest young man and blind him, and ultimately cause their own destruction. During the telling of the tale, everyone sat together. I was aware that the smaller children who were the victims of the bullies sat up close in the front, and the row of larger kids sat in the back rows seemingly impenetrable to storyteller. But as the story engaged, and my intention was not to point out or teach a lesson, they fell into their own engagement, and leaned forward unknowingly. At some point, a bully in the back shouted out as the youngest man in the story entered the place where he should have known better not to enter, “Uh oh. Those terrible guys are there!” I have no idea if he was aware of what he said but the spell of power in that moment shifted. The part of him that was tender was openhearted and involved in the expectation and support for the young man (the only one of the three brave enough to have made a death risking journey). He had distance enough to see what was taking place and to feel sympathy and intelligent dread.
On the third night of the story inside the Giant’s castle, the princess’ pleas for his tale are accepted. Boldly the Giant responds, “You would never be able to find my heart anyway.” And he releases the truth. It is a riddle, a litany of places within places. If the Giant knew that the prince (who knows the wolf and is motivated by unselfish intention) was under his bed listening, he would not have told, nor would we find out the mystery. I love saying out loud what the Giant revealed: “In the middle of the forest, in the middle of a lake is a tower. In the tower is a well. In the well is a duck. In the duck is an egg. And in the egg is my heart.”
Our minds are so moist with imagination that this symbolic image arises easily in our listening like the most vivid moment in a meaningful and mysterious dream; which takes us with surprise and cannot leave our minds in the daytime. I love speaking it because it exposes the Giant’s truth. From this moment, we the listeners know that there is a place where the heart that has been lost is kept and can be found. I often feel my own heart raw and beating as the words are heard by my audiences, who also feel a sense of deeper relief. Then, we are told, “The Giant fell asleep.” He is confident that his secret is not known. Yet, we know in a sense “his gig is up” and in a way so is ours.
For all of us there is another level of longing to know what is going to happen next. Perhaps this depth of longing is the inherent longing we have to be in contact with the truth of our existence, which is a riddle as well. Perhaps it is the voice of the child who asks, after being swept up by a long unfolding story, “Was that true?” I have learned to respond, “Did it feel true?” As heads nod in agreement, I can add, “There are truths that are more important than facts.” If the conversation continues, I ask if they dream at night. Hands go up quickly and some with a bit of hesitation. (There are many who have nightmares or who have been told by adults that dreams are ridiculous and have no meaning.) “It is another kind of truth. Did you see pictures in your mind as you listened?” And again they nod. “Well there you are.” It is not that I want to deceive or be a smart aleck, it is that we are in desperate need for mystery so that we will not ignore our longing to know who we are and what it is to be a human being. When we forget that we are like the Giant who has lost his heart.
The riddle we are born with, and because we are so involved in our every day lives, it is hard to remember, is that we will die. And as Buddhist teachers over and over remind us, our inherent natural state of mind is like a jewel hidden in a mountain of trash, a blue sky always present behind the clouds, that can be known. It is that “open heart” of authentic goodness and presence, regardless of circumstance and concept, that is our birthright and the place of transformation into a compassionate human being. To be in touch with this mystery would not make us morbid irresponsible people, but more curious, tender hearted and more alive people.
When the Giant fell asleep in the story and the words were heard by the prince and the princess, and all of us, we become more patient. The shift in power is from the Giant to all of us. But we cannot rest in that power alone. We need to hear the rest of the story in order to find out whether the heart can be retrieved, and how that can happen. Confidence and curiosity, trust and longing are where we are at this moment.
Should the story have ended here, the heart would not be found and the brothers would remain turned to stone. The prince and the princess might remain in the palace even become the rulers or the keepers of the Giant, but the King would be alone ruling in his palace in our world as well.
One of the beautiful aspects of the heard story is that even though it might appear that the most important character is the prince, in the vessel of moment to moment listening, the union of masculine and feminine is vital. The increasing presence of the princess and of truth telling, the realm of female wisdom, (we are not talking about boys and girls but about the energies in each of us) is what moves forward the quest and the resilience and patience that keeps us involved. We no longer want to betray this place of listening or presence with an immediate solution. There is a commitment by listeners to stay the ride to the end. For myself as storyteller, it is a crucial moment of restraint and care for my audience. If I become too confident that we are going to succeed I rob them of the capacity to feel into the journey thoroughly. I make the story experience into a comic book of quick fix events. Secretly, I have the potential if my motivation is based on insight and compassion, to stretch even further the elasticity of patience and open up into another deeper and more immediate engagement.
• Inuit dreaming—the woman is not passive. She remains dreaming.
• The spirit of the whale into the smoke hole.
• Odysseus’ visit to the underworld.
• A momentary glimpse of the northern lights.
• Meeting a bear on the road and completely relaxing feeling the connection of beingness.
All of these events cannot be prepackaged or scripted. Rather the mind must be prepared, awakened, practiced so that in any given situation one can be alert to what is actually taking place and respond, rather than remember a rule or concept of what should be done. It is why morals at the end of stories are innocuous, even dangerously deceptive. We are taught to remember the moral and not the experience that renders us responsible, alert, and capable of having intelligence and intuition arise together with wisdom and compassion. It is the process of the listening and what takes place that is offered by the story, so we can more than survive in the riddled reality of our waking lives. And for some, the listening is the only way that overwhelming stress, preoccupations and self inflicted misery born of trauma and tragedy can be relieved even for a moment during.