Telling Stories: A Zen Priest Reflects on a Fairy Tale by A. S. Byatt

Telling Stories: A Zen Priest Reflects on a Fairy Tale by A. S. Byatt August 7, 2018

I begin with a story I adapted from the writer A. S. Byatt. Byatt’s original words are in regular type, while summaries by me are in italics. (I strongly encourage you to buy the book and read the real version of her story. It’s longer and much better…

That said, you might think of my little adaptation as the text for my reflection, which follows…


Once upon a time, in a kingdom between the sea and the mountains, between the forest and the desert, there lived a King and Queen with three daughters. Their eldest daughter was pale and quiet, the second daughter was brown and active, and the third was one of those Sabbath daughters who are bonny and bright and good and gay, of whom everything and nothing was expected.

Then one day the sky turned green.

The ministers said nothing could be done, though a contingency-fund might usefully be set up for when a course of action became clear. The priests counseled patience and self-denial, as a general sanative measure, abstention from lentils, and the consumption of more lettuce. The generals supposed it might help to attack their neighbor to the East, since it was useful to have someone else to blame… The witches and wizards on the whole favored a Quest.

After thinking about it the King and Queen decided for the quest, which the wizards and witches said should be for a single silver bird in a nest of ash-branches. By general assent the only appropriate person to go on this quest would be one of the princesses. Each agreed, but as this is a fairy tale the parents decided to send their eldest first.

They gave her a sword, and an inexhaustible water-bottle someone had brought back from another Quest, and a package of bread and quails’ eggs and lettuce and pomegranates, which did not last very long.

And off she went on the road which led to the silver bird’s nest. 

However, she began to think. She was by nature a reading, not a traveling, princess. And she was well aware of stories about princes and princesses who set out on Quests. What they all had in common, she thought to herself, was a pattern in which the two elder sisters or brothers, set out very confidently, failed in one way or another, and were turned to stone, or imprisoned in vaults, or cast into magic sleep, until rescued by the third royal person…

She sat down by the side of the road to work things through. That’s when she heard a small stone beside her cry out for help. She lifted the stone. Pinned underneath it, in a hollow of the ground, was a very large and dusty scorpion, waving angry pincers, and somewhat crushed in the tail.

They had a long conversation. The scorpion knew of a wise old woman out in the forest who should be able to heal him. And, most important, they decided to leave the road, even though the rule for this kind of Fairy story dictated they should stay on that road. Instead they walked on into the forest. Well, the princess walked carrying the scorpion in her basket.

Turned out the scorpion knew what berries to eat or not. So that was a good thing. Then they came upon a big fat toad who had been attacked by a human and had a terrible gash on its head. They talked about the Quest, but mainly about the wise old woman who could heal the scorpion. They agreed she should be able to heal a toad, as well. The toad warned the princess it would not turn into a handsome prince, although it considered itself quite a handsome toad. They all agreed it was handsome, and that they were what they were and as they were, they would go on together.

This is a fairy tale And, we know the princess needs three magical helpers. And so, indeed, further out in the forest they stumbled upon a giant cockroachwhich had been snared in at hunter’s trap. As the princess freed it she saw its stomach had been torn in the trap. So, they all agreed they should go together to find the wise old woman who could heal. By this time they seemed to have forgotten about the Quest.

Then they came across a handsome young Woodsman cutting logs in a clearing. And the princess thought she would like to leave the shelter of the woods and talk to him. But the cockroach whispered a warning. He had five wives, all buried behind his hut. The other two agreed and added details. So, thanks to the companions she avoided occupying the sixth grave.

And so on and so forth, the four companions wandered through the forest, the elder princess and her three wounded friends. Then finally, it seemed out of nowhere they came to the old woman’s house. She healed the companions. Then the old woman and the elder princess sat down with a cup of tea and had a long talk. 

She said There are young women who would never have listened to the creatures’ tales about the Woodsman… And maybe they would have been wise and maybe they would have been foolish: that is their story. But you listened to the Cockroach and stepped aside and came here, where we collect stories and spin stories and mend what we can and investigate what we can’t, and live quietly without striving…

We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.

The conversation went on long into the evening. And eventually the elder princess decided the Quest to return the sky to blue wasn’t her work; that belonged to her youngest sister. Rather she would stay here and investigate the great mystery of life and death and become, in time, a wise old woman. This was her Quest, the quest of the heart.

And so she did.

And for those who want to know about that other story, the one about the original Quest, and how it turned out. Well, after the middle Princess had her adventure, which was really interesting, the youngest Princess finally left, and indeed she was able to turn the sky back to blue and was hailed as a heroine and lived happily ever after. Although they didn’t say it, there were some in her kingdom who found they missed the green sky…


Jan and I often while away late evenings propped up in bed with books resting on our tummies. When I have my way, the television is also going, although Jan wants the volume really low. Me, I take comfort in the noise and pale dancing light, and sometimes with what is actually going on, on screen. Jan, not so much. But, the real magic of the evening for both of us, requires that book held or resting. And, for Jan, I should add, a sleeping cat stretched across her midriff.

These days Jan reads several ways. She loves paper and boards. But she doesn’t disdain the Kindle Santa brought her. And, when she wants hands free reading, such as when she’s knitting, she’ll just use her iPod.

Me, it’s always paper. And it takes two forms. During the day my reading is what I call alternatively “grad student reading” or, more simply, “mining;” looking to more deeply understand a particular aspect of a subject I’m writing about. In the evening I’m stuck nearly perpetually in the murder mystery universe, preferably those with the killing decently off stage and a clergy detective, or failing that, a well-drawn historical or regional backdrop.

Jan on the other hand, she is literarily omnivorous. As they say you only need one intellectual in the family. And for us that’s Jan’s job. That said, a quiet late evening supine in bed with our books is heavenly. Well, except for when the cat finds herself displaced for one reason or another. She can express resentment at her pillow moving, and it can involve teeth.

Among our small pleasures as we nest there in the bedroom is sharing with each other a line or two from our current book. For instance, having been tricked by a review on NPR I was reading a mystery by Philip Kerr where the detective is a Raymond Chandler type hard boiled but relentlessly honest private eye – in the first volume of this series trying to survive and do his job in Hitler’s Berlin.

More shadow and a lot more violence than I usually like in my mysteries. But, what language! With unlikely metaphors piled deliciously high one upon another. “Jan,” I said. “Listen to this: He ‘sat at his desk, smoking a cigar that belonged properly in a plumber’s tool-bag. He was dark, with bright blue eyes, just like our beloved Fuhrer, and was possessed of a stomach that stuck out like a cash register… He shook me by the hand as I introduced myself. It was like holding a cucumber.’” That’s the sort of thing I read to Jan.

Jan, well, the sort of thing she reads to me tends to go more along the lines of, “You had the sense to see you were caught in a story, and the sense to see that you could change it to another one. And the special wisdom to recognize that you are under a curse – which is also a blessing – which makes the story more interesting to you than the things that make it up.”

Okay, when she read that to me, it caught me cold. Wow, I thought, perhaps I should read more of that literary fiction stuff. “What’s that from?” I asked. “A. S. Byatt.” She replied, waving the book at me, a strategic finger guarding her place. “It’s in a collection titled The Djinn in the Nightengale’s EyeThe story is the ‘Eldest Princess.’”

I had to wait ‘till Jan had finished the book, then I read the whole story. And I thought, as I’m inclined to do at such moments of discovery, “Oh, there’s a really good illustration in here for something important.”

Now you’ve heard it. The story is about stories. The Eldest princess is sent off on a Quest, but being well-read, she knows this is actually a story about a youngest princess, and wanting her own story, she steps off the path.

She decided to color outside the lines.

And it sure seemed this is the time to share it. We’re exploring spirituality, spiritual practices, and the spiritual life. We are invited into a path to the reality of the world we encounter, and to the truths we need in order to not follow in the ruts that have been laid before. The good news I want to repeat all week: We can break free of the old patterns, those that may have once been useful, but are no longer so, and, truthfully never were anything but guidelines, and to see anew, and, then, with diligence and just a little luck, to find a better way.

We’re all invited to go off the path, into the woods, into our own hearts and imaginations. We are all of us invited toward the depths of life and death, to the mysteries of our existence.

We then get some advice along that way. Just look at her magical companions. Not doves and unicorns, not even scarecrows and cowardly lions; we might feel those all belong to people who stay on the path, who color inside the lines. Not always, but if its comfortable, you might be suspicious of how it can challenge you to break free.

To step out on your own is to step away from the comforts of the familiar. And it has costs. And it has rewards.

And. So. In that story the eldest princess’s companions are those found when one wanders away from the well-trodden path. In this story a scorpion with a crushed stinger, a toad with a hole gouged into its head, and a cockroach with a tear in its stomach. There’s a lot to be gleaned from these magical creatures. Each has wounds. I hope you noticed that. It’s not just that they’re unsightly. They’re wounded. The only point I’ll make out of that here is that if you look at the lives of the magical companions of our hearts, few turn out to be made of plaster and without blemish.

But nothing caught me so much as when the Eldest Princess finally made it to the point of her story, not the story of the youngest princess, or of the middle princess, but to the point of her story, found in an old woman’s hut in the middle of the forest. And that point echoes for all of us, for you, and for me. It is the real secret at the heart of all stories.

There’s little doubt in my mind we live and breathe and take our being within stories. I love stories. In one very true sense they’re how we think. We use metaphor to extract meaning. The catch is that stories often instead catch us like that cockroach in the hunter’s snare. I’m too small, I’m too weak, I’m not smart enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not good enough. There are snares for everyone in the stories that are laid out for us, but only as long as we’re willing to go along.

But, if we’re willing to step off the path, if we’re willing to listen to anyone who can speak wisdom, no matter who they might be; then we make our way to that hut in the woods. And there we can find something so, so important.

This is the truth of taking on a spiritual discipline, learning some practices, and following the path.

The most important line in that story about stories and about how to be free, A. S. Byatt puts into the mouth of the old woman. “We have no story of our own here, we are free, as old women are free, who don’t have to worry about princes or kingdoms, but dance alone and take an interest in the creatures.”

Stories are woven out of our lives and are meant to be used. So. Listen to them. And. Remember them. Sing them. Dance them. But know, in your heart of hearts, the stories are also just stories.

Notice that, and magic follows like dawn follows the night.

Holding the stories lightly, we find a pearl of great price.

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