It is by going down into the abyss that we recover the treasures of life.
Where you stumble, there lies your treasure. – Joseph Campbell
Sometimes we stumble, and we think we can’t stand up again. The power of stories is that they can help us stand up again. I believe that those who show us how stories can comfort, guide and empower us, give us a lifelong gift.
After losing touch for 30 years with my closest friend during college, we were recently reunited. Within minutes, we found ourselves picking up exactly where we left off: enjoying each other’s company. For the past 10 years, Judy has been an elementary school teacher. She returned to school in her 40s to earn her elementary teaching credential. One of the things we talked about was the pleasure and positive impact of reading aloud to children, and Judy mentioned a book she reads to her second graders: The Castle in the Attic by Elizabeth Winthrop. I decided to read the book. Even though I am 50 years older than Judy’s second-graders, I enjoyed the story immensely.
Here is the description of the book: Ten year old William can’t wait to play with the mysterious castle his housekeeper, Mrs. Phillips, has given him. For years she has been telling him about the old stone and wood model with its drawbridge, moat and the finger-high knight to guard the gates. And now it is his. But when William learns that Mrs. Phillips is going back to England to live with her brother, he vows to find a way to keep Mrs. Phillips with him forever. And when he breaks the spell cast on the tiny silver knight, he suddenly knows how to do it. But William’s big idea turns out to be the worst mistake of his life!
Besides being entertained, after reading the book, I understand exactly why, aside from obvious reasons such as dismantling environmental and human rights protections, I don’t trust the man/wizard who currently inhabits the White House. I think he shares a lot with the power hungry wizard in Winthrop’s story, who cares nothing about truth and reason and has destroyed everything that had made the kingdom a special place. There is much for children and adults to ponder and discuss in this short novel.
When William is taken prisoner by the power-hungry wizard in the story, he asks his guard why the people, whose lives and land have been ruined by the wizard, do not band together to overpower him. The guard answers: “He divides us so that each is rewarded if he carries tales of another. “
“Tales” = lies, falsehoods, and baseless blame. William discovers that the “tales” have created a paralyzing and destructive fear and distrust throughout the kingdom. Moreover, it is no longer safe to express love.
And here is an excerpt from the book that made me stop and think about what I think is the difference between power and leadership:
William hears the knight whispering to himself, and he asks: “What were you whispering?”
The knight replies: “The words my father said over me when I became a knight: rules of conduct we must respect, be we knight, squire, or page.”
“Tell me what they are,” William said.
“Be compassionate to the needy. Neither squander wealth nor hoard it. Never lose your sense of shame. If questions are asked of you, answer them frankly but do not ask too many yourself. Be manly and of good cheer. Never kill a foe who is begging for mercy.”
For those interested in the genesis of writer’s ideas: Elizabeth Winthrop says that a lecture she heard on Joseph Campbell’s ideas turned into the “grit “ of this story. Joseph Campbell who wrote many books, wrote a book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces,* which I read many years ago. My mother gave me this copy decades ago. Believing the paper cover would not hold up to repeated openings, she reinforced it with a layer of cloth glued to the paper 🙂
Additionally, in her author’s note at the end of The Castle in the Attic, Elizabeth Winthrop quotes author Rumer Godden on the powerful inspiration “grit” can be: Every piece of writing—starts from what I call a grit…a sight or sound, a sentence or a happening that does not pass away—but quite inexplicably lodges in the mind.
On Elizabeth Winthrop’s wonderful website, I loved her answers to these two questions she was asked in an interview:
What was the worst advice you’ve ever been given? “You really should give up writing, dear. You don’t have the talent for it.”
What is your definition of a relaxing day? “A day spent outside reading in the shade with all electronic devices turned off.”
*Since its release in 1949, The Hero with a Thousand Faces has influenced millions of readers by combining the insights of modern psychology with Joseph Campbell’s revolutionary understanding of comparative mythology. In these pages, Campbell outlines the Hero’s Journey, a universal motif of adventure and transformation that runs through virtually all of the world’s mythic traditions.