The sleeping knight is a popular protagonist of myths and legends. Entering the cave, the warrior symbolically withdraws from the world, which can be interpreted as delving into the unconscious.
She took me to her Elfin grot,
And there she wept and sighed full sore,
And there I shut her wild wild eyes
With kisses four.
And there she lullèd me asleep,
And there I dreamed—Ah! woe betide!—
The latest dream I ever dreamt
On the cold hill side.
Excerpt from John Keats, “La Belle Dame Sans Merci: a Ballad”
A few years ago during a painters’ workshop in Zakopane, as my students were busy drawing details of mountain huts typical of this region, I went for a walk that culminated at the Café Tygodnik Podhalański, famous for passable coffee and a great view of the mountains. It is located on the last floor of the department store Granit. That day, the patio was bathed in strong October sunlight. I ordered coffee with chocolate and whipped cream, as I wanted a drink and dessert rolled into one. I was looking at the Tatra Mountains – partly against the light, partly through smog – and wondering what the sleeping knight was dreaming about.
The famous Tatra legend of the sleeping knights is not only related to the fact that Giewont has the shape of a dormant knight lying on his back, but also to the legend of the Tatra Mountains’ caves, including the Sleeping Knights’ Cave (Jaskinia Śpiących Rycerzy). Entering a cave is a metaphor for withdrawal from the world. After we fall asleep, we can encounter that which is unconscious. Sleep is a state between life and death; through symbols and allegories it shows us what is hidden. It can help us understand ourselves and free ourselves from limitations; as a result, sleep helps us to fully enjoy life.
The most famous myth of sleeping knights is the Arthurian one. The legend says that King Arthur and his knights, asleep under the castle of Sewingshields (also know as ‘the castle of seven shields’) – or what is left of the castle today – are just a bugle away. When the world needs them, they shall wake and come to the rescue. We only need to call them.
The land of the unconscious
In many cultures – from India to Siberia to North America – facing one’s limitations is known as ‘the hero’s journey’. The hero answers the call, starts the journey, struggles with adversity but, in order to complete the process of transformation, he or she must succumb to sleep.
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell presents the hero’s journey as a universal path of human growth. According to him, an important stage of the journey is immersion. When one “undertakes for himself the perilous journey into the darkness by descending, either intentionally or unintentionally, into the crooked lanes of his own spiritual labyrinth, he soon finds himself in a landscape of symbolical figures (any one of which may swallow him) which is no less marvellous than the wild Siberian world of the pudak and sacred mountains. In the vocabulary of the mystics, this is the second stage of the Way, that of the ‘purification of the self,’ when the senses are ‘cleansed and humbled,’ […]; or in a vocabulary of more modern turn: this is the process of dissolving, transcending, or transmuting the infantile images of our personal past. In our dreams the ageless perils, gargoyles, trials, secret helpers, and instructive figures are nightly still encountered; and in their forms we may see reflected not only the whole picture of our present case, but also the clue to what we must do to be saved.”
According to Jung, the unconscious works like fate, determining how a person acts and preventing them from spreading their wings and realizing their potential. Only confronting the unconscious in sleep frees the mind and enables self-actualization. The Jungian warrior archetype is then a force responsible for effective action, a symbol of the psyche’s resources and fortitude needed for transformation. The warrior archetype enables one to face adversities that unravel gradually in the course of the journey, i.e. life itself. The energy of this archetype pushes even the most passive individuals to action.
The key stages on the hero’s path are crises – battles big and small that are won but after which there is time to ‘lick wounds’. The hero retreats to the cave to regenerate and integrate his mind’s powers; symbolically, this is a time of dreaming or acedia. In other words, he withdraws from the world.
The path of experience
In Raphael’s painting, the dreaming knight refers to Scipio, the mediaeval archetype of the warrior-hero (his predecessor is Hercules). He is accompanied by two goddesses: Minerva, with a sword and a book (the allegory of virtue and wisdom); and Venus, with uncovered hair, a string of pearls around her waist and a little bouquet of white flowers in her hand (the allegory of love and sensual pleasures). These, aside from valour, are important virtues of every knight, as well as the symbolic forces of the psyche responsible for growth. In this early painting by Raphael, the laurel tree divides the image into two parts suggesting that the qualities epitomized by the two goddesses are of equal importance. Or perhaps Raphael places the sleeping knight before the choice between virtue and fortitude on the one hand, and hedonism and pleasure on the other, to show the internal struggles and conflicts that every human deals with? After all, life is not just the path of the hero, but also a path of experiences that lead us into blind alleys; apart from moments of bravery when we face our demons, there are situations when there’s nothing left to do but make a mistake and take flight.
When the conscious mind falls asleep, says Jung, the unconscious takes over and, through symbolic images, grants us access to repressed content. The conscious mind fears facing the unconscious, i.e. the limitless depths of the psyche. Jung advises us to look into our dreams, because when we discuss them, we discover new leads; new facts come to the surface and help us discover repressed experiences. One can say that the more attention we pay to dreams, the more the unconscious wants to ‘tell’ us about what has been hidden. The unconscious part of the human psyche is connected with the collective unconscious that is animated by archetypes and symbols. These are the access codes to the unconscious. Cracking the code brings the solution, releases the psyche’s powers and the energy that awakens the knight-hero and pushes him to act.
The symbol of the sleeping knight is related to one more important issue. There’s much talk today about the crisis of masculinity in face of social changes, and about the awakening of a femininity that is gradually regaining its voice. Men still haven’t found themselves in new roles. Masculinity, which is undergoing a change, remains dormant like the sleeping knight, struggling with its internal demons in order to return to the world in a new, better version and awaken like King Arthur – the symbolic ideal of the fullness of masculine energy.
On my way to our camping site at the foot of the Tatra Mountains I had another look at the ‘sleeping knight’ through a pair of binoculars. His eyes were clearly closed. It was hard to tell whether he was breathing, or when he is going to wake up, but it was evident that he needs to sleep some more.
Translated from the Polish by Adam Zdrodowski
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