“The Seven Ravens,” a German story written down by the Brother’s Grimm, can teach us something about resilience. Like many folk tales, “The Seven Ravens” is about a resilient hero who bounces back from disappointments and braves hardships to reach a goal.
What do I mean by resilient?
Resilience is the ability to persevere, to create a meaningful future in spite of a traumatic and challenging history, to rise up from the ashes. Resilient people don’t try to numb their pain with drugs or video games or sex.
Resilient people feel a connection with something larger than themselves, whether it’s a god or a community of people. Instead of identifying with their traumas, they acknowledge their past, feel their feelings, but don’t cling to them or try to push them away. They face them, release them, and move on with compassion for others, but also for themselves. They are always learning, always growing, always becoming.
Resilient People Grow and Change
This capacity to learn and grow may be the most important part of being resilient. Perhaps change comes easy to them because, rather than blaming others for their difficulties, resilient individuals accept responsibility for their part in a painful situation. When others lash out at them, they don’t take it personally, so it’s easier for them to forgive. They’re willing to ask hard questions about who they are. They focus on internal rather than external challenges. Having a healthy dose of initiative and creativity, they are less likely to give up and get stuck, and when they do get stuck, they ask for help.
Many of the heroes in myth and fairy tale are resilient in this way. The typical hero’s journey, as Joseph Campbell explains in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, starts when the hero realizes something is missing from her life. To find it, she must prevail over dangers. Even if the hero isn’t initially resilient, as she continues on her journey, she learns compassion, stops taking things personally, seeks help, keeps going when she wants to stop, and uses creativity to solve problems. Eventually, she completes her task and returns, forever transformed.
The Spiritual Journey
The hero’s journey is a spiritual one. Without the trials and confusions of our lives, we would never discover our inner beauty, never become our true self. Persevering through misery and fear is worth the cost. At least, that is what the girl in “The Seven Ravens” finds.
Once upon a time, a girl was born to an elderly couple who already had seven sons. She was weak and sickly. Afraid she wouldn’t live long, her parents sent her brothers to the well to bring back some water so they could baptize her. Eager to help, the boys ran off with their pitchers, but when they got to the well, they bickered about who would get the water first. In their argument, they dropped all the pitchers into the well.
Afraid of their father, unable to draw any water, they didn’t dare go home. They slunk around the yard feeling guilty.
The Limited, Non-Resilient Self
Inside the house, the father let his thoughts get the better of him. Instead of keeping an open mind, he spun fantasies about what his sons were doing. They were off playing, he imagined, having forgotten their poor sister. He never thought to check it out with his sons, though if he had, he wasn’t likely to listen to their answer, anyway. Since the boys would rather hide than admit their mistake, we can guess the father was not terribly forgiving. He was not a resilient man.
Finally, the father became so angry, he cried out, “I wish all my sons would be turned to ravens.”
Immediately, he heard a flapping sound. Rushing to the window, he saw seven black birds rise up and fly off through the trees. His heart heavy with sadness, he realized he couldn’t take the words back now. Because of his foolishness, his sons were gone. So he tried to make the best of things by turning his thoughts to caring for the daughter he still had.
A Secret Discovered
Continuing on in the face of adversity is a sign of resilience, yet only if we process the past and heal it. Far from doing this, the father kept the very existence of the boys a secret from his daughter. Family secrets have a way of coming out, though, and one day when the girl was near grown, she overheard a neighbor speaking about her.
“A lovely child, she is, but what a shame her brothers were lost for her sake.”
Brothers? Lost? Because of her?
The girl went to her parents, and her father explained what had happened. “It’s not your fault,” he told her.
We know, of course, that it’s not her fault. Yet when we adults feel uncomfortable accepting responsibility, young children grow up doing it for us. They take the blame, even when it’s absurd to do so.
In dysfunctional family systems, we ignore disagreements. Sometimes children are scapegoated, or rejected, or expected to hold the family together. Apparently, this was the girl’s job, for when she discovered that her brothers were missing, she knew what she had to do. She took the initiative of leaving home to find them.
Her parents didn’t want her to go. They knew the hero’s journey would be perilous. But no matter what they said, they couldn’t dissuade her, so they did the next best thing and gave her gifts for the journey: one of their rings, a loaf of bread, a pitcher of water, and a stool to rest on when she got tired.
The Journey Begins
For days and days and days, the girl traveled. At last, she reached the end of the world. Looking around for help, she saw the sun, but the sun was too hot. Then she found the moon, but it was cold and cried out to her, “I smell flesh and blood,” which scared her, so she hurried off.
She had failed. She was lost and alone. How would she find a way?
But she didn’t give up, and fate smiled on her. She came to the realm of the stars. Bright, but not too bright, they shed a gentle warmth. Like her, they had stools they sit on, and they were friendly and kind. When she told them her story, the Morning Star gave her a piece of wood she could use to unlock the door of the castle on the glass mountain where her brothers lived.
A Gift Received and a Hurdle Overcome
Heroes receive gifts along the way. Maybe they’d done a kind deed, and the person or animal they helped repays the kindness by offering a gift or showing up when the hero needs him. Maybe the gift is given out of kindness. Regardless, if the hero doesn’t t notice it and accept it, the gift is useless. Resilient people ask for help, and they recognize it when it shows up and take it gladly.
So the girl accepted the wood, wrapped it carefully in her handkerchief, and said good-bye to the stars.
Though the next part of the girl’s journey was long and rough, she kept going until she arrived at the glass mountain. Taking out her handkerchief, she discovered that the piece of wood was gone. What now? Showing ingenuity and courage, the girl took a knife from her satchel and cut off her little finger, knowing it would be the right size to fit in the lock.
The fairy tale doesn’t mention how hard it would be to cut your finger off. It doesn’t talk of blood or pain. Calm and confident, the girl took her severed finger, turned it in the lock, and opened the door.
Of Symbolism and Metaphor
We accept this bizarre event because fairy tales aren’t trying to be factual. Like our girl who doesn’t even have a name, heroes are simplistic characters, with broad gifts and perhaps a major flaw that gets them in trouble. They live in worlds where words have enormous power and boys can turn into ravens because a father says so. In a hero’s world, everything is alive, so the moon can scare us and the stars help us.
Therefore, we don’t take the severing of the girl’s finger literally. A hero must be willing to let go of everything, including parts of herself. Loss is part of life, part of the journey. Because myths are more concerned with the spiritual than with the physical realm, the girl needn’t lose blood, nor writhe in pain. Yet to enter the glass mountain, she must first be broken. It takes a deep resilience to forge ahead when we have lost part of ourselves.
Of course, when we reach the inner sanctum and see our true self waiting there, what does a little finger matter?
The Return Home
So the girl stepped into her brothers’ house, only to be greeted by a dwarf who informed her that the ravens were not at home. So she waited, watching as the dwarf set out a long table with food and drink for seven. When the dwarf left the room, the girl took a bite of food from each plate, and drank a sip from each cup. In the last cup, she dropped the ring she’d been carrying. Then she hid.
Soon the birds fluttered into the dining room and sat at their places, but before could eat, they noticed what the girl had done. Each one cried out, “Who has eaten from my plate? Who has drunk from my cup?”
Finally, the seventh raven looked into his glass and saw the ring, recognizing it as his father’s and mother’s. “Oh, I wish our sister were here so we should be free,” he said.
Hearing that, the girl dashed out from behind the curtain and hugged them all. As soon as she touched their feathery shoulders, the ravens changed back into humans, and the eight of them went home again.
Resilience and Reconciliation
I like to think that none of the family held onto grudges, so when the boys returned with their sister, they all reconciled. Did they each accept his part in the rift and forgive one another? Were they resilient enough to let go of the past and create a future rich in love?
“The Seven Ravens” isn’t about a real journey to a glass mountain. It’s about how we create walls to keep one another out. We all do stupid things and feel afraid, like the boys did. We speak thoughtlessly and hurt our loved ones, like the father did. Then we get offended and fly away.
The girl in “The Seven Ravens” is the peacemaker. She doesn’t give up on anyone. She touches her brothers and calls them back to their true selves. Hopefully, they will accept their sister’s message of love and reconciliation. Because of her gift, her brothers and her parents may become a bit more resilient, focusing on their own faults rather than those of others, and learning to move forward with hope, joy, and renewed relationships.
In faith and fondness,