This is the seventh post in the Mythology and the Psyche series, and Part 3 of the entries on the shadow archetype. A list of all the posts in the series can be found here.
We don’t recoil from the shadow just because we’re afraid of the dark. While the image of our rejected self and the vapours of evil are threatening, they are rarely our true fear. As Campbell cautions, “One can overestimate the threat of one’s own shadow.” Although facing the shadow-dragon at the threshold of the unconscious is a moment of pain and dread, the encounter also holds the promise of transformation. As the shadow is made up of all the rejected aspects of the whole Self, we do not just banish cruelty and guilt: we also turn away many of our deepest gifts. This is why in every confrontation with the shadow the hero derives from his foe some gift or supernatural ability which helps him on his quest. In the Norse myth of Siegfried, he slays the dragon Fafnir and, Campbell relates, Siegfried “took a taste of the dragon blood and immediately found, to his own surprise, that he understood the language of nature, both his own nature and nature without. He did not himself become a dragon, though he had derived from the dragon its powers.” Siegfried assimilates the shadow, but he doesn’t become a dragon, rather, the light of his consciousness expands. And it is, in the end, the light that we dread.
One must be careful, however, when you set out to assimilate the shadow, you must go all the way. Simply acknowledging the dark side of the shadow isn’t enough, and the light side of our shadow can feel more dangerous. You must understand, your ego/persona system, your entire conscious sense of self, is created and maintained by a single force: morality. The ego’s main drive is to convince us that we’re totally separate from others and that the world of duality we see is the sole reality. And yet, there lies within us some distant memory of our total connection, of the eternity behind the world. This creates a crisis for the ego who needs the world and the illusion of separation to be real in order to survive. The ego convinces that the world is real by convincing us to believe in our inherent guilt. At heart we all secretly believe we are worthless and terrible. Why else would the ego/persona need to shun such vast aspects of the Self? Coupled with the pressure to fit into our particular society, suddenly we’ve shaped our selves and lives around the idea that the eternal realm will smite us for the sin of seeing ourselves as separate, for the sin of loneliness.
And so, we must make ourselves “special” in some way to avoid being punished by the eternal. We play all sorts of tricks on ourselves and each other to prove we are innocent: either we hide behind moral righteousness, creating the moral problem of the shadow; or we make ourselves victims, too weak and vulnerable to possibly deserve punishment; or finally, we in some way make ourselves terrible and powerful, in our conceit we become the Law in order to overcome it, making our own punishment impossible. We fear the “evil” in the shadow, of course, because embracing those qualities would only confirm our guilt. But the threat of the shadow’s gifts are far greater.
The ego is happy so long as you’re playing one side or another of the morality game. Whether you’re consciously convinced of your guilt or innocence, regardless of how you get there, just doesn’t matter. The ego is equally content in the mind of a serial killer as the mind of a saint. From this point of view it’s easier to see why the gifts buried in our shadow are so threatening, because they threaten to unravel the whole foundation of the ego’s perspective. To embrace these talents would be to discover, and admit, that you’re capable. From the level of the soul, accepting that we’re capable is to admit that you’re not despised and guilty, but loved.
But we don’t resist our gifts because they prove our innocence, rather, we fear them because they imply that we are beyond guilt and innocence: we’re guiltless. There is no reason to make ourselves special if we’re guiltless. It also means we can no longer be vulnerable, victimized, or superior. But we don’t know how to live with this deeper awareness of our guiltlessness. Perhaps we’re not even able to. It is, thus, this threat that transforms the shadow into something truly terrifying, that transforms the gods of myth into demons and monsters, symbolizing that we are not yet ready or open to their offered revelations.
Campbell warns us of as much: “the gold [in the shadow] is related to our higher calling” and so, “assimilating one’s shadow is the art of catching up on those facets of life that have not been lived out adequately.” It really is a terrible thought that we might be other than we believe we are right now, that in every moment we hold the keys to our own transformation. It is, at last, the whole Self that we fear.
For all of its faults, Guy Ritchie’s 2017 film King Arthur beautifully portrays this oft-misunderstood aspect of the hero’s journey (since this is a relatively new movie I’ll give you a spoiler alert here, but I’m not sure you’re missing much). When the film begins, Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is living in exile. He has grown up as an orphan in a brothel and believes he’s nothing more than a common thug. But he is haunted by a recurring nightmare in which he sees himself as a child watching as his parents, who we know to be King Uther (Eric Bana) and Queen Igraine, are murdered by a shadowy, demon-like figure who we also know to be his uncle, Vortigern (Jude Law). Vortigern is now King and obsessed with keeping power which he can only do if he gains possession of Uther’s magical sword Excalibur. But Excalibur can only be wielded by the rightful king. After being lost for years, when the sword reveals itself stuck in a stone, Vortigern orders every man in his kingdom to attempt to free the sword so he can find his nephew and kill him. This would make Vortigern Kind Uther’s rightful heir and allow him to claim Excalibur’s power.
Of course, Arthur eventually frees the stone from the stone, revealing himself to be the lost son of the former King. However, Arthur is unable to wield Excalibur, and its power knocks him unconscious. And despite assuring his uncle that he has no desire to be King, his friends convince him he’s now the only hope to free the kingdom from Vortigern’s oppression. But Arthur wants nothing to do with this, he tells the Mage (Astrid Bergès-Frisbey) who has appeared to guide him, “Whatever it is that you and your friends think you want from me, I am not it.”
His dreams also continue to trouble him, and the Mage insists the only way forward is for him to travel through the Darklands. When his companion Bedivere protests saying the Darklands are too dangerous for him to survive, the Mage agrees, “You don’t want all of him to survive, that’s the point. You have to break his old self completely.” Through this ritual, after an arduous journey, he reaches a stone altar, and placing Excalibur on the alter, he is able to see more of his nightmare: he again sees his mother killed, but this time watches as his uncle, in demon form, fights his father and ultimately kills him.
Now, it is not uncommon for the hero’s journey to guide its heroes through traumatic memories, and teach them to accept them and integrate them into their lives. And in most stories of this type, the tragic revelation that his uncle killed his father would be the thing Arthur has been unable to face. For if his uncle is so evil, Arthur may fear he has this capacity to be evil as well. This isn’t unlike Harry Potter’s crisis at the end of The Chamber of Secrets, when he confesses his fear to Professor Dumbledore that he should have been a Slytherin (a notoriously immoral lot). Dumbledore consoles Harry that our choices are vastly more important than our potential, and Harry made a choice not to be a Slytherin. Likewise, for Arthur, choosing not to be his uncle, but his father, in a story of this kind would allow Arthur to wield Excalibur. But to the film’s great credit, this is not what Arthur fears, because even after this ordeal, there’s something else Arthur can’t accept. That Vortigern killed Uther seems a trivial detail, and the Mage continues to urge he continues to deny his true self: “Did you look away? … you will face it when it is worth it to you. Don’t get me wrong, I look away, we all look away, but that is the difference between a man and a king.”
Arthur is not resisting that he may be his uncle: although ultimately motivated by the desire to protect the people he loves, he is known to hustle and manipulate situations to retain a certain amount of respect. Vortigern even notices this: “You and I have a lot more in common than you think. It’s not just the same blood we share: also the same interests. We’ve both developed a palette for power.” Arthur denies he’s ever had any ambition to achieve power, save what he needs to survive, but throughout the film he never takes any offense to being Vortigern’s nephew. And his continued insistence that he’s “nothing but the bastard son of a prostitute” betrays that he’s comfortable in his small, ego self, and that he knows the dark.
In the final confrontation with Vortigern, Arthur is again overcome by a vision of his memories, but this time Arthur is present in the memories as his adult self. As Vortigern turns back to his human form and claims ownership of the sword, Arthur hears Uther speak to him: “You don’t need to run away any more, you don’t need to look away. The sword is yours, son. Take it.” It’s not until this moment that Arthur is able to use the sword’s true power consciously. And it’s clear that Arthur has not been resisting the monstrousness of his uncle, but rather being his father’s son and a true Pendragon. It is the gifts of his shadow that he closed his eyes to, not its darkness.
This is a really remarkable scene because Arthur is able to accept his father without rejecting his uncle, bringing together both the light and dark aspects of his shadow. As Arthur explains to Vortigern in their final battle, “You wanted to know what gave me such drive: it was you. You put me in that brothel. You cut me on the streets. I am here now because of you. You created me. And for that, I bless you.” By accepting his gifts, Arthur is able to accept the perspective of the soul. This is, ultimately, a deepening of compassion that understands others are also trapped in their egos, while still seeing the inherent guiltlessness and wholeness of their soul. Or, to paraphrase artist Barnett Newman, it is to gain a “feeling of your own totality, your own separateness, of your own individuality, and at the same time, of your connection to others, who are also separate.” It’s also the realization that you are not alone, not, truly, separate. Jealousy, comparison, and evil are all dissolved in this light, and like separation, they are seen as just the illusions of the world.
Again, the shadow’s call is not to look at “evil” as positive – because it doesn’t exist, and neither does righteousness – it’s just to release the ego’s judgement. We all like to take credit for being “good people,” but our being good may be an accident: none of us understand why one consciousness takes the path of evil and another does not. So freeing ourselves from the ego’s judgement only means looking at all our brothers and sisters on this planet and know that “There but for the grace of God go I.” It’s humility toward the mystery in each of us and a call for compassion to recognize that the rejected shadow is all that keeps us separate from each other.
In fact, we want to see evil in each other, not because others are evil (regardless of what they appear to do in the world), but because if we find evil in someone else, it means it’s not in us. And our moral disgust serves no other purpose than to prove our own innocence. And seeing evil in others while remaining blind to our gifts protects our ability to be victimized. Do you not see, then, because the world is made up of opposites, and we reject evil in ourselves, it has to be somewhere. So we need to see evil in others and this calls it forth in them. This is the culmination of Arthur’s lesson in the film. Not only is he able to accept his gifts, he sees that he and his uncle are the same, just as he and his father are the same, telling Vortigern as he dies, “You make sense of the devil.”
This is a lesson of the shadow that only the soul’s perspective can see. It is only by embracing your gifts and strengths that this will not threaten you. What Arthur is expressing here is the Buddhist lesson of pratityasamutpada, or, the law of mutual arising. It’s tempting to look at this scene and believe the film is expressing irony: that all of Vortigern’s efforts to gain and secure his power by victimizing Arthur have brought about his own destruction. But this would be a kind of karmic punishment, and the shadow is not an instrument of punishment: only the ego desires revenge. Rather, in this scene, Arthur recognizes that he and his uncle called each other forth: Arthur, resisting his gifts and nobility as the way to escape eternal punishment, needed his uncle to victimize and banish him so he could forget he was Uther Pendragon’s heir; Vortigern, desiring power as his path to escape punishment, needed to subjugate Arthur and usurp the “Law” of succession. Or, as Campbell puts it in Pathways to Bliss, “Enemies mutually arise. That which you think happened to you, you brought about. That which you did to others, happened to you.” In myth, the devil, likewise, is not really out to destroy us. He simply plays the role of the prosecution in the ego’s court of judgement, and it’s only your belief in your inherent guilt that transforms him into a demon.
And this is, perhaps, one of the most difficult lessons of the shadow: that it’s not just that you are guiltless, but that everyone is. From the soul’s perspective the devils of the world are playing a deeply sacred role: they are sacrificing themselves so our ego/persona can proclaim its own innocence. But again, our resistance here is to realizing both good and evil are absolute illusions. And assimilating the shadow means realizing there is neither righteousness nor sin. It’s realizing the world is an illusion, and that we are not who we think we are at all. Facing the shadow is terrible, frightening, painful, and you will feel as if your very soul is being ripped and shattered. But we will only know peace when we can say “Yes” unconditionally to life. This is the real purpose of mythology: it’s not to list the gods one ought to worship and obey, nor a moral prescription, but, as Campbell tells us, “It is the business of mythology proper, and of the fairy tale, to reveal the specific dangers and techniques of the dark interior way from tragedy to comedy.” The shadow can therefore teach us how to live, but we must be willing to hear its call.