“The young archer saw a golden feather in the path and dismounted from her horse. Just as she was about to pick it up, her horse spoke to her:
‘Leave the feather where it lies. If you take it, you will know the meaning of fear.’
‘But surely this is the golden feather from the Firebird. What a fine gift to give to the Queen!
She certainly will reward me. What kind of trouble would that cause?’
‘The trouble is not now. The trouble lies ahead,” warned the horse again. And then added,
‘And don’t call me Shirley!’”
“What is your relationship to risk?” is the question our Men’s Group host offered tonight. My first thought is that it’s foolish to mindlessly embrace risk as good or bad, to talk about it like a pizza topping that we might like or not, to equate risk with courage or risk-aversion to cowardice. Or risk-aversion with level-headedness and risk with foolishness.
The more interesting question is what kind of risk does your life demand? Which is the right kind of risk and which is the wrong kind? And so I thought of this old Russian fairy tale about a young archer and her horse of power. The story continues…
The archer does pick up the feather and brings it to the Queen, who greedily demands that the archer bring her the firebird itself—or off with her head!
Instead of saying “I told you so,” the horse again advises, “The trouble is not now, The trouble lies ahead” and tells her how she can capture the firebird. Was the Queen grateful? Of course not! She gives her yet another task—to go the edge of the world and bring back the Prince Vladamir. With the horse's help and the usual warning of trouble, the archer does so. The Prince than refuses to marry the Queen unless someone can fetch his wedding suit that lies under a great stone at the bottom of the sea. Naturally, the Queen sends the archer who mounts her Horse of Power and accomplishes the third impossible task. Still the Prince can’t face the idea of marrying this old mean-spirited Queen. He insists that someone must be punished for taking him from his home and thrown into boiling water.
Naturally the Queen chooses the archer. On her horse’s advice, the archer jumps into the boiling water before the Queen’s women can throw her in and emerges yet more radiant, beautiful and glowing than before. Seeing the miraculous effect of the boiling water, the Queen decides to jump in so that she might have her own youth restored.
The funeral was held the next day. And the wedding the day after.
Lots to discuss here! Let's begin with the first act of picking up the golden feather. Consider:
• If the archer never saw the feather because her head was buried in her cell-phone, there would be no story.
• If she saw it and didn’t notice its shining golden value, there would be no story.
• If she listened to her horse the first time and declined to pick it up because she was afraid or didn’t want to get into trouble, there would be no story.
• If she formed a Risk Committee and held meetings assessing the risk factor numbers, the feather would have blown away by the time they decided. And they probably would have said no anyway.
The story begins with noticing the feather, having some desire awakened by its golden luster and taking the risk or picking it up with no foreknowledge of where the act would lead, no clear idea of the trouble that lies ahead.
The Horse of Power is our will and ambition and while it began by dissuading us, by warning us, once we committed ourselves it became our ally, problem-solving through each of the impossible tasks that lay ahead.
The Queen is our hidden purpose that must test us to see if we’re worthy, to see if we want our heart’s desire enough to sacrifice and commit and dedicate ourselves. If we have a musical talent on the piano, it sends us off to the ends of the 88 notes and its 12 different keys to see if we’re willing to make that journey while our friends are playing baseball or dating or watching cool shows on TV. We come back with the firebird of our efforts and we get sent out again, to show that there is some beauty and soul and love in our playing. We come back again and are sent out a third time to find our particular wedding-suit-style, the garment that no one else can wear, that’s meant just for us. Each time taking the particular risks associated with our particular genius.
Do you see why it’s so damn difficult to be ourselves? The inner guide and soul-twin is given for free, but all the rest we have to earn and that takes a determination to get into the right kind of trouble, to take the right kind of risks, to make the right mistakes just made for us. (Thelonious Monk once said to one of his imitators: “You’re playing the wrong mistakes!”)
Once we’ve accomplished the three tasks (or 300), the Queen is no longer necessary. So we purify ourselves once last time by taking the most terrifying risk of all, the leap into the water that boils away the dross of our small self and revels our transcendent self, restores our youthful radiance and innocence.
But there’s another way to read that moment in the story. If we see the Queen as another person rather than an archetype of the psyche, the Queen takes the wrong kind of risk for the wrong kind of reason. She jumps into the wrong vat of boiling water in naïve belief that her youthful innocence will be magically and effortlessly restored. She jumps in from jealousy, she jumps in to win the hand of a Prince she’s not meant to marry. And the moral?
The wrong risk is foolish.
The right risk is wise.
May you tell the difference between the two.
P.S. All genders in the story are interchangeable.
P.S.S. And which golden feathers have you let lie? Which have you picked up? What has been your right kind of trouble, your right kind of risk? What tasks did the King or Queen set for you? What trouble lies ahead?
P.S.S.S. In case you hadn’t noticed, I have lifetime to commitment to put the Shirley joke in every fairy tale I tell. That’s my signature wedding suit.