Tag Archives: Merlin

Thoughts on “Don Quixote” – Part 6: The Symbolism of the Cave

donquixote_cave

On a hero’s journey, the hero often goes through a symbolic exploration of the subconscious mind. This can be represented by the hero going into water, the underworld, or a cave. For this reason, I was not surprised when Don Quixote entered a cave and explored the abyss within, emerging with an expanded consciousness.

Before undertaking a daunting task, heroes will summon strength from an outside source. Before entering the cave, Don Quixote calls upon Dulcinea for protection and guidance upon his journey into the underworld.

“O mistress of my actions and movements, illustrious and peerless Dulcinea del Toboso, if so be the prayers and supplications of this fortunate lover can reach thy ears, by thy incomparable beauty I entreat thee to listen to them, for they but ask thee not to refuse my favour and protection now that I stand in need of them. I am about to precipitate, to sink, to plunge myself into the abyss that is here before me, only to let the world know that while thou dost favour me there is no impossibility I will not attempt and accomplish.”

(p. 716)

After Don Quixote reemerges from the cave, he relates his experience to his companions. The visions he describes are consistent with altered states of consciousness. He actually describes how he slipped into a state of reverie prior to the shift in awareness that brought on the mystical visions.

“… and as I was thus deep in thought and perplexity, suddenly and without provocation a profound sleep fell upon me, and when I least expected it, I know not how, I awoke and found myself in the midst of the most beautiful, delightful meadow that nature could produce or the most lively human imagination conceive. I opened my eyes, I rubbed them, and found I was not asleep but thoroughly awake. Nevertheless, I felt my head and breast to satisfy myself whether it was I myself who was there or some empty delusive phantom; but touch, feeling, the collected thoughts that passed through my mind, all convinced me that I was the same then and there that I am this moment. Next there presented itself to my sight a stately royal palace or castle, with walls that seemed built of clear transparent crystal; and through two great doors that opened wide therein, I saw coming forth and advancing toward me a venerable old man, clad in a long gown of mulberry-coloured serge that trailed upon the ground.”

(pp. 719 – 720)

The old man that Don Quixote encountered was Montesinos, but I could not help but seeing him as a Merlin figure. In fact, Merlin is mentioned later in the chapter as having prophesized the arrival of Don Quixote (p. 723). And the castle being made of crystal corresponds to the crystal cave of the Merlin mythology.

The last thing I want to discuss is the distortion of time associated with altered states of consciousness.

“I cannot understand, Senor Don Quixote,” remarked the cousin here, “how it is that your worship, in such a short space of time as you have been below there, could have seen so many things, and said and answered so much.”

“How long is it since I went down?” asked Don Quixote.

“Little better than an hour,” replied Sancho.

“That cannot be,” returned Don Quixote, “because night overtook me while I was there, and day came, and it was night again and day again three times; so that, by my reckoning, I have been three days in those remote regions beyond our ken.”

“My master must be right,” replied Sancho, “for as everything that has happened to him is by enchantment, maybe what seems to us an hour would seem three days and nights there.”

(p. 725)

In addition to the distortion of time, there is some number mysticism woven in here. We have three days existing within one hour, or three comprising the one. I cannot help but wonder if this is a reference to the trinity forming the godhead (father, son, holy ghost), or the mind/body/spirit trinity within a human being. Additionally, it could be symbolic of the triple goddess (maiden, mother, crone). Regardless, we have a situation where the hero travels to the underworld, encounters a mystical being, experiences time distortion, and is presented with the number three as being connected to the mystical experience.

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“The Power of One” by Bryce Courtenay

PowerOfOne

This is an extremely powerful book. I found it both uplifting and disturbing. The book was written in 1989 and is the story of a boy named Peekay who grows up in South Africa during WWII. He witnesses the seeds of apartheid take root and turn into racial hatred. In spite of this, he manages to develop both intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually by drawing from what he calls the power of one, which is essentially self-reliance and believing in yourself. It’s a fairly long novel, but it never gets dull and it held my interest from cover to cover.

There is a lot that I can say about this book, but for brevity’s sake I’ll just focus on a few key points. I want to start on a personal note—this book hit very close to home for me. As a young boy, Peekay finds himself the target of brutal bullying. He tries various ways to placate his tormenters but at best he gets only a temporary reprieve. He carries these experiences with him and those experiences directly impact the decisions he makes. As someone who was bullied as a child, I am painfully aware of how this feels. For years I carried my pain and resentment, playing out imaginary scenarios where I confronted my tormenters and finally got even. Thankfully, I eventually realized how toxic this attitude is and learned how to let go of my resentment. But reading this certainly brought back the feelings for me. Anyone who has ever suffered the anguish of being bullied knows how this feels and will always remember it.

A significant portion of the story takes place in a prison setting. There is a great passage where Peekay describes his impression upon first seeing a prison. It is almost like the structure itself is an archetype for bondage, suffering, and the loss of freedom.

My eyes followed a long line of purple that led beyond the houses clustered on the edge of the town to a square of dark buildings surrounded by a high wall perhaps a mile into the valley. The walls facing me stood some three stories high and were studded with at least 150 tiny dark windows all of the same size. The buildings too were built in a square around a center quadrangle of hard brown earth. On each corner of the outside wall was a neat little tower capped with a pyramid of corrugated iron that glinted in the early morning sun. I had never seen a prison, nor had I even imagined one, but there is a racial memory in man that instinctively knows these things. The architecture of misery has an unmistakable look and feel about it.

(p134)

This book is rich with mystical metaphors and symbolism. One of these that I found inspiring is the cactus as a symbol for the manifestation of God. It’s a somewhat long passage but worth including in this post.

The Almighty conceived the cactus plant. If God would choose a plant to represent him, I think he would choose of all plants the cactus. The cactus has all the blessings he tried, but mostly failed, to give to man. Let me tell you how. It has humility, but it is not submissive. It grows where no other plant will grow. It does not complain when the sun bakes its back or the wind tears it from the cliff or drowns it in the dry sand of the desert or when it is thirsty. When the rains come it stores water for the hard times to come. In good times and bad it will still flower. It protects itself from danger, but it harms no other plant. It adapts perfectly to almost any environment. It has patience and enjoys solitude. In Mexico there is a cactus that flowers only once every hundred years and at night. This is saintliness of an extraordinary kind, would you not agree? The cactus has properties that heal the wounds of men and from it come potions that can make man touch the face of God or stare into the mouth of hell. It is the plant of patience and solitude, love and madness, ugliness and beauty, toughness and gentleness. Of all plants, surely God made the cactus in his own image?

(pp. 154 – 155)

Probably the single most powerful symbol in this book is the cave, which is called the crystal cave because of the mineral deposits within. It conjures images of the crystal cave from the Merlin mythology. The cave represents the inner self, a sanctuary within, a secret place of hidden beauty. It is also a place of transition, the passage between life and death. There is also an emphasis on the importance of keeping the cave secret, since your inner self and the source of mystical power must be protected. There is a great passage where Peekay uses visualization, in the same way that a shaman would, to enter the crystal cave.

I took a deep breath and launched myself from the rock; the cool air mixed with spray rushed past my face. I hit the pool at the bottom of the first waterfall. The sound of the splash drowned in the roar of the water. I surfaced to be swept over the second of the falls and then again over the third, landing in the deep pool of swirling green water. I fought my way to the surface and struck out toward the first of the black stones. Pulling myself up onto it, I hurriedly jumped from one stone to another, finally leaping for the pebbly beach beyond. I felt my toes and the ball of my foot touch the smooth round river pebbles, and as I landed I found myself inside the crystal cave of Africa.

(p. 471)

As I said, this is an incredible book and one that is worth reading. In addition, while I was in a bookstore recently, I saw that The Power of One was on the “banned books” shelf, and I have always felt that any book that is worth banning is worth reading.

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