The final story in most editions of Brothers Grimm is a very brief and enigmatic tale from the region of Hesse about a poor boy who finds a golden key and an iron chest. We learn that the key exactly fits the lock, but the story ends before he opens the chest and we are left wondering what – if anything – he will find inside.
On a superficial level, it can feel a bit unsatisfactory, as though the storyteller is playing a trick on us, but deeper consideration of the images and themes can be revealing. Let’s have a look at the story itself. Here is an 1884 translation of the original by Margaret Hunt:
In the winter time, when deep snow lay on the ground, a poor boy was forced to go out on a sledge to fetch wood. When he had gathered it together, and packed it, he wished, as he was so frozen with cold, not to go home at once, but to light a fire and warm himself a little. So he scraped away the snow, and as he was thus clearing the ground, he found a tiny gold key. Hereupon he thought that where the key was, the lock must be also, and dug in the ground and found an iron chest. “If the key does but fit it!” thought he; “no doubt there are precious things in that little box.” He searched, but no keyhole was there. At last he discovered one, but so small that it was hardly visible. He tried it, and the key fitted it exactly. Then he turned it once round, and now we must wait until he has quite unlocked it and opened the lid, and then we shall learn what wonderful things were lying in that box.
The story does not say whether the iron chest contains demons or treasure; it might contain either, both or nothing at all. Perhaps, like Schrödinger’s cat, the very act of opening the chest will determine what is inside. Which prompts a more fundamental question: what does the image of the locked chest represent?
Like all good stories, it has many possible meanings. Personally, I find the idea that the iron chest (buried and locked) is a metaphor for the unconscious self, to be most helpful. To open the chest is to delve into unknown parts of our psyche and ask what hidden aspects of ourselves are now becoming available and what would it take to find and embrace them?
Why would we choose to face these shadows? Because, as Jung said: “One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.” Only by making the unconscious conscious can we hope to embark on the journey of becoming who we truly are.
And if we decide that the time has come to unlock this chest and rummage inside, where shall we find the golden key? There are many possibilities: philosophy, therapy, meditation, physical disciplines, artistic and creative expression, vision quests, and rituals, to name but a few. One of the most ancient and accessible paths to wholeness is through exploring stories such as this one.
With this in mind, my long-time colleague and friend Ashley Ramsden has devised a group exercise, in which participants are encouraged to identify with, and then to exchange, particular word-images in a story that catch their imagination. For example, from the Golden Key, I might say: “I am ‘if the key does but fit’ or I am ‘in that little box’ or I am ‘now we must wait.'”
If I listen carefully and compassionately to myself speaking such phrases then I can begin to acknowledge the kernels of truth within them, e.g. about my existential anxiety; my self-limiting beliefs; the ways in which I hold myself back. Your word-images and phrases will be different from mine, but the principle is the same.
The story also offers some powerful metaphorical questions, such as these, that we can use to deepen our inquiries:
• what represents winter time in our lives?
• what wood have we been forced to gather?
• where is home and where do we belong?
• when have we been frozen with cold?
• what fires have we lit to warm ourselves?
• when and how have we cleared the ground?
• what treasures have we already found?
• what do we still yearn for in our lives?
• what do we hope will be in the chest?
• what do we fear might be in the chest?
• what keys do we need to open the chest?
I wonder which of these questions strike a chord with you? The important thing is to trust our intuition and stay with the process long enough to get beyond trite or literal responses so that we can learn what this wise story has to teach us.
If we are honest with ourselves, what we learn may be disturbing. When we answer the call of the soul it often leads us in unexpected directions which may not please those around us. “Sometimes,” as Jung said, “you have to do something unforgivable just to be able to go on living.” At such times the price of change may appear too high and we cling on to our existing lives instead like limpets to a rock as the tide goes out.
20 years ago, when I was standing on the cusp of making life-changing decisions and filled with doubt and terror, a friend wrote down and handed me a copy of Dawna Markova’s wonderful poem Fully Alive.
I will not die an unlived life.
I will not live in fear
of falling or catching fire.
I choose to inhabit my days,
to allow my living to open me,
to make me less afraid,
to loosen my heart
until it becomes a wing,
a torch, a promise.
I choose to risk my significance;
to live so that which came to me as seed
goes to the next as blossom
and that which came to me as blossom,
goes on as fruit.
My friend knew that we need all the encouragement and inspiration we can muster in order to fling open the lid of the chest and seize the life that is waiting for us.
[Scratch board illustration by kind permission of artist Ruth Sanderson]