“One of the best ways to start answering questions such as “who am I?” and “what can I do in the world?” is to read books.”
– Meg Rosoff
A bildungsroman is a genre of story-telling that is educative in nature. Popularised as a ‘coming of age’ story such stories the protagonist is transformed through challenge and ordeal. Joyce’s ‘Portrait of the artist’, Goethe’s ‘Meister Wilhelm’s apprenticeship’ and Thomas Mann’s ‘The magic mountain’ are famous examples.
But really all stories have this pedagogical aspect to it. Dante’s ‘Divine comedy’, ‘The odyssey’, the story of the Buddha or Christ are all stories of a character that willingly or unwillingly undertakes a journey towards enlightenment. The real gain in a bildungsroman or a ‘Hero’s journey’, as Joseph Campbell called it, is the development of inner knowledge, of awareness and the transformation in the world that comes as a result. It is always a movement towards greater humanity and the realisation of human values.
There is an afghan story that tells of a mean and arrogant King who sat on the throne from removed from the masses of his people. He saw his subjects simply as pawns that he could control and manipulate. He inflicts unjust taxes on them and cares little for their welfare.
As Michael Meade points out the King in a story is generally a symbol for the self. So, when we encounter the King immediately we see this as relating fundamentally to our own self. The story is holding up a mirror and asking us where in our lives we are acting this way. It is this invitation or challenge that makes myths and fairy-tales often so educative in nature.
One day the Afghan king went out hunting a Gazelle. The Gazelle was fast and lead the King into unknown places deep within the forest. The King runs and runs chasing his prey until he realises he is completely lost. The Gazelle has lead him right to the edge of a desert. A dust storm envelopes him, and blows relentlessly for three days. The King stubbornly continues the move, searching for a way out.
After three days the storm abates. The dust has thorn the Kings clothes and his face is weary with tiredness and terror. Eventually he happens upon some nomads passing through the desert. When he informs them that he is the King they laugh at him. Nevertheless, they direct him to the palace where he lives.
When he arrives there his own guards don’t even recognise him and take for a crazed fool. From behind the gates the king can see the substitute King, a mysterious figure who has taken his place. He is mean in spirit, cruel, arrogant and indifferent.
Time passes and the King becomes accustomed to his new life living in poverty amongst the general populace. He manages to get by but never without the help of others. People offer him food, shelter and support when he needs it. A subtle change begins to dawn on him and he finds himself in turn reciprocating by helping those around him whenever he can. Once he helps a boy from a burning fire; another time he gives food to one hungrier than he. His experience amongst the people help him realise that others are just like him and that people need to care and look after each other in life.
As he continues to care and help others in his heart is kindled a kinship and a love for his fellow human being. Not only does his behaviour change but, as this love for the life around him grows, so too does his perception of the world change. Everything becomes richer, more vivid and beautiful.
The King who has taken his place is simply a benevolent spirit, the angel of humility, who, when she sees that the King has learnt his lesson hand backs the throne to him. From that day forward the King rules justly and wisely with great care and concern for the Kingdom.