German Castles & The Soul of Story
July 6th, 2017 -- Exploring Heidelberg Castle
Fairytales. How we love to dream about these idealistic worlds where glass slippers fit and straw can be spun into gold. According to anthropologist Joseph Campbell's monomyth, "The Hero's Journey," virtually every story is made up of fairytale ingredients — a call to adventure, a wizard mentor, a hero prince, a daunting dragon.
Story shapes the world around it. How Story is told is what shapes the way we preceive it.
I once lived in a castle. It was a master fortress of juniper and baling twine, protected by a dusty desert breeze serving as a moat and a small bobcat named Martin. I lived in the castle with my grandfather's sister, Aunt Pat. Call her the Merlin to my story, if you will. Aunt Pat, with eyes twinkling aquamarine mischief, and me, with callused bare feet and long blonde plaits.
It was a castle. Because we said it was. It was our Story.
I don’t spend my daydreams in our juniper palace anymore, but today, standing in the courtyard of Germany’s Heidelberg Castle, all of those memories flood back, magnified in the presence of somber stone towers that sprout from the cobblestones.
The birthplace of Fairytale, the soul of Story.
I walk past ovens large enough to roast four oxen, and am transported back in time to the feeling of ash in my hair and the smell of drumsticks being roasted over the open fire with Aunt Pat. She’s not here with me this time, but her three-year-old granddaughter, Anna, squeals with delight from my shoulders as we climb the castle steps.
Rooms shelved with vials of a hundred potions, herbs, and obscure ingredients make me remember the time spent crushing juniper berries and scavenging wishbones of dry rodent carcasses for our own “secret potions.”
The great hall boasts a long table set with ornate china and fresh flowers. The grandeur of it may not compare to our own 2x4 saw-horse table, but our tea tasted just as fine from the chipped china we’d found in an ratty buried suitcase on the hill.
A display of gold coins makes me remember our own treasury loaded with other treasures from our excavated suitcase.
I hear taffeta skirts rustling in the portraits gracing the palace walls, and almost feel the smoothness of the pearls adorning the subjects' long, pale forms. Our own royal dress was almost to standard, with Aunt Pat’s supply of vintage nighties and costume beads used to fashion elaborate gowns. More often than not, however, our denim breeches served to be much more practical for slaying dragons than the obscene tights and chain mail tunics this castle had on display for it’s noblemen.
But there’s a weighty feeling of age in these paint-layered walls and crumbling pillars that I’ve never felt before, even in my imagination. Standing in the same courtyard that bustled with life a thousand years ago is almost too much to wrap my mind around. I close my eyes and try to feel the vibration of the lowering drawbridge, to smell the rye bread cooling in the window, and to hear horses lunging up the broad steps.
So much Story here.
A rich blanket of ivy is not the only form of life woven through the castle’s sandstone walls. The whispers of a thousand secrets and legends linger, still alive today.
A small scratch on the iron doorknocker has Story. The iron loop hangs on a tiny door in the massive entrance gates used by messengers late at night. It was promised that whoever could bite through the knocker would be given the castle. Apparently, while many tried and failed, one ragged hag was able to sink her fangs a fair distance through the iron, but her only reward was being burned as a witch.
Another tale is etched into a wine vat made from the oak of one hundred and thirty eight trees — large enough for an orchestra to sneak into for a surprise concert at a lavish dinner party.
Centuries of war and exile have left the gardens to fade from glory, but the few remains boast of masterful greek sculptures, mechanical singing birds, and elaborate twisting labyrinths.
Buds in my ears feed me facts as I scurry about the inner walls of the castle, but I jerk them out when I come to the great terrace. A reverent silence is demanded by the undulating scene below. Apricot rooftops meld with charcoal cathedral spires and creamy pastel walls in the village that rolls on through the valley, greeting silver serpentine streams and amber city squares.
The neatly-packed structures taper off into tidy vineyards that sweep up the hillside in rows. An emerald wreath of trees crowns the entire view, suggesting that this little kingdom is all that exists in the world. These forested hills and nothing else. Just green leaves that spill over the fixed tureen.
Again, I reflect on the history of how this land worked, versus my childhood vision of medieval life. I think back to Aunt Pat and the kingdom we ruled. Our beetle-peasants working hard in their sagebrush villages. Our feasts of mud pies and hours spent in treetop-towers watching for foreign invaders: i.e. brothers and homework-bearing grown-ups.
When we weren’t fighting pretend dragons, she taught me about fighting life’s real dragons and obstacles with Story.
I remember her telling me, “It’s not about what happened. It’s about how you tell your story.”
"One day 6 boys, that I thought I knew well, teamed up on me and tried to unbutton and unzip my clothes. I was so protective and ashamed of that story for so long.”
I asked her what had changed.
"I realized that it took one boy per limb, one for my head, and one to lay across my belly, to hold me down; yet I outwitted them, fought them off, and escaped with only one button undone, and the zipper unzipped."
If I remember correctly she was about 12 years old.
Aunt Pat kicked ass. She was the hero of her story, not the victim.
She's helped me face my dragons with Story too. Heartbreaks healed, loss suplemented, and faith restored through the charting of lessons learned and the crafting of Story. Every story has it’s fairytale ingredients. But what I learned from Aunt Pat is that being a victim is a choice.
My dear Aunt Pat, standing here with little Anna today, I can only hope that I can someday share with her the things you taught me about fairytales, about dragons, and about Story. From traveling the world, to getting out of bed in the morning, you’re with me everywhere I go, and no matter what dragons are to be faced, I know that Story always wins.