The Soul’s Journey in Wonderland

What is normality? Illness and madness are spreading in our world. What can the archetype of the wise fool – as a power inherent in myself – teach me?

The Soul’s Journey in Wonderland


“But I don’t want to go among mad people,“ Alice remarked.

“Oh, you can’t help that,“ said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.“

“How do you know I’m mad?“ said Alice.

“You must be,“ said the Cat, “or else you would’t have come here.“

                                                                 Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland

When I was a child, I was fascinated by the story of the little girl Alice who falls down the shaft of a rabbit hole and suddenly finds herself in a wondrous world whose grotesque inhabitants display absurd manners. There is, for instance, the mad Hatter, whose life is a constant tea-party with quite peculiar rules of behaviour. There are pompous, power-hungry monarchs who make their peasants‘ life hell without realizing that they are, in truth, nothing but two-dimensional playing-cards. Even clever and sensible Alice loses her bearings in this upside-down world. She turns to the Cheshire-Cat for help and asks,

“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?“

“That depends a good deal on where you want  to get to,“ said the Cat . “I don’t much care where – “ said Alice.

“Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,“ said the Cat.

A dream?

At any rate, Alice awakens at the ending of the story to discover that she has only been dreaming.

Quite a few people these days would be happy to be dreaming since they are being confronted with the curious conduct of their fellow human beings and with a world that seems to have gone completely mad. Our planet is in imminent danger of losing its present precarious balance. Innumerable people are caught up in disastrous scenes of violence and destruction,  losing the foundation of their existence, fear for their health, experience loneliness in epidemic dimensions. They are losing their inner balance and falling ill physically as well as mentally.

Are we being threatened by another “wave“, which will wash to the surface all the psychological misery that has been, more or less, latently there for a long time? Among a flood of recent media publications on this topic one can find, for example, the following statement by Mirriam Prieß (resilience-coach and management counsellor in Hamburg): “The psychological strain is enormous, the demand for therapy and treatment exceeds all capacities of what is on offer. The number of days of absence from work on account of psychological problems has more than doubled within ten years.“ (from: FOCUS 29/2019)

According to another article that was published prior to the corona crisis (from: Die Zeit, November 2019) “400,000 to 800,000 German citizens develop the mental state of insanity or emotional disorder due to schizophrenia at least once in their life.“

The world-wide statistics are alarming.

As a consequence, do we live in a world full of illness and madness where people have lost or are losing “the plot“? Are we being fooled? People who, more or less, function “normally“ and inconspicuously in our society presumably tend to consider themselves mentally and psychologically “sane“. A healthy defence mechanism makes them keep their distance from fellow human beings who do not conform to the generally accepted norm, who show bizarre behaviour, or whose way of experiencing reality does not correspond to or even contradicts the consensus of the majority. Such lack of conformity can be irritating. It may even seem threatening, as we sense that the borderline which separates our normal consciousness from what is considered to be psychologically abnormal and pathological is really uncomfortably thin.

Invitation to a magical theatre

Like the protagonist in Hermann Hesse’s novel “Steppenwolf“, we might some day receive an invitation to a magical theatre and unexpectedly find ourselves in a cabinet of mirrors reflecting the manifold distorted images and the depths of our own psychological nature. Does that not also remind us of the heroes in archaic mythology who had to fearlessly confront monstrous beasts (inherent in their own natural being!), who had to descend into the frightening darkness of the underworld and to find their way out of an inescapable labyrinth?

Who is the Clown? Who is the Fool?

Which one knows he’s playing? Which one is lost in the game?

                                                           Eric Burdon

The playing card „The Fool“

Another image comes to my mind which belongs to an archetypal world: It is the playing-card “The Fool“ of the Rider-Waite-Tarot.

Throughout many passages of my life journey – some of them adventurous, some of them lonely, some of them full of dangers – this “inner image“ has accompanied me. The playing-card shows a young man wearing rather colourful and extravagant clothes, who gives the impression of being naive and oblivious to what’s going on around him. A white dog is following him at his heels. It is not clearly recognizable whether the dog wants to warn the wanderer with its barking, or whether it wants to bite his calf. (Does this animal perhaps represent the animal nature of a human being who is about to transcend the border of the sphere of nature?) The bundle which the young man is carrying over his shoulder (does it contain the burden of the past or the last remnants of worldly possessions?) is not very large and does not hamper his progress. But where is the young wanderer going? His gaze fixed on the brightly lit heights above, with the sun shining benevolently on him, he seems to be

thoroughly unaware of  the ragged rocks surrounding him and of the fact that in his elated dance-like pose he is standing right at the edge of an abyss! He would, without any doubt, be in great danger if it were not for the white rose he is gracefully holding in his hand. It is the rose, this magical sign, which makes the viewer realize with certainty that whatever happens to the Fool will not seriously harm him or lead him astray. In his state of self-abandon he seems to be free of all attachment to his body or to the earth. This may be the reason for his fearlessness and his actual invulnerability. On the other hand, his loneliness may be due to the fact that the human beings who belong entirely to the world below cannot recognize his true being and thus make him become an outsider.

The card “The Fool“ has been given the number zero or is unnumbered in Tarot. Its position is either at the beginning or at the end of the game‘s journey through the 22 major arcana. What then, really, is a “fool“? What role does he play? What is he according to his innermost being? I would like to take a closer look at this mysterious figure.

The Fool of God

We encounter the archetype of the wise fool in all cultures of the world. It is his very isolated position in society which grants him access to knowledge and experience that is out of reach for ordinary human beings. It is interesting, by the way, that in former times madmen were regarded as being especially blessed by God or even as being holy.

At any rate, the figure ft he fool, or that ft he jester, shows to a remarkable extent qualities such as courage, originality and readiness to experiment. His non-conformity is based on fine-tuned intuition as well as the ability to combine instinct and imagination. In former times, the court jester was the only one to be permitted to pit his wits against the ruling authority. He could expose inconsistencies and weaknesses or proclaim truths that would have cost others their life.

The jester has another special gift. He has a keen sense of humour. It is a well-known fact that many spiritual teachers knew how to combine wisdom and wit. Thus, they often played tricks on their pupils in order to make them obtain certain lessons and insights. In Sufism, the fool (or jester) plays a prominent role next to the archetypes of the dancer, the healer and the priest.

At a deeper level, he is connected with the other archetypes and their qualities. As “The Fool of God“ (a common name in early Tarot sets) he has special access to the divine world. He receives its impressions and messages and passes them on to other human beings. In his role as warrior he exposes people’s conceitedness or follies and ridicules them. Since he has such a deep understanding and such compassion for the outsiders and madmen of this world, for the hidden motives of their hearts and for the suffering of the psyche, he is also gifted with the powers of a healer.

As a juggler and dancer he possesses a keen sense of the balance of things. He moves with equal ease over level ground, across precipices and in dazzling heights. Moreover, he charms the world with his cheerfulness and grace.

One step further

I imagine this wanderer between two worlds daring to go one step further. Like the eagle that he carries as a symbol on his bag, he rises into the air and becomes immersed in the light that has surrounded him from all sides. His white rose is his key to gain access to the sphere of the divine spirit, to receive entirely new insights and creative powers.

Rather than continuing to turn round and round with the wheel of life – at times clinging to the top, at other times hanging on to the bottom, one time the persecutor, another time the persecuted – he has reached the centre of all things. He is welcomed by motionless silence. He experiences freedom beyond anything conceivable by the mind.

Calmly sitting on the bough of a tree

I wonder what the archetype of the fool, as a power inherent in myself, can teach me. First of all, he can teach me the art of self-knowledge. For aren’t we all fools, especially when we believe ourselves to be so superior? Secondly, he can teach me how to laugh and be at ease, even in times when the journey gets rough or when this tricky life on our planet could literally drive me insane. Finally, I can learn how to help others to gain insight and to overcome.

After his sublime vision high up in the mountains, the acrobat could climb downhill again, down to the realm of wonderland. Calmly sitting on the bough of a tree at a crossing he might give Alice a friendly nod. Perhaps she has grown tired of gazing at the peculiarities of the wonderworld and its creatures. Perhaps now she will ask the fool (her own inner compass) to tell her the way.

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Date: November 3, 2021
Author: Isabel Lehnen (Germany)
Photo: till-eulenspiegel-Manfred Zajac auf Pixabay CCO

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