By Laurie Steven. November 7, 2022

Many folktales, myths and much post-apocalyptic pop fiction deal with what happens when characters are stripped of the life they thought was theirs.

In the folktale King Thrushbeard, a proud, arrogant princess who refuses all suitors is forced by her father the King to marry a vagabond minstrel. As a result she finds herself living in a hut, doing sweaty chores and demeaning paid work, and being ridiculed at court. Finally, the humble, capable princess is able to feel happiness, and the minstrel reveals that he is a king.

It’s easy to be appalled by this story of men putting a woman in her place. But what’s more disturbing is the thought that we could at any time have our possessions, jobs, and status stripped away by causes that might range from health, to natural disasters, to corporate restructuring.  Would we grow and prove ourselves capable in a new reality?

In the Norwegian tale, King Lindworm, a dragon prince demands wives and then eats them. Eventually he gets a maiden who dresses in many layers of clothes on their wedding night.  Every time the dragon asks her to remove a layer, she insists that he peel off a layer of his dragon skin. Once he is a raw, bloody mass of flesh, she whips him, which must hurt like hell, then bathes him in milk and holds him in her arms.

A dreadful ordeal? Yes. But it’s one through which the voracious dragon becomes a human prince.

King Lear is another stripping story. A vain king, subject to flattery banishes the one daughter who speaks the truth to him, and is subsequently betrayed by the others. Poor Lear loses his possessions, power, clothes and sanity. As the mad king wanders with his fool, he comes to understand his misguided vanity and misuse of power.

So, on a positive note, folk tales suggest that the suffering involved in this process of stripping helps us conquer our faults like arrogance, brutality and vanity. It reveals truth and draws forth our latent good qualities like wisdom and compassion. Ultimately, the journeys we are forced to take make us more human.

One of the greatest stripping tales is the myth of the Sumerian goddess Inanna’s descent to the kingdom of the dead. Inanna is the goddess of love, fertility, procreation and war – a goddess teeming with life, full of ambition. To enter the realm of her sister, the Queen of the Dead, she is forced to remove her fine clothes, crown, jewels, armour, and sceptre.

When Inanna stands naked before her sister, the Queen fastens the eye of death on her and Inanna winds up on a meat hook. This grisly demise, however, precedes her rescue and return to the land of the living.

It’s hotly debated whether Inanna returns to the world strengthened by her journey or not. But pondering this myth is a chastening experience. It reminds us that life ends in death, and in death, all that we value is stripped away. This story challenges us to make the most of ourselves, and our lives, while we have them.

All these stories, give us the chance to think about who we are, who we want to be and what we value. And we can do this with a glass of wine, while we still have some time to go forth and try to make our vision of ourselves a reality.

Enjoy Jo Walton’s exploration of what characters learn about themselves and each other when their known world vanishes.