A “Magic Flute” for Our Times

Kenneth Branagh’s “The Magic Flute”: Rebalancing Masculine and Feminine

The “Elucidation” is a French poem from the early 13th century that is often called the Grail Precursor or Prologue,  for in it we find many elements of what will become the story of the search for the Holy Grail. The second section of the poem tells of how the Maidens of the Well would serve food and drink in golden bowls to travelers who asked politely for their help. Then King Amangon raped one of the maidens and stole her golden bowl. As a result,

Afterwards many others did likewise
Because of the example given
By the king who should have protected the maidens
And guarded and kept them safe.

The violated maidens retreat to the Castle of the Fisher King, which then vanishes. Amangon and his knights all meet “dreadful ends,” but the repercussions don’t end there.

The land was so wasted
That no tree ever bloomed there again,
The grasses and flowers withered,
And the streams dried up.

A century later, Arthur and his knights hear the story and immediately resolve to redress this crime and restore the land. They not only protect women, but set out to destroy “the lineage of those who had harmed” the maidens by fighting and killing all would-be rapists. They are told that the wrong will not be righted until knights and maidens have traveled together to find the Court of the Fisher King. The Prologue then tells us that they succeed:

And through them the kingdom was so replenished
That the streams that had stopped flowing
And the springs that had surged forth
Long ago but were now dried up
All flowed again through the meadows;
The grass was once more green and thick
And the woods leafy and shaded.

Although subsequent versions of the story focus on the search for the Fisher King and the Holy Grail and ignore the tale of the violated maidens, this myth appears in other cultures. For example, an ancient Hindu myth tells of Vritra, a demon who has drunk up the rivers and turned the land to a desert. In response Indra, the god of war, joins with Sarasvati, goddess of learning and music, to destroy the demon, and the land is restored.

When the masculine and feminine get out of balance, the water disappears and the land gets poisoned, as T.S. Eliot describes in his poem “The Waste Land.” Everything dies. The air is filled with dust and the light is dimmed until noble, true-hearted warriors join with the feminine and with her aid, restore the land to health.

Mozart’s “Magic Flute,” at its most basic, is a typical heroic quest story where the hero Tamino, under the guidance of the wise wizard Sarastro, defeats the evil Queen of the Night and rescues the princess Pamina. When Kenneth Branagh made a film of the opera, he turned to his brilliant friend Stephen Fry for an updated libretto. The result is a gorgeous re-imagining of Mozart’s opera as a reunion of masculine and feminine that restores the poisoned land.

Branagh and Fry set the opera in a world war context. The Queen rides a tank and leads an army, while the serpents that threaten Tamino are tendrils of the poison gas she has released. The Queen represents the destructive side of the feminine that erupts when it is not honored by the masculine, which can happen in both men and women; unless we honor that within us that nurtures and heals, the resulting inner void can make us greedy and cruel to others. In Fry’s libretto, the Queen feels betrayed by Sarastro, her former lover, and her anger is so great she cannot hear Sarastro’s regret and attempts at reconciliation. In her bitterness, she sees their daughter, the maiden Pamina, as a pawn to be used for her own ends, even promising Pamina to a would-be rapist as a reward for his help.

Sarastro is on the side of the light. We grasp that he has learned wisdom in age and now, having failed to reconcile with the feminine, has become the old man who trains the young hero. (How many wise old men were fools when they were young, and now seek to help other young men avoid their mistakes?) In “The Magic Flute,” the princess is not just the prize, as is the usual case in a hero quest story; Pamina holds the magic flute whose music protects and heals. Together, Tamino and Pamino pass through the hero’s trials and emerge, both with a hand holding the magic flute as they raise it over their heads. The flute plays, the forces of darkness are expelled, and the land is healed.

We are seeing this myth play out here and now. The demonic forces of greed are threatening to take over; the king violates women and encourages other men to follow his example; those who have become embittered because their needs have been neglected are lashing out.

But  already the righteous knights are responding. Seasoned warriors are joining with First Nations peoples to help protect the waters of this land. Thousands of veterans went to Standing Rock to face down those who would rape the land and poison the water. When they arrived on the reservation, the leaders of the warriors knelt and begged forgiveness of the tribal elders, the guardians of the land, for their past transgressions. They then vowed to fight alongside them and defend the land, not just at Standing Rock but at Flint, Michigan, where the water has been poisoned for decades, and anywhere else they are needed. Amidst the fear and anger of these times, the magic flute is beginning to play.

 

 

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