Late one rainy afternoon, while I was organizing my bookshelves, I discovered a copy of Maurice Sendak’s award-winning picture book, Where The Wild Things Are. On the cover was the well-remembered curious creature, part monster (claws, horns, gigantic in size and girth), part human with its dreamy, endearing smile and clean, unhairy man-feet.
It’s a quiet night in the monster’s world. Not a breeze stirs the palm trees under which he dozes, the brightening night sky still dominated by stars. Opposite the sleeping monster a lone sailboat is anchored in a churning river, but no human sailor is in sight.
Child and adult readers alike understand what these images convey: open the book and you too sail into a fantastic world in which known entities – trees, sailboats, moon and stars – coexist with the shapes of things unknown. We have inhabited this territory all our lives, since most nights we too are stirred when our unconscious minds generously initiate and guide us into the unfamiliar and sublime realm of dreams.
At the core of the story is the archetype of transformation young Max undergoes during the mythopoeic adventure of a night sea journey. Jung writes in The Psychology of the Transference, “The night sea journey is a kind of descensus ad inferos – a descent into Hades and a journey to the land of ghosts somewhere beyond this world, beyond consciousness, hence an immersion in the unconscious.” Typically, in night sea journeys the hero is swallowed by a whale or sea creature, but Jung’s description suggests a form of katabasis, the Greek word for “gradual descending,” used in the ancient world to describe a descent in search of understanding, often to the underworld for the purpose of renewal and rebirth.
And so it is with Max, Sendak’s young hero, dressed in his wolf suit, complete with snarly grimace and claws, a boy in a costume soon to meet the monsters of his own imagination.
Max, and his inner monsters, can only be transformed during the night, for it is through unconscious means that the child’s anger, unappeased by logic and rational thought and impervious to parental demands, is assuaged. Sendak tells us as much through his poignant illustrations: within a couple pages Max’s day-world disappears. His bedroom sprouts a forest; shining outside Max’s window, the full moon waxes and wanes according to its own inherent laws and wisdoms. We have entered timeless space, wilderness, where nature, in its weird and lovely fecundity, reigns.
Sendak has written and spoken about how his personal history influenced his work. The monstrousness of the holocaust, the European relatives he thought of as “grotesques,” the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as a manifestation of collective evil, all shaped the children’s tales Sendak wrote. But Sendak is also telling us something more profound about the transpersonal aspect of ego development, that wildness made conscious is energy that can be harnessed for the creative rather than the destructive.
Max said, “BE STILL!” and tamed them with the magic trick of staring into all their yellow eyes without blinking once. And they were frightened and called him the most wild thing of all and made him king of all wild things.
Joseph Campbell has called this scene, in a conversation with Bill Moyers, “one of the great moments in literature . . . because it’s only when a man tames his own demons that he becomes the king of himself if not of the world.”
We need not lose our human form to rage or fear. In the dark night of the soul, potentialities and possibilities exist, though a different kind of vision may be necessary to see them.
In Dream Analysis, Jung wrote: “[The] great principle of transformation [begins] through the things that are lowest . . . that hide from the light of day and from man’s enlightened thinking, hold also the secret of life, that renews itself again and again, until at last, when man understands, he may grasp the inner meaning which has been till then hidden within the very texture of the concrete happening.”
“Let the wild rumpus start!” Max shouts after being made king of all the wild things. He is announcing a joyous new order, one that celebrates the integration of solar and lunar consciousness. We have ascended with him from the underworld into a new day.