A Jungian Interpretation : The Nixie in the Mill-Pond

January 11, 2010

posted and written by Caroline Picard

I started getting interested in some of Carl Jung’s theories. I can’t say why exactly. I find I like them and then I don’t like them. I like wrestling them, certainly. For one thing he creates such a gendered tautology and I can’t help wondering if in fact we are living in a time where such a simple division of male/female is too dated. It seems like we’re moving towards a place where there might at least be a third gender. In any case, I made an attempt of interpreting this fairy tale using his schema. Admittedly a little rough, I nevertheless gave it a shot.

In And Out of Sight

The man, he was a miller, he was married and with good fortune he loved his wife and felt connected to her. As time passed, misfortune came in their way (like a thief). The miller grew more and more despondent, increasingly disconnected from his wife, and even, the mill itself. He lost sight of spring and could no longer conceive of new things.

The Nixie of the Mill-Pond plots the distance between conscious and unconscious elements in a single, male psyche. In one sense that distance is personified through gender, in another, through consequent generations, still another distance is described through the changing form of the self’s labor. The story can be divided into five sections; in the first we are introduced the dominant ego, the miller. Such an occupation requires a developed community; in the second part of the story, the predominant self is that of a huntsman, in the third he is unconscious, underwater, while a female counterpart of his psyche (the anima) is an artist; then he/she is an amphibian. In the fifth and final part, the male and the female components separate to become a shepherd/shepherdess with distant but mirrored lives. In each instance, the whole self is struggling to achieve individuation, by which the male and female components of the psyche would be balanced, in communion with one another. Throughout the story, fortune and misfortune come and go; at every stage the story strives towards achieving happiness and freedom. That happiness, however, is possible only when the male and female components meet as independent and fully conscious individuals.
The miller takes grain and transforms it into something nutritious for both animals and humans alike. It is both an industrious and civic art; an occupation that is not lucrative without a base of regular, paying clients. Thus, the miller comes from a developed societal structure. Yet within that structure he is unhappy. He is so removed from his wife that he has no sense of her being pregnant at all, and further, “could hardly call the mill in which he lived his own.” In so far as the mill represents a kind of industrious order, the miller grows apart from it. He must leave his mill during the aurora, that time between night and day, (or consciousness and unconsciousness), in order to find his anima—the water nixie. The water nixie is essential in as much as she provides the impetus for change and transformation by providing an alternative to the miller’s otherwise ordered persona.

The water nixie appears in the miller’s pond—an essential element of the mill, without a body of water the miller cannot complete his work—she comes up from the depths of his unconsciousness. She has long hair which “she was holding off her shoulders,” revealing herself, bare-chested—an erotic image of “cunning.” The miller is suspicious just as he is captivated. She offers him help and he accepts, without realizing what he has promised her. It is the nixie that reconnects the miller to his home. Suddenly he discovers he has a son: born, it would seem, upon the visit of the nymph—an anima that inhabits the recesses of his life. With the son, the miller has a new sense of purpose, which, though “troubled,” forces a moment of candor with his wife. “Hanging his head, he went up to his wife’s bedside and when she said, why do you not rejoice over the fine boy, he told her what had befallen him, and what kind of promise he’d given to the nixie.” Though promising to help the miller’s fortune, the nixie comes like the same “thief in the night” that displaced his first happiness, that described in the first paragraph. Yet also the nixie is a generative messenger, for in the miller’s son there is an opportunity for transformation.

Imagining that this story is about one psyche, one mind that serves as a stage for all of its interior characters, the son represents a new generation of thought. He is therefore the same self that was first defined as ‘the miller.’ This would explain why, upon the son’s maturation, the original miller disappears entirely. The son/hunstman is more connected with nature and the wild. Like a theoretical offspring of the nixie and the miller, (the anima and the conscious self,) the huntsman forms an adversarial relationship with nature. He is both reliant on it for his living and public purpose in the world, as he is also threatened by it; wild boar are, for instance, dangerous. That adversarial relationship is underscored by the teachings of his miller father who, warns him against the curse of the nixie.

The huntsman tracks wild things and kills them in order to produce nutrition. Unlike the miller who only needs human companionship and commerce, the huntsman relies equally on nature and society. In that way, the huntsman is a kind of messenger between worlds. Yet he is also always chasing nature, just as he is always in fear of it. In one sense the huntsman is more balanced, yet like the miller he also grows distant from his home and wife.

While chasing a small deer, (roe), the huntsman happens upon “the neighborhood of his childhood,” a place of fear. Having been raised with his father’s fear of the nixie, the huntsman fears water, or the subconscious—particularly that body of water which was the basis for his father’s business. Nevertheless despite that fear, he is absorbed in the process of disemboweling his catch. “Roe” can also refer to fish eggs; a small point that complements the fairytale’s agenda, for the huntsman is described in the midst of a necessary but aggressive act, namely cleaning the corpse. Given that fairy tales are sparse in their description, what is described seems important; for instance, the huntsman doesn’t have a name, yet he is described disemboweling the female. The act is practically unsettling, for the huntsman must wash his hands. There seems to be some connection between the violence against nature, particularly a female nature (roe), and the legacy of the father—whereby the prior societal structure, from which the huntsman was born, owes some debt via the huntsman. There is a sense of guilt that permeates this part of the story. Guilt and, I think, repression. At this instant, the nixie rises from her watery home and takes possession of the huntsman, totally swallowing his identity. Presumably, it was this that the miller was initially frightened of when he saw the nixie. One could make the case that he was not ready to give himself over to her in such a way; as a result he gave her his son instead.

It’s no wonder then that it takes the love of the anima to rescue and redeem the huntsman. This speaks to the third part of the fairy tale, where the huntsman does not return home, having been embraced by the nixie and sucked back down into the pond of his childhood. It’s almost like a reverse-birthing process. The male part of the psyche seems unable to cope and consequently shuts down, vanishing into the subconscious. The female component of the huntsman, his “true-hearted maiden,” comes to the pond, circles it, and exhausts herself with loss until at last she dreams.

At this point in the story, the maiden seems to inhabit both the dream world and the ‘real’ world simultaneously. The dream world provides her with advice in the waking world, giving her a means to save the situation and, her lover.  In that sense she is connected to both the conscious and the unconscious. She also re-enters a kind of womb, for she must pass “between great masses of rock,” through “thorns and briars [that] caught her feet” until she reaches a summit that descends into a gentle meadow with a cottage. There she finds an old and helpful woman.

That women serves as a mother figure, in whom the maiden solicits advice. This mother figure—parallel to the miller’s wife—teaches the maiden to take care of herself by combing her hair, she teaches the maiden to play a flute, what seems to have sexual overtones in a metaphorical sense, while also producing an ephemeral music or art. Finally, the old woman teaches the maiden to weave, such that she can produce a lasting and physical piece of work, or art. Weaving is also an archetypal practice; it is part of a predominantly female tradition, related also to story telling and even, recording history. By weaving, the maiden connects with the female history of weavers and makers, in addition to creating something for which the self must be accountable. This part of the story seems to teach the anima to draw the male psyche back out, to convince that male psyche to be born again (i.e. coming out of the “water spout”) under the full moon, what is again a female symbol. The anima draws the huntsman out of his unconscious detachment from the world with her erotic skills, inherited from an older generation of women.

Yet, even once the huntsman has been recovered from the nixie, even when he has surfaced from the unconscious and clasped his anima’s hand, they must still make peace with their unconscious, or their mutual dread of the pond. Again, the anima appeals to the old woman and the woman transforms both huntsman and maid into amphibians, he a frog and she a toad. Here they become animals themselves. They become wholly a part of nature and through their complicit change of form, are able to survive the flood that pursues them. Whereas before the waters of the subconscious were a threat, now the toad and frog are perfectly at home. Except, perhaps, that in the transformation they seem to lose their memory and, even, sense of self.

I couldn’t help thinking of the huntsman in the pond as a thumb in the dyke. That is, so long as he stayed submerged in the water, the pond would stay within the bounds prescribed by the mill. Yet here, the world also became stagnant, and the remaining aspects of the psyche were hysterical. Thus it was not psychologically sustainable for the huntsman to remain there. He had to be plucked out, even though his rescue would create a destructive flood. In order to save themselves in the fourth part, the male and female must each abandon their humanity altogether. While their new form saves them, it nevertheless separates them once more.

Here, in the final and fifth part, we seem to return to the beginning structure. That is, there is a male and a female who once again seem distant.  While there are some essential differences, the organization of its principle parts is the same. That is, the psyche seems to feel homeless. Whereas the miller could not recognize his home, shepherds are nomadic. Yet like the miller, shepherds are important to communities. In this instance, the shepherd is a guide and protector of sheep. Unlike the miller, the shepherd is more connected to nature, yet like the miller, sheepherding is one of society’s oldest professions; like the miller who changes grain into nutrition with an art, so the shepherd makes milk into cheese. The shepherd is obviously earthier. A major difference, however is that while the miller’s wife disappears with the onset of misfortune in the first paragraph, in this last section the maiden shepherd holds equal significance to the male. In fact the male and female aspects comfort one another. “They met in a valley, but did not recognize each other. Yet they rejoiced that they were no longer so lonely.” Since the amphibious episode, both hero and heroine seem to have forgotten their history.

It takes the art of the old woman to inspire his and her recollection. Under the same moon the maiden used to draw her huntsman from the pond, the former-huntsman-now-shepherd reciprocates the art she used to bring him back into the world. “One evening when the full moon was shining in the sky, and the sheep were already at rest, the shepherd pulled the flute out of his pocket, and played on it a beautiful but sorrowful air. When he had finished he saw the shepherdess was weeping bitterly. Why are you weeping, he asked. Alas, answered she, thus shone the full moon when I played this air on the flute for the last time, and the head of my beloved rose out of water.” Here the male and the female have reversed roles. It is he who calls her from the distant place of forgetfulness; he does so by repeating her work, thereby acknowledging what she did for him. In this instance we see an example of communication, a pattern of sound which, when repeated, acknowledges by repetition her initial effort to reach him. Furthermore, by repeating her old song, the shepherd recalls their past.

In this scene symbols for the male and female are equally present. The moon is in the sky and it is full like a womb. He, meanwhile, take his flute from his pocket, like a cock. Theirs is a conspiring seduction and for the first time they recognize one another, thereby bridging the distance that always plagued them earlier. “He looked at her, and it seemed as if a veil fell from his eyes and he recognized his dear wife, and when she looked at him, and the moon shone in his face she knew him also.”

In the end, they seem to have achieved an equality that was not possible before. In order to get to this place in the mountains they had to get farther and farther outside the original patriarchal structure of the miller’s home. They had to stray so far that they became a frog and a toad, and even seemed to forget what one another looked like. Here too, they seem finally content. Whereas before fortune came and went, arriving with brutal consequences—as when the nixie promises the miller riches while exacting his son in return—here the couple is, for the first time physically and literally warm with one another. “They embraced and kissed each other, and no one need ask if they were happy.”

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