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Sat

03

Jan

2009

The Return of the Princess: The Mythic Dimension of the Caroline Kennedy Story
Saturday, 03 January 2009 09:40
by Andrew Bard Schmookler

Twice before I’ve written about Caroline Kennedy’s effort to gain appointment to the Senate seat to be vacated by Hillary Clinton. Both of those pieces were about politics and were expressions of advocacy. This one is not about politics or advocacy. It is, rather, about a mythic dimension I see in this turn in Caroline Kennedy’s life story.

In myths and fairy tales, there’s a motif that might be called “The Return of the Princess” (or, sometimes, of the prince). The child is born into favored circumstances, but some combination of tragedy and malevolence drives the child into some sort of figurative wilderness or isolation.

The variants of the “Return of the Princess” motif include such stories as Sleeping Beauty, Snow White, and Rapunzel. A girl is born into a loving situation, and then something –the curse of an affronted fairy, the replacement of a mother who died with a wicked stepmother, the removal of the baby by an angry enchantress– the girl is taken away into isolation and/or a death-like sleep. And then finally there is a return to the lost world of happy family/royalty.

(With the stories of the princess, perhaps for cultural reasons that have diminished over time, the restoration of the young woman to life/happiness/royal-status is generally accomplished through a male rescuer rather than through her own successful agency in quest of her own redemption.)

An example of such a story with a male child is the original STAR WARS sage, in which Luke Skywalker turns out to have been born –a twin with Princess Leia– as royalty, to be brought up in some out-of-the-way, fringe place, eventually to return as the Jedi hero who destroys the Death Star.


It is a story of life’s blessing overtaken by some great danger or evil with a final successful redemptive return to some version of the world lost.

Americans first met Caroline Kennedy when she was a child of three ensconced in what appeared to be a happy –and most public, most prominent, most royal– family situation. Her father had just been elected President of the United States. Her poised and attractive mother was a media obsession across the world (much like Princess Diana would be decades later).

Then, three years later, her father was murdered in full view of the world. To the nation, the assassination of the young and glamorous president was the greatest shock and grief of kind since that of Lincoln almost a century before. What the loss meant to Caroline, who can tell? But from the pictures, there would seem to have been a very positive bond between father and daughter. And for any six-year-old girl, the murder of her father must almost inevitably be a profound and traumatic loss.

Caroline’s mother, sitting next to her husband at the moment of the murder, splattered by his blood and brains, suffered her own trauma. Soon she had departed from the public stage and from thence forward she did everything she could to protect her children from the world –political and media– in which that trauma had been suffered.

Of all the Kennedy children of her generation, Caroline was the most cloistered. Rapunzel, Rapunzel, let down your hair.

She grew into an adulthood that appears to have been successful in terms of family and career. At the same time, she eschewed the public stage.

Then came the candidacy of Barack Obama, and this brought her forward onto the stage for a few important moments: the endorsement, the vice presidential search, the speech at the convention. And now she has declared her desire to become a U.S. Senator, replacing the woman she helped Barack Obama to defeat.

The arrival onto the scene of this new president, whom she compared in her endorsement statement with her own now mythologized and “iconic” father, has caused a basic shift in Caroline Kennedy’s stance toward the world. She is now emerging fully out of that cloister –through which her mother sought to protect her by separating her from the dangers of her father’s world– into that arena into which, because of her father’s karmic role, she had first encountered the world.

The Princess returns.

This return represents a fulfillment of sorts, as in the fairy tales and myths.

What was once her home, from which she was banished by her father’s murder and her mother’s traumatic fears, can now be her home again.

Her mother’s protective love gave her the space to grow beyond the fear. And now, forty-five years later, she’s venturing back into being more fully the daughter of her slain father. The princess is now ready to be near the throne upon which her father was murdered.

It is not just the passage of time, the maturation beyond fear into strength. Obama’s rise –and her strong connection with Obama– are clearly central to the return of the princess.

First, in terms of the motivation of the return, the rise of a new King in whom she believes is clearly the reason she wishes to venture forth. (Indeed, she could answer much of the media pressure on her to express her “views” on “issues” by stressing how important she thinks it is that this new president succeed in his mission to repair this damaged country, and how dedicated she feels to supporting his agenda to repair this country and to bring greater peace to this world in turmoil.)

And in terms of the fear, the fact that she would once again have a bond with the King makes the situation altogether safer for her. As when she was a little girl, she is bonded to a strong man upon the throne, but unlike when she was a little girl, she’s developed the skills to be an important political officer in his political forces.

For Caroline Kennedy, methinks, this major life transition would be deeply meaningful and healing. The existence of this mythic pattern in folk tales, however it is to be interpreted, is in itself proof of the its importance and meaningfulness in human life. And the fact that whole cultures have placed such tales at the core of their story-telling may also point toward ways in which, at a level more subtle than the politics, it could have meaning also for the country that bore witness to her early blossoming and traumatic loss.

[Final note: the phrase above, “however it is to be interpreted,” marks a place where the exploration of this mythic dimension ought to be expanded and deepened. I do not, however, feel able to do so to my own satisfaction, and would welcome the addition of insightful comments along these lines from anyone who feels able to provide them.]
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