Becoming Real: Seeing Through the Eyes of the Velveteen Rabbit
By Marta Koonz

“By the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.” (Williams, 2005, p. 17)

From one vantage point, The Velveteen Rabbit appears a tale for children, a story that brings to mind beloved toys and childhood dreams. But if we shift our view just a bit, we can see that the words hold truth and meaning for children of all ages, young and young-at-heart. A further shift and an imagining into these very words brings us to a place where the Velveteen Rabbit himself is able to explain the intricacies of Hillman’s archetypal psychology. By gently holding both the children’s storybook and the story of archetypal psychology side by side, we will consider the four aspects of this psychology, looking at each in turn through the eyes of the Velveteen Rabbit.

We will begin by imagining into the story itself, engendering the toys and allowing
ourselves to hear their voices and feel their emotions. We will journey with Rabbit as he experiences both the joys and struggles of life, and begins to understand the value of these experiences. Finally, we will consider what it means to immerse ourselves in the experience of soul-making, to be enchanted, to open ourselves to the multiplicity present in every moment.

My argument is simple: The story of the Velveteen Rabbit, when read from the imaginal and reflective perspective of soul, not only provides us with an opportunity to observe a “deepening of events into experiences” (Hillman, 1975, p. xvi), but also engages
us, the readers, in the very act of soul-making itself. As we consider Rabbit’s transformation to “Real,” we, in turn, become a bit more Real. Hillman (1972) shared with us that “what we hold close in our imaginal world are not just images and ideas but living bits of soul; when they are spoken, a bit of soul is carried with them (p. 182). Rabbit has spoken, he has told us his tale, and as Hillman observed, “When we tell our tales, we give away our souls” (p. 182). It is this bit of soul, given to us by the Velveteen Rabbit, that offers us the opportunity to become Real.

Archetypal Psychology and Soul

Before embarking on a quest to explore what gives archetypal psychology its distinct flavor, let us attempt to define the psychology itself. In looking to the Greek roots of the word “psychology” we find logos and psyche, speech and soul. The word archetypal” offers a multitude of potential meanings, but for the purposes of this paper, Hillman’s (1977) musings seem best suited: He noted that archetypal “rather than pointing at something, points to something, and this is value.” When we look at an image from an archetypal perspective, “we ennoble or empower the image with the widest, richest, and deepest possible significance” (p. 82). Speech, soul, value, image, significance: These words fall together for me in a way that asks me to consider archetypal psychology as a way of interacting with the soul that honors its way of speaking, that recognizes the value and significance held within the images it shares.

This viewpoint urges me to consider the word “soul,” and ponder how it is seen in this psychology that places such importance upon it. Hillman (1975) stated, “By soul I mean, first of all, a perspective rather than a substance, a viewpoint towards things rather than a thing itself. This perspective is reflective; it mediates events and makes differences between ourselves and everything that happens” (p. xvi). He continued, “By ‘soul’ I mean the imaginative possibility in our natures, the experiencing through reflective speculation, dream, image, and fantasy—that mode which recognizes all realities as primarily symbolic or metaphorical” (Hillman, 1975, p. xvii). Depth psychologist Glen Slater noted that in Hillman’s work “The driving concern is for apt perspective—insight that satisfies through its very way of seeing, so that the process of being psychological, referred to by him as soul-making, becomes the focus” (as cited in Hillman, 2005, p. x). I continue to see the multiplicity. Seeing soul as a thing, as an internal guiding force, provides an easier handle to grasp when first encountering the word and concept. It is here I begin with others. I am then able to move beyond, to sink into soul, to explore the connection that unites my being with all that surrounds me—a recognition of the anima mundi that shares my spark. Holding this allows me to reflect from a new perspective, to reach the place where soul and soul-making merge as one and experience and reflection deepen to a way of being.

Personifying, or Imagining Things

The first element of archetypal psychology we shall explore is that of “personifying,” or imagining things. Hillman (1975) defined personifying as “the spontaneous experiencing, envisioning and speaking of the configurations of existence as psychic presences” (p. 12). He saw it as “a way of being in the world and experiencing the world as
a psychological field, where persons are given with events, so that events are experiences that touch us, move us, appeal to us” (Hillman, 1975, p. 13). A sign of this imagining is the use of capital letters, for “words with capital letters are charged with affect, they jump out of their sentences and become images” (Hillman, 1975, p. 14). Personifying is what makes the story of the Velveteen Rabbit so meaningful: Rabbit and Skin Horse are not mere toys tossed upon the nursery floor, waiting to be picked up and given life. They have their own essence that does rely on another, that has no need for human contact to be brought into existence.  We can see the spirit of this imagining into on multiple levels when we consider “becoming Real.”

First, there is the word itself: “Real.” Just as in Jungian psychology there is a difference between the small “s” self and the capitol “S” Self, we see “Real” distinguished, set apart by its grown up first letter. Hillman (1975) shared the Greek and Roman tradition of  “personifying such psychic powers as Fame, Insolence, Night, Ugliness, Timing, Hope, to name but a few,” a practice that recognized personifying as a “necessary mode of understanding the world and being in it” (p. 13). This “act of ensouling” paid homage to these powers, recognizing them as spirits that, if ignored, could manifest themselves in very tangible ways. Such is the case with Real, for in neglecting this powerful entity, we open ourselves up to its disappointment.

Just what is Real? We find its roots in nursery magic, “strange and wonderful,” and only understood by “those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse” (Williams, 2005, p. 11). The Skin Horse tells us that “Real isn’t how you are made, it’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with you, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real” (Williams, 2005, p. 11). We sense the connection here with Eros, with Love itself. We feel the story of Eros and Psyche, linking heart and soul, loving and soul-making. Indeed, Hillman (1975) stated that personifying “offers another avenue of loving, of imagining things in a personal form so that we can find access to them with our hearts” (Hillman, p. 14). He further mused, “Perhaps the loving comes first. Perhaps only through love is it possible to recognize the person of the soul” (Hillman, 1975, p. 44). Thus the love of the Boy and the soul of the Rabbit unite, Eros and Psyche joined, imagined into being.

Pathologizing, or Falling Apart

The journey of becoming Real begins with the falling apart that is the hallmark of pathologizing. Hillman (1975) defined pathologizing as “the psyche’s autonomous ability to create illness, morbidity, disorder, abnormality, and suffering in any aspect of its behavior and to experience and imagine life through this deformed and afflicted perspective” (p. 57). “By the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby” (Williams, 2005, p. 17); you suffer, you discover shortcomings, you experience loss. Falling apart is not for the faint of heart, for it is not an easy journey.

“ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse, Rabbit’s wise old guide. “You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept’ ” (Williams, 2005, p. 16). Hillman (1975) pointed out that there is necessity in the travails of becoming, noting that “the soul can exist without its therapists but not without its afflictions” (p. 71). All learning involves an element of challenge, the learning of our authentic self most of all.

It is the struggle that adds the richness. Yes, the “idea of growing shabby and losing your eyes and whiskers is rather sad”, and we might find ourselves wishing that we could become real “without these uncomfortable things happening” Williams, 2005, p. 19). But these uncomfortable things are precisely what are needed, for they are the ingredients necessary to spur the meaningful reflection that leads to soul-making. Rabbit himself “found it uncomfortable, for the boy hugged him very tight, and sometimes he rolled over on him, and sometimes he pushed him so far under the pillow that the he could scarcely breathe” (Williams, 2005, p. 22). Hillman (1975) reminded us that “the dimension of soul is depth (not breadth or height) and the dimension of our soul travel is downward” (p. xvii), thus we see how the pushing under plays a vital role, how events that leave us “wet through with the dew and quite earthy from diving into the burrows” (Williams, 2005, p. 27) provide us with the grist needed to turn the wheel. We are able to bear our  “beautiful velveteen fur getting shabbier and shabbier, and our tails becoming unsewn, and all the pink rubbed off our noses,” (Williams, 2005, p. 25), for this is an undoing, and “the undoing always becomes an opening. The result is a different perspective, one that deepens before it explains” (Slater, as cited in Hillman, 2005, p. ix). Becoming unsewn, illness, getting shabbier, suffering—these are the opening that lead to a new way of seeing, a way that digs down into our being before meaning is made.

Psychologizing, or Seeing Through

It is in the psychologizing that we begin to see the glimmers that make sense of a life that has left us, like the Skin Horse, with “a brown coat that is bald in patches and showed the seams underneath,” and with “most of the hairs in our tails having been pulled out to string bead necklaces” (Williams, 2005, p. 10). Hillman described his seeing through as having two interconnected parts: action and idea. “On the one hand, psychologizing. . . is an action. The soul’s first habitual activity is reflection. . . and reflection by means of ideas is an activity; idea-forming and idea-using are actions” (1975, pp. 116-117). But more than action alone, psychologizing also has a need for ideas, for “action always enacts an idea; psychological ideas do not oppose action; rather they enhance it by making behavior of any kind a significant embodiment of soul” (Hillman, 1975, p. 117). Thus we see that action and
idea have a senex/puer relationship—the senex being the archetypal sage, philosopher or “old man,” while the puer is the eternal youth.  Much like the senex, an idea “consolidates, grounds, and disciplines,” while action, puer-like in nature, “flashes with insight and thrives on fantasy and creativity” (Slater, as cited in Hillman, 2005, p. xi). Psychologizing, with its dance of reflection, with its focus on ideas, acts as guide in our-soul-making.

The reflective speculation that lives within psychologizing urges us to look through the lens of What? instead of the “philosophical Why? Or the practical How?” It is this shift
that makes all the difference, for it is “psychologizing’s what—dissolving first into ‘Which?’. . . and then ultimately into ‘Who’” (Hillman, 1975, p. 139) that leads us downward into soul. When all our whiskers are “loved off,” and the “pink lining to our ears turns grey, and our brown spots fade” (Williams, 2005, p. 50) we serve Psyche by asking, ”What is hidden within this loss?” or “Which part of me is experiencing this as hurtful? Or “Who in me worries that my whiskers are no more?” (Hillman, 1975, p. 139).

It is this style of questioning that “implies that everything everywhere is a matter for
the psyche, matters to it—is significant, offers a spark, releases or feeds soul” (Hillman, 1975, p. 138).  When we are led to ask, “Who in me feels ‘very insignificant and commonplace’ “ (Williams, 2005, p. 9), we probe the gash that life has slashed within us, a move that invites Psyche to enter. It is this invitation, humbly offered, that allows our “open wounds” to “begin to scar over with the skin of reflective engagement” (Slater, as cited in Hillman, 2005, p. xvii). We gain a new perspective: we see differently.  “By seeing differently, we do differently” (Hillman, 1975, p. 122). We are different, we become Real.

This new perspective, this ability to find meaning in loss and suffering, in challenge
and difference, is not always easy to come by. The question, “How do you help the person be with their affliction, to hold it differently?” (G. Slater, personal communication, November 16, 2013), might best be answered by turning to myth. “Myths talk to psyche in its own language; they speak emotionally, dramatically, sensuously, fantastically” (Hillman, 1975, p. 154). This common language may well help us “lean into the suffering” and find the meaning that lies within.

“’Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.” Yes, often times it does, but, as the Skin Horse
reminded us, “When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt”’ (Williams, 2005, p. 15). When we are able to see through the struggle, to imagine into the suffering, we don’t mind the pain.  Myth speaks a language that invites us to engage in “reflective speculation” (Hillman, 1975, p. xvi). “Myths do not tell us how. They simply give the invisible background which starts us imagining, questioning, going deeper” (Hillman, 1975, p. 158). They bring us to a place of possibilities, they nudge us to explore and honor our personal story.

Dehumanizing, or Soul-Making

Hillman (1975) stated that “There is no place without Gods and no activity that does
not enact them. Every fantasy, every experience has its archetypal reason. There is nothing that does not belong to one God or another” (p. 169). It is this perspective that marks soul-making as its own, a perspective that points to the significance and meaning in that which Psyche offers. Dehumanizing is a “gods-saturated way of interacting with the soul (Koonz, 2013, n.p.), an approach that “starts and stays with the soul’s native polycentricity,” that “keeps in mind the governance of the Gods” (Hillman, 1975, p. 167).  In taking this polytheistic approach, “we enter a style of consciousness where psychology and religion are not defined against each other so that they may more easily become each other” (Hillman, 1975, p. 168).

Again we see a senex/puer relationship, with the “tradition, stasis, structure, and
authority” of religion interfacing with the “immediacy, wandering, invention, and idealism” (Slater, as cited in Hillman, 2005, p. xi) of psychology, of depth psychology, of psyche. Hillman noted that while  “religion approaches Gods with ritual, prayer, sacrifice, worship, creed,” in archetypal psychology the “Gods are imagined. They are approached through psychological methods of personifying, pathologizing, and psychologizing” (Hillman, 1975, p. 170).

Archetypal psychology is a psychology that honors the imaginal “speech of the soul”
(Hillman, 1975, p. 119), that pays heed to its images, and thus gives credence to the
multiple Gods within. “When we imagine there’s a God in every wound, we hold the wound differently” (G. Slater, personal communication, November 16, 2013). Dehumanizing demands we do just that; it requires that we imagine the potentiality of Gods, the multiple voices within the single experience.

Another vantage point that may be taken in our exploration of soul-making is that of  “enchantment,” which Slater (personal communication, November 16, 2013) put forth as another form of dehumanizing. Moore (1996) writes that “enchantment is a spell that comes over us, an aura of fantasy and emotion that can settle on the heart and either disturb it or send it into rapture and reverie.” (p. ix)

We can image that the various possibilities that emerge to sway the heart may have
been sparked by one god or another, “by some haunting quality in the world or by a spirit or voice speaking from deep within a thing, or place, or person” (p. ix). Enchantment bids us to take up an imaginal perspective, to consider possibilities not grounded in the literal. It is “often colored by at least soft hues of absurdity, which is only a sign of its saving distance form excessive rationality” (Moore, 1996, p. xi). Enchantment, or soul-making, plumbs the “mysterious depths of the heart of imagination where we find value, love, and union with the world around us” (Moore, 1996, p. x). It encourages us to become Real.

As the story of the Velveteen Rabbit nears its end, Rabbit finds himself cast out of
the nursery, alone and seemingly destined for the burn pile.  He wondered, “Of what use was it to be loved and lose one’s beauty and become Real if it all ended like this? As he reflected, as he struggled to see through his anguish, “a tear, a real tear, trickled down his little shabby velvet nose and fell to the ground” (Williams, 2005, p. 66). This tear, this “aura of emotion that settled in his heart” (Moore, 1996, p. ix), opened his experience to the imaginal realm. Hillman (1975) shared that “emotion is a gift that comes by surprise, a mythic statement; It announces a movement in soul” (Hillman, 1975, p. 177). It is this gift, this movement in soul, that enriches Rabbit’s myth, for “where the tear had fallen a flower grew out of the ground, a mysterious flower, not at all like any that grew in the garden. . . and presently the blossom opened, and out of it there stepped a fairy” (Williams, 2005, p. 67).

What goddess might have sprung forth at this enchanted moment? Perhaps Athena,
goddess of wisdom and purity, come to save one so pure at heart? Or maybe we find
Artemis, lady of the wild, here to rescue this creature so sacred to her? Or is it potentially Psyche herself, come to the aid of this being who has gone through so much in her name? Whatever goddess or spirit it is present in the flower recognizes the value and love to be found within Rabbit’s heart, and is here to “take him away with her and turns him into Real. . . Real not just to the Boy. . . but to every one (Williams, 2005, p. 70-71). This is the experience of soul-making.

Becoming Real

And so our story comes to an end, this myth we have shared now rests. We have
heard from Rabbit, pondered his words and imagined into his struggles. We have set his
joys and challenges side by side with the major aspects of archetypal psychology, using them to bring clarity to the speech of the soul set forth within. I, for one, have become a bit more Real in the process, have immersed myself in the soul-making that this reflective experience offers. I now give to you a bit of my soul, offered through these pages, to hold close in your imaginal world, joined with the bit of soul already given by the Velveteen Rabbit. May they settle in your heart as you become a bit more Real.


Hillman, J. (1972). The Myth of Analysis. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Hillman, J. (1975). Re-visioning Psychology. New York, NY: Harper.

Hillman, J. (1977). An Inquiry Into Image. Spring, 1977, 62-88.

Hillman, J. (2005). Introduction. In G. Slater (Ed.), Senex and Puer (pp. iv-xxvii). Putnam, CT: Spring Publications.

Koonz, M. (2013, October 28). God of Betweens. Message posted to Pacifica Graduate Institute Course DJA 730 DesireToLearn site.

Moore, T. (1996). The Re-enchantment of Everyday Life. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

Williams, M. (2005). The Velveteen Rabbit. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications.