The Sleeping King Alchemical Symbols as Manifest in Dream, Alchemy, & Creative Work
by Gary T. Bartlett


In times of pale and stagnant thought
Where neither hope nor love prevail
A regal one now lost is sought
In realms unknown beyond the Veil

In time alone that depth has wrought
Where neither hope nor love remain
A regal one now lost is sought
To set a’ right his vagrant reign
His name was known in days of old
Scribed in the Books of Eytherin
The search, a tale, in myth is told
Far shadows of truth known to men

Beyond the aged and vaulted peaks
His hand upon the reins of fate
Lies the truth of the One who sleeps
In silence bound beyond the gate
-Gary Bartlett, 2007

One day a King will come and the sword will rise. –King Arthur, Excalibur (1981)

sleeping king sitting on his throneOne can hardly think, in our modern democratic society, of a more seemingly obsolete concept worth understanding than the value of the King. Culturally, we have long ago moved beyond a practical consideration of this culture-role and, it would seem appropriate to state, the archetypal energy once invested within it. Despite the continued presence of royal families with their kings, queens, and princes in our world, our culture and our collective consciousness have left this form of social structure behind. However, this transformation of consciousness, although seemingly complete, is nonetheless still underpinned by the millennia of cultural experience in which the King and the role of kingship reigned.

We could surmise that because our culture is rooted deep within the Christian tradition, with the King energy largely invested within the figure of Jesus Christ, that the continued fascination with the King is largely due to the place this energy holds within our collective psyche. Yet, another possibility emerges if we take C. G. Jung’s view as expressed in his work Answer to Job (1958). Jung’s analysis, amplified by his followers, especially Edward Edinger emerges as the foundation of a new myth for our age – with the Self replacing God as the organizing image of the psyche. Consequently the continued presence of this archetype in our collective and individual experience becomes clearer.

It is this other possibility, offered by the work of Jungian psychology, which will occupy the majority of this discussion. In doing this I will offer some reflections on my own personal experience with this archetypal energy as the subjective inner experience is for me, following Jung, primary. Dream and fantasy, as well as what I have come to call directed fantasy, play a significant part in this process of coming to terms with, and deepening into the energy that arises from psyche. The presence of certain themes or images, in this case that of the King, are worth focusing on due precisely to the juxtaposition they offer to the lived state of waking consciousness.

Keeping in mind that Jung tells us in his Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (1959) that the unconscious often acts in a compensatory manner to the conscious attitude (Jung, 1959, pp. 162-163), the desire to see why the King is speaking is heightened. This paper explores the nature of the king archetype as it manifests within the alchemical and religious traditions. Further, I will offer some of my own experiences in the form of fantasy, dream, and the results of my sessions of directed fantasy, to demonstrate the nature of my own engagement with this energy.

Directed Fantasy vs. Active Imagination

Before beginning it may be helpful to define this term directed fantasy. This is a term that I have applied to the elaboration of inner images and experiences through the medium of creative writing and poetry. The directed aspect of this process is the initiation or inspiration given autonomously by the unconscious through the dream. The fantasy element is the growth and depth this initial image undergoes through the conscious investment of time and the synchronistic force of attraction the image expresses once within consciousness. It is my theory that if I take as the initial image that which rises of its own from the unconscious that I am thus working with an authentic image that is not wholly of the ego.

Correlates exist for this sort of work of course as the invocation of one’s personal inner experience has been a part of several artistic movements. In this I see strong elements in the work of surrealist movement, especially Andre Breton (1896-1966) who states in his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto that “psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought” (Waldberg, 1971). Another major figure in this vein is the American psychotherapist Ira Progoff (1921-1998) whose work The Well and the Cathedral (1977) leads the reader through a series of poems accompanied by meditations intended to draw out a unique and personal experience for the reader and through journaling on this experience an increasing depth of understanding of ones subjective inner world.

This is personal work, sacred work, accomplished by individuals in their own way and the sharing of this work with the wider world is not to be taken lightly. In this work with directed fantasy I embrace the nature of my characters as fractal manifestations of my own psychic unfolding, limbs of tree still in mid-life and sending out feelers above and below.

This is murky territory to say the least, as Jung himself cautioned against this form of exploration, regarding it as a form of passive imagination. He wrote,

The modern artist, after all, seeks to create art out of the unconscious. The utilitarianism and self importance concealed behind this thesis, touched a doubt in myself, namely, my uncertainty as to whether the fantasies I was producing were really spontaneous and natural, and not ultimately my own arbitrary inventions (Jung, 1973, p. 195).

Despite Jung’s reservations and views of this form of exploration, I maintain that this process is not only a powerful source of inspiration as a writer, but therapeutic as well. Given the very fact that the image is in consciousness, we are already dealing with an image that has been assimilated or to some degree altered by ego-consciousness. Jung states that “The archetype is essentially an unconscious content that is altered by becoming conscious and by being perceived, and it takes its colour from the individual consciousness in which it happens to appear”(Jung, 1959, p. 5).

To counter this unavoidable fact, I have routinely kept a dream journal within which the initial image is recorded shortly after waking. This “early report” very often is cloudy or unclear and thus, I feel, less loaded with the ego baggage that later reflection can deposit into the image. Further, the following of the image and an awareness of synchronistic associations that arise deepens the initial experiences and very often offers clarification.

This work has two specific effects: the first is that it makes for very deep and imagistic content for the writer of fiction or poetry; the second is that the product that emerges is very often highly personal in nature and saturated with the emotive content that the initial dream presented. This combination has accumulated to such an extent, that I personally find the work more of a spiritual practice than a creative method.

The Archetypal King

The Realm. In order to keep this discussion reigned in and to prevent the temptation to go a ’wandering in the vastness of association and amplification, it will help greatly to narrow our inquiry of the King to three aspects: who the king is, where the king is, and what the king does. Every king has a kingdom, a Queen, castle, throne, guard, army, and dungeon. Further, the king is arrayed with power, either that which flows from the upper and/or lower realms, or through some weapon or scepter that signifies his right of rule and dispatches that rule through law.

Who, Where, & What. The king is the central person of order within a kingdom; the medium through which the upper and lower worlds are connected to the middle world of mortal reality. Speaking of the centrality of kingship, John Weir Perry, in Lord of the Four Corners: Myths of the Royal Father (1966) tells us that:

In the symbolic cosmos, the locus of most supreme and intense powerfulness was the axial center, and any figure or object occupying this position became thereby highly numinous and evoked feelings of awe and reverence. For not only was this the focal point at which the world’s powers were concentrated, but even more significantly, it was the connecting link between the three planes of existence, the sky world, the world of man, and the underworld. (pp. 18-19)

The king is also, as the generator and vehicle of the law, the establisher of the boundaries of the realm. This is not a mere geographical feat, but one of cosmic and psychic significance. The limits of the power of the king are very often resonant with the identity within which the inhabitants of the realm exist. In other words, the ordered kingdom is hedged by darkness, chaos, and disorder, within which dwell the demons, ogres, and enemies of that order. The mythologies of a people are partly the recounting of the establishment of the light amidst the darkness (Eliade, 1991, p. 37). The lighting of a fire or the building of a city can symbolize this, which in archaic times was often a wall of earth or timbers wherein the king or chieftain established his reign and from which he expanded his rule.
Taken psychologically, the waking state ruled by ego-consciousness could be said to be the current occupant of the throne of consciousness, however, as we will see, this reign is fraught with troubles. Jung (1959) tells us that the ego is the “psychological center of personality,” yet “although the center is represented by the innermost point, it is surrounded by a periphery containing everything that belongs to the self” (pp. 357-58). The king then, as the bringer of light and order or consciousness, necessarily establishes a shadow region outside. The ego or individual identity then operates unaware of the realities that slumber and move within the unconscious and the boundaries of the ego are then assaulted and penetrated by these contents.

Jung’s development of, and work with the individuation process was precisely directed to introduce the ego-consciousness to these energies and establish a relationship that hoped to prevent the flooding of the ego’s realm by the unknown factors of the psyche; shifting the center from the ego to the self. This can be imaged as the difference between the king who builds a wall and the one who establishes trade routes. Very often walls fail in the face of floods as the waters may crest and overflow, whereas the mediation of the waters through diverting channels limits or prevents the damage such inundations can bring.

The king is also the channel of creation or recreation in many mythologies informing ritual and domestic life through the power of his establishment of and participation in the mysteries of creation. (Perry, 1966) The creative aspect is very often tied to the land upon which the limits of the kingdom rest. The borders are established by the power of the kingly rule and those that dwell within it and those that pass through it are subject to the central rule of the king. This land again is not as simple as geography or real estate. What is invested in the symbol of the realm or kingdom is the spiritual manifestation of the cosmology of those who inhabit it.

The reign of the king is imaged as a marriage, with the land being the bride. From a mytho-religious view this is the creation of the universe; the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm, containing matrimonial and fertility imagery all of which is bound up with the rule and legitimacy of the king (Jung, 1956, p.209). Kingship was, in archaic societies synonymous with the cosmos through its founding and generative powers. The cycles of the seasons and the notion of time and its dominion were also intimately bound up with the King and his generative vessel, the Queen, who was very often imaged as emerging from the body of the king. This image, translated into our Judeo-Christian mythology, manifests as the Adam and Eve creation myth (Perry, 1966, pp. 22-23).

The king is the One on the throne and by way of ‘his’ law and rule, the remainder of the kingdom is maintained in balance and order in keeping with that order traditionally granted by the heavenly sphere. In many traditions the king is no mere mortal, in fact, in nearly all traditions the king is seen as, if not wholly divine, at least a god-man whose presence on earth is one of cosmic significance as well as a reminder of that higher order. In the western Christian tradition, the role of king was identified with Christ and the legitimacy of the rule of the king came from this relationship with the divine order.

In the alchemical tradition, this role is taken up by Sol or the Prima Materia upon which the alchemist works his transformative task (Jung, 1963, p. 99). Jung saw alchemical symbolism as a projection onto the material world of the psychological transformation taking place within the psyche of the alchemist. Jung (1953) states regarding the prima materia that, “It represents the unknown substance that carries the projection of the autonomous psychic content” (p. 317). Sol is also characterized by Jung as the active half of the unconscious self or Mercurius; Jung (1963) states that “since, in his alchemical form, Mercurius does not exist in reality, he must be an unconscious projection, and because he is an absolutely fundamental concept in alchemy he must signify the unconscious self” (pp. 96-97).
From this, if we extend this image to the king, we are given the indication that the very move to establish the kingdom and the occupation of the throne precipitates a limitation hedged by shadows and enemies. The king then is in a double-bind; tasked with bringing order but limited through this very act. Similarly, the ego-consciousness finds itself assaulted and no longer master of its own house as the dissolution of the established boundaries brings tension and fear. In this we can see the advent of complexes and the Shadow as the army and dungeon of the king archetype within the individual psyche.

Alchemically, this is the Calcinatio, or the heating of the undifferentiated material to achieve the purified state or prima materia. Edward Edinger (1994), in his book Anatomy of the Psyche: Alchemical symbolism in Psychotherapy, states that:
This procedure corresponds closely to what takes place in psychotherapy. The fixed, settled aspects of the personality that are rigid and static are reduced or led back to their original, undifferentiated condition as part of the process of psychic transformation. (p. 10)

This, in effect, is the ordeal of the death of the king, or the beginning of the transformation of the ego. Edinger (1994) sums this up by stating that:

The death of a king is a time of crisis and transition. Regicide is the gravest of crimes. Psychologically it would signify the death of the ruling principle of consciousness, the highest authority in the hierarchical structure of the ego. (p. 19)

This transition and crisis period can be imaged as a political revolution, paradigm shift, interregnal period, psychosis, or any other transitional phase in which the ruling principle undergoes transformation. Within the individual experience, these movements within the psyche are often heralded by dreams and or psychological distress. It is within these moments that the ego is given a view into the wider self and the creative vastness of the unconscious. Jung (1953) found, through his work with individuals in the grips of psychosis, that these images of death and dissolution, usually encountered in dream, would often be followed by images of wholeness, specifically mandalas, which he saw as an archetypal image of wholeness or Self stating that these images were “among the oldest religious symbols of humanity” (pp. 96-97).

Appearing in the dream and upon waking, the consciousness of the individual, the archetypal coloration then takes on an acutely personal meaning and through this, growth and depth can emerge. It is with this that I will now move into my own work with the King.

The Subjective Coloration

The Sleeping King

“A solemn march, torch light to spite the rain. Two held aloft, respects for the fallen, closed eyes seeing, knowing which passes through…” —Gary T Bartlett, 2004

This brief glimpse, taken from a dream that occurred shortly after I began my journey as writer, although I could not have known it at the time, would grow to become a central theme of my work, both personally and vocationally. The dream was very vivid and one that still haunts my memory.

Dream 1.

I am observing, through a grey rain at dusk, a long procession of robed figures, moving across a vast landscape, which is overshadowed by a tower or tree. At the front of the group, carried on pallets, are two individuals, wrapped in greyish-blue robes; these are the royal couple. The procession is silently singing, or at least I seem to hear singing, as well as a rhythmic drumming. In the distance looms a massive tower or tree. Suddenly the eyes of the Queen flash open and I awake.

In the dream, through that curious knowledge that dreams impart, I “knew” that I was witnessing the funeral march of the King and Queen. The dream continued in this fashion for a long time, the procession moving slowly toward the immense tower or tree in the distance until the eyes of the Queen met my own gaze. The opening image was what I had written down in my journal before going back to sleep, while the “Dream 1” passage is what emerged upon my morning reflections on the dream.

My work with this dream was slow to start. The emotions that it triggered worked on me for several weeks before I was able to or pushed to ask the basic question of who this king and queen were. For whatever reason, I found that I was far more interested in who the King was rather than the Queen. The confusion regarding the alleged death of both followed by the Queen suddenly awakening triggered other questions as well. Specifically, why was the dream telling me that they were dead and what I was witnessing was a funeral when the Queen was obviously alive. I began to think about this question more and more and then one afternoon I wrote simply, “the King is asleep,” and from this came all that has followed.

I have wondered about this for a long time and I remember the determination of this “fact” was like another voice speaking; as if the answer was suddenly given in order to initiate a process of expressing a specific image of the King. Through my explorations in an attempt to come to terms with this image I have found a vast storehouse of connections and amplifications that support the Sleeping King archetype. This image ranges from the Once and Future motif of the Arthurian mythologies to the Hindu image of the sleeping king in the form of Vishnu, from whom the universe manifests as a dream. In our own culture-myth, we have the Messiah, first prophesied in the Old Testament tradition that in the Christian tradition was fulfilled by the figure of the Christ. From Jung’s view of the Self as the new image of the god-head within the psyche, the sleeping king would thus be the immanent wholeness rising, with the image of the funeral and the royal couple signifying the initiation of the ego’s journey of transformation and relationship with the wider psyche.

However, this image contained other elements, specifically the Queen, whose sudden waking cast me back to consciousness. This experience was frightening, thus the sudden waking and this figure has been more difficult. The difficulties continue to mount as I have explored these images through alchemy. Alchemically, the Queen is identified with Luna or the moon. This in some of Jung’s writings is identified with Mercurius, yet, in other places Sol is said to be at once identical with Mercurius and also the husband of Mercurius. Jung writes, “…the conunctio of Sol and Mercurius is a heirosgamos, with Mercurius playing the role of bride” (Jung, 1963, p. 100). Yet, it is important to keep in mind when dealing with these images that “…the reality, the true being, of the king, as of an individual—is not in his character as individual but as archetype” (Campbell, 1959, p. 412). With this reminder, I am able to see the Queen as an archetype as well, therefore taken together, the presence of both is a commentary on the emerging state of an inner transformation that is in line with both Jungian psychology and alchemy.

Jung explores this in his discussion of the dual mother in his Symbols of Transformation (1956) who manifests both nurturing and terrible aspects. Within alchemy, we are given the multivalent aspects of Mercurius within which the masculine and feminine principles are wedded, dissolved, and reborn through the work of the alchemist. Personally, this image seems to speak to the difficult issues I have had in my life. Like so many who reflect on their experiences of childhood I remember moments of being very happy and loved and also times of stress, anger, resentment, and a perceived betrayal. Our experiences of childhood through our most intimate relationships involve our earliest encounters with love and death. Parents give us not only positive/nurturing experiences but also experiences of absence or distance as well as anger. These images are primordial and taken together they indicate what Jung calls “a pattern of behavior which will assert itself with or without the cooperation of the conscious personality” (Jung, 1956, p. 309).

The presence of the looming tower or tree has also found expanded meaning in relation to the royal couple, both in my research and in my fictional elaborations. This image specifically has been the locus of some significant synchronistic experiences. These are many as the work with this dream through my writing has been ongoing for ten years and so space allows me to share only one, however, it is by far the most significant.

About two years ago my family and I were visiting my in-laws and during our stay I was taking some time to read, looking for additional information on the nature of the sleeping king. I turned, as I do many times to Jung. There was a storm moving in and I had settled in to spend some time on the subject. However, as I searched through Jung’s works, specifically his Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious (1959) & Aion (1959), I found that I was finding consistent explorations of tree symbolism. I found references in Archetypes of the Collective Unconscious references to the quaternity and Mercurius, specifically that of the center, which, as discussed above, is resonant with the central axis, axis mundi, cross, and very often imaged as a Tree; Tree of Life, World Tree, etc. (Jung, 1959, p. 296) Further, in the same text I found the association of the tree, by the alchemists, with the heirosgamos or the union of the opposites as discussed above (p. 109). In Aion (1959), I found further associations between tree symbolism and Mercurius, of whom, at the time I knew nothing, least of all the associations with the archetypal king and alchemical transformation (p. 235). In Jung’s alchemical studies, I found an extensive discussion of the Philosophical Tree in which he again brings in the connection of the Tree to Mercurius and the quaternity. He states, “The fourfold Mercurius is also the tree or its spiritus vegetativus” (Jung, 1967, p. 279).

I paused as my daughter awoke and asked for a drink of water and I went downstairs to get it. I stopped, before going back upstairs, to look out the back window of the house, the storm was building and the landscape was livid. Suddenly there was a shudder and I saw what turned out to be the top half of a tree fall into the back yard. Apparently, one of the large pine trees in the front of the house had broken off about ten feet up and fell on the house. The damage was extensive but no one was hurt.

Later, after everything settled down it struck me that this push into tree symbolism while searching for information on the king was apparently a commingling of psyche and physis; a synchronistic event that reignited the images from the old dream and solidified the inherent connections these archetypal images share. I had already invested a great deal of time in the image of the tower or tree from the initial dream and its presence in my fiction, and the mythology of the King had been a long-standing factor. In an active imagination session done for Professor Susan Rowland I wrote the following, which is part of a larger piece titled The Golden City (2011), which is too extensive to include here:

The journey within to achieve this sight is a long and toilsome one; stumbling down uncut pathways in search of one’s truth. Passing beyond the encircling mountains that hedge the edge of the vast plain, the city shines. The plain, which was my path, surrounded the city walls stretching into a distance that shared no kinship with human experience. Indeed every aspect of this “place” dwarfed the terrestrial landscape of mortality; surely the waking world could not contain the arrogance of this impossible space.

Then as wave upon wave of awe breaks upon awareness the trembling senses are drawn up, up and into the depths of the night, tracing the up-stretched immensity of the center. At once a great tree or mountain yet seemingly hewn or crafted. The summit is unseen, a majestic and humbling sight, reared from the soils of eternity to stand peaked and titanic at the center; a pinnacle of power to behold, resolute in its charge, no thought of dissolution and defeat.

The images that flowed from this work and the extensive fictional world that has grown from this initial, fragmentary image, have taken on a life of their own. What I have found through the use of this method of directed fantasy is that the key is to ask the questions of the image in a manner that reflects their authenticity and originality. For me, the transformative aspect of the work is in the honoring of what has arisen through the dream by allowing it free reign to fully express itself.
In this it has been revealed, through direct experience, that the images that arise in dream reflect, not only the multivalence and endless aspects of the archetypes, but also the ways in which the subjective coloration can offer insight into one’s own emergent wholeness. Through the lens of depth psychology and alchemical symbolism, I have found an ever deepening well of energy through which I have found, not only a highly personal spiritual practice, but also a rewarding and rich vocational outlet as well.



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Gary Bartlett holds a M.A. in Depth Psychology with an emphasis on Jungian and Archetypal Psychology from Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California, where he is also currently pursuing a Ph.D. Gary is a writer by vocation and a teacher by avocation. He has been writing fiction and essays for nearly fifteen years and chooses to focus on the imaginal and the role of creativity in the lived life. He lives in South Western Michigan with his wife and two children.



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