The Ancient Modern

The Tale of the Two Guides  /  Joshua Alan Sturgill     

The story is told
of two men meeting on the steep path of a treacherous mountain.
One travels downward, pulled along by a vicious black dog on an iron chain.
One travels upward, led by a goldfinch on a silk thread.

As they pass each other, they pause to compare their experiences.

“My way is easy,” says the man with iron chain. 
“There are boulders, but I leap down from them,
and cliff-sides easy to slide over.
There are giants, but I am level with their eyes,
and fierce animals, but I surprise them from above. 
My way is leisurely because I have no need to choose my direction:
I go wherever my guide pulls me.”

The second man sighs with weariness.  “My way is difficult,” he says, 

“I follow the finch’s song,
but strong winds and waterfalls overwhelm his music. 
The cliffs are hard to climb. 
Often, I lose hold of this fine silk thread,
though I always seem to find it again.
My finch tries to lead me away from the giants,
but I have often been accosted or even beaten by them.”

“I am helped by gravity, and go along at a good pace,” says the first.
“I am sore, and my shoes are worn thin from climbing,” says the second.

“Well then,” says the first, “why not come with me? 
You only need to let go of that little thread 
and let the finch continue on his way alone up to the heights. 
Besides, why should you go where men are not meant to be?
You are made of earth, not sky; you were given arms, not wings.
Downward is easy because your nature bids you to cooperate with falling things!”

This story has been told so many times
that no one quite remembers  the outcome of the travelers’ conversation.
But two endings are most often recounted:

In one version, the second man agrees with the first.
He lets go of the golden thread. 
At first he finds his way easy.
But regret consumes him and he longs for the upward way.
The other man offers no assistance when monsters or boulders block his path.
He soon is lost, and dies.
His soul becomes the ghostly guardian of a cave along the path,
warning unwary wanderers not to go that way.

Or, he remains resolute in his quest:

He compares the gentle nature of the goldfinch to the violence of the dog,
the lightness of the golden thread to the heavy iron leash. 
So he continues his ascent, despite the effort and the sacrifice required.  

And while the first man is naively confident of reaching his goal
the dark, wide valley at the mountain’s foot—
the second man is humbled by the thought
he might not have the strength to reach the summit of the mountain
or the perception to find the ladder that rests there,
leading on to the Sun.  

The second ending to the story has the fairytale themes
we all remember from childhood:
a granted wish, the appearance of spirits,
the help of animals he befriended. 
Then, almost at the end of his strength,
he finds the ladder on the mountain top.
With joy he leaps up into the light  
and passes beyond the Sun Door
into a story yet untold


All poetry and supplementary material: copyright 2023 by Joshua Alan Sturgill. All rights reserved.

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