Six-year-old Randy conducts bloody wars in the sandtray, calling them “World War One,” World War Two, and “The War of the Ancient Dragon.” He burns fires and bombs helpless victims, killing some and saving others. What could possibly be going on in his imagination?
The contents of his imagination—what the alchemists call the “realm of subtle bodies”—are revealed in his sandplay from one session to the next, and there we see the raw, autonomous dynamism that motivates Randy, already branded a bully and nearly expelled from first grade. We see fiery, destructive conflict, part his, part his culture’s, part lived, part projected, a conflict of archetypal opposites that engulf Randy’s personality and fuel his violent behavior.
But also from Randy’s imaginal world, out of the very war between opposites that drives him, the unknown third possibility unfolds. Allowed to exist and be seen with a paradoxical healing aim, the war fights itself out over time in the safe container of the sandtray, finds its unpredictable resolution, and gradually releases Randy from its grip. He finally emerges, calling himself “king of the bloodfire,” returned to the rule of his own emotional life. He has adapted to school, proud of his achievements, a star student in math.
Randy’s lively narratives animate his dramas and reveal the distinct hallmarks of an alchemical opus over the course of 24 therapy sessions. He remarkably echoes the words of the ancient sages such as Zosimos, who centuries ago in his own imagination witnessed the “torture” of transformation in fire.
Randy’s process is thoroughly documented and amplified, unveiling the alchemical stages of transformation—nigredo, albedo, and rubedo—in a way that helps us relate to those chapters in our own individuation struggles. Psychological Perspectives editor Margaret Johnson writes that the work is “valuable above and beyond being a case study because it remarkably grounds what can be very illusive alchemical imagery into psychological experience.”
War of the Ancient Dragon guides us through the gritty realities of the alchemical process, helping us realize how they can manifest in everyday life, dream images, and fantasy. Above all the book is a testament to the healing capacities of the imagination, the humble “star in man” that connects us to the unconscious: to unknown and unexpected developments in ourselves.
Laurel Howe is a Jungian analyst who earned her diploma from the Center for Research and Training According to C.G. Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz in Zürich. She is a faculty member of the C.G. Jung Institute of Colorado, a teaching member of the International Society of Sandplay Therapy and the Sandplay Therapists of America, and an advisory board member of the Colorado Sandplay Therapy Association. She has a private practice in Lakewood, Colorado where she works with children and adults and mentors students of analytic psychotherapy and sandplay therapy. In addition to sandplay and alchemy, Laurel writes and presents lectures on the history and psychological meaning of Mary Magdalene and feminine archeological images from the Levant prior to and during the development of the Old Testament.