King Canute
Based on the classic fairy tale


About a thousand years ago there was a king of England named Canute, which is not such an odd name when you compare it to his father's name, which was Splitbeard, or his grandfather's name, which was Bluetooth, or his great-grandfather's name, which was Gorm.

I guess young Canute had had enough of such odd names, so he married a woman named Emma.

Anyway, Canute was a pretty good king. He kept the peace and protected the farmers and the fishermen and the traders, and looked after the people in every way he could. He was so good at his job that a lot of people stopped fussing about the things they should have been fussing about.

Not enough rain for the crops? Farmers would shrug and say, "Our King Canute is so powerful, he can take care of it. He'll make it rain."

Not many fish in the nets? Fishermen would grin and say, "Hey, what's one bad catch? Our King Canute will get fish for us next time."

All of this praise made Canute feel pretty good, but it also worried him. He knew he wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the people thought. He knew there were a whole lot of things—in fact, most things—that no one, king or commoner, could do much about.

He tried to argue with his followers. "Hey, I kinda like being king and I think I'm a pretty good king, but there's a bunch of things I can't do. I can't make it rain on a cloudless day. I can't make the mice stay out of the grain. I can't make the fish swim into your nets. I can't make you feel full when you are hungry, or well when you are sick."

"Oh yes you can," his followers chorused. "You're the King! You're all powerful, the best, the greatest, the only King Canute!"

What really worried Canute was that if the people thought he could solve every problem, they would do little or nothing to look after themselves.

They would not draw water from the river to make their corn grow.

They would not look for new places to drop their fishnets.

They would not turn their cats loose on the mice in the grain shed.

They would only shrug and praise Canute, and what was once a happy kingdom would soon be starving.

So one day King Canute told his followers to carry him and his throne to the seashore at low tide. "Set me down right there at the water's edge," he said. "And I will command the sea to stay away. I will order the tide not to rise."

"Oh wow!" said his followers as they obeyed the King. "This ought to be something to see!"

King Canute sat. He shouted: "Sea, stay away! Tide, do not rise!" But slowly, slowly, the tide came in and the sea rose, over his feet, past his knees, up to his waist. The crowd of followers pulled back a little to keep their own feet dry. They were puzzled. Why did the sea not obey the King?

The water rose higher and higher, up to the King's shoulders, over his chin. "Loyal glub subjects!" he gurgled. "Now you see that glub some things no man, be he glub king or commoner, can glub do! Now pull me the glub out of here!"

The crowd splashed into the sea to pull Canute and his throne back to high ground, and, wringing out his robe, he spoke: "We are all of us now wet, some of us wetter than others. How wet we are has nothing to do with who we are, king or commoner, but what we do. Much of life is a sea you cannot command, but you sure can watch out for the waves or, if you can't do that, learn to swim."


 


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