Turning Tides

13 03 2011

The legends of ancient kings and queens often appear to be quite removed from reality. It is tempting to forget that these great stories feature real people – who lived, breathed, blew their noses and didn’t like spinach.   One such figure is King Canute, who was for a time styled “King of all England and Denmark, and of the Norwegians and of some of the Swedes.” Clearly, not a man any history book should pass over without some mention.   What is striking about the legend of this man is that popular culture remembers none of his great achievements, not even an account of the power he held. Instead the story, retold in primary schools and at bedtimes across Europe, is of a man who tried to tell the sea to go back.

The famous account, left to us by the alliteratively named Henry of Huntingdon, tells how Canute stood before the tide and instructed the wave not to wet his feet, nor his cloak. Needless to say, his instruction fell upon deaf ears.   I wonder how many Canutes stood on the coastline of Japan last Friday, faced with a terrifying surge of water, and felt helpless in their pleas for it to turn back.   The Twentieth Century taught us a great deal about man’s awesome power of destruction. But horrified as we may be by the responsibility that comes to us with the invention of nuclear arms, and of all the other modes of worldly vandalism we possess, nothing comes close to the power of the earth itself.   Watching the extraordinary footage of a solid wall of water crashing against Japan’s coastline, never faltering as it sweeps away the towns and villages before it, we are all reminded of our own insignificant place in the universe.   Amongst the carnage of any natural disaster, amongst the grief and heartbreak, the pain and the suffering that is so hard to imagine, it is worth taking time to remember our humility. It is so tempting to see ourselves as masters of the universe, in control of our daily lives, when realistically we are nothing of the sort.   Were the Japanese quake and tsunami to have happened in an obscure part of the third world, we would, regrettably, have been far less aware of its impact. The television networks, twinned with mobile phone footage and social networking have brought into our own lives the moments of terror and panic experienced – when offices, buildings, cars, trees, even the ocean, turned from regular features of ordinary lives, into enemies, threatening life and limb at every turn.   Strangely, though, King Canute would have been familiar with this sensation. He had already learnt the lesson we so often forget about our place in the world. The part of the story often overlooked is that Canute himself knew the sea would not turn back. His whole objective was to demonstrate to his courtiers the weakness of his own powers, compared to those of God.   Perhaps some of today’s political leaders could take a lesson from Canute’s understanding of his own limitations. He was certainly no saint, and I doubt he would have stood much scrutiny from today’s world media. Nevertheless, it seems Colonel Gadaffi could learn much from our legendary tale.   Clearly it is not by accident that Gadaffi has sat firmly in charge of Libya for over forty years. He is a canny, determined and ruthless operator. The wave of unrest which has swept across the Middle East and North Africa, toppling presidents, and unsettling Kings, has faltered in Libya. This guy is a tough nut to crack.   For the first time in this series of revolutions, it appears that a great surge of popular expression may not be enough, on its own, to achieve its will. External assistance may be required.   Here, once again, the dark political cloud of Iraq descends, casting a pall over relations. Where previously the West could have stepped in, intervened in favour of the clear popular will, now we cannot. Hands tied behind our back we must watch, powerless to do more than look stern and speak in serious voices.   As we look on, we pray that the Libyan people will hold their nerve, and that their noble efforts will be successful. If they are, the revolutionaries will be in good company – recent months have shown us the potency of popular, and largely bloodless, uprising, but history provides an even richer seam of example – most vivid, the overthrowing of the communist regime in the Soviet Union. Most fuggy, but nevertheless significant, King Canute’s assumption of the English throne by popular demand, to establish a prosperous, united and happy realm.   So, here’s to King Canute – perhaps an unlikely hero for 2011, but a man who knew his place in the world: familiar with his limitations, but conscious of what he could achieve.   A model for us all.

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One response

10 04 2011
lisa reeve

please can i have a bedtime story!

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