Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. Group Writing: Belated, With Apologies, Doggerel, and Reflections on King Canute

 

Knut der Große cropped.jpgI promised I’d write this post much soonier,
But my life took a turn for the loonier,
I couldn’t quite get my thoughts together,
Got busy, and wasn’t helped by the weather
(Hot and parched)
But now, it’s cooler, and it rained, so hopefully you won’t think I’m just a cartoon feature.

I swear, some Google search result gave “cartoon feature” as a “near rhyme” for “loonier.” Wow. Google: Doggerel Generator Extraordinaire. Among other things.

What I originally planned to do, somewhere back in the first week of July, was write a post about one of my favorite Ancient Brit kings, Canute. I was going to quote William Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair (the novel, not the magazine), and his poem, which starts like this:

KING CANUTE was weary hearted; he had reigned for years a score,
Battling, struggling, pushing, fighting, killing much and robbing more;
And he thought upon his actions, walking by the wild sea-shore.

Urgh. At the direction of a college English professor (not Mr. She), I was once required to write a Canterbury-Tale like prologue, but focusing on a contemporary character. It was 1973, and I chose Henry Kissinger, because he was in the news, and because he’d been Dad’s boss a decade previous, and I’d met him a few times. I remember getting an A- for my effort, and the comment, “somewhat metrically irregular but rather enjoyably done.”

Or, I thought I might invoke an oft-quoted poem by Paul Perro:

There once was an old king called King Canute,
He was a kind old man, and wise to boot.
He was troubled though, he thought it was odd,
That his subjects treated him like a god.
One day a man said “You are a great king
Ruler of everyone and everything.”

These are two not-terribly-good (IMHO) poems which relate the lesson that people used to take, as a matter of course, from the story of King Canute (Cnut).

Just fifty years before William the Conqueror invaded England from the Southeast, Canute took over England, sailing down from Denmark and landing at Wessex. Strenuous fighting ensued along the way (Canute was already known as a warrior-prince) until he ended up in London, which was under siege for several months, eventually capitulating to the extent that all land north of the capital was ceded to Canute, while the English King Edmund continued his dominion over the land to the south–said land to pass to Canute upon Edmund’s death. Edmund died within a few weeks of the treaty (no word on Hillary Clinton’s whereabouts at the time, other than to say that it is not widely believed that Edmund committed suicide), and Canute was crowned King of all England. He eventually secured thrones not only there, but also in Scotland and Norway, in addition to his native Denmark.

He’s regarded, by the standards of the time, as a rather good and just king, but his reputation for specific kingly virtues pales in comparison to the thing that we all know about him, which is that he was the foolish, proud, delusional monarch who thought that he could hold back the tides, and was humiliated, mortified and embarrassed when that was shown not to be the case.

Oops. Perhaps not so much.

The first recounting of the tale of “Canute and the Waves” comes from Henry of Huntingdon, in his twelfth-century Historia Anglelorum (OK, a century or so after Canute died, but a hell of a lot closer to his life than are we). Henry explained the episode this way:

… when he was at the height of his ascendancy, he ordered his chair to be placed on the sea-shore as the tide was coming in. Then he said to the rising tide, “You are subject to me, as the land on which I am sitting is mine, and no one has resisted my overlordship with impunity. I command you, therefore, not to rise on to my land, nor to presume to wet the clothing or limbs of your master.” But the sea came up as usual, and disrespectfully drenched the king’s feet and shins. So jumping back, the king cried, “Let all the world know that the power of kings is empty and worthless, and there is no king worthy of the name save Him by whose will heaven, earth and sea obey eternal laws.” Thereafter King Cnut never wore the golden crown on his neck, but placed it on the image of the crucified Lord, in eternal praise of God the great king. By whose mercy may the soul of King Cnut enjoy rest.

So the first, and almost-contemporaneous, account describes a Canute who’s tired of the fawning sycophancy of his nobles, and who decides to teach them a lesson and show them that even the power of kings is limited by eternal laws and divine providence. Whether or not it’s a faithful depiction of his actions (Lord knows, contemporaneity with events is no guarantee of accuracy or fairness when it comes to news coverage–we see that every day), it was the story that was passed down for generations: Canute the Meek; Canute the Pious; Canute the Devout; Canute who hung up his crown on the crucifix and never wore it again after showing his courtiers that he, too, was mortal.

Somewhere along the way, though, the story changed, and Canute became Canute the Deluded, Canute the Narcissist, and Canute the Megalomaniac. (Don’t believe me, just Google “King Canute Donald Trump” for multitudinous, and multifarious comparisons. You’ll get the idea.)

And we now live in a world where Canute, more often than not, is held up as an exemplar of power gone mad, of the King who thought he could hold back the tide, who could stop the waves from rolling in, and who could control the forces of nature without being subject to them himself.

And I think about him sometimes, when I read and watch stories of how we’re going to “beat” or “defeat” Covid-19 just as soon as we find the silver bullet, whatever that may be, to help us do so. Masks? Goggles? Vaccine? Hazmat suits? Quarantines? Lockdowns? The next best thing? Whatever.

Because I don’t think we are. I don’t think we’ve “beaten” lots of diseases we thought we’d either eradicated, or which had disappeared. Recent reports from various parts of the world indicate that they’re still out there, waiting to rear their ugly heads as soon as we drop our guard or start acting stupidly in ways that allow them to re-emerge.

No, I think we’re going to have to learn to live with it Covid-19 and do the best we can for ourselves and each other, while still finding a way to live fully and humanely. Certainly until we find out a lot more about it, and perhaps still, even then. And I think a little (or large) dose of humility on the subject might be the key to doing just that.

But, back to Canute, and his admonition to his hangers-on (with a little political commentary at the end), Thackeray version:

And he sternly bade them never more to kneel to human clay,
But alone to praise and worship That which earth and seas obey:
And his golden crown of empire never wore he from that day.
King Canute is dead and gone: Parasites exist alway.

I still can’t think of it as peerless poesy, but I heartily endorse the sentiment of the last line.

Published in Group Writing
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  1. Arahant Member

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    • #1
    • July 31, 2020, at 4:34 AM PDT
    • 6 likes
  2. Hoyacon Member

    This is good. Since I’m nowhere near ready to go on my day, we can have an a.m. and a p.m. Group Writing :)

    • #2
    • July 31, 2020, at 6:11 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  3. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Hoyacon (View Comment):

    This is good. Since I’m nowhere near ready to go on my day, we can have an a.m. and a p.m. Group Writing :)

    Thanks. ;)

    • #3
    • July 31, 2020, at 6:20 AM PDT
    • Like
  4. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    I’ve long wondered if the legend of Cnut and the ocean may have been but a pious retelling of an older legend: that of Caligula:

    Finally, as though bringing the campaign to a close, he lined up the army in battle array, with its catapults and other artillery facing the Channel. The soldiers were standing there, with not the least clue as to his intentions, when he ordered them, suddenly, to start collecting sea-shells, and fill their helmets and the folds of their tunics with what he called ‘the ocean’s spoils, that belong to the Capitol and the Palace.’ As a memorial of this great victory, he had a tall lighthouse built, like the Pharos at Alexandria, to provide a point of reference for ships at night. Then he promised the soldiers a bounty of four gold pieces each, as if it were an act of unprecedented generosity, saying: ‘Go in happiness, go with riches.’

    This is recorded by Suetonius, who was born only about 20 years after Caligula was done in, but even so, modern historians often chalk this off to Suetonius not being able to pass up a good yarn or fun gossip, while excusing Caligula just a bit by saying “Yes, he was stupendously bonkers, but give him credit, he wasn’t that cracked.”

    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    • #4
    • July 31, 2020, at 6:39 AM PDT
    • 3 likes
  5. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    • #5
    • July 31, 2020, at 7:27 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  6. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t object to any of this. So much of what I learned as a kid, not only of history, but also of humanity, came from doggerel, legend, story, fairy tale and even straight-up fiction. As I grew older, I learned (I think) to distinguish one from the other. But that doesn’t mean that the universal human values and lessons that were taught by, and which came from, any of it were invalid. 

    • #6
    • July 31, 2020, at 7:33 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  7. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t object to any of this. So much of what I learned as a kid, not only of history, but also of humanity, came from doggerel, legend, story, fairy tale and even straight-up fiction. As I grew older, I learned (I think) to distinguish one from the other. But that doesn’t mean that the universal human values and lessons that were taught by, and which came from, any of it were invalid.

    There’s an Orthodox deacon and author I know who loves to talk about the power and purpose of mythologies. Another I know loves to discuss the need to see and understand the world as enchanted, and more than the materialist limitations would have us believe. I’m paraphrasing this a bit (and possibly quite badly), but the former says that we need to believe the myths regardless of their accuracy because it is in myths, stories, and parables that we tell and retell the truths of being human and understand who we are as a society.

    • #7
    • July 31, 2020, at 8:16 AM PDT
    • 5 likes
  8. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t object to any of this. So much of what I learned as a kid, not only of history, but also of humanity, came from doggerel, legend, story, fairy tale and even straight-up fiction. As I grew older, I learned (I think) to distinguish one from the other. But that doesn’t mean that the universal human values and lessons that were taught by, and which came from, any of it were invalid.

    George MacDonald Fraser for the win!

    • #8
    • July 31, 2020, at 8:23 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  9. Percival Thatcher
    Percival Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t object to any of this. So much of what I learned as a kid, not only of history, but also of humanity, came from doggerel, legend, story, fairy tale and even straight-up fiction. As I grew older, I learned (I think) to distinguish one from the other. But that doesn’t mean that the universal human values and lessons that were taught by, and which came from, any of it were invalid.

    There’s an Orthodox deacon and author I know who loves to talk about the power and purpose of mythologies. Another I know loves to discuss the need to see and understand the world as enchanted, and more than the materialist limitations would have us believe. I’m paraphrasing this a bit (and possibly quite badly), but the former says that we need to believe the myths regardless of their accuracy because it is in myths, stories, and parables that we tell and retell the truths of being human and understand who we are as a society.

    It sounds like the way J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson waylaid C. S. Lewis with the Truth. Suppose that the myths that point to the Gospel aren’t evidence for a refutation of the Gospel. Suppose that the other myths point to the myth that is true?

    • #9
    • July 31, 2020, at 10:38 AM PDT
    • 2 likes
  10. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Percival (View Comment):

    SkipSul (View Comment):

    She (View Comment):

    Percival (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I like Canute. I’m not sure how he got misinterpreted over time, but it happens. Happens a lot with the Bible, too. People don’t understand the culture, so they think symbols are like we would use.

    I have no idea how many people I have told the real story of King Canute to, but it always comes as a surprise to them (assuming they have even heard of him before.)

    SkipSul (View Comment):
    You find a lot of pious retelling and reinterpretations of older legends being bound up into the lives of the early saints – the old tales being retold in the light of Christ.

    And count me as someone who doesn’t object to any of this. So much of what I learned as a kid, not only of history, but also of humanity, came from doggerel, legend, story, fairy tale and even straight-up fiction. As I grew older, I learned (I think) to distinguish one from the other. But that doesn’t mean that the universal human values and lessons that were taught by, and which came from, any of it were invalid.

    There’s an Orthodox deacon and author I know who loves to talk about the power and purpose of mythologies. Another I know loves to discuss the need to see and understand the world as enchanted, and more than the materialist limitations would have us believe. I’m paraphrasing this a bit (and possibly quite badly), but the former says that we need to believe the myths regardless of their accuracy because it is in myths, stories, and parables that we tell and retell the truths of being human and understand who we are as a society.

    It sounds like the way J. R. R. Tolkien and Hugo Dyson waylaid C. S. Lewis with the Truth. Suppose that the myths that point to the Gospel aren’t evidence for a refutation of the Gospel. Suppose that the other myths point to the myth that is true?

    Very like.

    I wrote my own, not terribly deep, reflections on similar themes here, about eighteen months ago. I think we ignore the enchanted and mythical world at our peril.

    • #10
    • July 31, 2020, at 11:44 AM PDT
    • 4 likes
  11. TreeRat Member

    And now I want to see what you wrote about Henry K.

    • #11
    • July 31, 2020, at 2:49 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  12. Suspira Member

    You would think belief in the god-like powers of kings would not have transferred to the American republic, but humanity is depressingly consistent. Now, we think a president can control the economy, manage affairs in countries around the world, provide his subjects, er, voters with all their needs, save us from microorganisms, and maybe leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    Where is our Cnut?

    • #12
    • July 31, 2020, at 3:01 PM PDT
    • 3 likes
  13. She Reagan
    She Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    TreeRat (View Comment):

    And now I want to see what you wrote about Henry K.

    I wish I still had that, I really have no idea how it went. It was a fun project though. And I’ve toyed with the idea of doing something similar with a few of my life’s stories that might work well in a format like that, considering some of the interesting characters I’ve met on my journey thus far. (I could certainly do a version consisting only of my dozens of pets and livestock over the years.) Just need to figure out where we’d be processing to.

    I’ve never forgotten the professor’s comment though. It still brings a smile to my face. Dr. Petit. He was an absolute sweetheart. He was in his 60s when I was an undergraduate. A chain (pipe) smoker, lifelong-bachelor, and had the worst (best?) overbite of anyone I’ve ever known. Very, very bright, and very modest. Specialty was Milton. Great sense of humor, and he’d snuffle when he laughed. So low key that if you weren’t willing to engage and do the work, you could miss a lot. A Kentucky Colonel. I have his “Chaucer’s Complete Works” edited by F. N. Robinson. A dear man. (Herb Petit, not F.N.R.)

    • #13
    • July 31, 2020, at 4:29 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  14. SkipSul Coolidge
    SkipSul Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    It wasn’t this, was it?

    • #14
    • July 31, 2020, at 5:07 PM PDT
    • 2 likes
  15. Clifford A. Brown Contributor

    Doubling up to close out the month strong!

    This post is part of our July Group Writing theme: “The Doggerel Days of Summer.” Stop by today and sign up for our August theme: “Reeling in the Summer.” 

    Interested in Group Writing topics that came before? See the handy compendium of monthly themes. Check out links in the Group Writing Group. You can also join the group to get a notification when a new monthly theme is posted.

    • #15
    • July 31, 2020, at 5:13 PM PDT
    • 1 like
  16. SParker Member

    The Parasites’ response lies unreported:/”Like, dude, we knew that, but wethinks,/ That soon you’ll be deported:/your ruler’s skill straight stinks.”

    (And if you think I’m going to whip that dog’s feet into metrical shape, think again.)

    I’m guessing the story got manufactured in the intervening time, based on Cnut’s devotion to the Church. Although it may be the reason he ran back to clean house in other parts of his dominion. Where he probably previously made a similar absurd display completely counter to the wise prescriptions of Medieval European Kingship for Complete Idiots (now lost).

    • #16
    • August 1, 2020, at 11:46 AM PDT
    • Like
  17. Flicker Coolidge

    Suspira (View Comment):

    You would think belief in the god-like powers of kings would not have transferred to the American republic, but humanity is depressingly consistent. Now, we think a president can control the economy, manage affairs in countries around the world, provide his subjects, er, voters with all their needs, save us from microorganisms, and maybe leap tall buildings in a single bound.

    Where is our Cnut?

    And live a perfectly moral and faultless life before our eyes.

    • #17
    • August 1, 2020, at 1:51 PM PDT
    • Like