Commanding the Tide

Some of what follows actually happened. All of it is true, even the parts that didn’t actually happen.

“I’ve been thinking of King Canute lately. In light of current events.”

“Really? I’ve been thinking of loading the dishwasher. Takes my mind off the mess we’re in.”

It was a pretty typical Wednesday in lockdown. I was thinking of what needed doing. She was thinking of either the meaninglessness of existence or a parable about the limits of secular authority. Either way, there were matters to consider. Such as whether the pots should all go on the bottom rack or whether a 12th century religious philosopher was just hijacking an old story to make a point about the glory of God.

“Load, if you think it’ll help. And before you ask, yes, the pots go on the bottom rack. This isn’t your first rodeo.”

“It’s always the first rodeo.”

“Stop changing the subject, and by the by, that’s a lot less zen than you believe. I was thinking of the account of King Canute and the Tide.”

I was sorting flatware. “Naturally. If it wasn’t for that incident on the beach, would anyone even remember his name?”

She glared at me. “Irrelevant. Everyone who remains famous for more than fifteen minutes has to be famous for something, usually only one something. We’re the short attention span species.”

Plates down, pots up. Flatware in the side rack. Each according to its needs. “So which version of the story were you thinking about?”

“At first I was thinking of the version where his flattering courtiers convinced him he was divine, so he put his throne on the shore with the tide coming in and ordered it not to get his feet wet.”

“I can guess what happened.”

“Guess again if you think that plastic spoon goes on the bottom rack. You’re likely right about Canute. He got his feet wet. Not to mention his royal robes. But that’s not the version people remember.”

“No wonder. Good for a chuckle, but no great moral lesson. Guys full of themselves will always get soaked, sooner or later.”

“Which is why I didn’t dwell on it. No, the more famous version. His courtiers are convinced he’s divine. Canute, who knows himself far too well, says it ain’t so. To prove it, he orders the tide to stay back and not get his feet wet. He gets his feet wet, and thus proves his case.”

I tackled the glassware and mugs next. “So what was his case? You don’t really think his courtiers actually believed he was divine, do you? I imagine some awkward silences about then. They’re like: ‘did His Majesty actually just do that? Couldn’t he play along? After all, we were just doing our jobs.’”

“Let’s assume both sides were sincere.  I know, it’s a big assumption, but work with me.”

“I will if you’ll hand me that spoon. You were saying?”

“What Canute said whether he knew it or not. Secular authority is no more absolute than kings are divine.”

I started the dishwasher. “In other words, the tide is turning.”

(c) 2021 Richard Parks