Holding back the Tide with Words


Recently, during a critique of one of my short stories, the reader asked about something and I had one of those epiphanies. Many of the stories and legends I heard and read about as a child have been lost. Younger readers have never heard the stories about King Canute and the tide, Alfred the Great burning the cakes, or Danegeld.

Why? These are stories of England before the Norman invasion. Certainly not a priority period for American educators, or European History professors. Yet, each story has some lesson of importance to the world.

This is the story of King Canute and the waves as I heard it from my Father.

Now King Canute was the king of Denmark, England, Norway and parts of Sweden. He ruled England for nineteen years, and prosperous ones they were for Canute was a leader in a war and a leader in peace. He brought in good laws, and the land was peaceful.

In his court, there was a certain lord who sought to curry the king’s favor with words of praise. Whatever King Canute said, he would stand behind it and would praise the king for his wisdom and his power. One day this lord made his praise more vainglorious than usual.

“Oh King,” The lord began. “Such is the power of your word, that the winds blow at your command and the tides flow as you set them to do.”

King Canute, a man learned in the ways of war and peace, was not impressed. He thought to correct the lord, but struck on a better plan.

The next day the court moved to a new location. At low tide, King Canute led all the courtiers, including the lord of vain words out onto the exposed beach. There, King Canute continued with the king’s business in the normal fashion.

Soon the returning water began reach the court, making more than one person nervous. When a courtier finally mentioned, King Canute stood up and commanded the tide to retreat once more. Then he sat on his throne and continued with the business of the kingdom.

The sea did not retreat. It continued to rise.

Finally, when the water had risen to their knees, the courtiers begged the king to return to land. Looking at the flatterer, King Canute said, “You said I could command the tides.”

“Oh king,” the lord replied. “I was wrong.”

King Canute smiled, and said, “A king may command many things, but he cannot command the winds or the seas, or the seasons. Only God can do that.”

With that the court returned to dry land.

King Canute is a real historic person who ruled England for nineteen years, until November 12, 1035. Look him up.

To see some of my short stories go to www.edwardmcdermott.net