The Empty Spell


A king, with something to prove. Canute’s servants drag the heavy carved wooden throne down to the rocky shoreline, as the tide begins to turn, out in the afternoon distance. The king seats himself on the throne and waits, confident. Of course the sea will obey him. The tide draws closer. Of course it needs to be near enough to hear his command. When the lip of the water is about four strides away from Canute, he cries the words rehearsed many times in his head: ‘Turn back! Turn back!” The tide draws sharply closer, now licking around his ankles and drenching the hem of his robe, and the sun falls lower. “Turn back! Turn back!’ But the sea is deaf, or disobedient, or any other quality that still allows Canute to believe that it is paying him mind.

I wonder what happened next. Did the King flee when the sea reached his knees, or his neck? Did the first taste of bitter brine bring him home to the realization that the sea was not his to command? Would he drown rather than admit this, and did it fall to his servants to drag him gasping out of the water, leaving the carved throne to be shattered by the waves, then washed up as a mystery for some other shoreline to decipher?

Perhaps the mystery is simply that Canute wanted to die. As king, he could not consciously admit this wish, let alone see it through into suicide. As king, no longer magician or shaman able to bend space, time and matter at will, and pass back and forth through the portals of the Otherworlds (for the powers have long since been separated), he is bound to one span of life and the limits of the earthly realm. As king, his life and death are no longer his to command, he must wait on their ending. ‘The King is Dead, Long Live the King!’

Canute carries the shadow memory of what kings once were: magicians and shamans. He crafts of this memory his ruse, his hollowed-out intention to command the sea, when in his secret heart of hearts he knows that the sea cannot be commanded (at least, not by kings). He will cast everything into the wager and drown in the attempt, and so have his wish at last, without ever betraying it to his kingdom, or himself.


Glancing through the on-line version of The Guardian, I’m often struck by headlines in the Opinion section that contain words like ‘must’, ‘should’, ‘got to’, ‘have to’. This being The Guardian, I’m usually in agreement with the obligations being invoked, yet I sag under the improbability of what ‘must’ happen coming to pass any time soon. ‘Really? By this government?’ I mutter to myself, rarely inspired to click through and read on, and commonly disappointed by the lack of actionable substance when I do.

I think of Canute. What are you doing when you assert that something ‘has to’ happen, with no real power to make it happen? What are you creating, or waiting for, by expressing an opinion which both exposes and seeks to disguise your utter powerlessness?

The spell of hollow words keeps on being cast. Impotence and paralysis are hypnotic (everyone is spared the risks and uncertainty of doing things otherwise). The mainstream press remains at the stage of default institutional resistance to the arguments of positive journalism (that it’s perfectly possible, and far more empowering for readers, to report on more of how people can and do make a tangible and beneficial difference to the world.)  Ritual participation becomes peculiarly compelling when the only effectiveness left is participation. Venture below the editorial line and into the comments: it’s like everyone knows that the game is up, and still we all play on.


“Something within us seeks destruction”, writes James Hollis in Creating a Life: Finding Your Individual Path. “Hubris involves the extension of human possibility beyond the humanly possible. It involves crossing the line, even when the line is invisible.” (p.13) Hubris, as bequeathed to us by classical Greek tragedy, is the fatal flaw of believing you’re in control of circumstances when you’re not. The flaw is fatal because it brings death, and because it irresistibly provokes fate. The protagonists of tragedy are never conscious that their confident choices are flawed and unwise, until the full consequences inevitably unfold before them. Changing course before it’s too late is never an option, because that would require a difference of perspective that is simply not available to them.

Hubris can only culminate in its own destruction (and the destruction of much else besides, which compounds the tragedy). The game must be played out to the end. The mystery is how this destruction can also be desired, and fulfilled only by allowing hubris to run its course, to repeat the hollow spells in complete sincerity until their death is consummated.


I think again of Canute. What if he survived? What if his servants did rescue him, or he decided at the last to save himself? Could he have remained King after the debacle on the shoreline, or was he quietly, perhaps spectacularly, deposed? In the aftermath of being King, or as King of the Aftermath, what became of him? Did he keep going through the motions, spend the rest of his days trying to find the right spell to command the seas? Did his hubris finally leave him, sorting through his pile of empty words on another rocky beach? Did some of them rearrange themselves under his fingers and prickle with new life, the first words of a power and a story free of the weight and earthly limits of kingship and tragedy and fate?

Did he stay silent, and wait for the mystery to wash up at his feet?