On Power and its Limits

Many, many years ago, I was a little girl; a little chubby, with spectacles, and very innocent. I was walking home from school, when I saw them, waiting for me at the street corner, the girls who were my friends and class mates. I did not expect or foresee what ensued. They had me down on the ground, and L., who wore heavy orthopedic shoes, kicked me right in the chin. They laughed. I cried, of course. But when they saw the blood shedding from my chin, I think they were a little scared, and a little sorry. “Oh, kids can be so cruel sometimes”, said the adults with a frown, as if this cruelty came out of nowhere, as if it weren’t acquired. As if kids didn’t reflect back to adult society what they learned about bullying and abusing those who were weaker.

This childhood story came back to pay me a visit tonight, as I was writing about this notion of helplessness, when I take a symbolic kick to the chin. That first, overwhelming sense of helplessness when I read the newspaper, watch the news and get outraged by an elected official’s hate speech.

So, I wanted to write about that feeling of frustration, of clenched fists and tightened jaws in the face of smugness.

Then I wanted to write about frustration transformed into the desire to act;  to strike a pin in the pompous hot air balloon;  To scream at the top of my lungs that the king is naked and stupid.

I wanted to write about change that will come; that could come; that should come.

So, here are two stories about power relations and about using wisdom to shift power relations.

Consider All Eventualities[1]


There was a king in Copenhagen. He was exploring the stalls of a market one day when he saw a fine tent with a notice outside, `Wisdom for sale.’ He asked the proprietor how much the wisdom cost.

“It isn’t cheap. Wisdom costs £100 a portion,” replied the young man.

The king thought this was expensive.

“I can’t sell it for less,” insisted the young man.

The king decided to buy a portion anyway and handed his money over.

The young man looked at the king thoughtfully.

“Consider all eventualities,” he said.

That was all the king got for his money.

Eight days later, he called the royal barber to give him a shave.

“I warn you,” he said to the barber, “if there is one drop of blood

on either my face or the razor, I’ll have you beheaded.”

The barber was too terrified to shave the king and he was asked

to fnd a replacement. He returned home and told his apprentice

that he was needed at the castle.

“You are going to shave the king,” he explained,” but there is a condition.”

A short while later, the apprentice presented himself at the king’s  castle .

“You understand the condition?” asked the king.

“My master’s explained everything,” replied the boy.

The king’s face was soaped and shaved without a drop of blood being shed. The king looked at himself in the mirror.

“Well done,” he said to the boy, “but weren’t you the least bit nervous?”

“No, Your Majesty,” said the apprentice. “I always consider all eventualities.”

“What do you mean?” asked the king.

“If I’d nicked your face accidentally, I’d have given you a much bigger cut across your throat.”

The king was so pleased with the answer that he promoted the boy to court barber.

A dear fellow storyteller, Stephen Badman, shared this story with me. I like it; I think it’s a great story about the limits of power; about the fragility of those in power, especially when faced with those who dare speak truth to power. The king threatened the court barber that he will behead him, should he spill even a drop of his blood; but the apprentice reminded the king that he has the power – and the capacity – to not only cut his chick, but his throat as well…

The Puss in Boots: subversion or inversion

Toulouse, our gorgeous kitten marches every now and then into my tiny and very untidy office, jumps into my lap and purrs. There is something about this little furry creature that makes me take a pause, stroke his neck and play with him, until he’s had enough. He then leaps down, lands softly on all four and moves on. He’s just too adorable; so independent, yet so indulgent, at the same time, and always on his own terms.

Toulouse reminds me of the Puss in Boots. That special talking cat; the trickster, who thanks to his inventiveness, initiative and presence d’esprit succeeded in securing for his master, the son of a mill owner, all he could ever dream of and more: a luxurious castle, ample farm lands and the hand of the princess in marriage. And how does he do it? Well, first, he’s just a great PR wizard, who knows that what really counts is what people believe in, and not what is true or false. And how does he overcome the terrible giant sorcerer?  He shifts the power relations. He makes the sorcerer turn himself into a little mouse, and then devours him. And how does he make him do that? He teases him; challenges his ego, plays a reverse psychology number on him. He tells the sorcerer that he doesn’t believe he could turn himself into a tiny animal, such as a mouse. The giant sorcerer the has to prove that he can. His vanity is the end of him.

This folk tale, like many others, was created and told at a time when kings and nobles were born into their status, wealth and privilege, and when poor people could only tell stories about overcoming mighty sorcerers and claiming their assets.

But is the story of Puss in Boots merely a story of inversion; of the success of one individual to rise from rags to riches?

Folk tales are always more, always about more than what first meets the eye. Folk tales were always a way to criticize social injustice, to point to that which is good and that which is bad in the human nature. The mighty sorcerer stands for the evilness, cruelty and arbitrariness of power without limits, of those who hold the social standing and wealth; who gain more and more of both at the expense of the hard working folks.

The Puss in Boots is yet another story about the limits of power. Every mighty ruler has its blind spots and Achilles heel, which we can use to promote social change; whether it is vanity, or an over inflated ego, or complete loss of contact with real people and their real needs and concerns.

OK. I got a little carried away, perhaps, or hit a writing block. But then Daniel, my illustrator, gave me his interpretation to my text. Our very own Toulouse – as a Super Puss in Boots. Our Toulouse, as a super hero, who knows that with great power, comes great responsibility to do good.

puss in boots2

I hope these stories will remind us all just how important hope is; how important hope for positive change is; remind us that we have the capacity to bring about change; not by force of magic, but by transforming frustration into agency, and into the power to do good.

[1] Collected by the Danish Folklorist, Evald Tang Kristensen, translated into English by Stephen Badman.