Suffering from another paroxysm of doubt – a bobbing on the big sea moment – Tolstoy seemed the natural choice of port for the Gen X refugee to find anchorage in. Let it be known not only common folk or mendicant monks seek to know what really matters. Kings, too, have tipped their crown in neediness of an answer to the big three – 1) When is the right time to do the right thing? 2) Whom is considered most worthy of being the beneficiary of that right thing? And, 3), what is that right thing to do in life above all other right things? If Christ could do it on a bike, and Hindus on their hands and knees around the Holy Mountain, then Arthurian types can go in search of answers, too, finding them planted in unlikely soil.
What is the right thing to do, when is the right moment to do it, and with whom should it be done? Are such questions that go to the heart of the matter to be considered existential conundrums unlike any other? Who can tell. At least, with Tolstoy we have an agony uncle worthy of trust. Let’s face it, rules are rules. Fables, myths and necromancy when they come, come packaged not into ones, not twos but threes.
Three the magic number: three wishes; three wise men; three wise monkeys; three fates, furies and graces; three the number of intelligence in the Kabbalah; the father, son and the holy ghost; Great Pyramids; the belt of Orion; three of a kind; three chances to put things right.
And so it came down to three questions that Tolstoy’s Certain King went to slay with allegorical brevity short as a cocktail stick. When he took his ruler of a faraway realm on his kingly quest, still he did so with a point, but not the kind that spears pitted olives. His was in mind. As De Troyes’ Fisher King was crippled with injury, Tolstoy’s Certain King (one presumes) of Slavic peasantry is crippled with that most chronic of conditions: indecision.
The analogies are rich as they are universal. Indecision is as injurious to the mind as a hurtling javelin is to the thigh. This moral maze, full of ankle-twisting turns, knows no bounds of credo or class. The ruler is expected to be judicious to the extent of having answers to the trickiest questions tucked into his hem. Nonetheless, it is to the furthest reaches of the forest, to the old and frail hermit living in a dacha-cum-shed, that he experiences a comedown of humbling proportions. As wisdom is the burden of the elite, so it is the gift of the obscure.
To the question of ‘what the right thing is to do’ (presumably this question extends beyond simple quandaries like Sainsbury’s car park is chock-a. Will anyone really notice if I park in the disabled space?), apparently hermetic sagacity comes down on the side of digging seed beds in pity of the old hermit shirker who claimed he was too buggered to do it for himself.
As to the question of when is the right time to do the right thing, like the old adage goes, there’s no time like the present. The when ends only when the present ends, which is never until it is stepped out from. Our king, now engaged in menial labours considered essential by Shaolin monks for attaining mindfulness, is now inadvertently digging his way to the answers he seeks by virtue of having rolled up his sleeves and working that hoe like such a demon that he stops noticing time and forgets what it is he wanted to know. Only when he stops to reflect does he realise that the right time to do the important things in life is lost when the mind is either running ahead or falling behind.
The when embedded within the what comes twice to the fable. The other most important time existing for the king in the quantum mechanics of the present moment (where either something’s nature is known but not its location or else its location but not its nature) is when he turns from market gardener to red cross medic and saves a man with a blinding bit of field dressing. Little does the king know that the man, consumed by vengeance, was out for his blood. But instead of regicide the stranger in the forest finds the king is stemming his own gushing blood in an act of compassion, for why the king does not know.
As to the question of who benefited from that right thing and that right moment, the knackered old hermit and the wounded wannabe assassin became the king’s most important task, the only thing that mattered. Just as your average Uncle Joe does not take up arms for a cause but for himself and those either side of him, so Tolstoy, through the hermit, avers that the most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows (in that very moment) whether he will ever again have dealings with anyone else.
The king has, quite unintentionally, received his true coronation. Mindfulness is the crown he wears. Presence is now in his heart, leading the hermit on to distill the essence of the good thing, which is to perform man’s sole purpose of being: doing good. Kant wrote the only unqualified, unconditional good was the good that arose from good will; goodness not to conform to norms of goodness, rather goodness for its own sake.
Our king left the protection of his realm asking three questions he thought should govern and guide a life in which he had grown dissatisfied, and for which he was deservedly awarded his Duke of Edinburgh. He left a substandard realm of irrelevance only to discover a sublime state of benevolence. He threw off his chain mail to don the saffron robe. And all because he was not afraid to invent himself in the mind of the writer whose own life needed questions answering, metaphysically-speaking. Ask Tolstoy and ye shall receive.