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Like Bad King John

How undeserving we humans have been of the bounty and beauty of Earth

By Carolyn Pogue

In my art group this month, I talked about Christmas traditions. We named what is important and what is not. My list included listening to the Jesus story and watching the original film version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, as well as having an audience that allows to me read aloud King John’s Christmas. It's from A.A. Milne’s Now We Are Six, published in 1927. King John, sad to say, was stupid, undeserving and ridiculous. Great fodder for Christmas!

Milne describes the king who, even though he had the power of life and death over his subjects, was a pathetic loser. He begins: “King John was not a good man, and no good friends had he. He stayed in every afternoon, but no one came to tea.”

Milne based his poem on the fact that 800 years ago, Bad King John usurped his brother Richard’s throne. He went on to become the horrid king who the legendary Robin Hood took to task because he taxed peasants near to death in order to pay for European wars (He did one good thing; he signed the Magna Carta in 1215, the first written constitution, but that was under duress).

Milne’s King John is bereft of friends. The only Christmas cards on his mantle are from himself. Every year, he writes Father Christmas and hangs his stocking, but even though his desires aren’t extravagant, every year, this stocking is empty. Poor King John. Even the Indian rubber ball he longed for was denied him. 

Then on Christmas morning, he stands by his open window, with an empty stocking in hand. Enviously, he watches children laughing and playing outside. And then, a miracle. Father Christmas comes through after all: “. . . When through the window, big and red there hurtled by his royal head, and bounced and fell upon the bed, an India rubber ball!”

Every single year, when I read the final lines, my throat catches. How I rejoice with this undeserving, pathetic, miserable figure of history — one who cannot live a life of generosity or joy for some reason. Even so, Milne writes, he's given a gift: his heart’s desire.

How like us this king is. Maybe that's why my throat catches. Christmas morning arrives for King John after all, and it arrives for us, too. As I watched, waited and prayed for world leaders to take courage in the climate change talks in Paris, I thought how undeserving we humans have been of the bounty and beauty of Earth.

And yet, Christmas morning does come. It comes when crops respond to water and sun in order to grow and feed us. It comes when at-risk species are protected and when traditional Indigenous knowledge is respected. It comes when we keep clean the lakes and rivers that keep us healthy. It comes when we protect forests and resolve to develop energy alternatives to fossil fuels. It comes when we make the connection between war and environmental destruction. It comes when world leaders act with courage and hope when responding to our threatened, beloved planet. Blessed are we on this Christmas morning.

May this season fill you with deep contentment.

Author's photo
Carolyn Pogue is a longtime Observer contributor. New posts of The Pogue Blog will appear on the first and third Thursday of the month. For more information on Carolyn Pogue, visit www.carolynpogue.ca..
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