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The Evil Tyrant of Ten Kurk

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 4, 2013
pp. 166-175 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0093

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The Tyrant in His Fortress

He is seated on a throne, looking bored. An empty hall lit dimly by high sconces. The stone walls and vaulted ceilings amplify every sound. And yet, all is silent except for the sputtering of the flames and the rasp of the tyrant’s breath. He leans forward as if to make a grim proclamation but instead lets out an abrupt and high-pitched sneeze.

The tyrant is twisted in blankets on the bed in his chamber, his pale legs twitching in his sleep.

The tyrant stands before a banquet table burdened with food. He places a single grape in his mouth, or a candied almond.

Despite his tremendous power and cruelty, he is only a man. He must eat. He must rest. He must occasionally stare vacantly or sneeze. But when his subjects imagine these activities taking place within the tyrant’s fortress, they are perplexed.

Their interactions with their ruler are episodes of great spectacle and casualty. One bright summer afternoon, the necks of forty men snap at the ends of forty nooses. Another twenty men are quartered by teams of horses that the tyrant’s men have draped in mock-festive caparisons. Howls. Whinnying of the horses.

These displays are so ubiquitous that the people of Ten Kurk have become more or less accustomed to them. Though they never hesitate to mourn their dead or curse the tyrant, they have learned to regard his cruelty itself without much alarm. If an innocent man is loaded into a cannon high up on the bulwarks and then fired out over the ocean or if he is dropped into a cauldron and scalded to death, most citizens will simply accept this new tragedy as one of the sad facts of the day.

Whereas the tyrant’s quotidian necessities have been elevated among his subjects to the realm of superstition. In Ten Kurk, the folktales are brief stories in which the tyrant peels an apple, takes a nap, relieves himself. “Once long ago,” an old man says as he sits before a fireplace, addressing the grandchildren gathered at his feet, “the tyrant asked his chambermaid for a fresh blanket.” The children look up at their grandfather in wonder, as if they are being told far-off, impossible things.

The Tyrant’s Cruelty

Rather than coercing his subjects toward some end agreeable to him, the tyrant punishes them indiscriminately, giving them no indication as to how they might appease him. A man returns home to find his family butchered. A young woman is seized at random and set on fire in the middle of a busy street.

It is easy to understand the motivations of a man who is cruel to others for personal gain, someone who commits sinister acts on account of ambition, but the tyrant’s behavior is more difficult to interpret.

In his Meditations he writes, “If I were forced at knifepoint to choose between feeding a starving child or burning my favorite robe, I would make the necessary sacrifice to ensure that the child died.”

The Tyrant and Rebels

Though the majority of his subjects have abandoned all hope of resisting him, every so often the tyrant will commit such an outrageous act that a young hero will attempt to organize a rebellion.

This is always an exciting time in Ten Kurk. Oh, what a privilege it is to be young and to have a castle to storm. To spend some hopeful night bivouacked in the woods to the north of the tyrant’s fortress. The stink of bonfires and the grave sound of pledges being made between comrades in the dark.

Though nothing will come of it. The tyrant will have planted a traitor among the rebels, and their camp will be ambushed in the night. If an assault is made on the fortress, the rebels will find its defenses too daunting. They will die pathetically beneath high spires in clouds of their own musket smoke. Even so, as they look up from the field of battle to his impenetrable defenses, the rebels will be grateful that they had a fortress to charge at in the first place...

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