The Lady or the Tiger ?

Frank Stockton - Author of The Lady or the Tiger

The other day I got to thinking about choice and how it seems that sometimes we have it and at other times we have no choice at all. And how I've proclaimed—talking out of both sides of my mouth— "I'm a free man; it's a free country and I'm free to choose whatever I want," as well as " I really had no choice." Or in another version: "You leave me no choice!" (which sounds like a threat out of a B movie or since they've stopped making A movies out in the dream factory it could come from any new A movie). Then, sailing into my mind, like a paper airplane, came the recollection of a tale I read way back when, one that has rattled in my memory ever since.

The story is The Lady or the Tiger? and it was penned by a moustachioed Canadian called Frank Stockton about a century ago. It purports to be about choice, and maybe a few other things. As the story goes, there was a king in some far-off, semi-barbaric kingdom who built a great arena in which his brand of justice could be displayed. Now, this king had, as you might expect, a "semi-barbaric " daughter and she fell—well, I won"t give it away. You can experience the story for yourself. It's a haunting tale that used to be required reading in the barbaric days of the last century. Here's a condensed version I recorded recently with some friends.

Give it a listen and then read the rest of the post...

Another thing about choice I've noticed is that no matter how much choice we supposedly have and no matter how well circumstances hang in our favor we often wind up saying the same old words or making the same all-too-familiar decision. Which leads me to question what butchers mean when they talk of a "choice cut of beef." Surely they're not talking about their customers...

Anyway, all this chewing on the rag of choice reminded me of tigers and of William Blake, that most clear-eyed of English poets, and of his "Tyger" poem, and of a lady who, through no fault of her own, recently attained a certain chocolatey immortality, but who once took a notorious ride, both bareback and bare, through the winding lanes of Tunbridge Town. All of which threw me into a poetic fantasia on the theme of choice and the pairs of opposites and what hits you when you make a choice and maybe it's not what you get but what you do with what you get that matters.

So here's how the poem goes, for better or worse. (Oop, there we go—another one of those pairs of opposites.

Old Willie Blake he got it right:

there're always tigers burning bright

along the hallways of the night.

And always ladies of renown—

in a glory that needs no brocade gown—

go cantering through Tunbridge Town.

Sometimes they lurk behind one door

and sometimes by the other one;

and sometimes a life will be restored

and sometimes it will be undone.

That's how Stockton's story goes;

one or the other is all he knows:

faced with a choice that is no choice,

in a land wherein he has no voice,

a youth—like us, no less, no more,

picks what waits behind a door.

But I submit to you, that life

and death, as well as love and strife,

and all the good and all the harm

are waiting for us arm-in-arm,

so that whatever door you choose

you will, for sure, both win and lose.

One plan might be to keep your head,

holding at bay the living and dead.

Another one......well, no doubt

you'll find some way to work it out.

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