Whither Charisma? A Variation on Stone Soup

Andrew Taggart’s reflections on the founding story of Stone Soup attribute the success of the original beggar to personal charisma. Using the arts of magic, the beggar is able to mesmerise the villagers and charm them into parting with small individual gifts of food which, when added together to the communal soup pot, transform scarcity into abundance.

A trouble with charisma is that the magic always depends on that special individual. In this civilization that educates, and legislates, ordinary people away from the just exercise of their own capabilities and initiative, and into infantilised dependence on a complicated roster of experts, superiors, self-appointed gurus and superstars to live and dream on their behalf, charisma is not an unqualified blessing. Allowing it to stand justified as a means in itself is a recipe for disillusion, if not despotism. Charisma may hold the earnest intention of inspiring others to act, but unless the magic charge can complete its circuit through the self-chosen actions of those others, charisma is little more than a kind of vampirism, twisted into a feedback loop in which all it does is keep more mesmerised punters rolling up to nourish the bottomless soup pot of the charismatic’s ego.

A trouble with this sceptical account of charisma, though, is that it’s straining too hard to hide a necessary light. Charisma is as unevenly distributed through the population as any other gift or talent; calling for a radical redistribution of charisma is not unlike the tragic misperception of Wilhelm Reich, in casting himself as a mighty eagle who does not understand why only chickens and not more eagles hatch beneath him. Moreover, the sparks fired by the charisma of particular individuals are vital in the world: to take up the thread of Andrew’s post again, because they envision, inspire and model new ways of being and doing things.

Yet the inspiration has to take root in others. The villagers need to believe, and prove to themselves, that they can repeat the magic once the beggar has tucked the soup stone back in his pocket and headed off down the road.

In order to find out whether they can, I wrote – without pretending to any great gifts as a storyteller, mind – the following variation; the moral of which, if there is one, I’m sure you can deduce.

****

 Some years after the beggar visited and made stone soup, the land in which the village lay was invaded.

The long, already hazardous journey to the nearest town, to trade in the marketplace and share news, was no longer safe. The villagers lived in fear and apprehension, making do with dwindling supplies of salt and oil, eking out the vegetables and crops they could grow themselves, and the pigs and chickens they could slaughter. Strangers never came through the village any more, but some of the villagers remembered the beggar, and would slip a couple of potatoes or cabbage leaves to a neighbour who had less than themselves, with a smile and the words ‘Here’s an extra stone or two for the pot.’

Then came a day that no-one could forget and no-one wanted to remember. The village was invaded.

Hard-faced soldiers in black uniforms with guns, and swords. They poured petrol over the young crops in the fields and set them alight, put poison down the well, killed every last chicken, herded all the pigs into a truck, and burned all the villagers – men, women, children –out of their houses in order to slaughter them.

In the confusion and terror, seven villagers separately managed to escape. A young man, a middle-aged couple, a old mother and her adult son, a father and his eight-year old daughter.  They had time only to grab blankets and shawls before escaping as fast as they could into the deep forest that lay beyond the village, and once the night began to fall they were soon hungry and cold.

**

As he clawed and scrambled his way through the dark forest, the young man fell and cut his leg open on a sharp rock. He tore a piece from his shirt to bind it, but the blood quickly soaked through. He realised, cold with the understanding, that either he would bleed to death or starve to death or die of an infection; or the soldiers would come into the forest, find him and kill him.

So he made a choice. He bound up his wounded leg as tightly as he could with more strips torn from his shirt, and slowly, painfully, made his way back to the village.

As he limped up the road in the light of dawn, he was stopped by an armed guard. The guard could have shot him like a dog, but didn’t.

‘Look, I have nothing, no weapon, and you see I am injured. You can kill me if you must. But let me join your army and go with you. You see I am strong: I used to slaughter the pigs. Once a beggar came to this village and made soup from a magic stone. All of us gave a little something to make the soup even better; it fed the whole village and was the best soup I’ve ever tasted. I know that miracles are possible.  My home and village are gone, but I just want to live, and you are the rulers now.’

The guard eyed him from out of his hard face, and saw the strong arms and upper body of the young man beneath the remains of his shirt. He decided to save him. Not out of pity, but because he wanted the power of having the strong young man next to him as a comrade, forever indebted to him for this random and magnanimous sparing of his life.

The guard shouted up the road to a group of soldiers, ‘Here’s a survivor come crawling back for mercy. But I am letting him in. He wants to join us, and he is strong, but has a wounded leg. Give him food, and a uniform, and bring the medic to him.’

**

The middle aged couple spent two days moving north through the forest, surviving on plants and roots that they knew were safe to eat. Then they left the forest and came to a village.

They knocked on the first door that they came to. A woman about their own age swung the door open, saw their condition and hastily beckoned them inside. She could guess what had happened and so spared them the asking; whether for her own sake or theirs or both it’s impossible to say.

‘Set two extra places for these good people,’ she called to a girl who was poking the fire under a big, bubbling iron cauldron. ‘ Whatever we have cooking, it always goes further when unexpected guests arrive. Come over here by the fire and make yourselves comfortable.’

The couple marvelled at the woman’s unselfconscious generosity, so different from the attitude of their own village when the stone soup beggar had come knocking from door to door, only to be turned away from every one.

‘I wonder,’ began the man, ‘did you ever have a beggar come to this village, whom every household turned away and refused to feed, and who then sat in the square and cooked soup with a magic stone in a rusty old pot. He persuaded everyone to bring a little something to add to the soup, a potato, a carrot, an onion, a ham bone; and the whole village ate some, and I have to say that it was the best soup I’ve ever tasted. After that, we always tried to share what we had, however little, and we have always had less and less, ever since …. ‘

He fell silent, and looked away into the fire.

The woman whose home it was understood his silence, but still looked puzzled. ‘Well, I couldn’t say if that particular beggar has passed through here. Every so often  a beggar finds his way to this village, but it’s our custom, always has been, to treat every stranger as a guest, to share whatever we have, because that way it always goes further. So even if that beggar came to our village, he would have been given a meal and a place to sleep, if not here then with one of our neighbours. No one would have left him to make his own soup in the square, out of a magic stone, in a rusty old pot.’

**

The old mother and her adult son took three days traveling east to find their way out of the forest. The woman was frail, but she too knew which plants were safe to eat, and at night her son built for them shelters of fallen leaves and branches, to spare her the worst of the cold.

They came to a village and knocked on the first door that they came to. A man answered it, opening the door just a crack. Behind him they could see a roaring fire, and a woman next to it, cradling a baby.

The man looked at them through the crack in the door, guessed what had happened, and spared them the asking. He had met survivors of the invasion before, and it was always the same, terrible story.

‘Just a moment,’ he said, pushing the door to for a few minutes and then re-emerging with a ladle and a couple of blankets in his hand. ‘Take these to warm yourselves’, he said, handing them the blankets, ‘and follow me’.

The man led the woman and her son into the village square, and from behind the water trough pulled out a rusty old cooking pot. He began banging the pot with the ladle, and shouting out ‘Stone soup! Stone soup! We have strangers come to the village, cold and hungry, and we must make stone soup to feed us all!’

By ones and twos and threes and whole families, the entire village assembled in the square. Each person carried something, tucked in their hand or pocket,  wrapped in a handkerchief or a corner of their shawl, but kept their offerings hidden. The wife of the man at whose house they’d knocked brought firewood in a basket, and began to build a fire, the baby tied at her back.

Despite how cold and hungry and tired they were, the old mother and her son were incredulous. They had turned the stone soup beggar from their door, just like everybody else in their village; and although they had offered a little salt to add to the stone soup, just to play along, had eaten their share of it and knew in the secret places of their hearts that it was the best soup they’d ever tasted; still the beggar was a charlatan, not to be trusted. Even when afterwards some of their neighbours became soft and stupid enough to share more than what they had, the old woman and her son had kept to themselves, because goodness knew it was hard enough with this invasion and the dreadful rumours and supplies running short, without having to take from others and give to others and somehow it never felt right, this indebtedness, because in the secret places of their hearts they felt that whatever they could give was not enough to justify taking something in return.

‘No!’, said the son ‘not this! That crazy old beggar with his stone soup trick has been here too, and you’ve all fallen for it! We’d rather go hungry, or move on somewhere else. You can’t make this last, because the invasion is coming, and stone soup can’t feed all of you, because there’s not enough food in this village to keep giving, and the soldiers will … ‘

He fell silent, exhausted, and looked away at the half-built fire.

The wife with the firewood and the baby at her back could see, sometimes, into the secret heart of things. She put down her basket of firewood and came up to the old mother, untying the cloth that held her baby.

‘Look’, she said, ‘I have to build this fire. We all have to eat, and do what we can for each other now. After the beggar came, we all agreed that the stone soup he made was the best soup we’d ever tasted, and now whenever strangers come through this village – although, goodness knows, it hardly ever happens now – we like to do just as the beggar did, if only because stone soup tastes so good. And it will be so much easier for me if you can rock the baby while I work. All the others will be helping make the soup and clear up afterwards, but my job is building the fire, and it is hard bending and stacking wood and getting the kindling to catch with the little one tied to my back, and the smoke too close and making him cough. Please take him for me.’

By this time she was holding the sleepy infant in her outstretched hands, and the old mother couldn’t help but feel a little softer, and that she didn’t know what would become of them if she refused. Besides, she knew in the secret places of her heart that the wife was right about how good the stone soup was. So she took the baby and began to rock him.

Then a tall man, holding out an axe in his hand, came over to the son. ‘I can see you are tired from your journey,’ he said, ‘but you are still strong, and we really could use some help cutting more wood to make a really big fire. It is going to be a cold night, and we’ll need to stay warm out here while we all make and eat stone soup together.’

The son felt embarrassed about his outburst, and not sure what to say. He could see that there were enough strong men in the village already to chop a mountain of wood that would burn to warm the whole village all night and into the next day, without him helping.  But he could also see that the village expected him to give something in return for his share of stone soup, and that suited his desire to earn receiving with giving. Besides, he didn’t know what else he could do for his mother, who was already cooing to the sleeping baby in her arms; and he knew in the secret places of his heart that he too had never tasted anything so good as that crazy beggar’s stone soup.

So, the wife built the fire and the old mother rocked the baby; the son helped chop firewood, and the villagers sat and waited. When the fire was ready, the man with the ladle filled the old rusty pot with water and set it over the fire to boil. A boy of about ten stood up, went over to the trough, and pulled from behind it a smooth grey stone, which he dropped carefully into the pot.

The man began to stir, and the whole village, one by one, unwrapped their offerings and added them to the pot; and soon everyone was eating stone soup together, quite the best stone soup that they had ever tasted.

**

The father and his eight-year-old-daughter took a day and a night to get out of the forest by travelling west. Tired and very hungry, they came to a village and knocked at the first house on the road.

A young woman opened the door a tiny crack, no further, barely looking at them. ‘No, nothing to spare here, go away’, and before the father and his daughter could digest her words, the door was slammed shut again and bolted.

They tried the next house. A man with a thick beard opened the door a tiny crack, no further. ‘Get away from here,’ he hissed ‘For all we know, you are spies from the invaders, come to see what food we have that they can then come and steal, before murdering the lot of us.’

The father and his daughter tried the third house, the fourth house. Everywhere the same story: they were turned away, with either fear or outright hostility.

They ended up in the market square, hunched against the water trough.

‘We’ll rest here for a little while, and then get out of this village,’ said the father. ‘No-one wants us here, and they might hurt us, or worse, if they find us hanging around.’

The girl stared dully at the dirt in front of her feet, and then her eyes wandered to the right as if they knew where they were going. Her gaze caught upon a white gleam, so she scrambled over to where it lay and saw a smallish white stone with tiny chips of mica that, when she picked it up, fitted neatly in the palm of her hand.

‘Look Papa’, she said. ‘A pretty stone. Remember that beggar who came to our village once when I was tiny and made soup from a stone when no-one would give him anything to eat. And how it must have been a magic stone, because everyone, even the people with the hardest hearts, gave a little something to make the soup taste better; and afterwards everybody said that, even though it was stone soup and the ingredients were just the same as we eat every day, it was quite the best soup anybody in the village had ever eaten. Well, maybe this is a magic stone too, and maybe we could make stone soup for this whole village, just like that beggar did.’

The father felt terrible, because he knew that the beggar had played a trick – although it was a very clever, well-executed trick. And the stone soup had tasted remarkably good. And he did not have the heart to get angry and pour scorn on his daughter’s childish imaginings, because she had already seen things that no child should never have to see. But he was a plain-spoken man, a poor liar; this was a hard and perhaps dangerous place, not like when the beggar came to their village.

Yet he did not know what else they could do. It was still early in the morning, and nobody was about. The father guessed,  from his own recent experiences, that the villagers would not go out of their houses unless the absolutely had to, in this climate of fear and apprehension.

So, keeping low and moving slowly, he beckoned his daughter to come with him, out of the square and down a quiet track to the edge of the village, where, just as in their own village, there was a junk pile. Sticking out of the junk was the spout of an old rusty kettle with no lid. ‘That’ll do’, though the man, and pulled it out. Next to the junk pile grew a few straggly trees with fallen branches, and by twisting and snapping, he was able to pull together enough wood for the makings of a meagre fire.

The man and the girl returned to the square; the man build the fire and lit it with flint he always kept in his pocket. The girl took the game as seriously as any eight-year old would, carefully rinsing the old kettle in the trough and filling it with fresh water from the tap at the end.

Her father held out his hand for the stone, which his daughter had tucked safely in her pocket. He placed the stone in the kettle, and set the kettle over the fire. He found a loose twig in the dirt, and used it to stir the pot with.  After a while, he handed the twig to his daughter as she squatted beside him, and so between them they took turns stirring as the water began to steam.

A woman came from her house to get water and stopped short when she saw the pair. ‘What are you still doing here?’ she asked sharply.

‘We’re making soup’, said the girl eagerly as she stirred the water in the kettle. ‘A very special and delicious kind of soup. Stone soup.’

The woman leaned over, suspicious, and saw that there was nothing in the kettle but water and a small white stone. She decided that the pair were just crazy, filled her bucket, and was turning to go back to her house when her bearded neighbour came out – the man who’d thought that the girl and her father might be spies. The woman gestured over at the father and daughter with a look that said exactly what she thought of them. The bearded man was tempted to get angry, kick over their stupid kettle and drive them out of the village – but he had an imaginative eight-year-old daughter of his own.

Then another woman came for water; the village was starting to get as busy as it ever did in those fearful days. Before long, a small crowd had gathered around the man and his daughter, and to every enquiry as to what they were still doing there, the girl would stir the pot with an extra bit of vigour and concentration and reply, ‘We’re making the most delicious stone soup, for the whole village to share.’

Although every household had shut their doors in the faces of the father and his daughter, none of them made a move to drive them away. The children were fascinated by the game. Some of the adults, like the first woman come for water, though they were mad, maybe driven mad by what had happened to them, certainly too mad to make reliable spies for the invaders, and perhaps dangerous if provoked. Others, like the bearded man, hadn’t the heart to spoil the earnest game of an eight-year-old child who had probably seen things that no child should have to see. The most suspicious villagers started to believe that it would actually be best to humour the pair, so they could not report back to the invaders. And there were a few who didn’t care whether they let the two alone or kicked them out, whether they were spies or survivors, because they knew what was going to happen to them all, tomorrow or next week or in a month. They could feel their fate whistling in their bones.

All of them, as time went on and more steam rose from the rusty kettle, and the girl and her father took turns stirring, were gradually forgetting the constant atmosphere of fear and uncertainty in which they now lived.

‘Mmm,’ said the girl, ‘this really will be the most delicious stone soup we’ve ever made. But you know what Papa, wouldn’t it be just extra good with a potato in it. Just one potato.’ And she turned to the assembled villagers and asked ‘Can anyone spare a potato, just one potato, not even a big one, to make this stone soup taste extra good?’

The eight-year-old daughter of the bearded man turned to her father and said ‘We have potatoes, don’t we Papa?’ So the man returned to his house and came back a few minutes later, holding out a potato, which he offered to the stirring girl with his best play-along grin.

The daughter at the pot looked hard at her father. He was nervous, and ashamed, but he could also see that the game was making his daughter happy, and just maybe … ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘this stone soup is looking really tasty indeed. But what would make it just .. so much better is .. a carrot. Can anyone give a carrot to make this stone soup really, especially delicious?’

One of the women who though that the man was crazy and possibly dangerous hastened to her house and came back with a wrinkled carrot, if only to humour his delusion.

And so it went on, with the addition of an onion,  a turnip, some cabbage, a ham bone, a handful of garden herbs, and a sprinkle of salt. The father and his daughter took turns to suggest ingredients, but by the time it came to the herbs someone just offered them, and then people began bringing more ingredients unasked. The whole village was absorbed, having forgotten the thing that they still had every reason to fear.

When the father announced that the stone soup was ready, everyone went back to their houses to fetch bowls and spoons; and even a little bread was found too.

Enough stone soup came out of that rusty kettle to give every person in the village a bowlful. All agreed afterwards that that stone soup was, truly, quite the best soup they had ever tasted.

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3 thoughts on “Whither Charisma? A Variation on Stone Soup

  1. A wise and powerful story – the economics of the heart carefully unfolded; the narrative reassurance of theme and variation unsettled by the hairbreadth proximity of war. Just be careful if David Cameron shows up in your village with a cauldron stamped ‘Big Society’ – that stone he’s stirring is his heart …

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