Understanding “The King Beetle on a Coconut Estate”

15 December 2015 Essay

As the Moon rose and the hour grew late, 1
the day help on a Coconut estate
raked up the dry leaves that fell dead from the trees,
which they burned in a pile by the lake.

The Beetle King summoned his men, 5
from the top of the Rhododendron stem
Calling all volunteers who can carry back here,
the Great Mystery's been lit once again.

One Beetle emerged from the crowd
in a fashionable abdomen shroud, 10
said I'm a Professor you see,
that's no mystery to me,
I'll be back soon, successful and proud!

But when the Beetle Professor returned,
he crawled on all six as his wings had been burned, 15
and described to the finest detail all he'd learned
There was neither a light nor a heat in his words.

The deeply dissatisfied King
climbed the same stem to announce the same thing
but in his second appeal, 20
sought to sweeten the deal
with a silver Padparadscha ring.

The Lieutenant stepped out from the line
as he lassoed his thorax with twine,
thinking I'm stronger and braver, 25
and I'll earn the King's favor,
one day all he has will be mine!

But for all the Lieutenant's conceit
he too returned singed and admitting defeat
I had no choice, please believe, but retreat 30
It was bright as the sun, but with ten times the heat

And it cracked like the thunder and bloodshot my eyes
though smothered with sticks it advanced undeterred.
Carelessly cast an ash cloud to the sky
my Lord, like a flock of dark vanishing birds. 35

The Beetle King slammed down his fist
Your flowery description's no better than his!
We sent for the Great Light and you bring us this?
We didn't ask what it seems like, we asked what it IS!

His Majesty's hour at last has drawn nigh, 40
The elegant Queen took her leave from his side
without understanding but without asking why,
gathered their Kids to come bid their goodbyes.

And the father explained You've been somewhat deceived
We've all called me your dad, but your True Dad's not me, 45
I lay next to your mom and your forms were conceived,
your Father is the Life within all that you see.

He fills up the ponds as He empties the clouds,
holds without hands and He speaks without sound.
Provides us with the cow's waste and coconuts to eat, 50
giving one that nice salt-taste and the other a sweet.

Sends the black carriage the day Death shows its face,
thinning our numbers with Kindness and Grace.
And just as a Flower and its Fragrance are one
so must each of you and your Father become. 55

Now distribute my scepter, my crown and my throne
and all we've known as wealth to the poor and alone
Without further hesitation, without looking back home,
the King flew headlong into the blazing unknown!

And as the Smoke King curled higher and higher, 60
the troops, flying loops 'round the telephone wires,
they said Our Beloved's not dead
but His Highness instead
has been utterly changed into Fire!

Why not be utterly changed into Fire? 65

The King Beetle On a Coconut Estate - by Aaron Weiss / meWithoutyou

As the poem opens, a fire is lit. It kindles inquiry and intrigue throughout the stanzas until its luminescent conclusion. The blaze sparks the interest of a local dung beetle colony, personified by their desire to understand the mystery of the flame. Their King has seen this phenomena before, and he wishes desperately to know its secrets. He immediately calls his tribe into action, promising riches to anyone who will help. The bonfire is seen to change and purify those who approach it. The King Beetle believes that knowledge of this “Great Light” (38) will bring him closer to his Father, a burning passion that motivates him to seek understanding at all costs.

The first stanza sets up the scene. “As [...] the hour grew late” (1), the King’s attention is drawn to the fire. Not only does this paint a beautiful picture of a lake, moonrise, and bonfire, it foreshadows the King’s final hour growing near. In the next stanza, he climbs the rhododendron, his message post, and speaks from between the billowing red petals. This is another hint toward his coming ascension amid the crimson flames. He reveals his quest: retrieve the “Great Mystery” (8).

As the first beetle volunteer speaks up, the author breaks the quatrain setup and introduces a limerick (9). This device is employed throughout the poem wherever a beetle begins to act. This adds a playful, catchy note to the story’s characters. It also helps to distinguish the shift in narrative. The tribe’s professor, believing himself wiser than the other beetles, is confident he can carry back the truth. However, when he returns, his high spirit has been brought low, symbolized by his burned wings forcing him to crawl home. Even though the professor barely gets close to the fire, it is enough to transform him from a haughty know-it-all to a humble servant with its unflinching light.

With another limerick, (18), the King plays his next move. Unhappy with the professor’s account, he remounts the Rhododendron stem to address his people, offering a Padparadscha (red sapphire) ring “to sweeten the deal” (21). The intense red of the jewel, and the flower he stands on infuse the King’s words with the power of the fire. The ring is extremely valuable, and the King is hesitant to part with it (he didn’t offer it for the first volunteer). He is willing to give up much to unlock the fire’s enigma. However, this will not be the greatest sacrifice the King must make.

A brave beetle, this time the King’s lieutenant, steps forward, armored with twine. His defense proves useless, and “he too return[s] singed and admitting defeat” (29). The lieutenant describes his experience in the words of a combat-hardened bug. “I had no choice, please believe, but retreat / It was bright as the sun, but with ten times the heat / And it cracked like the thunder and bloodshot my eyes / though smothered with sticks it advanced undeterred” (30-34). He is overwhelmed by the fire’s brilliance and intensity. It seems to him a hungry inferno, impossible to stop, with no regard for its surroundings. Is it this thirsty spirit that the King seeks? The lieutenant is humbled, realizing all his military might is no match for the fire. No earthly material could save him from its heat. The fire seems to transcend physical boundaries as it blurs the line between earth and sky, shooting ash into the heavens. The lieutenant relates the gray cloud to the dark birds that the King later refers to as “the black carriage” (52), sent by the Father to retrieve his fallen. The connection is made between the fire and the Father.

Finally the King has had enough of his men’s efforts. They could only describe what they witnessed from a distance, while the King wanted them to bring back some of the fire, so he could see it for himself up close. The King realizes the only way he can grasp the true magnitude of the fire is to confront it. As the bonfire grows larger, the King’s passion engulfs him, and breaking with the rhythm of the poem, he bursts into fervent monologue. What he is really seeking, he explains, is the “True Dad” (45), the “Life within all that you see” (47). The Father gives life to everything - the beetles, the flower, the farm, the cattle, the dung and the coconut, providing for every need, silently supporting and moving all of nature, from birth to death. Surely he must also give life to the fire. If so, what miracles must it contain? What awesome power? The King senses his date with destiny is near.

When he has had enough of his troop’s insufficient reports, the King decides he must answer his question himself. The Queen sits with her children gathered, looking at her King, faithful, unquestioning. Though she sees the fire burning in his eyes, she has no curiosity of her own. She is “without understanding” (42). Just as her knowledge is a function of her proximity to the King, he seeks to get closer to the Light that can answer his questions. He hastily divests his earthly possessions, making one last kindness, thinking of the needy under his care. His rulership is equally divided (56). With no further reservations, free of his mortal bounds, the King flies bravely straight into the inferno, where he is transformed! No longer the Beetle King, the new “Smoke King” grows, ascending “higher and higher” (60). With one last limerick, his subjects, dizzy with the spectre, deem he has changed into fire itself. The King’s search ends with the ultimate sacrifice, as he loses his physical body to the flames. However, his pursuit is successful in that he has won the undying respect of his followers. He has crossed the boundary into the spiritual world, forsaking everything precious to him in the process.

The last line poses a question to the reader. “Why not be utterly changed into Fire?” (65). Is the beetle King’s all-consuming search for knowledge, power, and a connection with his Father worth the sacrifice of losing your own self in the process? How far should one go in his quest for the truth, his journey toward spiritual understanding? Leaving earthly things behind, shedding your physical form, is a brave and difficult act, but the reward is eternal.