The year: 334 B.C.
The place: The ancient Phrygian city of Gordium
The tale you are about to read is as true as it can be:
Hephaestion: Hey, Seleucus! You just missed all the fun! Alex here just fulfilled another ancient prophecy!
Alexander the Great (shrugging): Don’t listen to Heph. It was no big deal.
Seleucus: “No big deal”? And a shrug? That’s what you said after you razed the city of Thebes. “Eh, no biggie.” Just another complete victory and total annihilation. Whatever. So what was it this time?
Hephaestion: Get this: There was this ox-cart in town tied to a post –
Seleucus: And Alex chopped it into kindling, burned it to ashes, then scattered the ashes to the four winds?
Alexander the Great: Gee, thanks, Seleucus, you make me sound like some kind of rampaging destroyer.
Seleucus: Well, you are conquering the known world. There’s bound to be a certain amount of destruction involved.
Alexander the Great: It’s not all destruction. Sometimes there’s creativity involved.
Seleucus: Yeah, like creating widows.
Hephaestion: As I was saying: there’s this ox-cart tied to a post by this knot. Been there hundreds of years, and no one’s ever been able to untie the knot. If you saw the knot, you’d understand why: totally complicated, gnarled and tangled, just a huge total mess.
Seleucus: Like Hephaestion’s tent.
Hephaestion: I’m ignoring you. This knot was tied by Midas—
Seleucus: Hold up, you mean King Midas? You mean everything-he-touched-turned-to-gold Midas? The guy who starved to death because every grape and loaf of bread he picked up turned to gold before he could eat it?
Alexander the Great: Yeah, I always wondered about that. Why didn’t he just have servants drop the food into his open mouth?
Seleucus: That’s what I like about you, Alex; always thinking outside the box.
Hephaestion: Yes, it was that Midas. See? Big names. No ordinary knot here. And there’s this prophecy, too: Whoever unties this knot is destined to be the ruler of all Asia.
Seleucus: I see where you’re going with this. Alex had to have a go at it, didn’t he?
Alexander the Great: Well, if you counted the number of turns visible around the rim of the knot, you could tell that—
Hephaestion: I’ll say he had a go! He scrunched up his Macedonian eyes, looked at it for a minute like it contained the secrets of the universe, and said, “I know how to take care of this!”
Seleucus: Did you? I’m impressed.
Hephaestion: He whipped out his sword, and snap! Cut right through that sucker!
Seleucus: You did? I’m not impressed.
Hephaestion: Oh, go suck a pomegranate. Alex dismantled that puppy! That knot is no more. And that means that Alex = ruler of all Asia. And what did you accomplish this morning, Seleucus? Clean your tent?
Seleucus: Yes, I did. But I’ll tell you what I didn’t do – I didn’t cheat. Which is what Alex did do.
Alexander the Great: Wait, Seleucus, you don’t understand—
Seleucus: No, Alex, I don’t understand. The prophecy said “whoever unties the knot”. I don’t understand how chopping it to pieces counts as “untying” it. When I untie my sandals do I pop a blade into them?
Alexander the Great: Look, I needed to use my sword—
Seleucus: Did you? Did you really? I’ve been seeing this trend in you for the last few years, Alex: when in doubt, wipe it out! Rivals to the throne – gone. Vanquished armies – eliminated. And now this knot – oh, let me just slice the cord in twain – problem solved! Well, you know what, Alex? That’s just cheating. Eliminating a problem is not the same as solving it. “Thinking outside the box” does not mean you just move yourself into a different box.
Hephaestion: Hey, step off, Seluke! You don’t know what you’re talking about.
Seleucus: Don’t I? Look, this time it’s just a damn knot, and knowing Alex the press will probably eat this up. They’ll be writing about it for at least 2,346 years – “And then Alexander the Great cut the Gordian Knot, and found a solution where no one else could!” But Alex is trying to rule the whole world, Heph, and this attitude of destroy/eliminate/repeat is going to be the end of him. If he doesn’t learn how to actually solve these “unsolvable” problems, then what’s he going to do when he encounters one he can’t get rid of?
Alexander the Great: Seleucus, I hear what you’re saying, and I appreciate it. But Heph is right – you didn’t hear the whole story. I didn’t simply chop the Gordian Knot into pieces, although I bet you’re right about that being how the press will report it. Quick and brutal gets people’s attention, but even I know that slow and elegant is often more effective. With the knot, I simply noticed that it could never be untied so long as the two ends of the rope remained spliced together, so I pulled out my sword and cut the splices. That left me with the two original ends of the rope – just like the two ends of your sandal laces. Once those were freed, I could actually start to work on the knot, like no one had done over the last, what, three hundred years? Duh. It took me a couple of hours, but eventually I was able to work the knot loose.
Alexander the Great: I think there’s a difference between changing the conditions to make them workable and completely blowing the problem up.
Hephaestion: Is that all you can say? “Oh. Yeah.” You called out the future ruler of all Asia by mistake and can’t even apologize?
Seleucus: Ah, Alex, I’m sorry. You know I was just worried about you.
Alexander the Great: I know. But I think I’m going to have to have you and your entire bloodline executed now, and your ashes — how did he put it?
Hephaestion: “Scattered to the four winds,” I think he said.
Alexander the Great: Yeah, that was it. I like that — little pieces of burnt-up Seleucus, and his kids, drifting south on a zephyr.
Alexander the Great: I’m just kiddin’, Seleucus. I know you care. Later, dude. Heph, let’s you and I go clean your tent.