The Wise Man and the Fearful King
by Uncle Morty
Once upon a time, there was a kingdom by the sea. Some of the people who lived there were farmers, some were fishermen, some were merchants, some were craftsmen, and far up on the mountain in an old and rather worn down abbey, a group of men and women lived to study the old stories and tales of the kingdom. These were the wise people of the kingdom and they were called upon for advice in times of trouble.
For many years, there had been no trouble in the kingdom. The fields were fertile and trade was good. The people were happy and prosperous and for the most part they behaved pretty decently towards one another and towards the people of the neighboring kingdoms. However, after many years the kingdom fell on hard times. The kingdom and all the kingdoms surrounding it experienced famine. To be honest, the famine was much more pronounced and serious in the surrounding kingdoms than it was in the kingdom by the sea.
However, the people had become quite used to being happy and prosperous so even before things become very difficult they became afraid and angry. It wasn’t long before they were not getting along with each other very well. It turned out that they had been happy and for the most part decent because they were prosperous and not the other way around.
Their fear made them start blaming each other. The merchants blamed the farmers for not planting extra crops in the good years. The farmers blamed the merchants because they said the prices had not been high enough for them to have planted extra in the good years. The artisans were angry at both the farmers and the merchants because obviously one or both of those groups had to be at fault, it certainly wasn’t the artisans. The fishers were beginning to hoard their fish instead of bringing them to market. All of the people in the kingdom by the sea blamed the neighboring kingdoms for not being able to feed their people and asking for grain and supplies and so on. Some people wanted to quit trading with the neighboring kingdoms altogether.
This in its turn made the king very much afraid, because far back in the history of the kingdom, his great, great, great, great grandfather had been made king because the people had chased off another king after a famine. Now the king was not suffering at all because the people had to pay him tributes of money and food. He was actually mighty rich. He’d never been hungry a day in his life, and he really didn’t want to try it, as the people in the country who were hungry simply couldn’t shut up about how terrible it was, so he began to consider how he might continue to be a mighty king with a full table.
He thought and thought and thought about it and he finally decided that the only thing to do was to be practical. There was not enough food for all the people. He would have to choose who would eat and who would not. He and his friends were quite fond of their banquets. It wouldn’t do to give those up. It made him a little sad, but facts were facts.
He knew that it would be up to him to decide who would eat and who would not eat. Of course, he realized that those who weren’t chosen would not be very happy about the fact. It wouldn’t do to let them know they would not receive their share of the kingdom’s food until they were too weak and poor to do anything about it. He’d read his history carefully and he was fairly certain where that king long ago had gone wrong. He didn’t intend to make the same mistakes.
After he’d decided, sadly and fearfully, what he must do, but before he had started to carry out his plans, one of his advisors came to him.
“Sir,” said the advisor. “The people ask that you call on one of wise people. It is customary in times of trouble.”
Now the king had already pretty well made up his mind what he was going to do and to whom he was going to do it, but in the meantime he thought it best to keep the people happy. After all, some of them were going to be quite unhappy soon enough. And he didn’t want the panic to set in until he had assumed control of the situation. So he made a great show of calling the wise man and he set up a large hall, with a throne for himself and enough room for many citizens to attend.
He sent a messenger far up the mountain to the abbey. At the bottom of the mountain, the messenger blew his horn and waited. After a time, the abbess caused a basket to be let down (the only way up the cliffs to the abbey on the mountainside) and in it was a small, homely, bearded man. The man was dressed in plain white robes that were obviously quite old, but which had at least been cleaned and nicely pressed. The wise men and women did not receive a tribute from the people. They had to make do with a few scrawny goats and an arid mountain garden. They managed to grow a nice nearly wild grape for wine and this was all they had to trade.
Now in the kingdom by the sea, the people had a very strange religion. Unlike many other countries, which conveniently had many gods for various purposes, these people believed that there was only one God and that this God not only built the universe but that he filled every nook and cranny of it. And strangest of all, they believed that this giant God, who was everywhere at once, had once paradoxically become small and stuffed himself into the body of a person and had lived in their very kingdom (yes, yes… I know…absurd…but it was what they believed.)
Strangest of all, the people believed that the things that this unimaginably huge God had said and done when he was at his smallest were the most important things. And they based all their wisdom on thinking and acting as their God had done, not when he was big and important and causing earthquakes and imploding stars, but when he was a person just like them. This at least was the gist of what they were taught from the time they were very small. The people didn’t pay it too much mind. That’s what they had the Wise Ones for.
The Wise Ones in the abbey spent all their time thinking about the stories of the Person God (and not so much time thinking about the Very Large God) and trying to put the ideas they might glean into practice as best they might for that was their purpose and duty. When one of them was called into the kingdom, which was almost always in times of trouble (for the people almost forgot they existed when times were good), he or she went and listened to the king and his advisors and then recounted the story they thought would be most helpful to the situation.
When the wise man arrived he was led to the front of the assembly. The messenger had already told him why he had been called and he had thought about the best story to tell the people on his journey to the city.
The king, who did not have high hopes for this performance, allowed the small man to come to the front of the assembly and speak. He supposed that the man might ask them all to make some sort of sacrifice or perform some sort of ritual. He thought he vaguely remembered such things from the stories he had heard. But the man said that he would simply recount a story that he thought might help.
“Once upon a time,” he began, “God made himself into a person. Now the other people could tell that there was something a little different about him, he seemed very wise and kind to some of them, to some he seemed peculiarly annoying, and the rest he was at least interesting, so they followed him about. One day, he had a very large crowd following him.”
“How many people,” someone called out from the crowd.
“Oh, several thousand,” said George, for that was the wise man’s name. “The exact number is not important, but there were lots and lots of them. The crowd that followed him were not all of them the nicest people. Some had followed him that day because they actually wanted to learn something from him. Some were following him because other people were following him and it seemed like the thing to do. Some were following him because they were sick, and there were rumors that he healed people and cured blind people, and people with fevers, or other kinds of illnesses.”
“He was magic!” someone yelled out from the crowd.
“God is magic!” someone else yelled.
“Well,” said George. “Not exactly. But I’m coming to that. Some of the people who followed him were following him because they hoped they might see something like a magic trick. I expect that didn’t please him too much. A few of them had followed him because they liked to complain about everything he said. But the point is that they had all followed him out to a desert place. It was late, and they were all hungry.”
“Why didn’t they bring lunch?” someone asked. “That was their fault!”
“Surely God would punish them for being stupid!” said one of the merchants who was looking out of the corner of his eye at the farmers. “I would think that would teach them a valuable lesson.”
George smiled. “Interestingly he didn’t blame them at all. He was worried about them. He asked some of his closest friends if they might have something to feed everyone. But even his closest friends had somehow been caught off guard. They didn’t have anything either.
“Tsk. Tsk,” said one of the farmers, “When I know I’m going to be out all day, I pack some boiled eggs and some of my wife’s good brown bread.”
His wife nodded approvingly.
“Well,” said George, with a shrug of his shoulders, “These people hadn’t thought of that. Come to that, the Person God hadn’t thought of it either. Or perhaps he had some purpose in not bringing food. Maybe he wanted to see what they would do. At any rate, the hour was late and the people were hungry. There were surely some of the people who were old or quite young and some might have been ill or weak. Perhaps they would have a hard time making it back out of the desert without food of some kind. So in his concern for all those hungry people, the Person God asked his friends to go and see if anyone in the crowd had food to share.”
“Share?” asked the king from his throne, “Wasn’t he magic?”
“Well, not magic per se…” George began. He looked around the room and back at the king and sighed. Consider the level of your audience, the abbess had told him. “The kind of magic that he used often required people to do something first. For instance, a blind man might get mud smeared on his eyes and be asked to go and wash it off or something like that. In this case, he wanted someone in the crowd to share some food.”
The king shrugged. He would never have allowed someone to smear mud on his eyes. Ridiculous story.
There was some grumbling in the room, and George could see that the people were becoming a little alarmed. He continued.
“His friends found one little boy who had five small loaves of bread and a couple of fish. The little boy offered his food to the crowd and surprisingly when it was passed around, it was enough to feed everyone! The food that was shared was enough for everyone!”
George looked around the audience, pleased with the story, certain that the crowd would see the point.
From in the back of the crowd, someone laughed, “That’s most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard. Ridiculous!”
Someone else called out angrily, “No! God is magic! That’s the point of the story. We have to do something to get him to magic us some food!”
Someone else called out, “Some of those were people who didn’t like him? Why would he feed them?”
“Pure magic!” called out someone else. “That doesn’t do us a lick of good. Nobody here is magic!”
The shouts and calls, until George settled the crowd. “Listen,” he said, “The point is that we have to do the things the Person God has asked us to do! Those of you who have food should be willing to share it. That’s the thing that makes the magic work!” George winced at the word magic, but he figured it was pointless to try to get them to understand anything more complicated. The crowd once again began shouting out their disapproval.
“Why the king here has plenty of food! I saw it in the store houses on the way here! I’m sure he would be happy to share with everyone!” George said, waving his hands madly above the crowd. He was certain that the king, who indeed had stored up a lot of food, would understand his story. He also knew that it was a king’s job to feed his people. He was quite pleased to see how well prepared the king was.
The crowd was too caught up in its internal uproar to hear him. But not so the king. The king’s face turned pale and then it turned as red as a strawberry. He whispered something to his guards and they gathered up George and ushered him into a small stone room at the back of the great hall and left him there behind a locked door. The crowd was so busy arguing they hadn’t taken notice of George’s abduction.
The king followed them and saw that George was tucked safely away. He waited a few moments so that the crowd might think he’d been speaking to George, then he returned and stood and faced the crowd. With his great red cape and golden crown, he was much more imposing than poor George could hope to be in his threadbare robes and scraggly beard.
The crowd looked up at him, relieved. The king was someone who said things they understood. They didn’t always like the things he said, but they understood them. And there was something comforting about the fact that he could simply make them do what he said anyway. Not so much to think about.
The king stood for a moment, looking kingly, letting the people admire him. And then he cleared his throat and began to speak soothingly.
“George has agreed that in our present circumstances, this policy of sharing will probably not be enough to release the magic we need to feed ourselves for the duration of the famine. And so he has been good enough to volunteer to be a sacrifice for us. It’s a little known fact that our ancestors used to sometimes sacrifice a person in times of drought or difficulty. And who better to appease our God than a wise man?” here the king paused to look sad.
The people caught their breath collectively. It had been many, many ages ago since any such thing had been done. But they were beginning to be hungry. And they were afraid. Besides, no one had ever talked the king out of a single thing he’d wanted to do. They were silent, but I’m afraid that most of them were thinking better George than one of us.
So the king commanded a very tall pyre to be built. On top of this he had his men place a stake with chains. He had certain herbs brought to be placed on the fire. He wanted the whole thing to look like an important ritual. He wasn’t quite sure what he was doing, but then neither were most of the people. He made certain that the crowds would be kept at enough distance so that they could not hear any more of George’s silly and pointless stories. And then he went into his rooms and prepared a fine speech about sacrifice and the great gifts that God would bestow on a people who would humbly sacrifice one of their few wise men and he put on his robes and his great gold crown with the rubies. By the time he had finished, morning had become dusk.
He went out to the funeral pyre and gave his speech. After his fine speech, during which he managed a tear or two, (he really had no reason to dislike George and it did seem like rather a waste, since George was of one of the wise people who pressed out his wine for him each year) and then he commanded George be brought before him.
Now George, had had no idea of any of this when he was hustled out of the room by the king’s men. The crowd had looked mighty riled up and for all he knew, the imprisonment might be for his own protection. Nevertheless, he was slightly bored and he began talking to the nervous young man who had been left in charge of him. No one had seen any need to put one of the king’s best men in charge of guarding the small and strange prophet.
But what the king hadn’t counted on was that George had lived and breathed the stories for so long that they had become for him a sort of magic. He didn’t have to talk to the nervous young man for very long.
By the time the guards came to take him away, he and the young man were gone more than half the way back to the abbey on a fine swift horse. The young man spoke to the abbess and after some contemplation, she caused the basket to be pulled up the cliffs. The young man was taken in by the abbess and in his turn, he married a wise woman and made wine and worked hard in the arid garden and learned their stories and sang their songs.
As for the king, he had to substitute a baker for the wise man, and when the crowd saw that he was taking one of them, instead of someone they didn’t know so very well, they became even more fearful. They began to quietly grumble against him and by the third year of the famine, they had run him out of the kingdom and replaced him with the baker’s son.