The Reluctant King


M A R K   J O N A T H A N   H A R R I S 


S T O R I E S   I N   T H E   T I M E   O F   A   P A N D E M I C



A Fairy Tale For Our Time

Once upon a time, a long time ago, in a country far away, a king who had ruled for many years grew weary of his reign. One autumn, his beloved wife, the queen, was bitten by a spider on a morning, while picking berries and died that very evening: That spring and summer, for the first time since he was a boy, no rain fell.

The sun burned mercilessly in the cloudless skies, and his subjects watched helplessly as their grain withered in the fields and their children’s bellies began to swell with hunger. Uncertain and fearful, they looked to the king to end the drought, but he had no more power over the clouds than they did. He saw the crops shrivelling on the vine and knew the food his subjects had stored in their barns and cellars was dwindling, but he had no idea how to bring water to his parched land. His inability to prevent the approaching famine made it difficult for him to fall asleep at night and difficult to get out of bed in the morning: “I am old and I am useless,” he thought. “Perhaps it is time for me to relinquish the throne to someone who will be a stronger and wiser leader than I am.”

To tell the truth, he had never desired or expected to become king. Although his family had ruled the land for generations, he was the youngest of four children and the last in line to succeed his father. Still, fate left him no choice: his oldest brother was killed on the battlefield, his sister married a prince in a distant country, and his second brother fell from his horse and broke his neck while chasing a rabbit. So, under the ancient laws of succession, the kingship passed to him. Although he tried his best to be worthy of the crown, it sat uneasily on his head. He never felt wise or brave or confident enough to wear it comfortably. His carefree youth hunting deer in the forests and playing the lute had not prepared him to settle squabbles between equally disagreeable people or how to live amicably with quarrelsome neighbors, like the country on the other side of the mountains that constantly threatened war. The queen’s death left him feeling more alone, and more bewildered than ever. His counselors were quick to offer advice for every problem, but they disagreed so often that he had difficulty determining the right course of action. When his subjects brought their disputes to the court, he would hear them out respectfully; yet much of the time he was unable to decide what to do. His subjects often left the castle frustrated and indignant that he was unable to solve their problems, puzzled that the man in the ermine robe and jeweled crown appeared as perplexed as they were. The king’s son, Prince Reynaldo, also wished his father was more resolute and decisive. Bold and impatient, the prince found his father’s caution and inaction infuriating. He was certain he would be a more forceful leader and thought it was time for his father to retire.

The king, however, saw his son’s impatience as a fault, a sign that he was not yet ready to govern. As much as he admired his son’s audacity, he still believed the prince too young, too impetuous to lead the country. The king also had a second child, the lovely and kindhearted Princess Sylvie, who was as modest as her brother was rash. She played the harp and sang beautifully and, even though he appreciated her sensitivity and compassion, he couldn’t imagine inflicting the burdens of governing on his daughter.
At night he would roam the ramparts of the castle worrying what to do. Should he step down in favor of his son? Would the headstrong prince bring new vision to the kingdom? Or fresh disaster? What were the qualities that made for a good king anyway? Did either he or his son possess them?

One morning, after hours of tossing and turning in his bed, he posed the questions to his advisors. The older counselors, who thought he was asking for their reassurance, described his own qualities as the most important for a king. A good king, they told him, doesn’t rush to judgment and never acts without considering all the evidence and all the consequences of his actions. The younger counselors, who were eager for the prince to replace him, thought that boldness was more important. They said a king should be daring, decisive, confident of his opinions and willing to stick with them even when others disagreed. The king, as usual, could see the merit of all their advice. A king should be bold and deliberate, slow to make up his mind yet confident when he did. What the king also realized, but didn’t say, was that their counsel reflected their own hopes and allegiances. Knowing that his days as king were drawing to a close, the younger advisors were already trying to gain influence with the prince. The older advisors, on the other hand, feared the prince would turn them out of the castle as soon as he took over and wanted the king to remain in power as long as possible. Once again their conflicting opinions were not much help. To sleep easier at night, the king decided to test his son’s readiness to rule.

He summoned the prince to his bed chambers. “This drought will destroy our kingdom, “ he said. “People are starting to steal from each other, to fight over potato peels. Many are already making bread from weeds and nettles. Soon they will be boiling their dogs and cats for meat.”
“You must act at once,” the prince urged. “Post soldiers in every village to stop the looting. At the same time, offer a large reward to anyone who can bring back the rain.”
Since the king also feared the growing disorder, he agreed at once to send the soldiers. Though he had less faith in the value of a reward, he was willing to try anything to avoid further hunger.
Princess Sylvie, who played her harp for her father each night to lull him to sleep, entered as the king and her brother talked and listened quietly to their conversation.

“May I ask you a question, father?” she said after the prince had left. “We have a large supply of grain in our own granaries. Why can’t we give it to the people who are starving?”
“We may yet have to do that,” said the king, “but if we give out all our grain now, what will we do if the famine grows worse? We must hold it in reserve until all the other grain in the kingdom is gone.”

The prince sent soldiers to every village in the country to stop the thievery and to announce a huge reward for anyone who could bring back the rain. The rich landowners welcomed the soldiers because they had more to lose than the poor peasants. But the peasants resented the soldiers almost as much as they did the wealthy nobles whose fields they plowed and wheat they harvested. Why should the rich have more to eat than they did? Didn’t the sun blaze equally on all their heads?

A week after the king announced the reward, Prince Reynaldo returned to the castle accompanied by a tall man with flowing silver hair. “I have found a sorcerer who can bring us water,” the prince said confidently.  The king was wary of anyone who promised miracles—he’d not witnessed any in his own life–and wondered why this wizard had not appeared before. “And how will you do that?” he asked the sorcerer, who carried a golden staff and wore rings of different colors on each of his fingers.
“By appealing to the true gods of the earth, not the false gods of the heavens. Your subjects have been praying to the wrong gods. They cannot look to the heavens for an answer to this drought. Only the gods of the earth can answer your prayers for water.”
“How do I know that they are the true gods?” the king asked.
“Let him show you, father,” said the prince. “Then you will believe.”

The sorcerer agreed to demonstrate the power of the earth gods the next morning. The king, the prince and princess, and all the king’s advisors rode to a barren field near a small village several miles from the castle. There were deep cracks in the earth and the soil was dry as dust. Residents of the village came out to the field and watched as the wizard chanted for several minutes in an unknown language. Then he plunged his golden wand several times into the dirt. Slowly, as if he had unleashed an invisible spring, water began to seep from the earth and trickle through the dusty soil.
Even the king gaped in astonishment.

“Do you believe now?” said the prince.
The king wanted to believe the magic he had just witnessed, but he still had doubts. Why had they to journey so far from the castle to see this miracle? “What reward do you seek for bringing water to my kingdom?” he asked.
“The gods who make the springs well up and the rivers flow do not care about gold or silver,” the sorcerer replied scornfully. “Their only interest is in the faith of the people. If the people are willing to repent their wicked ways and abandon their false gods, the gods of the earth will grant them water.”
“How can they prove their faith?” the prince asked eagerly.
“I will send my followers throughout the land,” the wizard answered. “All who are willing to accept the true gods can demonstrate their sincerity with an offering. The more generous they are, the more the gods will reward them. If they hold back, the gods will see that that their faith is not genuine and their fields will remain barren and their livestock and their children will shrivel up and die.”

Before the king could reply, the prince immediately stepped forward. “Let the royal family be the first to show our faith,” he proclaimed and pledged the sorcerer a chest filled with gold. The crowd erupted in cheers and promptly declared their own faith in the powerful gods the wizard had summoned from the earth. The king was silent as they rode back to the castle, unhappy with his son’s impetuous offer of support. Princess Sylvie spoke aloud what he was thinking: “If the gods of the earth have no use for money, why do they want us to give them gold and silver?”

“Because gold and silver are precious to the rest of us,” Prince Reynaldo quickly answered. “And only by sacrificing what is dear to us can we prove the depth of our faith.”
“I hope you’re right,” said the king, who found it hard to believe that it was the wickedness of the people that had caused the drought. He had ruled the kingdom for many decades now, and his subjects didn’t seem any different than they were in the years when it had rained. But perhaps the wizard saw more clearly than he did.

The next day the sorcerer sent his disciples to every town and village to collect their offerings. Because they were desperate, the poor gave more than they could afford; because they had more to sustain them, and hated to part with even a little of it, the rich gave less than they could afford. Nevertheless, after ten days, the wizard’s followers had collected thirty chests of gold and silver and precious jewels, a much greater fortune than the king alone could have provided. The sorcerer inspected the chests, which his followers brought to the tents he had pitched on the plain below the castle. “The people have spoken with their hearts,” he said. “Tomorrow they will reap the results.”
That night the king could hardly close his eyes. He dressed long before daybreak and paced the royal bedroom waiting for the dawn to see the sorcerer perform his magic. But when the first rays of sunlight struck his tower windows, the king looked out on a desolate sight. During the night the sorcerer had folded his tents and disappeared with all the wealth he had collected.

The people who had believed in the magician were enraged, furious at the swindler and furious at the king for failing to recognize his charlatanism. The prince felt personally betrayed. He blamed himself for his blindness, but he blamed his father more. What good were all his years of experience as king if he couldn’t tell a fake wizard from a real one? It was one more sign that his father was too old, too hesitant to continue governing the kingdom. The king also felt himself responsible for the sorcerer’s deception. He blamed himself for not heeding his initial suspicions, for letting the prince’s naïve enthusiasm excite the people to support the sorcerer. Now his subjects had even less resources to carry them through the drought.

“We have made a terrible mistake,” the prince told his father. “Now we must correct it. I will not rest until I hunt down the sorcerer and recapture the money he has stolen.” The king worried every time he sent soldiers into battle, but he knew that justice demanded the capture and punishment of the sorcerer. So he agreed to let the prince lead a small band of soldiers to pursue the wizard.  Meanwhile, he had the peasants dig up the field the sorcerer had flooded. A few feet beneath the surface, they discovered his secret: clay pipes that led to a well in the nearby village, from which he’d siphoned water to flood the fields. The revelation brought new unrest within the kingdom. As much as rain, the people now wanted revenge. They were angry and they were hungry and, each day they grew more frightened of the future.

“Maybe it’s time now to open our granaries,” the princess suggested.
The king saw the suffering of his subjects, but fearing even worse, he continued to delay. “Perhaps your brother will have some success. We must wait for his return.”

The whole kingdom waited eagerly for the prince. After several weeks he and his soldiers reappeared, dusty and bedraggled, and without the sorcerer or a single chest of gold or silver. They had tracked him to the mountains that marked the border of the country and then had lost his trail among the rocks–but not before capturing one of his band, whom the prince himself had interrogated for many hours.

“The sorcerer is not an ordinary thief,” the prince revealed to the throng of people who had come to meet him. “He is a spy from the country on the other side of the mountains, a country which has long been our enemy. He didn’t come to rob us for his own gain but to make it easier for his countrymen to invade. On the other side of the mountains, the grass is green and the wheat plentiful. Our enemy has kept the rain clouds from crossing the mountains and left our land dry and empty. Then they stole our gold and silver to weaken us more, and now they are preparing to attack us. The only way to save our kingdom is to catch them by surprise and strike first.”
“You are right,” the crowd responded. “It’s not our wickedness, it’s the enemy’s that has caused the drought. We must attack them.”
The cry for war alarmed the king. Although he had lived uneasily with the kingdom on the other side of the mountains for as long as he could remember, and certainly did not trust his neighbor, it was difficult for him to believe that their king possessed such godlike powers.

“Show me proof that they have stopped the rains and I will send my soldiers into battle,” the king said.
“Aren’t the sorcerer’s foul deeds evidence enough?” exclaimed the prince. “While you wait for more proof, the enemy is already preparing to attack us. A month more and it will be too late. If we do not fight them on the other side of the mountains, we will have to fight them here, at the castle gates. I, myself, am ready to lead our soldiers into battle. It is the only way to protect our kingdom.”
“I will sleep on it,” said the king, who could not sleep.
“Every hour that you hesitate, the enemy grows stronger,” warned the prince.

That night the princess came as usual to the king’s chambers to try to soothe his troubled spirits, but she found her father so agitated that he barely noticed her presence. He paced back and forth arguing with himself. “Our kingdom has already suffered too much. How can I send hundreds of young men to die for a cause I am not sure of?” he asked aloud. “Yet if our enemy really wants to destroy us, how can I not act?
The princess listened in silence for a long time as her father debated with himself. Finally she spoke: “I know I am not as brave or bold as my brother or nearly as wise as you are, father, but how can we be sure what the king on the other side of the mountain really intends if we cannot talk to him? What if we send a delegation to the king seeking peace instead of war? That way we might get a clearer idea of his true intentions. If you send me in your name, a woman rather than a warrior, maybe our neighbor will be less frightened of us, and more willing to be our friend than our enemy.”

The king was moved by his daughter’s offer. Still, he could not bear to put her life in jeopardy by accepting it. There had to be another way. By morning, it was too late to find it. The king’s advisors reported that the people were already clamouring to fight. The evil country on the other side of the mountains had stopped the rain and become rich at their expense. War would not only defeat their vile enemy, it would preserve the kingdom and end the famine. The king’s advisors urged him to heed the voice of his people; if he delayed, they would surely turn their rising anger against him.

Exhausted and disheartened, the king no longer had the will or strength to oppose his advisors or his son. “I am too old, too hesitant to rule,” he thought. “It is time for a new leader.” Feeling powerless to halt the rush to war, the king agreed to let the prince launch an attack against the country beyond the mountains.  The morning he saw his soldiers mount their horses and wave goodbye to their families was one of the saddest of his life. “Do not worry, father,” the prince assured him. “I will prove your faith in me and bring back the rains.”
“Go with my blessings,” said the king and embraced his son, for, despite their differences, he loved him deeply.

The king and princess Sylvie watched the army of men and horses slowly recede across the plain until it was no bigger than a fist, then that too disappeared. Now all the king could do was wait and brood. He lay awake at night reviewing all that he had done as king. As a young man, he had been determined to improve the lives of his subjects, but everywhere he looked now, he saw only starvation, misery, and death. “The people have placed their faith in me and I have failed them,” he thought. The princess tried to console him. All the nights that she had come into his chambers to ease his sleep with music, she had listened to him agonize over his burdens. Unlike her brother, she didn’t think her father weak or fumbling. Instead she saw how impossible it was for any king to fulfill the hopes that people placed in him. “You are much too hard on yourself, father,” she said. “Even a king can’t make the sun rise in the morning or set at night. Or the rain fall in the spring.”

“I know I don’t have that power,” he said sadly, “but maybe the king on the other side of the mountain does.”
A week passed before they heard any news of the prince. The first message reported that the army had begun to cross the mountains. Three days later another messenger arrived to announce the fighting had begun. Two more days brought a third message: the soldiers were meeting heavy resistance. Then there was silence. Four days passed without any new report from the battlefield. The king sent his own messenger to investigate. A week later the messenger returned, breathless and trembling. The prince’s army had been routed; his soldiers were in retreat.
“And my son?” the king asked.
The messenger began to weep. “The brave prince is dead. He gave his life to save the country.”

The king’s heart broke at the news. He had allowed his only son to lead the country into a useless war and now the prince and future king was dead. He retreated at once to his chambers, unsure how he could go on. He had failed his son, and he had failed his country. He no longer had a desire to live. Princess Sylvie knocked softly on his door.

“Go away!” he ordered.
“You have lost a son and I have lost a brother,” she said from the other side of the door. “Let us mourn together.”
“My grief is too great for even your compassion,” said the king. “I have brought the kingdom to ruins.”
“You have not, father. Where there is grain, there is always hope and you had the wisdom to preserve it for this day. Now is the time to open the granaries and distribute the grain to the hungry.”
“Let it be your gift to the people,” the king said and opened the door to embrace his weeping daughter. “Now, please, let me sleep.”

The next morning they could not wake him. He and the prince were buried next to each other on the hill behind the castle. The death of the king and prince and the rout of the army shocked the kingdom. Despite the anger and frustration they had often felt toward the king, most of his subjects realized that he had cared about their lives and welfare. With the death of the prince, who would assume the throne? Without a king to protect them, or blame for their misfortunes, how could they cope with the hardships and uncertainties of life? The king’s counsellors deliberated for several days after his funeral and then the oldest and wisest approached the princess. “The people are grateful for your mercy,” he said. “It is their wish that you become queen.”

“But I am not wise or brave or strong enough.”
“Neither is any man or woman,” said the counsellor. “But it is the role which your birth and fate have assigned you. Your father, too, never wanted nor expected to be king, but he did his best to help his subjects. And that is why the people are asking you to take his place.”

So Princess Sylvie, as reluctant as her father, assumed the crown that he had worn so uneasily for many years. And though it often felt as uncomfortable on her head as it had on his, she had learned from those many nights of listening to him that, in the end, all kings and queens must make their decisions alone and in the dark. Trusting in that lesson, and taking courage from her brother, Queen Sylvie crossed the mountains to make peace with the enemy who had slain her brother. Although the neighboring king was still angry at the prince’s invasion, he discovered that he and the queen had a common enemy. He, too, had been deceived by the sorcerer and banished him from his land. In the end the two monarchs agreed to a fragile truce—a truce that would be broken many times over the coming years—but the queen returned home with renewed hope.

When she crossed the mountains into her own kingdom, it began to rain at last. Those who had supported the prince thought that the king on the other side of the mountain had finally released the clouds. Those who had favored his sister thought the rains were falling in her honor. But the queen herself believed neither explanation. She knew the heavens were weeping for her father.



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