The Sad King

There was once a kingdom where the sun shone brightly in the summer, there was always enough rain, the harvests filled the grain stores and the winters were crisp with deep snow. There were fields and forests, rivers and meadows, and villages and towns, with markets full of activity. The craftsmen were skilled, and visitors came from far and wide to buy products made from fabrics, metals, wood, and hides. But outsiders never stayed long, because although the folk were wanting of nothing, there was never any laughter or even smiling, and in the bars and hostels, the food was generous and good, but it was served in silence, and there was certainly no singing, no dancing and no storytelling to be found. The folk had lived this way for as long as they could remember. When their children laughed and acted playfully, as children do, their parents chastised them, and they quickly learned the ways of the kingdom.

At the heart of the kingdom, as you would expect, there was a king. He lived in his palace, surrounded by servants, courtiers and chancellors, who went about their business in silence, without a hint of joy or any display of pleasure. The king himself was the consummate master of insensibility. He remained silent, with an inert expression at all times, and he only spoke to reproach or chastise. Laughing, smiling or behaving joyfully was illegal, and offenders were reprimanded or punished. The dungeons were full, the stocks rarely empty, and on occasion, for severe transgression of the happiness law, there were public hangings to teach a lesson to all.

Every year at mid-summer, the village councils would meet to discuss the most pressing issue of the year. According to tradition, at mid-winter the king was presented with three gifts, as a measure of gratitude. The previous year, huntsmen and tailors were commissioned to make a robe of pelts and skins of all the varieties of animals found within the kingdom. Goldsmiths fashioned a chain necklace with an exquisitely detailed design. Pastry chefs created a masterpiece of marzipan, caramel, and all the fruits of the forest, as an exact replica of the palace, and it required four strong porters to bring it before the king. When the gifts were presented the king looked upon each one with the same frozen expression, and ordered them to be taken to his store rooms. Locked within these chambers, gathering dust, were all the gifts from years past, and the king had never since glanced upon them. On this particular year, when our story took place, the councillors talked solemnly for many hours. Numerous options were considered but after long deliberation, they were unable to settle on even one of the king’s gifts. 

With no plan in place, as summer moved into autumn and winter approached, everyone became increasingly agitated and fearful. When mid-winter arrived, they assembled in the palace as they had always done, and the king was seated upon his throne. A gloom descended and the whole assembly stood in a frozen, embarrassed silence. Then out of the crowd, a child stepped forward, the daughter of the silversmith, and she said to the king: “Your majesty, I have a gift. I would like to sing for you” The people gasped in horror at the possible consequences, but the king nodded, and the child began to sing. The song was sweet and simple, with a beautiful melody, and her voice was pure, and as she sang, a tear formed in the corner of the king’s eye. When the song was done, the child asked the king to join her in the song. The people held their breath, but the king nodded, and the child began to sing once more, and this time the king joined in. When the song was completed, there were tears rolling down the king’s cheeks, and the assembly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Then out of the crowd, a second child stepped forward, the daughter of the coppersmith, and she said to the king: “Your majesty, I have a gift. I would like to dance for you.” A wave of anxiety spread through the assembly, but the king nodded his assent, and the child began to dance. Her movements conjured up the wind, the warmth of the sun, the blessing of the rain, and the silent strength of the earth, and as she danced, the king’s frozen expression cracked into a half smile. When it was done, the child asked the king to join her in the dance. Some folk were anxious and others were excited, but when the king stood up from his throne to dance with the child, one by one, they all joined in, until there was no-one left standing still. They danced the Spring, the Summer, the Autumn and the cold, dark Winter, and as they danced, the king was both crying and smiling at the same time.

When the dance was done and the king returned to his throne, a third child stepped forward, the daughter of the goldsmith, and she said: “Your majesty, I have a gift. I would like to tell you a story.” The king nodded in consent, and the child began. The story was happy and sad, good and bad, high and low, and shallow and deep, and when it was done, the inert and frozen gaze had gone from the king’s face, and all the people present could no longer repress their smile. The child asked the king if he would like to tell them a story, and he agreed. As he prepared himself, the whole assembly waited in anticipation, and then he began, hesitatingly at first, but gradually gaining pace and strength:

A long time ago this land was blessed with abundance and there was much celebration. When the queen, my mother, gave birth to twins, the festival continued for days. The first born was a girl, the princess Rosa, and I was born a short while after. We were inseparable, and Rosa and I loved to play together in the palace gardens. When we were small, we ran around the labyrinths and played hide and seek in the garden nurseries, and as we grew older, we played in the forested areas, the rich meadows and around the lake. I loved my sister Rosa and she loved me, but another force began to work its way into me. As she was the first born, according to tradition, she was destined to one day become queen, and I became incensed with jealousy. By the time we were 13 years old, I was serious and sullen, with a darkness around my heart. I could never speak of these feelings to Rosa or to my parents, so I isolated myself in my jealousy. I rejected Rosa, and refused to spend time with her, forever wishing that something would happen, and she would disappear. I became cruel and unkind. I remember chastising her for laughing, and always calling her silly and foolish. All of this because I wanted to be king and I could no longer see the beauty and the magic that we shared together.

That midwinter, there was a big celebration that continued throughout the day. The palace was filled with music, dance and stories. Rosa and I sat with our parents in this very chamber where we sit now, surrounded by light and laughter. Rosa’s face was a picture of joy, and sometimes, she tried to squeeze my hand, but I pulled away. Then suddenly I hatched a plan and I said to Rosa, “Come on, let’s go out and play in the snow.” She was so happy to receive my offer that within seconds, we were running across the gardens. I ran as fast as I could, with Rosa giving chase, towards the lake, and when we arrived, we found it covered with ice, and a thick layer of fresh snow. I don’t really know what I wanted to happen, but when I suggested that we walk out on to the frozen lake, my heart quickened, and I fantasised that Rosa might fall into the freezing water and drown.” The king stopped, and he seemed to be lost in memories, and then he said quietly: “Rosa, I’m so sorry.” His eyes were full of tears, and he continued:

It was dusk, and the geese were flying overhead. Rosa asked: “Shouldn’t we go back now? It’s getting dark, and I’m a little afraid” But I said, “no, just a little further, I want to show you something” and we continued towards the forest edge, where I knew the ice was thinner. We stood for a moment on the thick snow, and looking at the ice-covered water that separated us from the shore. “Go on, it’s not far” I said, “I dare you. Only a few steps” When Rosa stepped onto the thin ice, she was doing it for me, and when the ice cracked, and she fell through, I stood there, utterly transfixed, unable to move. She fell into the cold, cold water, and I could see her face become as white as snow through the ice.

From that day onwards, my parents were broken hearted, and there was never again any laughter or celebration in the palace.  I was overwhelmed with regret and guilt. It was my jealousy that had caused my sister’s death and I was to blame. In the years that followed, I could never speak of the part that I had played in Rosa’s “accident” and a distance opened between my parents and myself. When my father died, I became king, and I finally had what I had always wanted, but it was hollow, a poisoned chalice, and to this day, I have felt only sadness. I wanted to extinguish all memories of the happiness that I had felt when I was a child, because those memories also brought back the grief, the remorse, and the shame. So I banished celebrations and joy from the kingdom, until now that is. The gifts of song, dance and story have changed that, and from here forward, we will end the practice of elaborate gifts for the king at mid-winter, and instead, we fill the palace and the kingdom with laughter and celebration, and with music, dance and stories.” And so it was, and as far as I know, it still is, even to this day.