Based on a fairy tale by the Dutch author Godfried Bomans, 1913-1971. Adapted by Nathan Lopes Cardozo.
Once upon a time, in a large, gloomy palace high on a mountain, where the night wind howled outside its massive walls, there lived a king – a real one. He had a beard as long as a silver waterfall and a voice that boomed like thunder. A king needs no more.
His name was Teuton, though some called him Germania. Wherever he traveled, his citizens groveled before him in the dust; and if they failed to do so, they were beaten to the ground. So you see, dear reader, how mighty our king was.
In the course of time, King Teuton produced a son called Democratio. This prince had one remarkable feature – he possessed a hollow head. It was completely empty. There was nothing between his ears, absolutely nothing. It is hard for us to grasp this idea because our heads are so full – though, were they otherwise we would find it even harder. For a long time, even the prince himself was not aware of his peculiarity. For one thing, he could not tell that his head was empty precisely because it was empty. For another, nobody could let him know, because it was impossible to tell just by looking at him how empty his head really was. What a stroke of luck! Most of all, however, nobody dared tell him, because it is not wise to tell the king’s son the truth unless, of course, it is a pleasant truth.
But the truth will out. One day, when the prince was thirteen, he went running pell-mell up the stairs and banged his royal head against a wooden beam. It rang audibly, just like an empty champagne glass. The prince was most surprised. He tapped gingerly on the side of his skull and indeed it emitted a light, clear echo.
“Dear me!” exclaimed the astonished prince. “Could my head, this valuable head of state, really be empty?” He hurried to the royal physician. Now, this physician was a wise man. “Examine this head”, commanded the prince, and so the wise physician did. It was a tricky task indeed to tell the prince the truth about his head, especially because the physician desired to keep his own. But, as I mentioned, he was a very wise man. He took his small silver hammer and tapped gently on the important head. It made a clear, beautiful, empty sound.
“Your majesty”, the physician announced, “I congratulate you. It is quite empty.”
“Really?” said the prince, suddenly very pleased. “Is it really hollow?”
“Oh yes, Sire”, and the physician bowed low. “It is extremely rare, especially with such a magnificent sound!”
“But, when my wicked father dies”, said the king’s son, suddenly worried, “then I shall have to reign. How can I, with an empty head?” The physician tiptoed silently to the door and locked it. He bent towards the royal ear and whispered:
“Thou hast a most unique head to reign! Whenever there is a conflict of opinion in the land, do as follows: Listen first to one party and send it away.”
“All right”, said the prince.
“Then hear the other party and send it away as well.”
“Fine”, said the prince.
“That is all”, said the physician, smiling.
“But, which party is right?” asked the prince.
The physician carefully looked around, to make sure nobody would hear, and quickly replied: “The larger.”
Cruel old King Teuton died. It was a marvelous day of flag-waving and rejoicing. But amidst all the festivities, the nervous new king ascended the throne with his heart full of foreboding. But he needn’t have worried. In fact, he managed to the satisfaction of nearly everyone. His reputation as a wise king rapidly spread beyond the country’s borders, and the secret of his hollow head stayed right in that head—which shows, dear reader, how easy it is to hide nothing!
One fine day, the king made a grand dinner. I cannot begin to tell you how magnificent this feast was. It was of such stately splendor that even the British guests were impressed. It was a spectacle of incredible proportions. The tables were laden with the most expensive gold cutlery and the finest bone china. The aristocracy trod softly, and in awe, as though the messiah himself was expected to attend. There was soft music, so gentle that it could barely be heard, yet its absence would have been noticed. Few words were spoken; little was eaten. After all, the guests were too genteel to display their base inclinations. The conversations, although quite meaningless, were held in the most elegant Latin. In short, a delightful evening was had by all, even by standards of the nobility. King Democratio could hardly contain his joy. His glittering eyes disclosed great satisfaction. Such a success with an empty head!
Then, by chance, the king glanced into the reception hall. His facial expression became suddenly severe. Framed by the open palace door, an old, unkempt man stood gasping for breath.
“Hey!” called the king, waving his scepter. “What is this?”
“What?” called the king, descending from his royal throne.
“A crisis, Sire!” he exclaimed. “A crisis has come over the land!”
“A what?” asked the king.
“A crisis, Sire…”
“Well”, said the king, “that is bad.” He did not know what a crisis was, but he understood that it was something sad, so he looked as a king should look at such a moment.
“This is a great pity”, he declared, and in his heart was a growing sense of unrest.
The next morning, when the king awoke in his stately bed, he stared up at the satin canopy and thought about the crisis. What a pity it had to come and spoil everything. It had all been going so well, despite his empty head.
“First of all”, he said to himself, “I must find out what a crisis is.” He dressed quickly and summoned all the wise men of the land. Majestically, they walked through the streets to the palace, their long beards flowing before them, sighing from the weight of their wisdom. Some of them had heads so heavy with wisdom that they nearly tumbled off their shoulders, right in front of the populace! They told the king the meaning of a crisis.
It took them three days to finish, though after barely a few minutes the king’s eyes filled with tears, since his heart was good and compassionate. He listened carefully all three days. Then the wise men fell silent.
“Are you finished?” asked the king.
“Yes, Sire”, the wise men said. “That is all.” They straightened their beards and left. And the king sat on his throne, alone. Evening came, and he sat in darkness. He thought, and thought some more, and began to cry – a small, sad figure.
Confusion and emotion seized the country. There had to be a solution!
A royal decree was issued, to write as many books as possible about the crisis; a command to anyone who could wield a pen. The books did not have to be completely true, but they did have to be fat and cheap. It was also necessary to hold many meetings, each with at least two speakers, an introductory discussion, a concluding debate, a vote of thanks and, if possible, a word of sincere tribute. Filled with courage, the citizens began their work. As far as the books were concerned, the nation split into two groups: those who wrote about the disaster and those who read about it, agreeing with the authors on how disastrous the disaster really was. Most of the time, however, was spent at meetings. Evening after evening, the citizens listened, applauded and asked intelligent questions.
The king worked even harder. He did nothing but read what was written, wading through the growing piles of literature from early morning until late at night. He spent the whole day in pajamas; there was no time to dress. He learned what money was, who owned it, who did not own it, and who should own it. He learned about laborers and how they worked. He learned the laws of supply and demand, of price and value. And an amazing thing began to happen. Slowly his head filled up. It gradually became heavier and heavier, as the crumbs of wisdom collected and combined, until it was completely filled.
“And now”, said the king, “we shall apply all that we have learned.” Laws began to spew forth from the palace. Good laws, intelligent laws, refined laws. But the unthinkable happened. The crisis remained. The misery increased, and the citizens became impatient. The king was not as wise as some had thought! When he heard of this, he laughed and proclaimed new laws, more intelligent, more refined and sophisticated. But still, the misery continued. The king grew a beard, which turned gray. Every night he lay in bed awake, tossing and turning, slowly going mad. Until one night when he suddenly sat bolt upright. Struck by a blinding flash of inspiration, he shook his head in wonder, marveling at his own wisdom. Then he lay down again and slept a pleasant sleep.
The next day, royal couriers on horses hastened to the neighboring countries. They blew on brass trumpets and sang a great song: “The king has found a solution!”
One hundred and twenty monarchs were invited to Democratio’s kingdom. One hundred and twenty mighty kings came to put everything in order in one final meeting. Flags were hoisted, and people took to the streets to see the mighty kings. There they were! They came from the north, the south, the east and the west. Only one king was not invited. His territory was too small, and one could do without him. So, all the great kings came together. After appearing on the palace balcony, receiving a rapturous welcome from the crowds, they withdrew to deliberate. Each king naturally had a vast retinue of chroniclers, scholars and private secretaries who formed themselves into upper-committees, middle-committees and lower-committees. These were divided into main-committees, then again into sub-committees, which were further divided into bodies of legal advisers, sub-advisers and sub-sub-advisers. It became an enormous crowd. At the end of this momentous day, King Democratio offered his people a few words of reassurance from the royal balcony, and the populace went to bed satisfied.
The next morning, the 120 kings rose early, ate a hasty breakfast, and carried on, creating sub-sub-sub committees. In this fashion, many days passed, until the web of committees became so complicated and intricate that further branching became impossible. In the meantime, King Democratio had become very tired. Each evening he came out to his balcony to reassure his good people of the progress being made. In fact, there were special people appointed to distribute papers throughout the land on which the reassuring words were printed.
But this terrible tale of woe gets no better. All of the king’s words and all the papers were of no avail. The crisis remained, and indeed worsened. King Democratio could no longer sleep at all. His beard went totally white. He met with the sub-committees and the sub-sub-committees. He told the authors of the papers about their responsibilities. He dined with the kings. And, most difficult of all, he continued to speak about the fantastic results of the conference, which would no doubt lead to a solution. But his eyes were sad, and his hands trembled.
The people began to grumble, slowly but surely, like tormented creatures. They expected bread but received only papers and strange statements. One evening, a crowd gathered beneath the royal balcony. Theirs were stark, silent, white faces. Soldiers came and dispersed the gathering, but the next evening they came back. The soldiers were cruel, and people were tortured. But they still came from all the directions, more and more people, forming an enormous crowd. They called out for the kings. They wanted to see the monarchs.
So the kings came out to the balcony. Thousands of fists were raised, a mighty cry arose from the crowd, and the kings stood with bowed heads. They tried to speak, but were not heard. They asked for silence, but were refused. Suddenly, one sharp voice rose above the tumult of the people:
“There was another King, who was not invited!”
King Democratio peered down over the balcony. “And who is that?” he asked mockingly.
The crowd was silent for a moment; then the same voice called out: “You kings, fools, jesters of wisdom and intellect! Who gave you crowns on your heads and ermine-trimmed robes on your shoulders?”
And the hundred and twenty kings fell silent. The lonely voice had spoken.
“We, with all our one hundred and twenty kings, are powerless if One more King is not invited.”
And, dear reader, if you will ask why some kings thousands of years ago managed so successfully, remember that they invited the other King as well.