The King*

Nathan Lopes Cardozo

vrijdag 27 september 2019

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 wicked king – a real one. His beard was long and his voice boomed like thunder. More than that a king does not need.

Wherever the king travelled, his citizens would grovel before him in the dust, and if they failed to do so, they were knocked into it anyway. You see, O reader, how mighty our king was.

In the course of time, the King produced a son called Democratio. This prince had one remarkable feature – he possessed a completely hollow head. 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. But most of all, nobody would have dared tell him, because it is not wise to tell the king’s son the truth unless, of course, it is pleasant.

But truth will out. One day, the prince ran 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!” the astonished prince exclaimed. “Could this valuable head of state, really be empty?” He hurried to the physician of the royal household. “Examine this head,” the prince commanded, and so the physician did. It was a tricky task indeed to tell the prince the truth, especially because he wanted to keep his own. But, the physician 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?” the prince said, “Is it really hollow?”

“Oh yes, Sire,” and the physician bowed low. “It is extremely rare, especially with such a magnificent sound!”

“But”, the king’s son said, “when my father dies, 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”, the prince said.

“Then hear the other party and send it away as well.”

“Fine”, the prince said.

“That is all”, the physician said.

“But”, the prince asked, “which party is right?”

The physician carefully looked around to make sure that nobody would hear and quickly replied: “The larger.”


The old wicked King died. It was a marvellous day of flag-waving and rejoicing; but amidst all the festivities, the nervous new king ascended the throne with a heart full of foreboding. But he needn’t have worried. In fact, he managed to the satisfaction of nearly everyone. The reputation of his wisdom 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 organised a great dinner. I cannot begin to tell you how magnificent this feast was. It was of such stately extravagance and incredible proportions. The tables were laid 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 refined to display their base inclinations. The conversations, although quite meaningless, were held in the most elegant Latin. In short, a delightful evening by the standards of the nobility. King Democratio could hardly contain his delight. His glittering eyes revealed his great satisfaction.

Then, by chance, the king glanced into the reception hall. His expression became suddenly severe. Standing at the entrance of the palace door was an old, dusty man gasping for breath.

“Hey”, the king called, waving his scepter, “what is this?”

“Sire, Sire…”

“What?”, the king called, descending from his royal throne.

“A crisis, Sire”, he exclaimed. “A crisis has come over the land.”

“A what?”, the king asked.

“A crisis, Sire…”

“Well”, the king said, “that is bad.” He did not know what a crisis was, but he understood that it was something sad, and therefore he looked as a king should look at such a moment.

“This is a great pity”, he declared, and his heart became restless.

The next morning, when the king awoke in his stately bed, he 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 summoned all the wise men of the land. Majestically, they walked through the streets to the palace, their long beards flowing before them, sighing under the weight of their wisdom. Some of them had heads so heavy with wisdom that they nearly tumbled off their shoulders. You can understand what a deep impression this made. They told the king the meaning of a crisis.

It took them three days to finish, though barely a few minutes had passed before the eyes of the king were filled with tears, since his heart was good and compassionate. He listened carefully. Then the wise men fell silent.

“Are you finished?”, the king asked.

“Yes, Sire”, the wise men said, “that is all.” And left. And the king sat on his throne alone. Evening came, and he sat in the darkness and began to cry – a small, sad figure.


Confusion and emotion seized the country. There had to be a solution!

First, there came a royal decree to write as many books as possible about the crisis. The books did not have to be completely true, but they did have to be fat. There also had to be many, 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 working groups, those who wrote about the disaster and those who read about it, agreeing with the authors on how disastrous the disaster really was. But most of the time was spent at the meetings. Evening after evening the citizens listened and applauded.

The king himself worked even harder. He did nothing but wade through the growing mountain of literature from early in the morning until late at night. He learned what money was, who owned it, who did not own it, and who should own it. He learned about workmen 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 until it was completely filled.

“And now”, the king said, “we shall apply all that we have learned.” Laws began to spew forth from the palace. Good laws, intelligent laws, refined laws. But the incredible happened. The crisis remained. The misery grew, and the citizens became impatient. And when the king heard of this he laughed and proclaimed new laws, even more intelligent and more sophisticated. But the misery kept growing. The king grew a beard, and his beard became gray. Every night he lay in bed awake, slowly going mad. Until one night he suddenly sat bolt upright. Struck by a blinding flash of inspiration, he marvelled at his own wisdom. Then he lay down again and slept a pleasant sleep.

The next day, royal couriers on horses hastened into the neighbouring 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 to put everything in order in one enormous meeting. Flags were hoisted, and people flooded the streets to see the mighty kings. There they were! They came from the north, south, east, and west. Only one king was not invited. His territory was too small, and one could do without him. After appearing on the palace balcony, where they met with 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, and again into sub-committees that were further divided into bodies of legal advisers, sub-advisers and sub-sub-advisers. It became an enormous writing crowd. At the end of this momentous day, the King offered his people a few words of reassurance from his royal balcony, and the populace left, being satisfied.

The next morning, the hundred and twenty kings rose early 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 appeared on his balcony to reassure his good people that progress was being made.

But this terrible tale of woe gets no better. The crisis remained, and the situation further deteriorated. King Democratio could no longer continue. His beard grew 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 kept speaking about the fantastic results of the conference, which would no doubt lead to a solution.

But the people began to grumble, like tormented creatures. They expected bread, but received only papers and strange statements. One evening a crowd began to gather under the royal balcony – stark, silent faces pinched with worry. Soldiers came and dispersed the crowd, but the next evening they came back. The soldiers were cruel, and people were tortured. But they still came from all directions, more and more people, forming an enormous crowd. They called out for the kings. So the kings came out onto the balcony. Thousands of fists were raised, a powerful cry rose from the crowds and the kings stood with bowed heads. They tried to speak, but they were not heard. They asked for silence but got none. Then one sharp voice raised itself 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: “You kings, fools, jesters of wisdom and intellect, who gave you crowns on your heads and ermine-trimmed cloaks on your shoulders?” And the hundred and twenty kings fell silent. The lonely voice had spoken:
“We, with all our 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 …


* Based on the writings of well-known Dutch author Godfried Bomans (1913-1971).

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