Thoughts to Ponder, Number 9
7 Elul, 5759; 19 August, 1999

King Democratio

A modern aggadah based on a Dutch fairy tale by Godfried Bomans Adapted by R. Cardozo

Once upon a time, in a large, gloomy palace high on a mountain, where the night wind groaned outside the massive walls, there lived a king, a real one. He had a long beard like a silver waterfall, and a voice like thunder. More a king does not need.

His name was Teuton, though some called him Germania. Wherever he traveled, 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, 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. And for another, nobody could let him know, because it was impossible to tell just by looking at him how empty his head really was - a real stroke of luck! And, most of all, nobody would have dared to tell him, because it is not nice to tell the king's son the truth unless, of course, it is pleasant.

But truth will out. One day when the prince was thirteen, he went running pell-mell up the stairs and banged his right 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 gave 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 physician of the royal household. Now, the 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 he wanted to keep his own. But, as I mentioned, 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?" said the prince, suddenly very pleased, "is it really hollow?"

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

"But," said the king's son, suddenly worried, "when my wicked 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," 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," asked the prince, "which party is right?"

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

Cruel old King Teuton died. It was a marvelous day of flags waving and rejoicing; but amidst all the festivities, the nervous new king entered on the throne with a heart full of foreboding. But he needn't have worried. In fact, he managed to the satisfaction of nearly everybody. 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 made a great dinner. I cannot begin to tell you how magnificent this feast was. It was so immensely stately that even the British participants were staggered. 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; but on the other hand, its absence would have been noticed. Few words were spoken, little was eaten. After all, the guests were too refined to show their lower inclinations. The conversations, although quite meaningless, were held in most refined Latin. In short: A fantastic evening even by the standards of the nobility. King Democratio could hardly contain his delight. His glittering eyes revealed his great satisfaction. Such a success with an empty head!

Then, by chance, the king glanced into the reception hall. His look became suddenly severe. Framed by the opened palace door stood an old, dusty man gasping for breath.

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

"Sire, Sire…"

"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, and therefore he looked as a king should look at such a moment. "This is a great pity," he declared, and in his heart grew a great 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 have to find out what a crisis is." He dressed quickly and summoned all the wise men of the land. They came. Majestically, they walked through the streets to the palace, their long beards flowing before them, sighing with the weight of their wisdom. Some of them had heads so heavy with wisdom that they nearly tumbled off their shoulders in front of the populace! You will understand what a deep impression this made, and they told the king the meaning of a crisis.

It took three days before they finished, though after barely a few minutes the eyes of the king were full of 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 said, "that is all." They straightened their beards and left. And the king sat on his throne alone. Evening came, and the king sat in the darkness and thought and thought 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, a command to anybody who could wield a pen. The books did not have to be completely true, but they did have to be fat and cheap. There also had to be very 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. Full of courage, the citizens started to 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 how disastrous the disaster really was.

But most of the time was spent at the meetings. Evening after evening the citizens listened applauded and asked intelligent questions. The king himself worked even harder. He did nothing but read what was written, wading through the growing mountain of literature from early in the morning until late at night. He spent the whole day in pyjamas; 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 workmen, and how they worked. He learned the laws of supply and demand, of prices 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 incredible happened. The crisis stayed. The misery grew, and the citizens became impatient. The king was not as wise as some had thought! And when the king heard of all this he laughed and proclaimed new laws, more intelligent, more refined and sophisticated. But still the misery kept growing. The king grew a beard, and his beard grew gray. Every night he lay in bed awake, tossing and turning, slowly going mad. Until, one night, 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 into the neighboring countries, they blew on copper 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 came into the streets to see the mighty kings. There they were! Kings came from the east, the west, the north and the south. 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 to 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 these again into sub-committees that were again 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, King Democratio gave his people a few words of reassurance from his royal balcony and the populace went to bed, satisfied. The next morning, the 120 kings rose early, ate a brief breakfast, and carried on, creating sub-sub-sub committees. In this fashion, many days passed, until the web of committees became so complicated and fine 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 progress, and, in fact, there were special people appointed to produce papers throughout the land in which the reassuring words were printed.

But this terrible tale of woe gets no better. All the king's words and all the papers were of no avail. The crisis remained and indeed got worse. 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, hardest of all, he kept on speaking about the fantastic results of the conference, which would no doubt lead to a solution. But his eyes were sad, his hands were white, and they trembled.

And the people began to grumble, slowly but surely like a tormented creature. They expected bread but they got only papers and strange statements. One evening they began to collect in a crowd under the royal balcony - stark, silent, white faces. Soldiers came and drove them away. The next evening they came back. The soldiers were cruel, and the people were tortured. But from all the directions they still came, people and more people, an enormous crowd. They called out for the kings. They wanted to see the kings.

So the kings came out onto the balcony. Thousands of fists were raised, a massive cry came up from the crowds and the kings stood with bowed heads. They tried to speak, but they were not heard. They asked for silence, but there was no response. 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 your crowns on your heads and ermine 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...

Redistribution of this essay is permitted when printed in full.

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