A Wise Head? A Golden Tongue? A Brave Heart? Who Will Confront the King

From time to time I glance at my home library and am briefly overcome by the thought that I should really pare down, sell, trade, donate or somehow lessen the load when the day comes that I’ll have to move to another earthly abode, or someone will have to to if for me if I move on to the unearthly abode before completing the task. Inevitably my downsizing plans are disrupted by the discovery of a book treasure that has been hiding in plain sight. It happened again just a few minutes ago.

The Kings’ Fountain, by Lloyd Alexander, and illustrated by Ezra Jack Keats has been sitting on a shelf unopened for 15-20 years. I better take a quick look before I let it go, I thought

A King decides to build a great fountain, a monument to his power and wealth, one which to no concern of the King, will cut off most of the water to the city below. A poor man tries in vain to find someone to persuade the King not to build. The wisest scholar speaks in lofty, disconnected and barely intelligible words. What good is learning that no one can understand thinks the poor man.

The merchants offer smooth and glib words but lack the courage to confront the King. A blacksmith rashly vows to tear the palace itself down. The poor man knows he will fail and intensify the Kings disregard for his subjects.

It is the poor man’s daughter that calls him into action. He approaches the King with hesitant steps, knees knocking, tongue dry in his mouth, hoping for the scholar’s learning, the merchant’s golden words, or the blacksmith’s bravery. He has none of these, but speaks a simple truth.

” Thirst is thirst, a poor man’s no less than a kings’s. Kill me, but remember your people every time you look at your fountain.”

( I think of Maggie Kuhn’s admonition. “Speak the truth even if your voice shakes.”

The King reconsiders, and news of the poor man’s success is written and commented on by the scholar, ornamented by the merchants, and marveled at by the poor man himself.

” A wise head? A golden tongue? A brave heart? At least none of us will go thirsty.”

I’m tempted to continue with the commentary that has been buzzing in my head since reading this deep parable disguised as a children’s book. Ah, but I don’t want to risk comparisons to the scholar, merchant, or rash strongman. Today at least, I’ll take the advice of many a wise colleague of mine and let the story stand on it’s own, and land where it will in the listeners mind.

I’ll add just this much more. Alexander and Keats talk about their collaboration on the end page. Keats comments that for him, the theme is summed up in the words of Hillel the Elder.

If I am not for myself, who will be for me?

And if I am only for myself, what am I?

And if not now, when?

Published 1971 by E.P Dutton& Co.,New York

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One comment

  1. Bob here. Posting this reply from friend and colleague Chris Cavanaugh.

    I read this story over 20 years ago and had forgotten it entirely until this mention from you. Since having read it, I’ve also learned of the phenomenon of parrhesia which is an ancient greek word that means “frank” (or truthful) speech. Though there is, of course, much more to the term than simple translation reveals. In fact, my preferred translation of the term comes from Michel Foucault’s study of it: fearless speech. It refers, in its most ancient usage, to that act of telling to a king (or tyrant) a truth that could injure them and bring harm (unto death) of the teller. The ancient advice of “don’t shoot the messenger” remembers this usage. The practice evolved and changed. And Foucault makes a good case that parrhesia came to name that act of speaking a truth that could bring harm to both listener and teller. Thus including the extreme of its ancient meaning but also speaking a ‘harmful’ truth to anyone who has power to harm you which could be as intimate as telling a friend something “they don’t want to hear” but which one believes still needs said and which, as human foibles would have it, result in the end of a friendship. All to say that this story exemplifies this act of fearless speech. It’s interesting that this story suggests that the poor man’s speech requires both scholarly comment and ornamentation in order to reach the ears of the king – that does seem to point to processes of modern mass media and is worth thinking about more. I’m putting this tale on my list of examples of parrhesia (i wrote about parrhesia here – http://bit.ly/ZeGEHY – if you care to read more).

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