The King Who Changed

By Alice Lewis

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    (A folktale)

    A long time ago there lived a handsome king in a gorgeous hilltop palace in a beautiful green land. This king had many servants and costly clothes and delicious food to eat. His crown was covered with rare jewels that shone and twinkled as he turned his head from side to side when he rode in parades.

    The king was a good man and a kind man, but because he had never been poor, he didn’t understand the problems that poor people have. He had never had to work hard in the fields or take care of sick children, so he didn’t know what it was like to be weary or very worried.

    One day as the king was riding through the countryside in his carriage, a carriage wheel began to wobble. A poor laborer who was working nearby saw the carriage stop. He hurried over, bowed to the king, and offered his services. Pleased that the laborer helped so efficiently and willingly, the king removed his cloak and gave it to him. Now, the laborer needed food for his family, not a cloak that he would never wear, but he humbly bowed and thanked the king.

    Another day, when some enemies from afar invaded the king’s land, he sent his ablest soldiers to fight them. His soldiers fought for three days and drove the enemy away. The king was so happy about it that upon the soldiers’ return, he had his entertainers put on a show for them. Now, what the soldiers really wanted was to go home and go to bed because they were exhausted. However, they didn’t wish to give offense, so they humbly bowed before the king and smiled as they watched the show.

    One spring a sickness spread throughout the land, and many children became very ill. Mothers and fathers stayed up night after night, caring for their sick children and praying that they would get well.

    During this troublous time the king, who had no children, decided to have a beautiful ball and to invite the whole kingdom. He had heard that many families had sick children, but he thought that a ball would cheer them up. The parents cried when they received their invitations because they knew that they must attend. They grieved at leaving their sick children, but the king had such a wonderful time at the ball that he didn’t notice that no one else did.

    That night, after the king went to bed, a servant put a container of fireplace embers and ashes just outside the palace door. He had been too eager to get home to his children to dispose of the contents properly. Later, another servant was carrying paper decorations from the palace. He saw the container by the door and, not realizing that it contained smoldering coals, piled the decorations on top of the ashes.

    Early the next morning a mother trying to comfort her sick child happened to look out the window and see the whole side of the palace on fire. She sounded the alarm immediately, and the king and the palace workers escaped with their lives. But except for the night clothes that they were wearing, they lost all their possessions. The palace and everything in it were destroyed!

    The king stood a safe distance from his once-beautiful palace and watched it burn. His face was covered with soot, and he shivered in the crisp night air. One by one his servants slipped away to return to their families in the countryside. They were afraid to ask him to go home with them, because they knew that he was used to the finest of everything.

    So the king crept closer to the charcoaled remains of his palace and sat there all night.

    The next day his subjects wanted to take something to the king to let him know that they were sorry for his loss. They knew that whatever they took would have to be something splendid, something fit for a king.

    The tinsmith and his wife decided to take a beautiful silver tray and pitcher. When they delivered it to the king, he thanked them kindly. But after they left, he wished that they had brought him some water and a loaf of bread instead, for he was hungry.

    The tailor and his wife, forgetting that the king no longer had a bed, took him a pair of satin sheets trimmed with gold thread. The king quietly thanked them, but after they left, he thought that some warm clothes would have been more useful, for he was cold.

    When a farmer came with a fine horse as his gift, the king was a little more pleased. At least now he could ride to the river and wash. The king humbly thanked the farmer, but still he wished again that the gift had been some food.

    The king could have commanded the people to bring him whatever he wanted, but somehow, without a palace, fine clothes, his beautiful crown, and many servants, he didn’t feel much like a king anymore. He didn’t feel like giving commands.

    He rode to the river, washed his face and hands, and drank his fill. Then, as he sat there and wondered and worried about what to do, the poor laborer who had repaired his carriage wheel approached him. The laborer bowed as he held out the cloak the king had given him. “This has never been worn by anyone, Your Majesty, since you gave it to me. I have no use for it.” The laborer was immediately embarrassed by his own words, for he thought that he sounded a bit ungrateful. But the king smiled at the laborer and took the cloak and wrapped it about himself. This man would have been more grateful for food, the king thought, just as I would be now.

    The laborer had barely left when a group of musicians and dancers came by. There on the banks of the river they put on a show for the king. The king wanted to cry out, “Don’t bring me music and dance; bring me food and a warm place to stay.” Then he thought of his valiant soldiers, tired and dirty, who had had to sit through a palace show when what they had needed was food and rest.

    And he thought of the tired and weary parents who had had to leave their sick children in order to attend his ball. What an inconsiderate and foolish ruler I have been, he thought. If only I could have back my palace, I would be truly kind and help my people according to their real needs.

    A long time after the musicians and dancers had left, a shepherd boy approached from the hills. He saw a man, tired and with tears in his eyes, sitting by the river. Not knowing that the man was his king, the shepherd boy sat down beside him and shared his bread and cheese with him.

    When the boy returned to his flock, the king mounted his horse and rode back toward the remains of his palace. He was astounded to see loyal subjects from throughout his kingdom hewing logs and shaping stones to rebuild his palace.

    The king was grateful for the chance that they were giving him. And he vowed that he would be a much better, kinder ruler.

    And he was.

    Illustrated by Shauna Mooney