The Curious Prince
A Parable for our Times
by How Tenji
ONG, long ago there was a young Prince who was curious about everything. The fish in the streams, the birds in the air, even people from faraway lands. Every time he spoke he asked ‘Why? Where? When? Who? What?’ But whatever he asked his father would not or could not answer.
One day the Prince asked “O my father, how far is it to the sun?” and his father replied: “It does not become those of royal blood to ask such questions, go now and practice your archery.”
And so the years passed and the boy grew into a man who was tall and strong and skilled in all the arts of war. But despite the passing years, the questions still clamoured in his mind and sometimes he would forget himself and speak aloud. “O my father, why do the crops fail us in some years and give us bountiful harvests in others?” And his father sighed and answered, “My son, put aside your childish questions, you will soon be King. Knowledge is for your advisors. You must lead, you must command. If you allow yourself to be perplexed by these endless questions your people will question you. There is weakness in doubt and strength in certainty. Let us hear no more of this.”
The prince bit his tongue and held his peace.
The old King was proved right in one thing, for one night not long afterwards he who had been brave and strong all his life, took too much wine and fell upon the stone staircase of the castle tower. A sadly commonplace death for a King who had been both a great warrior and a good father to his people, at least in his own way.
The young King was beside himself with joy as he walked amongst the shelves of books and scrolls, for whatever question came to his mind, there were a dozen answers in the volumes of lore he had gathered together. Sometimes the answers agreed, sometimes they did not. The King loved to discuss the answers with his advisers and with the visiting scholars from other lands. Long into the night they would debate the flight of the bee, the depth of the deepest well, the nature of love and the source of life. All that they saw delighted them and the days passed as quickly as the years.
As the King grew older he saw that the questions he had asked and debated ten years ago were asked and debated again by new scholars. The arguments were sometimes the same and sometimes different. The King became angry when he found that what he thought he knew was questioned. He no longer delighted in the questions of others; instead he only delighted in his own questions and the answers that he gave. If he had but remembered it he would have heard his own father’s words from years before. But his father was long forgotten.
“I will have no more of this uncertainty,” the King declared one morning. “Henceforth each question that we ask will be considered and debated only once. And when we have found the answer we will burn all the books and scrolls which do not support our decision. Thus we will, in time, have a library containing only the truth and the people will not waste time in going over old ground and they will not become confused by opinions which we have decided are wrong.”
No sooner had the King accomplished his object than a great misfortune fell upon the kingdom; fire broke out in the largest city. “What shall we do O King?” asked the people. And the King went to his little book and found but one answer, “Pour on water,” he told them, and the flames died down and the fire was extinguished.
Then there came a summer when the sun shone with a strength that none could remember and the rains failed and the crops wilted in the fields. “O King," cried the people, "we shall surely starve if the crops fail. What shall we do?” The King consulted his little book and found but one answer, “Pour on water,” he told them, and the crops recovered and the people were saved.
Another time a rumour spread through the land that fierce dragons had been sighted in the south that coveted the bountiful harvest, the rich kingdom and the palace of knowledge. It was said that the dragons were coming to take the food, burn the kingdom and steal all the knowledge of the world. “O King," wailed the people, "what shall we do?” The King and his scholars opened the book, which contained all the knowledge of the world and searched for questions about dragons. But they found only two answers. One authority said that dragons were huge, fire-breathing winged monsters that none could defeat and another authority said that dragons did not exist at all.
The scholars and the King debated long into the night; sometimes the argument went one way sometimes it went the other. In the end it was so finely balanced that a piece of down on either side of the scales would have turned them. The King was tired and rubbing his eyes, he finally remembered his father’s words. “I must decide,” he said. “My book has saved my kingdom twice already. It will save it a third time. If dragons are huge and breathe fire we cannot defeat them. If they do not exist then we have nothing to fear. This book contains all the knowledge of the world and so I say that dragons do not exist.” The page describing dragons as huge, fire-breathing winged monsters was destroyed and the King spoke to his people. “O my people, there are no dragons in the world. You have nothing to fear.”
And when the dragons came on huge, black wings, they destroyed the city, ate all the food and descended swiftly to the palace of knowledge. The largest dragon went to the door of the palace, paused and turned to his scaly followers, “Today we take all the knowledge of the world for dragon-kind and with it we shall rule for ten times ten thousand years.”
But the all the knowledge of the world had already been destroyed by the King and his scholars. All the dragons found was a single book with just one opinion on every subject. And, on the whole, the dragons disagreed with them—so they burnt the book. Except the page about dragons not existing. They rather liked that bit.
F I N I S
© 2006. How Tenji.
All rights reserved.