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The King's Questions

by Tim O'Hearn

The following is my retelling of an old Irish tale. It barely qualifies to be told in this context, but does have an answer that may teach us something. Since I learned it in an Irish accent, I will try to tell it the same way in writing.

Once a mighty king came against a small kingdom in Ireland. He had thousands of troops and many waggons. Nae kingdom had been able to stand before him, and yet he had rarely fought a battle. When he came to a country he would propose three questions. If any man could answer his questions, he vowed to turn aroond and leave that country alone. If they refused to answer or to surrender, ainly then would he fight.

The king of this small land was verra afraid. He knew he had only a small army that could not stand up to this great king. There was a priest in one of his small villages sent to him not to fear. “Send the invader hier, and we will send him home.” Now the priest, he knew he was not wise enow to answer the great king’s questions, but he knew a peasant who was verra wise, and he trusted him to be able to save the kingdom.

So the great king came to the hamlet of the priest. The priest led him to a hut on the sayshore, where this wise auld man lived. The king’s army set up camp on the strand, and the camp stretched for miles. You couldna see the fairthest reaches with an eagle’s eye.

Comes the king in all his finery, with his generals beside him. On the ither side stood the puir king, the priest, and a ragamuffin auld man. The great king asked his first question. “How many countries have I conquered?”

Now the puir wise man thought a bit. He had not heard the history of this king. But he had an answer. “Ain mair country than before your last victory, and ain less than affer your next.” This was not the answer the great king expected, but he had to allow that it was true. No matter; he had two more questions harder than that.

Then comes the second question. “How many waggons would it take to cart off all the sand on this sayshore?” Now the puir auld man had no knowledge of geometries, nor did he even know how far the shore truly stretched. But he thought a bit, and answered the king. “It would ainly take a single waggon.” Seeing the great king start to smile, he added, “IF the waggon were big enough.” Again the king had to admit the truth of the answer, a’tho it was nae what he expected.

Question three. “You see how large my army is. I have hundreds of suits of clothing more magnificent than what I now wear. I have gold mines, and tin mines beyond counting, and cattle on a thousand hills. How much am I worth?”

At that the puir auld wise man smiled. He turned to his priest and king and told them they no longer had to worry. The day was theirs and this king would nae langer bother them. Turning to the great king he replied, “Ye canna be worth mair than twenty-eight siller coins.”

The great king puffed hissel’ up and roared, “Twenty-eight silver coins? A mere pittance! How do you reckon that?”

The auld man had been walking into his house. In the doorway he turned aroond and said, “Why, that is easy to figure. Me Laird was betrayed for thirty paices o’ siller, and he is of much more worth than ye.”