Now I can finally say I’ve read some Tolstoy. Wahoo! …Just War & Peace left to knock out…no big…
Here is day 8 of my whirlwind bedtime adventure to read 30 short stories in 30 days (…and hope that some of it will rub off in my own writing):
“Three Questions” by Leo Tolstoy
“It once occurred to a certain king, that if he always knew the right time to begin everything; if he knew who were the right people to listen to, and whom to avoid; and, above all, if he always knew what was the most important thing to do, he would never fail in anything he might undertake.
…He had it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he would give a great reward to anyone who would teach him. And learned men came to the King, but they all answered his questions differently.”
As the title and excerpt suggest, this is the story of a king who seeks the answer to three questions which he feels will help him be the master of all his affairs. He puts out the word and offers great riches to anyone who can provide satisfactory answers to his questions (see paraphrased below):
- When is the best time to do each thing?
- Who are the most important people to work with?
- What is most important to do?
People come from far and wide to answer the king’s questions, but there is a great degree of discord among the answers. Discontented at the scattered and unconvincing replies, the king sets out to seek the answers himself by visiting a wise old hermit.
This hermit will only see commoners, so the king is careful to dress in plain clothes and leave his horse and his body guard at some distance from the hut. When the king reaches the hermit’s home he finds him sitting in his front yard, digging. He approaches and asks his questions.
The hermit hears but does not answer; he merely continues digging. The king, seeing that the man is tired, offers to take the spade and dig awhile in his place.
When the king has dug and dug and has dug so much that he can dig no more, he puts down the spade and repeats his questions. Then, before the hermit can answer, somebody comes running out of the wood towards the hermit’s hut.
It is a man holding his stomach, wounded and bleeding. He stumbles up to the hut and falls before the hermit and the king, who take him in and dresses his wounds. The blood does not stop flowing for a long time, so the king must constantly wash the bandages and redress the wound, wash the bandages and redress the wound.
The king, tired from his travels and the laborious garden work, falls asleep at the side of the wounded man’s bed.
When he awakes the wounded man is staring at him. The man is a stranger to the king, but the king is not a stranger to the man. He begs forgiveness, and the king says he has nothing to pardon him for. The stranger explains: he had been on a mission to avenge his brother (whom the king had had executed) and heard that the king had come to visit the hermit, alone. He came after the king but found his guard instead, and the guard wounded him to his present state. Then, fate of fates, the king himself took him in and tended his wounds. He is in the king’s debt, he says, and he and his sons will gladly be his servants for the rest of their days. The king forgives the man and promises to send his own physician to attend him, as well as to restore his brother’s property which was seized.
Finally the king approaches the hermit and asks his questions a final time. The hermit replies that he has been shown his answers: (spoiler Alert: stop reading if you want the morals to be a surprise!)
- the most important time is the present, because it is the only time over which we have any control
- the most necessary person or persons are present company and
- the most important of all affairs is to do your present company good.
I highly recommend reading at least the last paragraph of the story to see those answers in their whole context as the hermit presents them.
“Remember then: there is only one time that is important—Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power.”
Not a single word out of place here. Everything reads easily: is simple, flows unburdened by unnecessary descriptions or flashy adjectives and adverbs. The story is short and to the point, and I know if I ever attempt to write any fables or instructive tales (for they are some of my favorite stories) I will be revisiting this as an example.
In the vein of simplicity, there was also no difficult or extraordinary vocabulary. The point of tales such as this is not to be whimsical or eloquent; it is to communicate, and most often to communicate to an audience composed of or including children. Using language which is accessible to all ages is not just wise but necessary if you want all ages to be receptive to your story.
Finally, Three Questions is different from one of my deepest impressions of fables, which is that usually the characters are animals. In this story the subjects are human through and through—but it is still effective. [Might have to do a separate post sometime in the future on what makes a good fable.] Perhaps a parable is a more accurate description. Actually, although only a short story, the style and telling of this piece reminded me a bit of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. All I know is, after reading this I feel less intimidated and more excited to read War and Peace and Anna Karenina!
None; this story is purposefully simple.