Once upon a time, in a faraway land, the king of Buhneberg died, and it was very inconvenient.
Now the queen was old and there was no heir, and the kingdom was at war with another. The king had been old and frail, so of course his death was no surprise to his lords, but of concern for them nevertheless. So they closed the doors and called a council to see what might be done.
“To lose a king in war,” said Lord Pragmis, “is bad for a kingdom’s morale.”
“And to lose such a venerable one,” added Lord Hubris, “will steal the people’s pride.”
“And with no heir on the throne,” said Lord Leagus, “the people will fear for the future.”
Many others remarked as well.
At last the venerable but taciturn Lord Drosselmeyer stood up. He stroked his great beard and squinted his good eye, and he said, “Until the war ends, let’s keep the king’s death to ourselves.”
This seemed practical to all, especially Lord Pragmis, and so it was agreed. The king had been bedridden, after all, and the court wouldn’t know the difference. The lords arranged everything with the chamberlain and the physicians to continue this belief. The servants were told to bring meals to the king’s chambers. The tailors mended his clothes. The launderers gathered linen left by his door. None were to know, especially not the servants. The queen was involved to see to this. She was happy not to be dismissed from the palace, childless as she had been.
The soldiers at the borders, heartened to hear their liege held out against death, found new courage in their fight. From trembling page to scarred veteran, each fought tooth and nail until, with banners raised and bugles blaring, the army marched home in victory.
The lords saw this and again gathered behind closed doors. A sudden fear had gripped their hearts.
“What if we tell them now the king is dead?” Lord Pragmis spoke first. “They’ll have no blessing for their victory. They’ve been promised laurels, land, and titles. It will put them out, they’ll sow unrest at home. It won’t be any king’s problem, just our own.”
“And besides that,” agreed Lord Hubris, “the enemy will hear of it. They’ll rally their bitter spirits for a counterattack, and we’ll be at war again.”
“And think of the wounded, come home to seek peace,” added Lord Leagus, “They need to see the fruits of their labors.”
So Lord Drosselmeyer stroked his beard and spoke again: “Here’s an idea,” he said. “The king was so old. He hardly moved. He would often fall asleep on his throne. Why not craft a log of sturdy wood and make a kind of doll. We’ll dress it in the king’s fine robes, and convey it in his palanquin, and sit it on his throne. A clever carpenter might design a way it might nod or wave just slightly even as the old king did, and no one will be the wiser.”
This idea seemed a risk to the lords, and yet they had no other recourse but for all to upend. So, with thoughts of bitter veterans and vengeful enemies, they conscripted a carpenter of a very trustworthy nature to enter their conspiracy. The carpenter, whose name was Daedalus, hollowed a log and polished its wood and crafted a face as lifelike as wood can be. When he finished the nobles all agreed that, escaping close examination, it was the very visage of the worn and weathered king.
The returning soldiers were moved their king had so presented himself to them in such a frail state, and they went home glad of the honor and awards he’d bestowed. The latter were, of course, provided surreptitiously by the lords.
The nobles, however, stayed in the palace at least one man at any time, to see the puppet was handled properly. It was easy to claim the king had a limp, and so keep the court empty when he must occupy or vacate his throne. The chamberlain commanded that no servant touch the king, and the queen always sat close by. Should the figure need to move convincingly, she managed clever dowels and levers and by some ventriloquism provided a quiet, warbling voice.
Lord Drosselmeyer was the most local of the king’s lords, and a close friend of the carpenter besides. He was always at the palace, and determined that the king was treated as a king. By his example the entire court was quick to follow. Since Lord Drosselmeyer bowed and blessed the king at every meeting, no one wanted to do any less service to their monarch.
And so time went on and, it seemed to the people, their king did not die.
The puppet was quite convenient for the lords who had come to refer to his majesty in private as “the whittled king.” So long as the king of Buhneberg sat in state, the people rested assured. So long as it seemed he issued reasonable edicts and carried out public services expected of a monarch, they spoke well of him. Even those who saw him from afar, traveling in his palanquin, marveled at his strong carriage and his calm disposition. The servants who served under him were happy to clean and cook and tailor for him. Dignitaries bowed low in respect at the foot of his throne. The king’s rule continued, and all who knew no better praised his dignity, wisdom and calm. It was as if the people themselves gave the king his costume better than the Daedalus’s finest finish ever could.
As time wore on, Others were taken into the secret, but never without great necessity. The lords often consulted Lord Drosselmeyer when fears arose. Soon enough came the burning question that had persisted all this time: The people worried the king had no heir. The white-haired queen was summoned to a new council.
“It isn’t practical to have no heir,” Lord Pragmis told her.
“And to give the throne to a mere distant relation will disappoint the people,” added lord Hubris.
“Indeed, after the king has made such a name for himself, even in death, the people can only hope for a son in his image,” added Lord Leagus.
“But there is no way I’ll conceive from a log,” said the queen with frank suspicion.
“Tragically, in thirty years you could not conceive from a man,” pointed out Lord Pragmis, as delicately as he knew how, which wasn’t by much.
“Then what do you suggest?” the queen asked. “Shall we make an heir too?”
The lords were shocked by this suggestion, but Lord Drosselmeyer said, “What a wise woman.”
It was but a year later that, after carefully planted rumors were sent round, the heir was announced. Not as an infant of course, but as a child in ill health, concealed out of fear of an early passing. His fragile health, it was explained, kept him quiet and often still, but it was only a matter of time before the joyous moment of presenting him to the court. Now that he’d come of age, it was clear to all physicians he’d survived the worst of it.
Before this, the carpenter Daedalus had, of course, been paid a pretty penny and crafted a second puppet to meet these expectations. And so the ruse continued.
Elaborate outings and events were planned weeks in advance, all ornamentation and prop arranged to allow the king and prince to sit center but also sit still. More and more the lords realized that, so long as the servants, attendants, and chamberlains behaved as if the king and the prince were real, the people would follow suit, their expectations willed it so.
When at last the king “passed away” at one hundred years of age, the funeral was held with all due grandeur. Daedalus arranged a special mask of grief for the prince. The people found it so moving, they clutched their chests and wept as if their own parents had been laid to rest. The following Sunday, the prince was crowned wearing a humble but dignified expression, and the kingdom of Buhneberg rejoiced to see how like the father the son had become.
Now there was the incident one year after, when a stranger outside of town, watching a procession of the new king and his servants asked a neighbor, “Why are the king’s movements so stiff? It’s strange, like he is a doll, all hinges and balls with sockets.”
It so happened, that Lord Drosselmeyer was nearby in a pavilion, and he squinted his good eye and warned this man sharply that “cruel” remarks on the king’s health would not be tolerated. The perplexed stranger was driven out of the city by an angry mob, insulted on the king’s behalf. The lords worriedly gathered and asked Lord Drosselmeyer if they should worry.
But Lord Drosselmeyer explained with certainty, “It is the idea of a king that keeps the kingdom alive. Even the most mad of monarchs has his idiosyncrasies brushed under the proverbial carpet for the sake of the orderly kingdom. Those raised in a working system know any crooked cog or missing gear might throw off the works. But those who realize the gears and cogs are all imagined anyway, all man-made, that is, these can simply think the system back on track.” Lord Drosselmeyer assured them, so long as the idea of the king survived, the kingdom would stand secure.
Time passed and there were alliances, a handful of wars, and even a royal marriage. Trustworthy carpenters studied under Daedalus as he got on in years, and they eventually took students of their own. Each generation was more skilled than the last. Many lords came and went also, the majority of them (though not all) pragmatic and proud and concerned for the greater good. Lord Drosselmeyer passed on eventually, leaving behind a successor with an equally wise disposition.
Now centuries have passed since the first whittled king took the throne of Buhneberg. It’s not up to a stranger like me to say if a human king sits enthroned again. After all, perhaps the students of Daedalus and Drosselmeyer have simply mastered their craft.
Photo by Pixabay
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