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Robert's Raves

Questions and Answers
by Robert Rodriquez

n her ground-breaking volume of riddling stories from around the world, a true first to be published involving this genre of traditional story, the late Margery Dundas devoted one complete chapter to the type of riddle story often referred to as the "tale of the king and the bishop." In the international system of classification of folk narratives designed by Stith Thompson and Anti Aarne, the tale is referred to as Type 922, the story of the king's three riddles to the bishop or abbot, with a third protagonist disguising himself as the cleric in question and thus answering the king's riddles. In his famous 1923 monograph on this tale, "Kaiser und Abt," the German folklore scholar Walter Anderson undertook a major study of this tale, its history, the reasons for its endurance and popularity around the world and down through the centuries, its diffusion from one corner of the world to another, and how it varied from country to country and continent to continent. Analyzing over six hundred forty versions of the story, Anderson concluded that it probably originated as a fable in seventh-century Palestine and made its way both east and west, and became part of story traditions as far apart as England and Turkey. As time passed, it entered story traditions even further afield, from central Asia and Mongolia to eastern Canada and Cuba, for example.

In its most well-known and most popular form, the traditional English ballad "King John and The Abbot of Canterbury," number 45 in the Child Ballad Canon, the tale is thus: Discovering that the Abbot of Canterbury is keeping a lavish estate and table, King John wishes to see if his wit is as large as his wealth, and so he tells the Abbot he has three days to answer three riddles the King will propose. The first is, what is the worth of the King to the exact penny; second, how may the King travel the world in the shortest amount of time; third, what is the King thinking and prove that it is wrong. One of the Abbot's servants, a lowly shepherd, convinces the Abbot to let him answer the King's questions, and disguised as the cleric, he goes before King John. When asked the King's worth, the shepherd replies that he is worth twenty-nine pieces of silver, saying that, since Christ was sold to his enemies for thirty, the king must be worth one less than the Lord himself. When asked how to traverse the world, the shepherd replies that all the King has to do is rise with the sun, get on its back, and in a day, he will travel from east to west and win the very race. When asked to say what the King is thinking and prove it is wrong, the shepherd replies that the King is thinking he faces the Abbot, but in truth, it is his shepherd, who then throws off his disguise and humbly asks the King to forgive his master, which the King does, good-naturedly, and gives the shepherd a goodly amount of gold to boot.

In its ballad form, the tale would reach North America, where versions have been collected as far afield as Vermont, Virginia, and the lumber camps of Michigan and Wisconsin. In some versions of the story, the king offers to have the clever servant and cleric trade places, to which the servant graciously says no, replying that he knows little of Latin and church matters and highborn graces, and the king further rewards him monetarily, going so far as to tell him that for ten generations, his family will be exempt from even paying royal taxes, not a bad return for simply answering three unusual riddles. In other versions, the king's verbal opponent may be a miller, as in a variant from French Canada in which the king is angered by a sign over the miller's door, stating that within his walls, there is no sorrow, hardship, or unhappiness. The king then demands that the miller come to his palace in three days to answer a series of questions, sometimes numbering up to six. This time, his place is taken by his gardener, the protagonist known as Ti Jean, who plays the role in French tales that Jack often does in Anglo-American stories. In the French-Canadian story, riddles may include such as the distance from earth to heaven, how many barrels will it take to empty the sea, where is the center of the earth, and even in one Acadian version, the ever popular question, what do women want most in the world. And no, Gawain and Ragnel do not appear in this story, that's a promise.

In its international scope, the story involves a series of predictable figures: a king, emperor, governor, judge, or other symbol of temporal authority, and on the other side, a bishop, rabbi, a local scholar or craftsman, and in an Irish variant, an entire group of university professors, who then must employ the services of the very clever but mysterious fellow known only as Dark Patrick from Donegal. Such has been the nature of this tale that it has became attached to a series of famous rulers, including King Sancha of Spain, Matthias of Hungary, Ivan the Fourth of Russia, Charles the Fifth, Holy Roman emperor, and even the Mongol ruler, Tamerlane, who becomes involved in a verbal duel of wits with none other than that loveable Turkish folk hero, the Hodja Nasrudin himself. Once the hodja has answered Tamerlane's questions, the Mongol leader, still deriding the Turkish hodja, nonetheless says that very little separates him from the simplest of fools, to which the hodja replies: nothing save the gate behind which you stand, my lord. If it sounds familiar, it should, because that is one of the piece of back and forth verbal repartee found in that old American folk classic, the Arkansas Traveler. Even the king of Poland gets into the act in this one, his adversary being none other than that beloved medieval German rascal and trickster, Till Eulenspiegel himself. One of the more intriguing protagonists is the cunning gypsy known as Marko, who bests Matthias of Hungary in a similar verbal contest. For his efforts, Marko is made the king's first advisor, and has the last laugh on the pompous courtiers who till that paint assumed his reward would be a sound whipping for his impudence in challenging the mighty Magyar monarch.

As a folk story, the tale of the king and the bishop has no doubt taken hold, down the centuries and around the world. Its simple but nonetheless intriguing plot, its variations of riddles, their number, and the severity of the penalty for failure to answer, and the variety of protagonists involved have made this story a true and integral part of world folklore. It has even entered the performance repertoire of revival and traditional singers on both sides of the Atlantic, including the likes of English singer Chris Poster, American singer Michael Cooney, and the late Ottawa Valley Canadian traditional balladeer, 0. J. Abbot. Yours truly has always been a lover of the riddle tale, and this is one of my personal favorites within the genre.

—posted September 2003

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