Thursday, February 25, 2021

The Happy Man's Shirt

Once there was a king who fell ill with an ailment that confounded his doctors. Wise men and women, healers of all kinds were consulted and none could help. Finally, one of the king’s advisors suggested sending for the old woman who lived in the forest and who many believed to be a witch. Still, many people sought her out for her teas and herbs when in need. The old woman was brought before the king and after speaking with him and examining him as best she could, said that the only thing that would cure him would be to wear the shirt of a truly happy man. The king sent for a priest and asked him if he was truly happy. “Why, yes, I am,” said the priest. “Very well,” said the king. What if I were to make you my bishop?” “That would make me very happy,” said the priest. And the king sent the priest away, for the priest could not have been truly happy if still he desired to be something more. The king sent his advisers to visit the king of a neighbouring kingdom who, he had heard, was a happy king, indeed. But the advisers learned that though the neighbouring king was prosperous, his kingdom peaceful, and his family abundant, well-loved and healthy, the king was not particularly happy. This king admitted that, despite all, he was not happy for he couldn’t sleep at night for fear of losing all that he had. The advisers returned home in failure. Finally the king, with his men, went out riding one day through the countryside. Stopping by a pond to refresh himself and the horses, the king heard singing coming from the far side of the pond. He left his men and the horses and followed the sound of the singing. It was the most beautiful singing he had ever heard and the joy in the voice and music made the king think that here must be a truly happy man. The king found the singer, clad in a green jacket, gathering kindling in the woods. He approached the man and asked if he would like to return to the castle and live there in luxury as one of the king’s advisers. “I would not change places with the Pope, your majesty. I am happy in my life right here,” said the man. The king was overjoyed and asked if he could have the man’s shirt. The man smiled, and unbuttoned his jacket. The king saw that the happy man wore no shirt. 

I first heard this story at the 1,001 Friday Nights of Storytelling in the 1990s. I then came across the version in Italo Calvino's Italian Folktales and which I was searching this week for another story altogether.

Photo by Paul Green on Unsplash

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