The young king was alone in his beautiful room in the palace. He was only sixteen years old and he was wild-eyed, like an animal of the forest. The old king’s servants found him in the forest. At that time, the boy believed that he was the son of a poor forester. He was brought up by the forester. But now he knew that he was the child of the old king’s daughter.
The king’s daughter married an ordinary man, a painter. He painted pictures on the walls of the great church where kings were crowned. But one day he disappeared, leaving the pictures unfinished. The week-old baby was taken away from his mother’s side while she slept. The forester and his wife had no children, and the baby was given to them.
The princess died.
When the old king was dying, he said, “My heart is heavy because I have done a terrible thing. The crown must not pass away from my family. Bring my daughters child from the forest. He will be king after me.”
When the boy was brought to the palace, he showed a strange love for beautiful things. He gave a happy cry when he saw his fine new clothes and rich jewels. He quickly took off the old coat that he wore in the forest. He walked through the palace from room to room, looking at everything.
A rich man came to see the young king one day. He found him on his knees in front of a beautiful picture from Venice. On another day, people searched for the king for hours. They finally found him in a little room at the north end of the palace. He was looking at the shape of the Greek god Adonis, cut in a jewel.
In bed that night, the young king thought about the beautiful clothes for his special day — a gold coat and a jewelled crown. People were working day and night to finish the clothes in time. The young king imagined himself in the great church, dressed as a king. His eyes closed, and he fell asleep. As he slept, he dreamed.
He dreamed that he was standing in a long, low room. Around him were cloth-makers at work. Only a little daylight came in through narrow windows. The men’s faces were pale and thin. Little children were working with them. They were weak and hungry and their little hands shook.
The young king went to watch one of the cloth-makers. The man looked at him angrily.
“Why are you watching me?” he said. “Did our employer ask you to watch us?”
“Who is your employer?” asked the young king.
“He is a man like me. But unlike me, he wears fine clothes. And while I am hungry, he has too much food.”
“You are not a slave,” said the young king. “Your employer does not own you.”
“The rich make the poor their slaves,” answered the cloth-maker. “We must work to live. But they pay us too little and we die. Men call us free, but we are slaves. But these things do not matter to you. You are not one of us: your face is too happy.”
He turned away and continued his work. Then the young king saw that the cloth-maker was making gold cloth. He felt a sudden fear.
“Who are you making that cloth for?” he asked.
“I am making it for the crowning of the young king.”
The young king woke up with a loud cry. He was in his own room in the palace. Through the window, he saw the golden moon hanging in the sky.
The young king fell asleep again and dreamed. He dreamed that he was on a ship. Hundreds of slaves were working on the ship. They were wearing only simple cloths round their waists, and each man was tied to the man next to him. The hot sun shone down on them without pity. A man ran up and down between the slaves. He hit them until the blood came. “Work faster!” he ordered.
At last the ship stopped near some land. The seamen took one of the youngest slaves, tied a stone to his feet and let him down over the side of the ship. After some time they pulled him out of the water. He had a pearl in his right hand. The seamen took it from him, then pushed him back into the water.
The young slave came up again and again; each time he brought with him a beautiful pearl. The seamen put the pearls in a green bag.
Then the slave came up for the last time. This time he brought the best pearl of all. It was shaped like the full moon and it was brighter than the morning star. But the face of the slave was strangely white. He fell down on the ship, and blood came from his ears and mouth.
“Dead?” cried one of the seamen. “Throw the body into the sea.” He looked at the pearl. “This will be for the crowning of the young king.”
When the young king heard this, he woke up with a great cry. Through the window, the stars were growing weak and daylight was coming.
The young king fell asleep again and dreamed. He was walking through a dark forest full of strange fruit and flowers. He continued walking until he came out of the forest. There he saw a great crowd of men, working in a dry river. They were making large holes in the ground and breaking the rocks with tools.
The young king turned and saw an old man standing behind him, with a mirror in his hand.
“Who are these men?” he asked.
“The people in the walled cities have no food, and little water,” said the old man. “But these men are working in the river to find-’
“What are they trying to find?”
“Jewels — for a king’s crown,” said the old man.
“For which king?”
“Look in the mirror and you will see him.”
The young king looked in the mirror and saw his own face. He woke up with a great cry. Bright sunlight was shining into the room, and in the garden outside birds were singing in the trees.
Government officers came into the young king’s room and greeted him. Servants brought the coat made of gold cloth. Other servants placed the crown and fine jewels in front of him.
The young king looked at the lovely things. They were very beautiful. But he remembered his dreams, and said, “Take them away. I will not wear them.”
The government officers were very surprised. Some of them thought that he was joking. They laughed.
He spoke to them again: “Take these things away. I will not wear them. This cloth was made by the white hands of pain. There is blood in the jewels and death in the heart of the pearl.” And he told them his three dreams.
When the men heard this, they said to him, “You do not know what you are saying. A dream is only a dream — it is not real. We cannot worry about the people who work for us. And if you do not wear these clothes and this crown, you will not look like a king. How will the people know that you are king?”
“Perhaps you are right,” answered the young king. “But I will not wear this coat and I will not wear this crown. I did not wear fine clothes when I came into the palace. I will go out of the palace in the same way. Go, all of you. Only this boy may stay.”
The government officers and the servants left. Only one servant, a boy, stayed with the king. The young king opened a big box and took out a rough coat. This was his coat in the days when he watched animals on the hillside for the forester. The young king also took out a stick from the forest.
The boy said, “Sir, where is your crown?”
The young king cut a piece from a wild rose that grew near the window. He made it into a circle and put it on his head.
“This will be my crown,” he said.
The young king left his room. The government officers were waiting for him. He got up on his horse and rode out through the great gates of the palace towards the church. The boy ran with him.
The people in the streets laughed. “This is not the king,” they said as he rode past them. He stopped and answered, “I am the king.” And he told them his three dreams.
A man came out of the crowd and spoke angrily to him: “The life of the poor comes from the fine things that rich people use. When we make these things, we can buy bread. Go back to your palace and put on your kings clothes. Why are you worrying about us?”
“Aren’t rich people and poor people brothers?” asked the young king. His eyes filled with tears as he rode through the angry cries of the people. The boy became afraid and left him.
At the great gate of the church, the soldiers tried to stop him. “Only the king can come in here,” they said to him.
“I am the king,” he answered angrily, and he pushed through them.
The most important priest in the church was waiting to crown the new king. He saw the young king in his poor clothes, and he went to meet him.
“My son,” he said. “Is this how a king dresses? What crown shall I crown you with? This should be a day of great happiness.”
“Can happiness wear what sadness and pain have made?” said the king, and he told the High Priest his dreams.
“I am an old man,” answered the High Priest. “I know that many wrong things are done in the world. But God has made us this way, and He is wiser than you. The weight of this world’s suffering is too heavy for one man.”
“Can you say that in this house of God!” said the young king. He walked past the High Priest and went down on his knees.
Suddenly a loud noise came from the street outside. The government officers came into the church, shouting, “Where is this dreamer of dreams? Where is the king who is dressed as a servant? He cannot be our king!”
The young king stood up and turned sadly towards them. Then sunlight shone down through the coloured glass of the church windows. It changed his coat into a coat that was more beautiful than one of gold cloth. From the dead stick, white flowers grew that were more beautiful than pearls. The wild roses on his head shone brighter than jewels.
He stood there dressed as a king. The light of God filled the place and there was music and singing. The people fell on their knees.
The High Priest laid his hands on the young king’s head. “Someone has crowned you who is greater than me,” he said, and he went down on his knees in front of his king.