The Melancholy King


Tom McIver


The Melancholy King

The King's courtiers and advisers had been genuinely concerned about him, for he was becoming more and more withdrawn. Many attempts were made to help him, but nothing seemed  to have any effect. His customary zest dwindled into lethargy.

Rumours spread. The theory that a spell had been cast by a vengeful witch whose advances he had spurned appeared to be the most popular. All of the rumoured causes of the king’s condition involved supernatural power. How else could he have changed into this morose character they were now hearing about?

One morning, the mounting anguish of the king finally erupted.

“No more!” he roared, and his ferocity frightened his closest friends. “I can take no more! My life has become unendurable. I must change my life, said the king. "Yes. Change. Now I have an important journey to make."

The king said he would visit the Sorcerer of the Mountain.

"I must change whatever drags me down," he said quietly. And he ordered that his favourite steed be made ready for a long journey.

Three days later, the king was approaching the edges of a swamp. A very old man in ragged clothes stepped out from behind a tree.

"Good morning, sir," he said. "Can I help you?"

When the king told him of his desire to seek the Sorcerer's help, the old man explained that he was meeting visitors on behalf of his master, who was a recluse.

 "The Sorcerer does not wish to be disturbed. Perhaps I can help," offered the old man. Despite his misgivings, the king confided in him. After a long conversation, the old man instructed what must be done. The king listened as though transfixed by the old man’s gaze. He would require to travel incognito throughout his kingdom, seeking work as a labourer until a year had passed, or until he could buy the jacket of a truly happy man, whichever came first. Donning the jacket of a truly happy man would bring him perfect happiness, the old man assured the king.

Although that seemed ridiculous, the king agreed. Over the months, which followed, he was tempted many times by sheer hardship to give up, but some inner force compelled him to continue.


The year - long adventure was coming to an end. On his way home, he found himself mentally rehearsing how he would tell that strange old man of his recent experiences. He was reliving what had become the most profound influences in his life. He recalled the distances between one village and another as he sought work, reflected on the physical demands of labouring. He had slept in barns, in hedgerows, in ramshackle shelters. He remembered the harshest winter nights. Those days of hunger and hardships would finally be over. He pondered over the kindness he had met over the months, felt surprised at the kindness of  the poor. It seemed that those who had least were the most generous, for they had discovered that mutual support ensured survival. But the warmth he had met went beyond  that, and he would always be grateful.

He was proud of his achievements, and delighted to be returning. Clean clothes, warm welcome, fine food, being home ..............

He felt at peace.

Then came the song.

The king was captivated by a rich baritone voice coming from a field. The man's song was vibrant, yet with undertones of  sadness.

The king approached. “Excuse me, sir,”  he  began. “I was just passing, and I heard your joyful song. I thought you sounded like a man who has found true happiness. Would you say you are truly happy?”

“Well, yes, I suppose I am,” laughed the man. "Yes, I think I am.”

During the following conversation, the farm labourer spoke of his love of the land, of the open air, of the pride he took in his work, of his beautiful wife and wonderful children.

"Great!" cried the king. "I’d like to buy your jacket.”

After a momentary silence, the man replied: “I’m sorry, my friend, but I cannot, for I have no jacket. I had one once, but......”

The king let out a roar and left the happy man bemused.

He had gone but a short distance when his anger subsided, giving way to empathy. Compassion compelled him to return, and he gave his jacket to the happy man, leaving him once again bemused.


After a brief visit to his palace, the king had a horse prepared, and set out to revisit the Old Man of the Swamp.

He was warmly greeted by his ancient adviser, with whom he spent several hours, sharing tales of his experiences. The old man laughed hoarsely when the king told him about his jacket.

"Why?" The familiar voice croaked.

The king quietly answered: "He needed. I gave. Simple."

"You have grown, my friend. You have grown," began the old man. "You struggled to survive and valued life; through travels, met your people. Hard work brought fitness. You have encountered many forms of beauty."

As the king digested these words, the old man continued: "There is more to come. You gave your jacket. Now you must extend that kindness. Invite others to visit your palace grounds, your other lands. Invite creative people and their friends. Let artists paint your landscapes. Let storytellers find new listeners. Let poets come and be inspired. Let music rein. Let your people come to you, and you might still be able to find a truly happy man."

Then he added, "One who owns a jacket."

As if entranced in some form of hypnosis, the king assented. It would be done. 


There was great rejoicing on the king's return.

The Melancholy King shed tears of joy.

A great banquet was announced, and peasants were invited. The king announced his plans. The next day, heralds and criers were sent to various places to proclaim the news of the king's invitations. Thus began The Great Festival.

They came. Tented villages appeared overnight. Painters, poets, musicians and storytellers came. Many who came as mere spectators became inspired and involved. Within weeks, the kingdom was transformed forever.

The Melancholy King had to appoint assistants to organise and cope with the huge undertaking that this renaissance had become.

Merchants came and trade flourished. Arts festivals evolved and workshops abounded. Vibrant new ideas spread throughout the kingdom.

After a year had passed, the king set off to meet again the Old Man of the Swamp. He found himself once more rehearsing what he would tell of all that had happened. He recalled with a shiver the composer who averred that music can transport the soul to other planes of existence. “Through the gift of language, we can express what is in our souls,” asserted one of the poets.

“It is through our arts that we can begin to make sense of our lives,” declared another. He remembered the wise old man who said, “Our society’s traditions and our values are preserved and passed on through generations through our storytellers.”

The Old Man of the Swamp greeted the king like an old friend, and the king related all the experiences of the previous year. Although I did not met a perfectly happy man," said he, " I feel so alive! I don't need perfect happiness! You know, I feel that I have been so busy, I seem to have found my niche in life. My raison d'etre. I feel so..... so...fulfilled. Yes, that's it. Most of all, I have a great sense of fulfilment. I searched and searched, and when my search was over, I had found myself. Fulfilled. Yes, that's it."

The old man grew. In a few seconds, a tall, handsome young man dressed in rich, elegant clothes stood before The king. The old man had become another being.

"I see you are bemused," began the young man. "Let me explain:

Some time ago, my master decreed that I should become the Old Man of the Swamp, as a punishment, because, when I was his apprentice, I used the powers he gave me for my own personal gain, instead of helping others. I was to remain the Old Man of the Swamp until I was able to help someone who also needed to find his way. It was through your finding your fulfilment that I have found mine, and I thank you. Now I am free. I feel a great sense of fulfilment. This deep contentment I feel now is permanent. I am free and completely happy.

As the king was about to depart, they shook hands, each feeling an intense gratitude towards the other. As the king turned to walk away, the young man said: “Before you go, there is one question I must ask - my friend, how would you like to buy my jacket?"