Phrase from a fable I once heard, about optimism in the face of hardship. Makes for a good Zen comeback to just about anything. If I can remember it correctly, the entire story goes...

Once upon a time in China, there lived an Emperor who owned a majestic white stallion, the finest beast in all his Kingdom. One night, a thief tried to slip in and steal the horse, but was captured by the palace guards and thrown into the dungeon.

The next morning, he was dragged before the Emperor's court. "How dare you," bellowed the Emperor, "lay hand on my royal steed! Jailor, put this thief to death!"

Immediately, the thief bowed deeply. "Your judgement is peerless and wise, O Emperor," he calmly replied, "but my life is of little value. I should offer you a gift before I depart. Your mount is quite a fine one, but if your eminence would spare my life for just a year and a day, I swear to you I can teach that horse to sing hymns!"

The court burst in to laughter at that, but the Emperor was intrigued. After all, you didn't get to his high position by turning down freely offered gifts, no matter how far-fetched they seem. To the surprise of all, the Emperor quickly accepted the offer.

As they were leaving the chambers, the jailor whispered to the thief, "You are a fool!"

"I am a fool?" replied the thief, smiling broadly. "Much can happen in a year and a day. The King may die. The horse may die. I may die... and maybe the horse will learn how to sing."


As it turns out, like all good fables, there are many different retellings of this same story. For instance, here's another version, attributed to one of the sharpest characters of Islamic folklore, the Mullah Nasruddin (many thanks go to liveforever for pointing this one out to me). I have to admit, Idries Shah tells it much better than I...

In Persia many centuries ago, the Sufi mullah or holy man Nasruddin was arrested after preaching in the great square in front of the Shah's palace. The local clerics had objected to Mullah Nasruddin's unorthodox teachings, and had demanded his arrest and execution as a heretic. Dragged by palace guards to the Shah's throne room, he was sentenced immediately to death.

As he was being taken away, however, Nasruddin cried out to the Shah: "O great Shah, if you spare me, I promise that within a year I will teach your favourite horse to sing!"

The Shah knew that Sufis often told the most outrageous fables, which sounded blasphemous to many Muslims but which were nevertheless intended as lessons to those who would learn. Thus he had been tempted to be merciful, anyway, despite the demands of his own religious advisors. Now, admiring the audacity of the old man, and being a gambler at heart, he accepted his proposal.

The next morning, Nasruddin was in the royal stable, singing hymns to the Shah's horse, a magnificent white stallion. The animal, however, was more interested in his oats and hay, and ignored him. The grooms and stablehands all shook their heads and laughed at him. "You old fool", said one. "What have you accomplished by promising to teach the Shah's horse to sing? You are bound to fail, and when you do, the Shah will not only have you killed - you'll be tortured as well, for mocking him!"

Nasruddin turned to the groom and replied: "On the contrary, I have indeed accomplished much. Remember, I have been granted another year of life, which is precious in itself. Furthermore, in that time, many things can happen. I might escape. Or I might die anyway. Or the Shah might die, and his successor will likely release all prisoners to celebrate his accession to the throne".

"Or...". Suddenly, Nasruddin smiled. "Or, perhaps, the horse will learn to sing".

What's more, IIRC, both Ursula Le Guin and Larry Niven have recounted similar parables in their own respective stories. In The Mote In God's Eye, Niven (or, more precisely, the Motie called Charlie), even claims that the story was originally told by Herodotus.

Perhaps some day someone'll actually pin down the primary source for this tale. Then again, maybe the... well, you know... *grin*

I'd be interested to hear what other versions/sources people have picked up themselves. If you know any, hit me (gently) with an /msg

The Big See says "I've heard the story set during a pogrom, with it being some local graf's horse being taught to sing by the rabbi." (-- which is interesting, esp. in light of the Nasruddin story (above). First I'd heard of that one, but it makes senses for any culture to attribute an old story to its own local wise men.)

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