Gateway to the Classics: The Oak-Tree Fairy Book by Clifton Johnson
The Oak-Tree Fairy Book by  Clifton Johnson

Foolish Jim and Clever James

T HERE was once a fellow who was so simple that people called him Foolish Jim. Every one made fun of him, for he would keep a candle burning all through the day, and when it began to be dark he would blow the light out. He would carry an umbrella spread over his head to protect himself from the rain when there was not a cloud in the sky. He would wear an overcoat on the hottest day of summer and walk about outdoors in his shirt sleeves in midwinter. Indeed, he did everything contrary to common sense. By and by the king heard of him, and, thinking Foolish Jim would afford some amusement, he sent for him. When Jim came he looked so awkward that the king and all his courtiers began to laugh.

"Do you know how to count?" asked the king.

"I know how to count eggs," Foolish Jim replied, "for yesterday I found four and two."

"How many does that make?" said the king.

"I can't say," Jim answered, "but I will go and count the eggs and find out."

"Very well," said the king.

So Foolish Jim went and counted the eggs, and when he returned he told the king there were four and two.

The king and his friends made merry over this response for some time, but at last the king said, "How would you like to marry my daughter, Foolish Jim?"

"That would just suit me," Jim replied.

"All right," said the king; "then I must explain to you that about a month ago I agreed my daughter should marry the first man who guessed a riddle that I have made. I allow three guesses, and whoever tries the three times and fails is put to death. Fifty men have lost their lives already. So take warning and remember that you need not try unless you choose."

"Oh, yes! I will try," said Jim. "Let me hear the riddle."

"The riddle is this," responded the king. "What is it that early in the morning walks on four legs, at noon on two, and in the evening on three legs? You may come again on the first day of April and answer me."

So Jim went away, and he did nothing but think until the first of April came. Every one knew that he was going to try to guess the king's riddle, and they all thought he would surely fail. Most of them were sorry for him, and the only person who was glad was a bad man who was one of Jim's neighbors. This man wanted to have Jim's horse, and he said to himself, "Jim is so foolish there is no chance whatever of his guessing that riddle. I may as well save him the trouble of going to the king, and at the same time get his horse for my own."

The first day of April came, and the bad man put a basket of poisoned cakes on a bridge over which Foolish Jim was to pass. "He will eat those cakes," said the man, "and then he will die and I will take the horse."

Pretty soon Foolish Jim came riding along, and when he saw the basket of cakes on the bridge he got off his horse and picked them up. "This is very queer," said he; "a basket of cakes and no one in sight to whom they might belong."


They smelled good and were very tempting, but he was a little suspicious. "I will give a few of them to my horse before I eat any," said he.

So he took up several of the cakes and fed them to the horse, and almost immediately the poor beast fell dead on the bridge. "See," said Foolish Jim, "if I had not been prudent, it is I who would be dead instead of my horse. Well, well, and now I shall have to go the rest of the way on foot."

Before he started he threw his horse into the river, and as the body was being carried away by the current three buzzards alighted on it and began to eat. Foolish Jim watched his horse until it floated around a turn in the river and disappeared.

"Now," said he, wagging his head, "I shall have something to ask the king to guess."

When Foolish Jim arrived at the king's palace he found no rivals, for so many had failed and been beheaded that others who were inclined to have a try at the riddle were a good deal discouraged. But Jim went directly to the king and said, "If I guess your riddle, will you give me your daughter?"

"Yes," the king replied.

"Well, the riddle is easily answered," said Foolish Jim.

"Say no more," commanded the king, "but let us have the answer at once."

"Hearken, then," said Foolish Jim. "A little child before he is able to stand walks on four legs; when he grows stronger he walks on two, and when he is old he has to carry a cane and that makes three legs."

All persons present had been listening with their mouths wide open, they were so astonished.

"You have guessed right," said the king, "and I see you are not so foolish as you would have people believe. My daughter will be your wife."

"I beg you will allow me to ask you  a riddle now," said Foolish Jim.

The king thought he was so keen at guessing riddles that it would be impossible to ask one he could not correctly answer. "Certainly," he replied, "and if I do not guess it I will forfeit my kingdom to you."

Then Foolish Jim said, "I saw a dead being that was carrying three living beings and was nourishing them. The dead did not touch the land and was not in the sky. Tell me what it was, or I shall take your kingdom."

The king tried to guess. He said this, that, and a thousand things; but in the end he had to give up, and Foolish Jim said, "The dead being was my horse. He died on a bridge. I threw him into the river, and as he floated away three buzzards alighted on him and were eating him, and he did not touch the land and was not in the sky."

Everybody now saw that Foolish Jim was smarter than all of them together. He married the king's daughter and took the monarch's place and governed the kingdom, and instead of being called Foolish Jim he was known as "Clever James."

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