Once upon a time there was a king who was so very learned that no parson in the whole world could surpass him; in fact, he was so learned that ordinary folks could hardly understand what he said, nor could he understand them either. But in order to have some one to talk with he procured seven wise professors, who were not quite so learned as himself, but who were just able to interpret his learned sayings so that people could apprehend them, and who could twist and turn about the talk of ordinary folk so that it became sufficiently learned and complicated for the King to understand it.
The King had no son, but he had a daughter, and in order that she should be happily married, and the country governed according to the fundamental principles of his learning, he issued an edict that he who was so learned as to put the King and his professors to silence should have his daughter and half the kingdom there and then. But anyone who attempted the task and did not succeed should lose his head for having dared to exchange words with the King.
That was no joke; but the Princess was so fair and beautiful that it was no joke to gaze at her either. And the King did not keep her caged up, for anyone who wished could see her.
There came princes and counts and barons and parsons and doctors and learned persons from all quarters of the world; and no sooner did they see the Princess than they one and all wanted to try their luck. But, however learned they were, their learning never proved sufficient, and everyone of them lost his head.
Over in the corner of the kingdom there lived a farmer who had a son. This lad was not stupid; he was quick of apprehension and sharp-witted, and he was not afraid of anything.
When the King's edict came to this out-of-the-way place, and the parson had read it from the pulpit, the lad wanted to try his luck. "He who nothing risks, nothing wins," thought the lad; and so he went to the parson and told him that if he would give him lessons in the evenings, he would work for his worship in the daytime, but he wanted to become so learned that he could try a bout with the King and his professors.
"Whoever means to compete with them must be able to do something more than munch bread," said the parson.
"That may be," said the lad; "but I'll try my luck."
The parson thought, of course, that he was mad; but when he could get such a clever hand to work for him only for his keep, he thought he could not very well say no; and so the lad got what he wanted.
He worked for the parson in the daytime, and the parson read with him in the evening; and in this way they went on for some time, but at last the lad grew tired of his books.
"I am not going to sit here and read and grind away, and lose what few wits I have," he said; "and it won't be of much help either, for if you are lucky things will come right of themselves, and if you are not lucky you'll never make a silk purse out of a sow's ear."
And with this he pitched the books on the shelf and went his way.
All at once he came to a large forest, where the trees and the bushes were so thick that it was with difficulty he could get along. While he was thus pushing his way through, he began wondering what he should say when he came to the king's palace, and how best he could make use of the learning he had picked up from the parson. All of a sudden the twig of a tree trunk struck him across the mouth, so that his teeth rattled.
"That is Twigmuntus," he said.
A little while after he came to a meadow where a cow was standing bellowing so furiously that it almost deafened him.
"That is Cowbelliantus," he said.
He then came to a river; but as there was neither bridge nor planks across it, he had to put his clothes on his head and swim across.
While he was swimming a perch came and bit him on the nose.
"That is Perchnosius," he said.
At last he came to the King's palace, where things did not look at all pleasant, for there were men's heads stuck on long stakes round about, and they grinned so horribly that they were enough to frighten anyone out of his wits. But the lad was not easily frightened.
"God's peace!" he said, and raised his cap. "There you stick and grin at me; but who knows if I may not be keeping you company before the day is over, and be grinning with you at others? But if I happen to be alive, you shall not stick there any longer gaping at people," he said.
So he went up to the palace and knocked at the gate.
The guard came out and asked what he wanted.
"I have come to try my luck with the Princess," said the lad.
"You?" said the guard, "well, you're a likely one, you are! Have you lost your senses? There have been princes and counts and barons and parsons and doctors and learned persons here, and all of them have had to pay with their heads for that pleasure; and yet you think you'll succeed!" he said.
"I should say it is no concern of yours," said the lad; "just open the gate, and you'll see one who's not afraid of anything."
But the guard would not let him in.
"Do as I tell you," said the lad, "or there'll be a fine to-do!"
But the guard would not.
The lad then seized him by the collar and flung him against the wall so that it creaked; and then he walked straight in to the King, who sat in his parlor with his seven professors about him. Their faces were long and thin, and they looked like puny, sickly persons about to die. They were sitting with their heads on one side, meditating and staring at the floor.
Then one of them, who looked up, asked the lad in ordinary language: "Who are you?"
"A suitor," said the lad.
"Do you want to try for the Princess's hand?"
"Well, that's about it!" said the lad.
"Have you lost your wits? There have been princes and counts and barons and parsons and doctors and learned persons here, and all of them have gone headless away; so you had better turn about and get away while your head is on your shoulders," he said.
"Don't trouble yourself on that account, but rather think of the head on your own shoulders," said the lad. "You look after yours, and I'll take care of mine! So just begin and let me hear how much wit you have got, for I don't think you look so very clever," he said.
The first professor then began a long harangue of gibberish; and when he had finished the second went on; and then the third; and in this way they continued till at length it was the turn of the seventh. The lad did not understand a single word of it all, but he didn't lose courage for all that. He only nodded his approval to all of it.
When the last had finished his harangue he asked:
"Can you reply to that?"
"That's easy enough," said the lad. "Why, when I was in my cradle and in my go-cart I could twist my mouth about and prate and jabber like you," he said. "But since you are so terribly learned, I'll put a question to you, and that shall not be a long one:
"Twigmuntus, Cowbelliantus, Perchnosius? Can you give me an answer to that?"
And now you should have seen how they stretched their necks and strained their ears. They put on their spectacles and began to look into their books and turn over the leaves.
But while they were searching and meditating, the lad put his hands in his trousers pockets, and looked so frank and fearless that they could not help admiring him, and wondering that one who was so young could be so learned and yet look just like other people.
"Well, how are you getting on?" said the lad. "Cannot all your learning help you to open your mouths, so that I can have an answer to my question?" he said.
Then they began to ponder and meditate, and then they glanced at the ceiling, and then they stared at the walls, and then they fixed their eyes upon the floor. But they could not give him any answer, nor could the King himself, although he was much more learned than all the others together. They had to give it up, and the lad got the Princess and half the kingdom. This he ruled in his own way, and if it did not fare better, it did not fare worse for him than for the King with all his fundamental principles.