Favourite Stories

Absurdity that challenges conventional wisdom

    Once upon a time the ruler of a distant land decided to build a magnificent triumphal arch, so that he could ride under it endlessly with great pomp and ceremony. He gave instructions for the arch's design, and its construction began. The masons toiled day and night until the great arch was at last ready.

    The king had a fabulous procession assembled of courtiers and royal guards, all dressed in their finest costumes. He took his position at the head and the procession moved off. But as the king went through the great arch, his royal crown was knocked off.

    Infuriated, he ordered the master builder to be hanged at once. A gallows was constructed in the main square, and the chief builder was led towards it. But as he climbed the steps of the scaffold, he called out that the fault lay not with him, but with the men who had heaved the blocks into place. They, in turn, put the blame on the masons who had cut the blocks of stone. The king had the masons brought to the palace. He ordered them to explain themselves on pain of death. The masons insisted the fault lay at the hands of the architect whose plans they had followed.

    The architect was summoned. He revealed to the court that he was not to blame, for he had only followed the plans drawn out by the order of the king. Unsure who to execute, the king summoned the wisest of his advisers, who was very ancient indeed. The situation was explained to him. Just before he was about to give his solution, he expired.

    The chief judge was called. He decreed that the arch itself should be hanged. But because the upper portion had touched the royal head, it was exempted. So a hangman's noose was brought to the lower portion, for it to be punished on behalf of the entire arch. The executioner tried to attach his noose to the arch, but realized it was far too short. The judge called the rope-maker, but he stated it was the fault of the scaffold, for being too short. Presiding over the confusion, the king saw the impatience of the crowd. 'They want to hang someone,' he said weakly. 'We must find someone who will fit the gallows.'

    Every man, woman and child in the kingdom was measured by a special panel of experts. Even the king's height was measured. By a strange coincidence, the monarch himself was found to be the perfect height for the scaffold. Victim pro¬cured, the crowd calmed down. The king was led up the steps, had the noose slipped round his neck and was hanged.

    According to the kingdom's custom, the next stranger who ventured through the city gates could decide who would be the new monarch. The courtiers ran to the city gate and waited for a stranger to arrive. They waited and waited, and waited and waited. Then they saw a man in the distance. He was riding a donkey backwards. As soon as his animal stepped through the great city gate, the prime minister ran up and asked him to choose the next king. The man, who was a travelling idiot, said, 'A melon.' He said this because he always said 'A melon' to any¬thing that was asked of him. For he liked to eat melons very much.

    And so it came about that a melon was crowned the king. These events happened long, long ago. A melon is still king of the country and, when strangers visit and ask anyone there why a melon is the ruler, they say it's because of tradition, that the king prefers to be a melon and that they as humble subjects have no power to change his mind.

Indries Shah


This is a lovely story to illustrate the difference between wisdom (trusting your deep finely honed instincts), cleverness (trusting your brain to work something out) and stupidity (giving no thought to the future and hoping something will turn up).

    Three fat fish lived in a deep hidden pool near a river bend: one was wise, the other was clever and the third was stupid. They were fat because they ran the show in their fairly hidden and protected pool - and so any that visited - eels, insects, frogs, snake and of course other fish - they could eat. And then one day, three men found the pool - and as they approached one of them pointed out and spotted the fat lovely fish. And all of the fish could see that the men there pointing and excited. Now the wise fish acted immediately and without even saying goodbye, he was off - swimming to new places. And as did so he made a big splash and churned up the water in his rush to escape to waters new.

    The clever fish, who also realised that there was a problem thought - I am going to have to outwit these men. The stupid fish didn't really see that there was a problem - maybe the men had just come to watch he reasoned. And anyway, he could hide at the deepest bottom of the pool. Clever fish knew though that this was risky - that something more needed to be done - as the men could have nets that could trawl along the bottom of the pool, however deep it was. But the more clever fish thought, he just could not come up with a plan that seemed watertight (if you will pardon the expression). "How to act and when - that was the question? I must analyse this predicament very carefully - systematically separating out all of the variables, creatively scrutinise tactical possibilities; and dynamically evolve an escape strategy." And as he thinks, the deeper he sinks. At last he decides that he needs information so he goes to inspect the inlet from the river. But when he got there he found that the men have covered this exit with some of their nets. The channel on the other side of the pond had also been covered he discovered as he swam across. "Damm" he says to himself.

    Luckily though he was clever enough to remember that "Panic solves nothing." And "there is nothing like pressure to concentrate the mind." And sure enough he came up with a brilliant plan. So what clever fish does is bite up a huge glob of filthy mud and swirls it about his mouth. It's awful but he manages it. And then he swims back to the surface, rolls over all limp and floats as if dead.

    And it works. One of the men notices clever fish floating, picks him up and smells him. "This one is dead and rotten" he shouts and throws clever fish onto the ground. Clever fish holds his breath and when the men are back at their work, he flips himself over and over until he reaches one of the channels beyond the netting, tumbles into the water with a smacking sound, spews the horrible mud and swims off to safety.

    Stupid fish is asleep at the bottom of the pool until the net closes around him. Alas there is no escape for stupid fish and he ends up providing a quite delicious supper for the men and their families.

    And later the men tell endless stories of the "Two Big Ones That got away" but nobody ever believes them.


I don't know why I bother with these stories - they can have nothing to say about life today ..... can they?

    In the far off days of hugely powerful kings and sometimes even more powerful politicians there was a great treasure hunter. He had the treasure finding instinct to a high degree. Buried hoards of long-lost kings he seemed to be able to see far beneath the ground. The king hired him as court treasure finder and gave him free access to the court and the palace grounds where, it was said, there were many secret treasures. He could come and go as he liked.

    This arrangement worked well to begin with and the yield was great. The king’s fortune was hugely increased. But the Chief Minister was suspicious and concerned as the treasure finder had, with the possibility of access to important state secrets. So, as a precaution, he had the treasure finder’s eyes put out

From Transforming Tales by Rob Parkinson


The Story of Fire

Once upon a time a man was contemplating the ways in which Nature operates, and he discovered, because of his concentration and application, how fire could be made.

This man was called Nour [Light]. He decided to travel from one community to another, showing people his discovery.

Nour passed the secret to many groups of people. Some took advantage of the knowledge. Others drove him away, thinking that he must be dangerous, before they had had time to understand how valuable this discovery could be to them. Finally, a tribe before which he demonstrated became so panic-stricken that they set about him and killed him, being convinced that he was a demon.

Centuries passed. The first tribe which had learned about fire reserved the secret for their priests, who remained in affluence and power while the people froze.

The second tribe forgot the art and worshipped instead the instruments. The third worshipped a likeness of Nour himself, because it was he who had taught them. The fourth retained the story of the making of fire in their legends: some believed them, some did not. The fifth community really did use fire, and this enabled them to be warmed, to cook their food, and to manufacture all kinds of useful articles.

After many, many years, a wise man and a small band of his disciples were traveling through the lands of those tribes. The disciples were amazed at the variety of rituals which they encountered; and one and all said to their teacher: ‘But all these procedures are in fact related to the making of fire, nothing else. We should reform these people!’

The teacher said: ‘Very well, then. We shall restart our journey. By the end of it, those who survive will know the real problems and how to approach them.

When they reached the first tribe, the band was hospitably received. The priests invited the travelers to attend their religious ceremony, the making of fire. When it was over, and the tribe was in a state of excitement at the event which they had witnessed, the master said: ‘Does anyone wish to speak?’

The first disciple said: ‘In the cause of Truth I feel myself constrained to say something to these people.’

‘If you will do so at your own risk, you may do so,’ said the master. 

Now the disciple stepped forward in the presence of the tribal chief and his priests and said: ‘I can perform the miracle which you take to be a special manifestation of deity. If I do so, will you accept that you have been in error for so many years?’

But the priests cried: ‘Seize him!’ and the man was taken away, never to be seen again.

The travelers went to the next territory where the second tribe were worshipping the instruments of fire-making. Again a disciple volunteered to try to bring reason to the community.

With the permission of the master, he said: ‘I beg permission to speak to you as reasonable people. You are worshipping the means whereby something may be done, not even the thing itself. Thus you are suspending the advent of its usefulness. I know the reality that lies at the basis of this ceremony.’

This tribe was composed of more reasonable people. But they said to the disciple: ‘You are welcome as a traveler and stranger in our midst. But, as a stranger, foreign to our history and customs, you cannot understand what we are doing. You make a mistake. Perhaps, even, you are trying to take away or alter our religion. We therefore decline to listen to you.’

The travelers moved on.

When they arrived in the land of the third tribe, they found before every dwelling an idol representing Nour, the original fire-maker. The third disciple addressed the chiefs of the tribe:

‘This idol represents a man, who represents a capacity, which can be used.’

‘This may be so,’ answered the Nour-worshippers, ‘but the penetration of the real secret is only for the few.’

‘It is only for the few who will understand, not for those who refuse to face certain facts,’ said the third disciple.

‘This is rank heresy, and from a man who does not even speak our language correctly, and is not a priest ordained in our faith,’ muttered the priests. And he could make no headway.

The band continued their journey, and arrived in the land of the fourth tribe. Now a fourth disciple stepped forward in the assembly of people.

‘The story of making fire is true, and I know how it may be done,’ he said.

Confusion broke out within the tribe, which split into various factions. Some said: ‘This may be true, and if it is, we want to find out how to make fire.’ When these people were examined by the master and his followers, however, it was found that most of them were anxious to use firemaking for personal advantage, and did not realize that it was something for human progress. So deep had the distorted legends penetrated into the minds of most people that those who thought that they might in fact represent truth were often unbalanced ones, who could not have made fire even if they had been shown how.

There was another faction, who said: ‘Of course the legends are not true. This man is just trying to fool us, to make a place for himself here.’

And a further faction said: ‘We prefer the legends as they are, for they are the very mortar of our cohesion. If we abandon them, and we find that this new interpretation is useless, what will become of our community then?’

And there were other points of view, as well.

So the party traveled on, until they reached the lands of the fifth community, where firemaking was a commonplace, and where other preoccupations faced them.

The master said to his disciples:

‘You have to learn how to teach, for man does not want to be taught. First of all, you will have to teach people how to learn. And before that you have to teach them that there is still something to be learned. They imagine that they are ready to learn. But they want to learn what they imagine is to be learned, not what they have first to learn. When you have learned all this, then you can devise the way to teach. Knowledge without special capacity to teach is not the same as knowledge and capacity.’


By Ahmed el-Bedavi (d. 1276), founder of the Egyptian Bedavi Sufi Order
Retold by Idries Shah


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Pat Williams, one of the original Human Givens teachers who taught us all of the power of stories – to be spoken and not read.

Indries Shah,

Tahir Shah, his son

Rob Parkinson, also Human Givens and a writer and proselytizer of stories.


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