Once upon a time, there was a prince who had everything his heart desired: a splendid palace to live in, whole suites of rooms within the palace, books and musical instruments and sporting equipment and as much delicious food as he ever desired, cooked by his own chef. Not only that, but the prince was a popular, good-natured young man who had many friends with whom to play sports, discuss the issues of the day and laugh deeply. Only one thing was lacking. The prince’s heart yearned for a woman with whom to share his life, a love who would one day become his bride and stand by his side as his queen. Although the prince danced beautifully at balls and charmed young ladies with his witty anecdotes and respectful conversation at dinners, his heart remained untouched. No-one sparked the love which was his greatest desire. ‘Never mind’, his father would say. ‘You will know your love when you see her. You don’t need to rush. Don’t stir up or awaken love before it is ready.’
The royal palace was several miles away from a large, bustling city. Often he rode his carriage down to the city, and as he gazed from the window of his carriage, he would see the people going about their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. One day, the prince’s driver took his carriage through a rather poor area of the city. The houses were tumbledown and leaky, with too many people squashed into small rooms. As the prince looked out of the window and surveyed the poverty of the people who would, one day, become his subjects, he happened to catch sight of the most beautiful young woman he had ever possibly imagined. He took a sharp intake of breath. Stunned by her beauty, he asked his driver to pretend to be lost so that he could drive around a few more times, just to see her again.
That night, as he sat in the splendour of his rooms, his heart beat faster. He had to see the young woman again. So he made up excuses to go back to that poor district, in the hope that his carriage might cross he path. And, yes it did, and yes, every time he saw her, his heart beat faster. He had never thought that he could be so captivated by love. He memorised the colour of her hair, the upturn n of her smile. And as his love for her grew, so did an uneasy feeling in the pit of his stomach: how would he, how could he, get to know her? If he were a poor young man of the city, he would live in the same street as her. He could bump into her and strike up a friendship. And maybe then… But he lived in a palace outside the city. He could, of course, get straight out of his carriage and stride straight up to her and ask her to attend the winter ball with him.
But his heart grew even more uneasy. If she knows of my wealth, he reasoned, I will never know whether she truly loves me, or is in love with my riches. If she know of my royal birth, I will never know whether she loves me, or the thought of one day being my queen. The prince wanted above all things to be loved, for himself. He wanted to marry for love, not to make a political alliance.
He thought through his options. He could, of course, do what they do in the stories and go about the city in disguise. He could exchange his well-made, handsome clothes with the rags of a peasant and turn up in her street, claiming to be a traveller in search of board and lodging in exchange for menial work. Then he could get to know her, little by little, and then in time, once he had proposed to her, he could take off his disguise and then she’d know the real him, the prince who had won her heart not by power or wealth but with love and kindness.
But then, he pondered, as he thought on, would she feel cheated? Could he lie to her? Could any happily married life start off on so great an untruth?
As he ruimnated, an idea came to him. It would be the riskiest, maybe the stupidest thing he had ever conceived of in his life. But, it might just enable him to win the heart of the only woman he ever wanted to marry.
He went to see his father the king, and after a long conversation, he went back to his rooms. After some time he emerged, dressed not in the well-made, handsome clothes of a prince, nor in the rags of a pauper but in the everyday clothes that the people of the city wore. He took a bag, packed with simple provisions, and got, for the last time, into his carriage where his driver took him to the edge of the city. He bade his driver a fond farewell, and walked the rest of the way.
Days, weeks, months and years passed. The prince found that living in the city, working, as he did, as a carpenter, was a good life, even though there were times when even the foxes had holes and the birds of the air had nests but he himself had nowhere to lay his head. But he gathered friends around himself – he was, after all, a good-natured young man and he told his new friends stories of a wonderful palace ruled by a kind and wise king. His friends wondered sometimes where this kingdom was, or if it were even real at all. He said that he’d take them to there to live with him too, but they wondered how their friend, who looked so ordinary and talked in such down-to-earth ways, could make such rash promises. But they too were captivated by the truth and the heart-thumpingly
challenging love with which he spoke.
And, happily, as time went on, as he worked in his carpentry shop and spent time with his friends, he did, really, fall in love – not just, as it happened, with the young woman whose eyes had caught his heart – but with all the people of the city, with the stuff of their daily business; buying and selling things in the market place, washing and drying their clothes, trading and travelling and taking and laughing: living their everyday lives, with their challenges, joys and problems. As he lived among them, his love for them grew and grew, even though there were times when he found himself impatient at their slowness to understand him. The prince’s love for his people burned within him as he shared his wisdom with them, used his powers to healthier illnesses and his voice to silence their oppressors. It was a love that would come with a cost – a greater cost than the prince had ever known – but that’s another story.
Meanwhile, in the palace, the father watched, proud and pleased. His palace, one day, would at last be full.
(This is based loosely on, but changed quite significantly from a parable by Soren Kirkegaard)