There’s a wonderful old story that was told to me by my PhD supervisor, and which I’ve now told to many different groups of students. I’ve found myself thinking about this story over the past couple of days.
It’s called The Queen’s Journey.
It’s a story about a king and queen who rule over a good and prosperous land, and who hear one day of the coming to power, in the neighbouring country, of a wicked, evil heathen lord. Full of indignation, the good king raises an army and marches along a straight road leading directly to the borders of the neighbouring country. But the wicked, evil heathen lord has got wind of his loud approach, and his armies are waiting in hiding in a mountain pass near the border; they attack the armies of the good king, capture him, and take him back to their castle, where the good king is thrown into the deepest, dankest, darkest dungeon, and is left there to rot.
The queen, of course, is distraught. Day after day and long into every night, she sits by the window in her chamber, fretting about her missing husband and wondering if there’s anything she should do. But what is there to do? She already knows that a rescuing army would have march through the narrow mountain pass, making an ambush likely. Yet she can think of no better plan. And her fretting increases tenfold when a smuggled note from the king arrives. ‘My plight is desperate,’ it says. ‘Time is short! The time for action is now!’
The queen sits by her window, day after day, racking her brains, trying to think of some plan. Her advisers make suggestions, but none of them seem feasible; in her bones, she knows that there must be a way, but she hasn’t heard it yet. Day after day she sits there, trying to still the rising panic, and eventually she is able to look out her window, to see and hear the river that rushes down below, to see and hear the leaves rustling in the breeze, to see and hear the birds in the branches and in the sky. Day after day she sits by the window, until, one day, she knows what she must do.
The queen gets up from her place by the window, and she goes over to an old chest which has sat unopened in a corner for many years. She takes out a lute, which she hasn’t touched for years, and an old troubadour’s costume, which hasn’t worn since before her marriage to the king, when she used to secretly disguise herself as a troubadour and sneak out of her father’s castle, to sing unrecognised at local market days. She had once been a gifted musician; it feels good to hold the lute once more.
The queen leaves the palace, disguised, by a back entrance, and makes her way down a meandering track to a village nearby. This route takes her no closer to the lands of the wicked, evil, heathen lord, but this does not matter. She has a plan. She sets herself up in a town square, sings a few songs (not so well), and soon a small crowd has gathered. She invites others to sing when she has finished. She is offered food and board for the night.
The next morning, she continues along the dusty track to the next village. This time, she sings a little more confidently, and her fingers move with more familiarity along the frets and strings of her lute. Again she invites others to join in, and she learns some new songs. Someone tells a story. Another talks with her about lute playing. Again she is offered a meal and a roof over her head for the night.
And so she continues, traversing the country, along all the winding village roads, until eventually she reaches the mountain pass between the two countries. By this time her repertoire has grown and her old skills have returned. News of this extraordinary musician and storyteller now precedes her, and she finds that there are crowds waiting for her in the villages and towns that she passes through.
And news reaches the wicked, evil, heathen lord, sitting alone in his castle, bored and despondent, needing a distraction. He sends soldiers to bring this travelling troubadour to his palace. He orders the troubadour to entertain him. The queen gives the performance of her life, and even the cold hard heart of the wicked, evil, heathen lord is touched. There are tears in his eyes. He pleads with the troubadour to join his court. He offers the troubadour gifts and incentives.
But the queen refuses. ‘I must keep travelling,’ she says. Again the wicked, evil, heathen lord offers her gifts. ‘All I wish for,’ she says, ‘is that I may have a companion, a prisoner from your prisons, to accompany me on the road.’
The wish is granted. The queen is taken down into the dungeons, and there, in the deepest, dankest, darkest cell, she sees the king, body emaciated and covered in sores, lying on a bed of filthy rags and straw. The smell is appalling. ‘I’ll take that man,’ she says.
The king is brought back into the fresh air. Physicians tend his wounds, attendants nurse him back to life. After a couple of weeks, he is able to walk again. After a month, he is ready for the road. Still, he does not know the identity of his rescuer.
The two set off, visiting again all the villages and towns, along the same meandering paths and byways. This time, of course, the queen is welcomed and feted. The performances are breathtaking, but always the queen invites others to join in on her songs and to teach her new ones. Always there are stories told.
Almost exactly a year after the queen first set off on her journey, they reach their castle. The queen is still disguised; the king still ignorant.
At the castle gate, the king offers his rescuer gifts and titles. ‘You have saved my life,’ he says. ‘Whatever you wish for that I can grant, will be yours.’ Again queen refuses. ‘Just saving your life and bringing you back here to your castle is reward enough.’ They part.
The queen hurries to the back entrance of the castle. She takes off her disguise and is recognised by the guards at the back gate. She hurries up the back stairs, back to her room, and she throws troubadour guise and lute into the chest and resumes her seat by the window. And she soon hears the king’s footsteps approaching her room.
The door is flung open and the king stands there, his face red with rage. ‘How dare you!’ he bellows. ‘How dare you sit there, idly, while I languished near to death in a dark and dreadful place! How dare you sit there, doing nothing!’
The queen stands. She goes to the chest and produces the costume and the lute. The king sees. The king understands.
King and queen embrace. The king and queen embrace for a long, long time.
Indeed, if the truth be told, the king and the queen are still locked in that embrace.