The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review – Part One

Heinrich Zimmer (1890 – 1943) was a Sanskrit scholar, an Asian art historian, and an expert in Indian philosophy and spirituality.  After the Nazis dismissed him from Heidelberg University in 1938, he made his way to the US where he taught at Columbia as a visiting professor.  The young Joseph Campbell attended some of his lectures and became a close friend.  Zimmer died of pneumonia in 1943, and Campbell spent the next 12 years editing and publishing some of his papers.  Campbell finished Zimmer’s book on folklore, The King and the Corpse, in 1948.

I discovered Zimmer’s writing as a freshman in college at the same time as I discovered Jung.  The two men, in fact, were long time friends, but their writings on myth and folklore were different.  Jung and his circle largely used story to expand and validate their theories, while Zimmer, and Campbell after him, sought to find the living essence of ancient tales that will speak to us now if we learn to listen.

In his introduction to The King and the Corpse, Zimmer called himself a “dilettante,” from the Italian verb, dilettare, “to take delight in.”   The essays in the book he said, “are for those who take delight in symbols, in conversing with them, and enjoy living with them continually in the mind.”   When I read Heinrich Zimmer, I discovered I was that sort of person.

Heinrich Zimmer, 1933

The King and the Corpse is collection of tales from around the world presented, along with Zimmer’s personal meditations, in a style of exposition later popularized by Campbell.  There’s a story from the Arabian Nights, four stories from the Arthurian cycle, and the rest come from India. The one that has always stayed with me is the title story, “The King and the Corpse.”

For ten years, every day, as a king sat in his audience chamber, an ascetic beggar appeared and wordlessly gave  him a piece of fruit.  Thinking little of it, the king gave the gift to his treasurer who tossed it over the wall into the treasure house.  One day a monkey got loose and hopped onto the king’s lap.  Playfully, the monarch gave him the fruit.  The monkey bit into it and a jewel fell out and rolled across the floor.  The king and treasurer hurried to look in the treasure house, where they found glittering jewels in the pile of rotten fruit.

It had been years since I read this tale, but I’ve seen this motif in other stories, and this time, its power jumped out at me.  The king’s attitude toward the fruit mirrors my own attitude toward health and youth in younger days, when these gifts arrived every day, with little effort on my part, almost as if life owed them to me, and there was no end in sight.  In his essay, Zimmer takes a larger perspective, suggesting each day we are given is like a piece of fruit hiding a jewel that we might discover if we only stopped to look.

The next day, when the ascetic arrived, the king demanded an interview before he would accept the gift.  The beggar said he needed a brave man, a hero, to help in a work of magic.  He asked the king to meet him at midnight on the night of the next full moon, in the funeral ground, where the dead were cremated and criminals hanged.  On the appointed night, the king strapped on his sword and strode through the smoke and flames of the funeral pyres, ignoring the clamor of ghosts and ghouls.  He found the ascetic, in sorcerer’s robes, drawing a magic circle on the ground.  “What can I do for you?” the king asked.  The magician told him to cross to a certain tree, cut down the body of a hanged man, and bring it to him.

This too, according to Zimmer, is a sign of the king’s youth and naiveté.  The realm depended on him, but without a thought, he agreed to meet a magician that he didn’t know, by himself, at the dark of the moon, at the witching hour on dangerous ground.  Yet the king was nothing if not brave.  He cut down the hanged man and hoisted the body onto his shoulder, but as he did, the corpse began to laugh.  “What is it?” the king asked.  The corpse said the way was long and offered to shorten the king’s journey by telling a story.  When the king did not reply, the corpse began.  He told the king a complex tale, filled with moral ambiguity, and then asked which character in the tale had been right.  “And by the way,” the corpse added, “If you know the answer but do not tell me, your skull will explode.”

To Be Continued.

2 thoughts on “The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review – Part One

  1. “In his essay, Zimmer takes a larger perspective, suggesting each day we are given is like a piece of fruit hiding a jewel that we might discover if we only stopped to look.”

    I love that. It’s so true, isn’t it? There are so many beautiful things right in front of us, if only we’d slow down and discover them.

    This looks like a very interesting book! Thanks for the recommendation!


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