The King and the Corpse by Heinrich Zimmer: A Book Review, Part Two

If you haven’t already read it, please begin with Part 1 of this review:

We left the young king in a most unusual and disconcerting situation – carrying the corpse of a hanged man across a charnel ground.  The corpse was possessed by a spirit who asked the king a riddle and said that if he knew the answer but didn’t speak, his head would explode.

"The King and the Corpse," from a presentation at the Red Arrow Gallery, Joshua Tree, CA, Sept. 2011

The king answered the question and immediately, the body flew back to the tree and the king had to return and cut it down again.  Another walk, another story, another answer and the corpse again disappeared. The king, whose name meant, “Rich in Patience,” needed all he could muster, for the gruesome routine went on and on and on. If the ruler had been thoughtless as a youth, the corpse now gave him riddles worthy of Solomon.  He solved all of them except the 24th, which went like this:

“A chief and his son were hunting in the hills.  The king was a widower and the son unmarried, so they were intrigued to find the footsteps of two women, one older, one younger.  The feet were shapely and the gait suggested refinement.  “A queen and her daughter, I think,” said the father.  They set out in pursuit and agreed that if the women were willing, the father would marry the one with the larger feet – presumably the mother, and the son would marry the other.  The women were indeed a queen and her daughter, fleeing danger, but, the daughter’s feet were larger.  Holding to their vows, the king married the daughter, and the son married her mother.  When both women gave birth to sons, how were the babies related?”

When the king kept silent, the corpse said how pleased he was with the monarch’s courage and wisdom.  He warned him that the sorcerer was a necromancer who planned to use the corpse and the king’s blood – after killing him – in a black magic rite that would give him power over the spirits of the dead.  He told the king how to slay the sorcerer, and when he did, the ghost in the corpse revealed himself as the great god, Shiva, who honored the king, and asked him to name his reward.

The king asked that the 24 riddles should always be remembered and should be told all over the earth.  Shiva assented, and indeed, the story has travelled the world since 50 BC, the time of the Hindu king, Vikramaditya (“The Sun of Valor”), the hero of this and many other legends.  The great god promised that ghosts and demons would never have power wherever the tales were told, and “whoever recites, with sincere devotion, even one of the stories shall be free from sin.”  Shiva also promised the the king dominion during his life and gave him an invincible sword.  Far more important, he opened the monarch’s eyes of spiritual illumination, and so his earthly reign was a model of “virtue and glory.”

When the story opens, the king is young, handsome, rich, and rather heedless since he accepts the beggar’s fruits as if they are his due, without thinking very much about them.  According to the wisdom of the east, he is like a sleeping man whose house is on fire, since nothing – not fruit, nor youth, nor jewels, nor life itself will last.  Also, naiveté doesn’t work too well in this world,  It draws betrayal the way a magnet draws iron.  The “holy man” has been weaving the king’s undoing for ten long years.  Where is the king going to come up with that kind of cunning, and in a hurry?

He finds it as all the heroes and heroines of folklore do, in an unlikely place, from the voice of a being the “wise” would despise.  Stories tell us that is where our guiding spirits often hide at first, as if to test our ability to see beyond appearances.  In fairytales from around the world, it’s the ugly crone, the dwarf, the wild animal, or in this case, in the body of an executed criminal who serve as our spiritual guides  Stories remind us that when we are truly stuck, doing what we have always done will not help.

When life and happiness depend on spinning straw into gold, on finding the water of life, on “going I know not whither and bringing back I know not what,” we need the guidance of our better angels, our guardian spirits, our daemons, as the Greeks called them.  Or in the case of our king, in our tutelary deity, who hides in a corpse to test his student’s faith, courage, and willingness to trust his own experience.

The saving spirit is one of the key themes that Heinrich Zimmer ponders in the stories of  The King and the Corpse, for as Zimmer tells us, “the hidden magician who projects both the ego and its mirror world can do more than any exterior force to unravel by night the web that has been spun by day.”

I consider this an essential book in the library of anyone who wants to hear the voices of wisdom that hide in the old tales that people cannot stop telling.

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

  1. What a wonderful story. I’ve never heard of this book or this story before. I’m not much for waiting for sequels, so when I saw you had a two-parter, I waited to read them both together. I may be behind on my blog reading, but I always get to yours, even if late, because they are always fascinating food for thought. Thanks for another interesting post.


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