Folktales, Legends, and Stories

The Three Farthings

Once upon a time there was a very, very poor man who dug ditches along the road. I do not know how this story happened, but enough of that.

One day the king himself traveled along this road and saw the poor man. He asked him, “Tell me, my dear man, what is your daily pay for this difficult work?”

“Oh, my magnificent king, I earn three farthings a day.”

The king marveled at hearing that and asked how the poor man could live on these three farthings.

“Alas, your majesty, only to live on the money would be easy. From these three farthings, I return the first one, then I lend the second one, and I myself live only on the third one.”

But the king did not understand what the poor man meant. He rubbed his head and thought how it could be: to return one farthing, to lend one, and to live on one farthing. All that, all from three farthings! He could not guess how this was possible. In the end, he admitted that he could not understand how it was possible to return, to lend and to live on three farthings.

“Well now, my brightest Lord,” said the poor man, “it is like this. I care for my father who is already old and disabled. I am paying him back since he brought me up. But I am bringing up a little son too. I lend one farthing to him so that he will repay me when I become old and can no longer work. I, myself, need to live on the third farthing.”

“If it is so, then it must be possible!” rejoiced the king. “See, my dear man, I have twelve counselors in my court, and the more money I give them, the more they complain that they do not have enough to spend and to live on. Now I will give them this riddle that you have given to me. When they come to you and ask you for the solution to the riddle, do not tell them what the solution is until you see my face.”

After the king had said that, he presented the farmer with a handful of golden ducats and left for home.

As soon as the king arrived at his castle, he called his twelve counselors.

“You”, he told them, “cannot live on as much money as I pay you! However, here in the country there is a man who earns just three farthings a day. From these, he returns one, he lends the second one, and he himself lives on the third one. Yet he lives honestly. Now, if you are so clever, tell me how it is possible. If you do not answer correctly by the day after tomorrow, I will expel all of you from the country and you will not eat my bread any more.”

The once proud counselors went home with hanged noses and they began to consult each other about what they would do. Each one wanted to be more clever than the other, but they could not match the wit of the common man. The first day went by, and then the second day came to a close. On the third morning, they were to face the king, and they still did not know the solution to the problem. After much thought someone whispered to them where they could find the poor man. He would most likely help them.

The counselors went to the poor man. First with a request, then with a threat, they prevailed upon him to explain how he managed the three farthings. But he did not fear them. He repeated the king’s order. Only if the counselors showed the poor man the king’s face could there be flour from this rye, meaning that he would disclose the answer.

“How can we show you the king’s face?” the counselors asked. “The king will not come to you at our request, and you are not allowed to have an audience with him. Let us persuade you in another way for the answer.”

The poor man replied, “If you do not even know how to find the answer, we will not bake bread from this flour! We will accomplish nothing!”

At last, the counselors tried one last possibility: they promised the poor man whatever came into their mind. They brought him a lot of money, so that he had the means to live even without the king’s mercy. He had to tell them the solution!

But he said nothing!

At last, when the counselors brought piles of money, he felt that he had embarrassed them enough. How could such clever lords not know how to help themselves! He showed them one of the ducats presented to him by the king. “Well, you can see, here is the king’s face! He presented this ducat to me. I can see the king’s face clearly! I am not afraid of violating the king’s order. I can reveal to you what I wish.” And he disclosed the solution of the riddle to them!”

On the third day, the counselors approached the king without hesitation, since they had borrowed their answer to the riddle from the poor man. They had used the poor man’s wit, but the king knew what was going on.

The king sent for the poor man. When he arrived, the king asked him, “Will you tell me how, being an honest man otherwise, you could commit an offence against the king’s order?”

“I did not commit an offence, my magnificent king. I was as silent as a stone until I saw your face. I have your face with me even now. You presented it to me yourself!”

He drew out the ducat with the king’s picture and told the whole story about the twelve counselors and how they had begged and threatened and presented him with piles of money. He explained that they were persistent. But he had embarrassed them further, because of their lack of common sense.

The king replied, “You are very clever and possess more wit than my twelve counselors altogether. You will not dig ditches any more! You will live in my castle like a high lord and will sit next to me in my council!”

“And you?” the king addressed the counselors, “are you not ashamed? What shall I do with you now? I will not raise your salaries. I will reduce what you already receive.”

The counselors never came again to bother the king about their wages.

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This tale was told by štefan Marko Daxner from Rimava, Slovakia to Pavol Dobšinský.

It can be found in the book Pavol Dobšinský: Slovak Folktales. Complied by Jana Babirátová-Judinyová and edited by Jean Sofranko-Olexy and Frances X Luther. This book can be ordered though Slovak Heritage Society of NEPA. Click on name of book.