The following story, or fairy tale, comes to us from the great British novelist, John Fowles. I’ve adapted the story with some amount of poetic license, from one of my favorite novels, The Magus.
“The Magician and the Prince”, like most fairy tales, is but a charming anecdote on the surface. Yet if we examine it more closely, we find a thought-provoking parable about the human condition, the search for meaning, and the quest to live an authentic life.
“The Magician and the Prince”
Once upon a time in a faraway kingdom there lived a bright young prince who believed in all things but three. He did not believe in volcanos, he did not believe in princesses, and he did not believe in God.
One clear summer day, under a sky as blue as corydalis, the prince took his horse on a long, long ride, beyond the boundaries of his father’s vast dominions. Near the summit of a high mountain he met a strange old man, with a long wispy beard. This foreigner spoke to the prince of his own homeland, near the volcanoes, among gentlemen and beautiful princesses.
The prince did not believe these stories, so he demanded to see proof. With the old man, he traveled for another day until they passed a pair of princesses on the road. And later that same day they climbed to the rim of a volcano.
The prince hurried home on his steed, and ran straight to the king. “Father! I have seen volcanos! I have seen princesses! I have seen God!”
“But son,” the king replied, “volcanos, princesses and God do not exist.”
“But father,” he insisted, “I saw them!”
“Tell me what God looked like.” So the prince described the long beard and the unusual hat as he remembered them. The king sat back and laughed. “You have described a magician. You did not meet God. You were fooled. The princesses and volcanos were simply illusions.”
Disappointed, the prince hopped right back on his horse to cross the hills and find the old man. “You lied to me,” he said. “My father is the king and he has explained your tricks. There are no volcanos and there are no princesses.”
“Aha. Very interesting hypothesis,” said the old man, while stroking his whiskers. “But I haven’t tricked you. There are volcanos and princesses in your kingdom as well. Only you can’t see them, because you are under your father’s spell. For he is a magician as well.”
When the prince returned home again, he looked his father in the eyes and asked him, “Is it true, father, what they say? That you are not a real king, but just a magician?”
“Yes,” the father meekly confessed, “I am only a magician.”
“So the man in the faraway land really was God,” the prince protested.
“No, son, that man was just another magician.”
“But I must know the real truth, beyond magic,” the young man demanded.
“But there is no truth beyond magic,” said the king.
At this the prince sunk his head in despair and declared, “I can’t go on like this. The uncertainty, the meaninglessness, I can’t stand it. I have no choice but to kill myself.”
So the king used his magic and called on Death to appear. Face to face with the reaper, the prince trembled in fear. His mind raced this way and that. Then gradually his thoughts returned to the incredible volcanos, and especially to the beautiful princesses that he had seen in that faraway land.
“Alright then,” he said, pulling himself together. “I can stand it.”
“Very good, my son,” said the king. “You too are becoming a magician!”
Notes on “The Magician”
The preceding parable was adapted from a passage in The Magus, a tremendously profound and enjoyable novel by John Fowles. For more enchanted Zen Parables to tickle your mind and soothe your soul, be sure to check out Heaven and Hell, Everything Flows, and Mind is the Forerunner of All Things. You might also be interested in our article on Bamboo Symbolism and Mythology.
PHOTO CREDIT: The Magician from the Rider-Waite tarot deck. With one hand reaching upwards toward heaven and the other pointing down toward the earth, the Magicians embodies the union of the sacred and the mundane. As spirits inhabiting these earthly shells, this is a balance we should all seek to achieve.