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Leo Tolstoy's short story "Three Questions" is a kind of parable. A king, seeking wisdom, has narrowed down what he most wishes to know to three essential questions, believing that if he has the answers to these questions, he will "never fail in anything he might undertake." The questions are:

  1. "What [is] the right time for every action?"
  2. "Who [are] the most necessary people [to have at hand in any situation]?"
  3. "What [is] the most important thing to do [in any situation]?"

The king "[has] it proclaimed throughout his kingdom that he [will] give a great reward to any one who" can answer these questions to his satisfaction. Many learned men come to the king to offer their answers, but their answers all differ from one another, and the king is not satisfied with any of them.

Frustrated, the king goes to visit a wise hermit in hopes of getting better answers from him. When he arrives, the hermit is digging in his garden, but he is elderly and the work is difficult for him. The king asks his questions, but the hermit carries on digging, slowly and laboriously.

"You are tired," said the King, "let me take the spade and work awhile for you."

The hermit thanks him and sits down, and after digging for a while, the king asks his questions again. The hermit still declines to answer, so the king carries on digging until sunset, at which point he sets the spade down with a sigh and says that if the hermit won't answer his questions, he'll have to go home. Instead of responding to him, the hermit points to a bearded man who is running toward them out of the forest. The man is bleeding badly, and collapses at the king's feet.

This man is a complete stranger, but the king and the hermit work together to wash and bind the man's wound, which is severe. They carry him into the hermit's hut and lay him on the bed to rest. The sun has fully set by now, and the king is so exhausted from his day's work that he falls asleep sitting in the doorway of the hut. When he awakens, the bearded stranger is looking at him. He asks the king to forgive him.

"I do not know you, and have nothing to forgive you for," said the King.

The bearded man agrees that the king does not know him, but reveals that he knows the king, for the king executed the bearded man's brother, and the bearded man had sworn revenge upon him. He followed the king to the hermit's hut in the hopes of killing him when he left for home, but the king's bodyguard intercepted him and gave him his wound.

"I escaped from them, but should have bled to death had you not dressed my wound. I wished to kill you, and you have saved my life. Now, if I live, and if you wish it, I will serve you as your most faithful slave, and will bid my sons do the same. Forgive me!"

The king is happy to forgive the bearded man and even arranges to have his own physicians care for him. Peace made, the king says farewell to the bearded man, and goes outside, where the hermit reveals to him the answers to his three questions. Because the king was helping the hermit, he did not arrive at the bearded man's ambush site, so he could not be killed. Because the king bound up the man's wounds, the man did not die, and he was able to make peace with the king. The king's kindness was essential to the course events took, and so acting with kindness in any situation is the best course of action.

The bearded man therefore serves as a kind of "delivery method" for the lesson of the parable: he who was an enemy has become the king's steadfast friend, because the king showed him kindness and gave him help when he needed it.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

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