Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1187
Oscar Wilde's short story “The Young King” opens on the day before the king’s official coronation ceremonies. The young man, who was to become king on the next day, is only sixteen years old. When his courtiers are called away for etiquette lessons, the young king is grateful for the solitude. He relaxes in the luxury of his quarters and recalls the day that hunters discovered him shepherding his adoptive father’s herd of goats.
The hunters were seeking the young boy, who was the only offspring of the king’s daughter. The young woman was rumored to have secretly married a man who was far beneath her social class. Some speculated that the man was a talented musician who seduced her with his rhythmic lute melodies. Others reported that the man was a gifted artist, who quickly left town prior to completing his great work. Regardless of his parentage, the young boy had been stolen from his mother when he was only one week old. He was taken to the home of a poor goat herder. The man and his wife were impoverished and childless, and they welcomed the baby into their lives.
The baby’s mother died shortly thereafter. Again, rumors circulated regarding the cause of the young woman’s death. Some suggested that she died of grief. Some reported that she died of “the plague.” Others insinuated that she was discreetly poisoned and died from the lethal and toxic effects of the contaminant. The rumors also included the young woman’s burial. Villagers whispered that she was buried in an “open grave” with the body of a foreign man who had been stabbed to death.
The old king, as he faced his own mortality, dispatched the hunters to find his grandson and bring him home. He conferred his kingly rights onto his grandson in the presence of his grand council. The young man quickly embraced his right to rule and live as royalty. He took great delight in the luxury and lavish comfort of his new home. He adorned himself in fine clothing and extravagantly indulged in the magnificence of his new title. In fact, he so loved every valuable possession of his kingdom that some speculated that he worshipped them.
The young king began to collect the rarest and finest jewels and the most precious objects from around the globe. More than anything else, however, he became obsessed with his attire for the coronation ceremony. He gave instructions to his tailors to craft “a robe of tissued gold.” After he lounges a little longer, he falls asleep and immediately begins to dream.
In the young king’s dream, he stands beside a man who was furiously weaving in a room inhabited by poor and unhealthy people. The weaver is annoyed by the young king’s presence and accuses him of spying on him for his master. The young king insists that he was only observing the weaver as he worked, but the weaver was not appeased by his remarks. When the young king suggests that the weaver does not need to submit to an unfair master as he is a free man, the weaver retorts that the poor are always enslaved to the rich and that his master, local merchants and others have the authority to deny him the opportunity to earn a living. The young king acknowledges his remarks and asks him why he is weaving the elaborate robe. The weaver tells him that the robe is for the king’s coronation. The young man suddenly wakes with a scream, ending the dream.
It is late at night and the young king again falls asleep and begins to dream. In this dream, he sees himself on a ship. The slaves on the ship row the vessel to “a little bay.” One slave, the youngest, is brought to the center of the ship where his ears and nose were filled with wax. A large stone was fettered to his waist and he entered the water, returning with a pearl. The slave repeated the process until he finally emerged with the largest and most beautiful pearl possible. However, the young diver seemed to be in physical distress and he fell dead. The ship’s captain and crew were unconcerned and they applauded the special find, noting that the large pearl would be perfect for the young king’s new scepter. Again, the young king awoke with a scream from his nightmarish dream.
Once again, the young king fell into a slumber. In his third dream, he saw a team of men digging and working in a dried out river bed. All of the men worked busily, seemingly seeking something desperately. As the men worked, the young king watched as Death and Avarice (Greed) fought to take possession of the men. Death asks Avarice to simply give him one third of the men’s lives and he would leave them alone. Avarice greedily refuses, so Death begins to use the tools at his disposal to take the lives of the miners. When all of the men are dead, the young king asks what they sought so desperately. He was stunned to hear that they died in search of “rubies for a king’s crown.” Then, the pilgrim who answered his question shows him a mirror and tells him to look into it to see the king for whom the men labored. The young king awoke from the final dream with another scream. He was relieved to find that it was daylight.
When the king’s servants approached him with his fine garments for his coronation ceremony, he refuses them. His Chamberlain, who is immediately summoned, tells the king to ignore the dreams and dress in his golden tissued robe. The king refuses, donning instead the simple tunic and cloak that he wore when he lived with the goat herder and his wife. For his crown, he places a ring of wild briar on his head. His attendants and subjects are disturbed and offended by his dress. They condemn and disparage him for choosing to dress in such lowly attire.
The king finally enters the cathedral and speaks to the Bishop. He explains his dreams to the Bishop and says that he wanted to begin a different era in the kingdom, one in which the poor would not be oppressed. The Bishop counsels him to ignore his dreams, explaining that the young king could not better the lives of the poor and that he should accept his place as rightful ruler over his subjects. The young king, still uncertain, “stood before the image of Christ.” As he stood, the nobles of his kingdom arrived, swords drawn, and threaten his life. They accuse him of being unworthy to serve and of bringing shame to the kingdom and state that they had an obligation to kill him. As they approach him, he is showered in sunlight. Then, he is transformed before their eyes and stood arrayed in “a king’s raiment.” Calmly, he walks through the crowd, exits the cathedral, and begins his reign as new king.