From Stories for Telling, a collection of folk tales by William White, 1986, Augsburg Publishing House, pages 96-100.
Isak was King Olaf’s most trusted friend and advisor. When the royal court was in session, Isak always stood at the king’s right hand. Very few people realized that only a few years before this, the king had discovered Isak tending sheep, dressed in a tattered sheepskin jacket and a crude pair of homemade boots. The king had been so impressed with the wisdom and honesty of this simple man, that he gave him a job in the royal court. In a matter of only a few months, Isak became the chief servant and treasurer of the king.
Each month Isak brought his master an accounting of all the gold and precious jewels stored in the palace vaults; and he also kept track of the value of all the furnishings of every room in the entire palace.
There was one exception to this careful accounting. Nothing was ever mentioned about the chamber in the top-most tower, the room where Isak spent an hour in the middle of each day. No none knew what was inside the thick doors of that mysterious room, for Isak was the only one who possessed a key; and he made no account of what was in there to anyone—not even to the king.
One day the king decided to put all the members of his royal court to a test. He entered the hall where they all were assembled. The king was carrying a large, beautiful pearl. Calling the first servant, King Olaf asked, “What do you think this pearl is worth?”
The man replied with great emotion. “More than 100 wagonloads of gold,” he said.”
“Break it,” commanded the king, setting the pearl on a stone table and pointing to a large hammer by the wall.
“Impossible, my Lord,” the servant cried. “This pearl is too valuable to destroy.”
“That is an interesting answer,” the king said thoughtfully.
King Olaf turned next to the second servant. “Do you also judge this jewel to be valuable?” he asked.
“I certainly do, my Lord,” the second servant replied. “It is surely worth half a kingdom.”
“Break it,” commanded the king.
“I cannot,” the servant humbly declared, “for to destroy such a thing of beauty would bring dishonor to my king.”
“Thank you for your response,” the king said softly.
One by one the servants refused to break the magnificent pearl, and with each refusal, the king became quieter.
Finally, the king turned to Isak and asked, “What do you think this pearl is worth?”
The king’s most trusted servant answered like the others, saying, “More than all the gold I have ever seen.”
“Break it,” commanded the king.
Quickly Isak moved to pick up the large hammer. He raised it over his head, and then pounded the precious gem into a pile of worthless dust.
A storm of protest arose from all the other servants. “Isak is a madman,” they shouted.
Isak raised his arm and asked to speak. The king nodded to give his permission, and Isak said, “What is more precious, a pearl, or, our king’s command? Anyone who would put a mere stone before the word of the king lacks true loyalty.”
When he finished speaking, the other members of the court bowed their heads in shame, and they began to be afraid. “We have allowed our good sense to be swayed by a piece of stone,” they said, and feared for their lives.
King Olaf was pleased that Isak had exposed the foolishness and lack of loyalty in all the other members of the court. He signaled for the executioner to draw his sword.
Immediately, Isak fell to his knees before the king. He said, “I beg you to spare the lives of your servants. Use this as an opportunity to demonstrate the value of forgiveness.”
Deeply moved, the king pardoned all his servants, who pledged him their eternal loyalty. And then, though the servants were grateful to the king, they were angry with Isak for making them look bad. They vowed to find some way to get him in trouble with the king.
Soon the attention of those jealous servants was drawn to Isak’s daily trips to the secret chamber. One servant began to question what Isak had hidden in his secret room. Another pointed out that only Isak had a key to that room. Finally, one said, “Isak must be stealing from the King and storing it all in his secret chamber!”
The servants grew more and more suspicious, and finally decided to tell the King what they thought was in the room, declaring their belief that Isak was not as trustworthy as he appears.
The King said, “I have never asked Isak about his trips to this secret room. You have my permission to search it and whatever you find is yours to keep.”
The servants rushed up the stairs, broke the iron lock, and swarmed into the room greedily, looking all around for the hidden treasure. But what they saw confused them. The room was empty, except for a dusty sheepskin jacket and a tattered old pair of boots.
Then, King Olaf entered the room, followed by Isak. The king said with a smirk, “By this time you must all be rich men. Quick, show me all the gold.”
“Forgive us, great king,” they said. “We found nothing but this old jacket and these old boots.”
Turning to Isak, the king said with a chuckle, “This is indeed a strange treasure that you are hiding. Could you explain to us why these items are so valuable.
And Isak bowed his head and said, “Oh great king, when you chose to lift me up to my position in the royal court I had nothing in the world. Without your grace, what am I?”
“Nothing but a shepherd,” sneered all the other servants.
“A shepherd who wore a sheepskin jacket and a homemade pair of boots,” said Isak. “Each day I return to this room to remember who I am and where I came from. The jacket reminds me not to take my present position too seriously. The boots point to the lowliness of my birth. I remember, and I am thankful for your trust in me.”
The King smiled and said, “I am pleased that you have continued to serve me with a humble heart. I never doubted your faithfulness. The room will remain as it has been. These simple objects are of far more value than gold or jewels.” (continued…)