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The story begins with "the night before the day fixed for his coronation" and the young king, "being but sixteen years of age" sits alone in his opulent chambers adorned with rich and beautiful things. The boy who had been bought up by a peasant in the forest had a great love and fascination for beauty. Similarly "All rare and costly material things had certainly a great fascination for him" and his eagerness to procure them had sent merchants to all corners of the globe to get them.
But above all else, it was the robe that he was to wear at his coronation, made of tissue gold, the "ruby studded crown and the sceptre with its rows and rings of pearls" that mesmerized him. On that tranquil night when it struck midnight and he had been "disrobed with much ceremony", he fell asleep in no time and this was the dream he had.
He thought he was standing in a dark, dingy room "admits the whirr and clatter of many looms" with many "gaunt figures of weavers bending over their cases" They were tired yet worked hard and incessantly. "Their faces were pinched with famine and their thin hands shook and trembled." When the Young King asks one of the weavers who his master is, weaver cries out that he is just like him except that his master "wears fine clothes" while he himself "go in rags"
The young king reminds him that it was a free land and he was no man's slave. To which the weaver replies that "in war the strong make slaves of the weak and the in peace the rich make slaves of the poor." He goes on to speak of how the poor are deprived and exploited by the poor by bringing out the bitter irony of how they "tread out the grapes and another drinks the wine." He then talks of the sorrow-filled life of these workers. At the end he states young king wouldn't know as he isn't one of them as his "face is too happy.
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Looking out, he realizes it was all just a dream and the all what he saw of the plight of those workers was just a dream. So he fell asleep again and had another dream and this was his dream.
He thought he was "lying on the deck of a huge galley that was being rowed by a hundred slaves." By his side was the master of the galley who carried a pair of ivory scales. There were slaves who "stretched out their lean arms and pulled the heavy oars through the water" as the "hot sun beat brightly upon them and the Negroes lashed them with whips of hide"
Finally they were close to shore when "three Arabs mounted on wild asses rode out and threw spears at them." The master of the galley shot one of them. His companions galloped away as he "fell heavily into the surf" The youngest of the slaves was lowered into the sea on a rope ladder and emerged a few minutes later with "a pearl in his right hand," At once, "the negroes seized it from him and thrust him back." Each time he came up he brought with him a more beautiful pearl while the master "weighed them and put them into a little bag of green leather"
When the diver came up for the last time, the pearl he brought with him was "fairer than all the other pearls." But just after doing so, he died and the negroes shrugged their shoulders and threw the body overboard. The master of the galley then laughs and announces that they found the right pearl for the King's sceptre.
The young king wakes up with a great cry thinking of how a life was lost just to satisfy his selfish needs for a beautiful sceptre. But on realizing it was just a dream he falls asleep and has another dream.
In this dream, he thought he was wandering through a dim wood with exotic flora and fauna. He continued to walk until he "saw an immense multitude of men toiling in the bed of a dried up river. They swarmed up the crag like ants . They hurried about calling to each other and no man was idle." From the darkness Death and Avarice, personified, arrive. Death asks Avarice for a third of the men. Avarice refuses saying they are her servants. When death asks her for a grain of corn she refuses again. Death then kills a third of Avarice's men with Ague. Avarice is angry and asks why death was here in this valley? To which death reminds Avarice that she still hasn't given death a grain of corn. Avarice refuses again. Death then calls forth Fever, which kills every man it touches. Avarice again pleads with Death to leave her valley, but Death says not until Avarice gives him a grain of corn. Avarice refuses once again. Death then calls Plague who kills every man remaining.
The Young king weeps and later finds out that these men who now lay dead were seeking rubies for the king's crown. He wakes up with a loud cry as "bright sunlight was streaming into his room"
The Chamberlain came in and his robe, crown and sceptre was brought to him for his coronation. But when he saw them, he was reminded of his dreams. Of the toil, the sweat of the workers of how they were exploited, how their "children fade away before their time" and the faces of those they love become hard and evil. He remembered the death of the young slave only to get him ONE beautiful pearl for his sceptre, he remembered how it was avarice that led death to kill those men, those multitudes who were working so hard in those harsh conditions all just for rubies for his crown, how they all lay dead all because of greed and selfishness. He at once, asked the raiment to be taken away and refuses to wear them as he believes it was "the looms of sorrow and by the white hands of pain" that his robe was made, there was "blood in the heart of the ruby" and "Death in the heart of the pearl."
The courtiers were stupefied. They thought the King had gone mad. The Young King instead wore the "leather runic and rough sheepskin cloak" that had worn when he was a shepherd. He then "plucked a spray of wild briar that was climbing over the balcony and bent it, and made a circlet of it and set it on his own head" This he said was his crown and took his rude shepherd's staff as his sceptre. He mounted his horse and rode towards the cathedral. People laughed and mocked him. He stopped and told them his dreams. On hearing it, a man from the crowd came and reminded the king that without the master, they would have to toil even more and that both the rich and the poor need each other and one cannot exist without the other. The Young King is disillusioned by the man's words as his idealistic views are shattered. With eyes filled with tears, he rode through the murmurs of the people.
Finally, he reaches the cathedral where the Bishop too asks him "is this a king's apparel?" to which the young king replies "shall Joy wear what Grief has fashioned?" The wise Bishop then proceeds to tell him that there may be many evil things in this world with the helpless constantly exploited by the powerful who offer no help now show any compassion or sympathy towards them. He reminds the young king that Social and economic inequality has always existed and it will continue to exist and that he cannot hope to change everything and that "the burden of this world is too great for one man to bear, and the world's sorrow too heavy for one heart to suffer" but also leaves a question with him, Is not He who made misery wiser than thou art?'
He then tells the young King to go back and put on the proper clothes for the coronation. The Young King is shocked by the words of the Bishop in that atmosphere of sanctity, he stood before the image of Christ who too had worn a crown of thorns and walked a path with crowds jeering at him and mocking him.
Suddenly, from the streets cane the nobles, swords drawn who felt the young king had brought shame upon their state, they were ready to slay him. The Young King, bowed and prayed and when he was done, he rose and turned to look at them. Through the windows the sunlight came streaming through and the sunbeams wove around him a robe that was fairer than the one that had been fashioned for him, the dead staff blossomed with lilies whiter than pearls and the dry thorns blossomed with bare roses redder than rubies. He stood there in King's raiment and the Glory of God filled the place as a miracle had just taken place. He had been crowned by a force much greater than the bishop. And as the young King came down from the high alter and passed through the midst of the people. "But no man dared look upon his face, for it was like the face of an angel."
The Young King undergoes a spiritual transformation as the dreams enlighten him, showing him the plight of the poor and helpless. He realizes the toll his selfishness was taking on his people, the Sorrow, the pain, the suffering and the abuse and mistreatment to an extent where so many lives where lost just to satisfy the king's fascination with beauty. His soul is finally infused with the spirit and wisdom of God as he is crowned by God. Shimmering on the surface of this tale is Christ's message of "No one can serve two masters Ye cannot serve God and mammon"