The Second Wisest Man: A Fairy Tale

ShakespeareTrufaldo2A long time ago in a land far away, an elderly merchant was making out his will. As he did so, he struggled with a dilemma. Though he was blessed with both wealth and children, he had not enough of one and too many of the other.

If he split his wealth equitably, none of his children would have enough to live on and if he split it inequitably, he would have to suffer his remaining days with their squabbling.

So what to do?

He put it to his children.

“Kids,” he told his heirs, “I don’t have enough for all of you and I can’t choose between you.”

“So what does that mean?” they asked.

“It means you will have to support yourselves.”

“OMG,” they wailed, “Are you turning us into beggars?”

Snap! The solution popped into his head.

“That is precisely what I will do,” he cried, “I will apprenticed you to my old friend Scruff.”

“Scruff!” they cried, “isn’t he the filthy little beggar who lives down by the gravel quarry?”

“He is,” their father said, “and he is the second wisest man in the world.”

“OMG,” they cried again, “you actually are turning us into beggars!”

They wailed all through the night and well into the next morning but by that time, their father had dropped them off on the road where Scruff plied his trade.

“Teach them how to take care of themselves,” he instructed his old friend, “and if you could help them make their fortunes, that would be great.”


Scruff scowled at his new charges. His old friend had spoiled them with kindness and now it was up to him to do what should have been done long ago.

“What do you want?” Scruff growled.

“We don’t want to be here,” the oldest girl snapped.

“Beyond that?”

She thought about it.

“I want to be attractive,” she finally said, “it is all I have ever wanted.”

“And nothing else?”

“Once you are attractive,” she confessed, “everything else follows.”

“You will go far,” Scruff told her before turning to the next oldest.

“And you?”

“Health,” he wheezed (being a bit of a hypochondriac).

“Security,” the third child chimed.

“Generosity,” the last said.

That last one caught Scruff by surprise.

“You want generosity?”


“Do you want to give generously or receive generously?”

“Are they not two sides of the same coin?”

Scruff thought about it.

This kid was going to be trouble.


As the days and weeks went by, Scruff taught the elderly merchant’s children how to be beggars. He taught them how to grovel, how to plead and how to annoy the passers-by until they coughed up a coin.  But since there were so few travelers on the road, there wasn’t much profit to be had.

The truth is, Scruff was not much of a beggar himself, nor was he much of a teacher. As a result the kids grew thinner by the day and their incessant wailing soon got on Scruff’s nerves.


“OMG!” the eldest girl wailed, “look how skinny and pale I have become.”

Scruff tried to console her, “You can never be too thin.”

“True,” she said, “but pale is so last year.”

“Here,” he said, grinding his thumb into the soft red clay of the road, “Let me touch you up.”

He rubbed the clay into her cheeks and reddened her lips.

“OMG!” she shrieked when she saw her reflection in a puddle. “My girlfriends would pay a bundle for this stuff.”

She then rushed into the city to make her fortune in the cosmetics trade.

One down, three to go, Scruff told himself.


“I’m getting skinny too!” the second child complained.

“You can never be to thin…” Scruff began.

“Bull,” the kid said, “count my ribs. I’m dying.”

“I have just the thing,” Scruff said.

He stepped off the road and stripped the leaves off a branch. He then ground the leaves into a paste and tossed them into a pot of boiling water.

“Drink this,” he said, “it’s herbal.”


“Herbal anything is good for you.  This tea will not only quench hunger, but it will cure the common cold and enhance male sexual performance.”

“I can feel it working!” the kid cried and dashed off to make his fortune in the nutritional supplement business.


“So when am I going to make my fortune?” the third child whined.

“Be patient,” Scruff told him. “Everything comes with time.”

While that was good advice, it was less than satisfying.

“There might be profit in begging but the margins are abysmal,” the kid complained. “Where is the money in pleading for pennies?”

“Then demand dollars,” Scruff told him.

So when the next passer-by came by, the third child shouted, “Gimme a buck.”

“Why should I do that?” the passer-by shouted back.

“Because I have fallen on hard times.”

“So what?”

In a stroke of brilliance, the third child answered, “If you fell on hard times, I would give you ten dollars.”

“No, you wouldn’t.”

“I would, and I would be willing to sign a contract to that effect.”

Contracts were very serious business back then.

The passer-by rubbed his chin and said, “Sounds kind of fishy to me.”

“It’s called insurance,” the third child said, plucking a word out of the air. “We just need enough people to buy into the scheme to cover our losses.”

And that was that.

The third child, whose name was Loyd, went off to London to found a company named after himself.


Only the youngest child remained and she was a worse beggar than Scruff. Not because she couldn’t beg, she was actually rather good at it, but whenever anyone needed a coin, she gave it to them.

Scruff was right about this kid. As sweet as she was, she was trouble because her generosity was cutting into Scruff’s begging franchise.

Finally, he had enough.

“Every day you get better at begging,” he told her, “yet you give it all away and at this rate we will both starve within a month.”

“Then what can I do?” the last child wailed.

“You have to scale up,” Scruff told her.

“What do you mean?”

“You must become a world class beggar and a world-class philanthropist.”

“Philanthro…. what?”

“Start a charitable foundation,” he told her.

And she did. A rather large one.


That Christmas, the children got together with their father for a sumptuous feast to celebrate their good fortunes. All of the neighborhood was invited, and everyone ate and drank throughout the night and well into the next day.

When the eldest child raised her glass for the final toast, she proclaimed, “Father, you have done us a great service, but I can’t help thinking how much more attractive, healthy, secure and generous we would have been had you lined us up with the wisest man in the world rather than the second wisest.”

“But you did benefit from the wisest man in the world,” he said.

“We thought Scruff was the second wisest, not the wisest.”

“He is the second wisest,” the elderly merchant said, “I am the wisest.”

His children laughed.

“If you were so wise, why did you not know what Scruff knows?”

“Don’t confuse knowledge with wisdom,” the elderly merchant told his children. “Knowledge is what you know, wisdom is knowing what you do not know and knowing whom to ask.”

Author: Almost Iowa

58 thoughts on “The Second Wisest Man: A Fairy Tale”

  1. A couple quotes come to mind:
    “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know.” — Aristotle (Although some claim that’s paraphrased, and I think it’s something most observant people learn for themselves.)
    “I was gratified to be able to answer promptly, and I did. I said I didn’t know.”― Mark Twain

  2. One of the best days of my life was the day I got over being embarassed by saying, “I don’t know.” Other good days were the ones when I discovered, “I wonder what that is?” and “I wonder where that goes?” Wisdom was throwing caution to the winds and setting off to discover the answers.

  3. Honestly, this is one of the best fairy tales I have ever read: engaging, funny, real and with a wonderful moral at the end. You do have a knack for these things….

    1. Mornings for me are spent at the kitchen island with a laptop, dressed in my robe and slippers. This morning, grass is even visible between the melting islands of snow and the Minnesota Mosquito Refuge is loud with geese too, that must say something about spring.

  4. In my career as a nurse I had the chance to orient new nurses to the job on many occasions. The only ones who scared me were the ones who didn’t know what they didn’t know. How could they reach out for help and learn from more experienced nurses, if they didn’t know what to ask? Great story. I’ve had a dry writing well recently, too. Maybe I should write a fairy tale. Haha!

    1. Vice is a virtue taken too far and arrogance is confidence run amok. Any trade that requires a great deal of knowledge, also requires confidence and humility in equal proportions.

      Fairy tales are fun to write and when you get the rhythm down, they almost write themselves.

    1. I have never been paid for writing, though one of these days, I might compile my essays into a book – and I will probably give it away.

  5. Glad you listened to the muse. As I said before, this sort of writing is where you excell.
    Add to the tulip list, emu farming, deer velvet, blue gum forests, etc. Jojoba was surely ho ho ho!

    1. My muse and I have a difficult working relationship. She is like the person in the next cube who you need help from but only wants to talk about the fights she has had with her boyfriends. My muse is attracted to bad-boy types. If she is not fighting with Discipline, she is having it out with the Grammar-Nazi.

    1. My muse: Here is a wonderful tale about wisdom.
      Me: You come to me with wisdom?
      My Muse: Go watch Law & Order reruns, I’ll write it myself.
      Me: You’re a peach.

    1. The last guy I helped hire before retiring was a Phd candidate in some obscure corner of quantum mechanics at the U of M. He had come to the realization that he would never make a living at it, so he was looking for work, any work where he could use at least some of his talents.

      He was the smartest person I have ever known – but that is not why I recommended him for the job. It was because his answer to the majority of our questions was, “I don’t know.”

      Gosh, I thought. This guy not only knows what he does not know but he is honest enough not to fake it or wing it.

  6. Greg, this rates as one of my favorite pieces you’ve penned. Do you even have any idea how talented you are in writing? This should be required reading for everyone. I’ve said this before about your writing, but it bears repeating. This story is brilliant. Simply brilliant.

    1. I cannot take credit for this, Audrey.

      Earlier this week, I couldn’t think of a thing to write. I thought about My Stuff, I thought about Stan, I thought about domestic squabbles – but the wells were dry.

      So I did as I always do. I threw a temper-tantrum, I complained to Scooter, who was not at all impressed and finally I went weeping to my muse.

      She was not impressed either – but I persisted. I groveled, I pleaded and I bugged her so effectively that she gave me this piece just to get rid of me.

      I am considering giving lessons in obnoxious behavior to two year olds, they could learn from my wisdom the next time they throw a fit in Wal-Mart.

  7. Loved the story, Greg. The final wisdom is something most people need to remember. Great characters and I got a good laugh about how each child became a success. Perfect.

    1. I always admired the simplicity and wisdom of fairy tales but what truly fascinates me is the cadence of the words. Done well, it is almost like music.

    1. Back in the 50’s, father’s were so wise. Then along came Archie Bunker and Homer Simpson. You have to wonder what happened. I suspect the reason is that the 50’s kids became the 70’s and 80’s producers. 🙂

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: