Thirty More Famous Stories Retold - James Baldwin

The Gordian Knot

In the western part of Asia there is a rich and beautiful region which in olden times was called Phrygia.

The people of that country were related to the Greeks, and they were well-to-do and happy. Those who lived in the mountains had mines of gold and quarries of fine marble. Those who dwelt in the valleys had fruitful vineyards and olive orchards. Those whose homes were among the hills kept great flocks of sheep, the wool from which was the best in the world.

For a long time these simple-hearted people had no king. Every man was willing to do what he knew was the best for all, and so there was no need of a ruler. But by and by, as they grew wiser, every man began to do that which he thought was best for himself alone. The gold diggers ate the grapes and olives of their neighbors in the valleys. The vine growers killed the sheep of the dwellers in the hills. The shepherds stole the gold which the mountaineers had dug from their mines. And then a miserable war began, and the land that had been so prosperous and happy was filled with distress and sorrow.

There were still many wise and good men in the country, and these were much grieved at the sad state of affairs. "It would be better," said they, "if we had a king as other people have. He would punish the doers of wrong, and would make laws for the good of all."

But they could not choose a king among themselves. Each man claimed that he himself was the best fitted to be the ruler of the rest; and, had it not been for one of the wisest among them, they would have ended by fighting one another.

"Since we do not know what to do," said this wise man, "let us ask the gods. Let us send to the oracle of Apollo and make our troubles known. Perhaps it will tell us what to do."

All were pleased with this plan, and a messenger was sent to consult the oracle.

The temple of Apollo was far across the sea and many weeks passed before the messenger returned. Then all the best people from the mountains, the plains, and the hills met together near the chief town to hear what the oracle had told him.

"The oracle did not tell me very much," said the messenger. "It merely repeated these two lines of poetry:—

" 'In lowly wagon riding, see the king

Who'll peace to your unhappy country bring.'

I could not get another word from it."

The people were much puzzled by this answer of the oracle. They could not understand it, and yet they felt sure that it meant something. While all were standing around the messenger and wondering and talking, suddenly the loud creaking sound of wheels was heard. They looked and saw a slow-moving ox wagon creeping along the road. The wagon was loaded with hay, and on the hay sat a humble peasant with his wife and child. Everybody knew the peasant well. It was Gordius, the faithfulest workingman in all that country. His poor little hut, with its vine-covered roof, could be seen half hidden among trees at the foot of the hill.

Suddenly, as the creaking wagon drew near, one of the wise men cried out:—

"In lowly wagon riding, see the king!"

And another completed the rhyme,—

"Who'll peace to our unhappy country bring."

The people heard and understood. With a great shout they ran forward and greeted the bewildered peasant. They ran in front of his wagon. He was obliged to stop in the middle of the road.

"Hail to our king!" said some; as they bowed down before him.

"Long live the king of the Phrygians!" shouted others.

"My friends, what does all this uproar mean?" asked Gordius, looking down from his high seat on the hay. "I pray you not to frighten my oxen with your noise."

Then they told him what the oracle had said, and declared that he must be their king.

"Well," he finally answered, "if the oracle has said that I am your king, your king I must be. But first, let us do our duty to the great beings that have brought all this about."

Then he drove straight on to the little temple of Jupiter that overlooked the town. He unyoked the oxen and led them into the temple. Just as people did in those days, he slew them before the altar, and caught their blood in a great wooden bowl. Then, while he prayed, he poured the blood out as a thank offering to mighty Jupiter.

"The wagon, too," said he, "will I give to the great Being by whom kings are made and unmade;" and he drew it into the inner part of the temple. Then he took the ox yoke and laid it across the end of the wagon pole and fastened it there with a rope of bark. And so deftly did he tie the knot about the yoke that the ends of the rope were hidden and no man could see how to undo it.

Then he went about his duties as king.

"I don't know much about this business," he said, "but I'll do my best."

He ruled so wisely that there was no more trouble among the people. The laws which he made were so just that no man dared to disobey them. The land was blessed with peace and plenty from the mountains to the plains.

All strangers who came to the temple of Jupiter were shown King Gordius's wagon; and they admired the skill with which he had fastened the yoke to the wagon pole.

Only a very great man could have tied such a knot as that," said some.

You have spoken truly," said the oracle of the temple; "but the man who shall untie it will be much greater."

"How can that be?" asked the visitors.

"Gordius is king only of the small country of Phrygia," was the answer. "But the man who undoes this wonderful work of his shall have the world for his kingdom."

After that a great many men came every year to see the Gordian knot. Princes and warriors from every land tried to untie it but the ends of the rope remained hidden, and they could not even make a beginning of the task.

Hundreds of years passed. King Gordius had been dead so long that people remembered him only as the man who tied the wonderful knot. And yet his wagon stood in the little temple of Jupiter, and the ox yoke was still fastened to the end of the pole.

Then there came into Phrygia a young king from Macedonia, far across the sea. The name of this young king was Alexander. He had conquered all Greece. He had crossed over into Asia with a small army of chosen men, and had beaten the king of Persia in battle. The people of Phrygia had not the courage to oppose him.

"Where is that wonderful Gordian knot?" he asked.

They led him into the temple of Jupiter and showed him the little wagon, with the yoke and wagon pole just as Gordius had left it.

"What was it that the oracle said about this knot?" he asked.

"It said that the man who should undo it would have the world for his kingdom."

Alexander looked at the knot carefully. He could not find the ends of the rope; but what did that matter? He raised his sword and, with one stroke, cut it into so many pieces that the yoke fell to the ground.


" 'It is this that I cut all Gordian knots.' "

"It is thus," said the young king, "that I cut all Gordian knots."

And then he went on with his little army to conquer Asia.

"The world is my kingdom," he said.