It’s a scientific fact of fairy tales that chancellors and viziers cannot be trusted. In this story from the Hamlyn collection Legends from Eastern Lands, the khan realises he has a whole throng of professional ‘wise men’ in his employ and decides to test their worth with a fun scavenger hunt. They are to search his khanate for ‘the most wretchedly poor of all living men, the most worthless bird and the most useless plant in the world’. To their collective credit, the viziers take their task very seriously, but their criteria lacks perspective. They choose a thistle as the most useless plant on the principle it can’t be eaten and snags on their clothes. For the most worthless bird, they pick the hen pheasant. “There is not one brightly coloured feather on its body and it squats on the ground with an extraordinary lack of grace,” they all agree, rich-person goggles firmly in place.
As for the most wretchedly poor of all men, they find a promising candidate on a barren mountain: a raggedy, elderly shepherd known only as ‘Needy’. He’s happy enough to accompany the viziers back to the palace, but on his advice they replace the thistles with blackroot and the hen pheasant with a magpie.
The khan is willing to accept Needy as appropriately wretched and sends him to the kitchens for a much-needed meal, but turns smug over the other two choices. “It has been known from time immemorial that the most useless plant in the world is the thistle,” he tells them, “and the most worthless bird the hen pheasant.” When he learns that his viziers were acting on the shepherd’s advice, he calls Needy back and asks for an explanation. Thistles, it turns out, make good fuel when you’re desperate, and hen pheasants can be eaten. From a poor man’s perspective, that makes them worth a great deal.
The khan is impressed, but being a khan, can’t just say thanks and move on. He sets Needy a test: to identify what differentiates one horse from all the others in the royal stables. Needy notices its behaviour is more akin to that of a cow and sure enough, it was reared by one. Next the khan holds out a jewel and wants Needy to tell him its secret. By testing its weight, Needy guesses two worms are gnawing their way through it. The khan’s last question is more personal: how old is the royal house to which he belongs? Needy looks him straight in the eye and tells him he was born a commoner.
That does not go down well. Furious, the khan sends for his mother to refute the claim. She can’t. Though she bore nine daughters with her royal husband, he wanted a male heir so much he threatened to kill her unless she gave him a son. As insurance, she found a pregnant commoner, hired soothsayers to predict whether the child would be a son, and offered to swap the children. With a hefty sum of gold as a sweetener, the woman agreed and by the time the old khan returned from his hunting trip his wife was in safe possession of a baby boy.
“In this case,” the khan exclaims to Needy, traumatised, “I am less fit to sit on this throne than you, who are truly wise.” Needy backs off quickly from the throne. He explains he guessed the khan’s roots when he offered Needy a meal of soup, as opposed to more regal options like roast lamb or patridge. That is the most ridiculous DNA test I’ve ever heard of, but the khan’s terribly impressed and makes Needy his favourite vizier.
The other viziers don’t like this new arrangement at all and revert to their natural scheming state. Seizing every opportunity to slander the shepherd to their master, they eventually achieve the desired result and get Needy banished. He moves quietly into the neighbouring khanate and gets on fine, but the khan worries over his decision and nothing the other viziers can do will rouse him from his slump. During a hunting trip, he stops a different shepherd and asks him a series of bizarre questions. At length he poses the oddest question of all: if he has forty geese whose feathers he wishes to pluck unnoticed, whose flesh he wants cooked without a fire and whose throats he wants slit without spilling a drop of blood, is there someone who can accomplish it? The shepherd says yes. Turning on the baffled viziers, the khan tells them they must guess the meaning of the conversation or die.
Underhandedness having failed them, the viziers ride to find Needy and beg him for advice. His plan is for them to slaughter all but one of their horses, burn their clothes and let him ride the last horse while they run naked back to the khan. That sounds like mildly sadistic revenge as opposed to an actual plan, but the viziers are desperate and agree.
Hearing of the spectacle, the khan comes to watch and is so happy to have Needy back that he forgets all about the viziers. That doesn’t wipe out their humiliation and resentment. Overhearing their dour mutters, Needy calls them together to explain the weird conversation with Shepherd Mark 2 – it was all in metaphors! As for the bit about the geese, the khan was referring to the viziers themselves. He wanted to reform them without actually killing them (although either outcome was clearly okay by him). By robbing them of all the trappings of power, Needy fulfilled the threats implicit in the riddle, but allowed the viziers to live.
The khan chimes in at this point to tell the viziers to get lost, and to announce he’s giving over his throne to Needy. The ensuing celebrations last for a month, then Needy gets on with governing. Somehow he convinces five khanates to join up under his rule and his justice system inspires mass immigration. He’s so beloved that his people rename him Ajaz the Wise, because Khan Needy sounds kind of…wrong. He never forgets his roots, though, hanging his old shepherd’s clothes at the palace gate as a reminder of his true self.
Ritual humiliation is a favoured punishment in fairy tales, almost as popular as beheadings and dismemberment. I don’t think I was meant to side with the viziers, but honestly – they do exactly what the khan asked and he promotes a total stranger over their heads? How did he think they would feel? Given how far the khan is prepared to go to restore his bromance, it’s probably a good thing he abdicated. Perhaps he can become a shepherd too.