Wednesday, 24 December 2008

The (Alternate) Christmas Speech: The Sibylline Books

This is the story of a city, of a strange traveller and some books.

Like all the best stories it takes place a long time ago and in a place that was far, far away – although no light-sabres were involved: not even a little one.

The name of the city has been lost in the mists of time, but it was a great and powerful city that was ruled by a kind and just Emperor who took great pains to ensure his people were happy and contented. However, as is often the way, the middle-managers were rubbish.

The city existed high in the mountains, above the villages that came under its protection and with whom they traded. Every year the province opened its walls to travellers for a great fair that was the talk of cities as far as a few hundred miles away.

One year an old lady arrived on the very last day of the fair, weighed down and walking slowly due to a big, black sack pulled taut across her back. Refusing all offers of help she set up shop in the market – placing twelve large books on her table: nothing less, nothing more.

Most people ignored her, but a few curious travellers asked what her books contained. She refused to let any look inside the covers, but explained that she had travelled all her life and these books were her memoirs, containing all the truth and beauty in the world. She explained that she would only sell them together and demanded 3,000 credits.

Back then 3,000 credits was a lot of money and could have bought a good sized house and possibly a few sheep if you didn’t mind a bit of mange around the collar, so the locals laughed at her and called her names…but the old woman was not worried and asked to speak to someone in authority.

Finally, just as the fair was closing the Mayor of the city came and spoke to the woman saying, ‘How can we possibly judge if these books are worth what you say if you will not let us look at them?’

But the old woman would not be swayed, saying only, ‘knowledge cannot be given, it must be earned’

Still the Mayor refused to buy the books: and so the woman took four of the books and placed them on a pile with some firewood. Then she burned them, making sure there was nothing left for prying eyes. Packing the eight remaining books on her back she left the city, saying only that she would be back again the next year.

Twelve months passed and times were hard. The animals succumbed to a disease, meaning that the locals were forced to over-farm their lands. A sudden population boom meant that food was ever scarcer and prices rose. When the time of the fair came around again there was considerably less fanfare than in previous years and buying was visibly slower.

Two days before the end of the fair the old woman returned and set up shop, explaining that the loss in weight had made her journey faster. Again she refused to let anyone open the books, refusing to even discuss a price unless she spoke to the Emperor himself.

‘The Emperor is far too busy to deal with traders’ The Mayor explained as patiently as he could manage, ‘Perhaps we can come to an agreement?’

‘Perhaps’ the old lady agreed, ‘But you understand that the price has changed?’

‘Clearly’ The Mayor replied

‘This year I want 6,000 credits’

The Mayor could barely believe his ears. Clearly the woman knew nothing of supply and demand. He shook his head, refusing to discuss the matter further. As it happened this year the old woman had not managed to gather any firewood before setting up, so she took an axe to her table and burned another four of the books –leaving only four remaining, ‘See you next year’ she said.

Another twelve months passed and, if anything, they were harder than the last twelve. There were continual bandit problems on the borders, meaning the Emperor was often forced to spend vital money on maintaining the army that should have gone towards pensions and grain. Rains came harder and frosts colder, meaning that a lot of stock was lost. House prices crashed, leaving many people homeless. Also a lot of estate agents went out of business – but on the whole people thought this to be a good thing.

When the old woman returned to the fair it was a sorry sight – little or no bunting and only a handful of other outsiders. There was an air of despondency in the small crowd. Only the old woman, travelling lighter with less books and no table, seemed relatively happy.

By now it had begun to occur to some of the locals that had spoken to her that their Mayor was being an ass and that the old woman might be onto something. They had clubbed together and raised as much money as they had; asking her to name her price

’12,000 credits’ she announced firmly, ‘not a penny less’

‘But we only budgeted for 10,000’ they replied

The old woman shrugged and repeated her motto, ‘Knowledge cannot be given, it must be earned’

This year the people refused to sell her any firewood, so she tore three of the remaining four books into pieces and burned them in front of the locals, before leaving for another year.

When she returned for the final time it was to find the head of the Mayor on a pole at the gate and the Emperor waiting for her himself. Somehow word of the lady had got through. He took one look at the binding of the one remaining book and its cover and knew it to be a thing of beauty and value, ‘How much?’ he asked

‘Twenty thousand credits’ she replied

‘But the banks are foreclosing,’ the Emperor replied, ‘we will have to borrow heavily from the taxes; people will go hungry’

The old lady shrugged, ‘Should have thought about that before then’ she replied, ‘Firewood please’

However, the Emperor held up a hand in defeat, agreeing to the old lady’s price.

The old lady nodded and handed over the book, taking the money and counting it slowly. Finally, when she was satisfied she looked up and winked, ‘Thank you’ she said, ‘but believe me…’ she added, ‘you should have seen the rest of it’

As she left the Emperor took the book in his hands and opened it. As he turned each page he began to cry, weeping for all the truth and beauty in the book and all that had now been lost and could never be found again.

A Xmas Note From The Pixies:

For further information on the original myth of the sibylline books visit

Or for a more contemporary account (upon which this narration is based) read the excellent “Last Chance To See” by Douglas Adams and Mark Cawardine

Finally – a special link to follow for anyone who would like an alternate Christmas song that reminds us about how important our family appear when we are kids. This song came second in the Christmas Charts to the X Factor winner Shane Ward 3 years ago – a pretty remarkable achievement considering the band, Nizlopi, were entirely self financed and had no record deal. Enjoy – and merry Christmas to all


Honour said...

What a lovely story - I had never heard of the Sibylline Books before ... I really find it fascinating and read the link.

Nice Xmas gift for us all :)

Merry Christmas Pixie-Man and love and blessings to you and your loved ones :)

Lydia said...

I loved this story and your narrative. Will have to follow the links. I looked at the sweet video and enjoyed it.
Merriest Christmas with love and thanks to you for your wonderful blog.

Buddha said...

I'm having a problem with the post . I can see formating tags in the text which makes it extremely hard to read. I'm using internet explorer browser. I don't know if the problem is at this end or not.
doe anybody else has this problem? :)

Michael said...

Wonderful story. Subtle telling. Shows the value of faith, yes?

I hope the season treats you well and that you have a wonderful New Year.

Very best, Michael

pohanginapete said...

I too hadn't heard of the story before this — thanks! Very pertinent for our times, and very well retold.

[Buddha — the formatting tags don't appear in Firefox, but they do in the RSS feed (on my system, at least). I'll stick my neck out and suggest, if you're able to, that you ditch IE in favour of Firefox :^)]

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

All: Merry Christmas - hope you had a good one xx

For me the story is partially about the value of recognising what you have and taking care of it before its too late - but there are many levels.

See you all in 2009!

Anonymous said...

I wasn't really satisfied with the resolution there, I thought it would point to something in particular but it didn't. Anyway, happy New Year.

Don't Feed The Pixies said...

buddha - strangely i can now see formatting tags in the text which weren't there before. Wonder if this is connected to the computer i posted it on. I will take a look at some point.

Samurai - it's one of those stories where you can take what you want from the meaning.