The Most Incredible Thing

This is an allegorical story written by Hans Christian Andersen. When I heard the economic historian Alexander Gerschenkron apply it to student protesters of the Sixties, I thought he was far-fetched and paranoid. Then I learned that Danes took it to heart during the Nazi occupation, and it made sense to me.

A king, who has a beautiful daughter and who is interested in the progress of the arts, announces that he will give the princess in marriage to the man who will do the most incredible thing. There is a great competition to which many marvelous works were submitted. Towering above them all is a magnificent clock produced by a handsome young man which every hour shows different figures from the Bible, mythology, and folklore. All the judges agreed that to accomplish this was the most incredible thing, and the princess too was impressed. The judges were about to pronounce the handsome young man the winner, when another man steps forward – a boor, a thug, a lout. Wielding a sledgehammer, he destroys the clock in three blows. Sadly, the judges agree that this was the most incredible thing.

Come the wedding day and the princess, in despair, is being dragged down the aisle to marry the thug. Then, magically, the spirits of the figures in the clock reappear, set upon the thug, and tear him limb from limb. The princess is free to marry the creator of the clock.

When the Danes retold this story in the Forties, it was clear who the thugs were. And in our time it is equally clear who the thugs are.

The analogues to the figures in the clock are more abstract: the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for the truth, international cooperation.

But we cannot expect spirits to arise to defeat the thugs. Only we can. And in opposing the thugs, we must respect the values they would destroy and we must preserve.

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