written by Ben Okri
There was once a king obsessed by the search for truth. And being unable to approach any closer to it over the years, he chose an opposite
method. He sent his courtiers, his wizards, magicians and fools to travel the world and find out from every man, woman, or child, what
constituted the greatest lie that had infected the life of human beings.
He hoped that by finding out the lie he would, by deduction, arrive at the greatest truth. So anxious was he in this question, that he
dedicated extensive resources to its solution.
For many months and, in some cases, many years his emissaries ravelled all the corners of the earth asking people what they
considered the greatest lie in life. Then one by one they returned to him. They brought exotic gifts, and waited. To each one he posed the
question. Their answers surprised him. Some said the greatest lie was hat there was life after death. People felt that if there was no life
after death then they could do whatever they wanted while alive. Others said the greatest lie was that there was no life after death. And that
because there was life after death they had no fear of death.
The magician said he had been told that the great lie was that people had been lead to believe that when they grew up they would be
happy. The courtier said the lie consisted in being told in childhood that people were good and that life was fair. The philosopher said the
lie was that time is real. People had found this notion puzzling, for to an old man the memory of a life is shorter than a day, and to a child
the sense of the future is longer than eternity.
The fool returned from his travels and brought the king what he had learned was the great lie. Of all his emissaries the king was
particularly interested in the findings of his fool.
"The great lie, " the fool said, "is this: that your power is real."
"What do you mean by that?" roared the king, piqued.
Imperturbably, the fool explained:
"Your power is unreal. It is made of air. It consists of what we conferred upon you. You are our creation, our fiction. We have taken
our power and given it to you. And then we went and forgot that you were made by us."
"Is this is the lie that you brought back to me?"
"No," said the fool. "The real lie is that we individuals have no power. And so we keep looking for power elsewhere. But we are
powerful. On my travels I met a wise man who told me a great secret."
"And what is it?" the king asked, leaning forward.
"The secret is that the least is the most, and the most is the least."
"What does that mean?"
"Your majesty, I am only a fool. I cannot do your thinking for you."
The king considered having his fool beheaded; but he held his peace and awaited the other emissaries. Then a child came to him to tell of
the greatest lie.
"What is it?" asked the king.
"The greatest lie is that when people die they are gone forever."
"Why is this a lie?"
"Because when my mother died I saw her three days later standing over my bed. She told me that all will be well."
"But were you not dreaming?" the king asked, skeptically.
"That's what everyone asks. But I was wide awake. Anyway I saw her again three days after that in the marketplace."
"And so what is the lie?"
"That the dead are dead."
The king pondered this. He gave the child a small gift. He awaited others. A blind man came to him and said that the great lie is that the
blind do not see.
"At first this was true of me. But one day I discovered I could see with eyes I didn't know I had. But I see in a strange light, as if
everything were lit from within."
"What is the lie?" the king asked.
"It is twofold," the blind man said. "The first is that the blind cannot see. The second is that those who have eyes can see. Maybe the
latter is the greatest lie."
The king was struck by this, but awaited other messengers. A woman came to him one day and, wailing, said:
"Love is the great lie."
"How come?" asked the king.
"I sought love in man and found nothing but ashes. Love has brought me more misery than anything else on earth. I have been abandoned,
betrayed, deceived, and used. The poets sing of love, religion teaches it, but love as I have seen it is a name for something else. People in
love deceive themselves, they project onto one another, and see someone that is not there. When they eventually see the real person, they love
no more. Love is a screen, it is a mirror, it is a blindness, it is a lie."
The king was perturbed by this, and sent the wailing woman away with gifts. He awaited further revelations. Then an old woman came to him.
With the air of deep forests, with the rasping voice of an eagle, she told the king that of all lies the great lie was truth.
The king was astounded by this remark.
"Truth takes a thousand forms," the old woman said. "The truth of the fly is not the truth of the spider. The truth of your lowest
servant is not that of the king. The truth of a man dying of a sword thrust is not the truth of the warrior plunging in the sword. The truth
of fire is not the truth of ice. There is the truth of suffering and that of happiness, the truth of love and that of hate. The truth of
death is not that of life. The skeleton speaks a different truth from the woman in the throes of lovemaking. Of all the things that have
caused the greatest wars and suffering, it is truth that is most responsible for them all. Every war is a war over truth; both sides
dispute it. We all believe we have our truth. But no-one has seen the truth. Some say God is truth, but none have seen God. Some say love is
truth, but none have seen love. Truth is a mirage that has led man astray into the deserts of time."
With this the woman left, and the king was much diminished inhearing her speech.
He had grown old awaiting his messengers. He had grown weary listening to the many forms of the lie brought to him over many years.
Not a day passed in which he wasn't brought a version of the lie. He believed he had heard them all. Listening to all the lies had slowly
drained him of life. All illusions had fled from his heart. His spirit ad grown dry. There seemed nothing left of any splendour in the world.
Nothing that we see is as it is: sight is a lie. Nothing that we hear is as it sounds: hearing is a lie. The senses deceive. Memory
deceives. Time is an illusion. It is possible that all these years he had not been a king, but an old man listening to the whisperings of
fables in the wind. Life was unreal; death is uncertain; and power succumbs to the law that what was given can be taken away.
The king grew old and found one day that he was at the golden door of death. With a sigh he passed into the night. Then he heard the
voice of an angel whisper to him:
"All your life you sought truth. Then you sought the lie. Buteverything you were told was the truth and the lie. Did you learn
The king said:
"I learned nothing. I listened to the tales of travellers."
The angel said:
"Then your whole life was a lie."
"In which case," said the king, "I am on the verge of the truth."
That's when the king found that he too was just a messenger ofanother king, who awaited the distillation of his research.