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ON CHOOSING
THE KING

Ramon Llull
English translation by Benjamin Burt, Paul Cella, Nuria Dordal Homs, Gemma Repiso and Tania Varela

In a beautiful prairie, traversed by tranquil streams, anxious animals gathered to choose their king. Most preferred the Lion, but the Ox disagreed vehemently, and said: Ladies and Gentlemen, a king’s excellence is incomplete without physical beauty; he must have grandeur, humility, and never injure his subjects. The Lion lacks grandeur, and his diet is not plant-based; on the contrary, he eats animals. We tremble with fear when he roars. I think you should choose the Horse as your king, for he is surely grand, beautiful, and humble. He is fast, he is not arrogant, and he does not eat meat. The Ox’s words were pleasing to the Stag, the Buck, the Ram, and all the herbivores, but the Vixen was the first to respond before the crowd: Ladies and Gentlemen, when God created the world, his intention was not that Man might be known and loved but that He himself, God, might be known and loved by Man. And in keeping with this intention, God wanted the animals to serve Man, though Man eats both meat and plants. So, my friends, I say pay no attention to the words of the Ox, who hates the Lion for being a meat-eater. You ought rather live according to the rules and the plan that God set out for his creatures. The Ox, along with his fellow grass-eaters, was quick to respond to the Vixen’s argument that the Ox favored the Horse because, like the Ox himself, the Horse was an herbivore. For the Vixen, it was clear that this was the only reason the Ox and his friends were promoting the Horse’s candidacy. But, the Ox retorted, the animals would do well not to trust the Vixen’s support of the Lion’s kingship, for it was not his personal qualities that interested her, but the fact that she lived off the Lion’s leftovers, the scraps he left behind after he had hunted and eaten his fill.
There was so much discussion on both sides that it wasn’t long before everything came to a halt. Three other contenders, the Bear, the Leopard, and the She-Bear, asked that the deliberations be prolonged as much as necessary to pick the most worthy candidate. Suspecting that they were just delaying in hopes of being chosen themselves, the Vixen addressed the assembly thus: Once, in a cathedral, there was an election for bishop. The chapter was divided because the parish preferred the church’s sacristan, who was a man of letters and many virtues. But the archdeacon and cantor opposed this idea. For them, anyone else would be better, even the simplest, most uneducated, weak-spirited, and lecherous member of the flock. The entire chapter was shocked at the archdeacon and cantor’s suggestion. Then, a member of the flock spoke these words: If the Lion becomes king, and the Bear, and the She-Bear, and the Leopard disagree with this decision, the king will always hold it against them. But, if the Horse becomes king, and the Lion does something against him, how could the Horse get his revenge, not being as strong as the Lion? Having understood the Vixen’s story and still deadly afraid of the Lion, the Bear, the She-Bear, and the Leopard decided to support the Lion as king. So, with the strength of the Bear and other meat-eating beasts, and despite the herbivores’ dissent, the kingship was bestowed upon the Lion, whose first royal act was to allow the carnivores to eat and live off the herbivores.
One day, the king was in parliament, discussing the regime of his court. The king and his barons held meetings all day and until nightfall, without anything to eat or drink. Once the session was finished, the king and his retinue were hungry, and the Lion asked the Wolf and the Vixen what there was to eat. They said that it was too late to go out hunting, but that nearby there was a calf, son of the Ox, and a foal, son of the Horse, who would serve as a sumptuous meal. The Lion sent the Wolf and the Vixen to fetch the calf and the foal, who became dinner for the meat-eaters. The Ox was furious over the death of his son, as was the Horse. Together, they approached Man and offered to serve him, hoping that he would avenge their children’s deaths at the hands of their sovereign. But when the Ox and the Horse came before Man, he merely chose to ride the Horse and use the Ox to plow his fields.
One day, the Horse and the Ox crossed paths and asked each other how things were going. The Horse said that he worked a lot for his master, who rode him all day long, ran him all over the place, and forced him to work day and night. He wanted very much to free himself from such servitude; so much so, he said, that he would gladly go back to being one of the Lion’s subjects. But since the Lion ate meat and the Horse had received votes in the royal election, the Horse hesitated to return to the Lion’s realm, and preferred to work under the yoke of Man, who did not eat horsemeat, rather than be a pariah in the domain of the horse-eating Lion.
When the Horse had recounted his situation, the Ox said that he spent most of the day plowing and that his master did not even let him eat the wheat produced by his own labor. On the contrary, when the day’s work was done and his yoke was removed, all the Ox was allowed to do was eat the grass left behind by the sheep and the goats. The Ox complained bitterly about his master, and the Horse consoled him as best he could.
As the two animals spoke, a butcher came near to see if the Ox was fit to be sold for his meat. The Ox told the Horse that his master was looking to sell him and have him killed so that men could eat his meat. That’s a poor reward for the services rendered to your master, the Horse replied. The Horse and the Ox shed many tears together. Finally, the Horse told the Ox to flee and return to his land, for it was better to subject oneself to servitude and to risk death than to serve an ungrateful master.



Ramon Llull (1232-1316) was a Majorcan polymath. “On Choosing the King” is part of one of his major works, The Book of Marvels, a didactic book presenting many areas of late 13th century knowledge, including natural philosophy, Christian theology, ethics, and, in the present story, political theory.