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The World’s Wit and Humor: An Encyclopedia in 15 Volumes. 1906.

Victor Hugo (1802–1885)

The Good Flea and the Wicked King

From “Tales of a Grandfather”

ONCE upon a time there was a wicked king, who made his people very unhappy. Everybody detested him, and those whom he had put in prison and beheaded would have liked to whip him. But how? He was the strongest, he was the master, he did not have to give account to any one, and when he was told his subjects were not content, he replied:

“Well, what of it? I don’t care a rap!” Which was an ugly answer.

As he continued to act like a king, and as every day he became a little more wicked than the day before, this set a certain little flea to thinking over the matter. It was a little bit of a flea, who was of no consequence at all, but full of good sentiments. This is not the nature of fleas in general; but this one had been very well brought up; it bit people with moderation, and only when it was very hungry.

“What if I were to bring the king to reason?” it said to itself. “It is not without danger. But no matter—I will try.”

That night the wicked king, after having done all sorts of naughty things during the day, was calmly going to sleep when he felt what seemed to be the prick of a pin.


He growled, and turned over on the other side.

“Bite! Bite! Bite!”

“Who is it that bites me so?” cried the king in a terrible voice.

“It is I,” replied a very little voice.

“You? Who are you?”

“A little flea who wishes to correct you.”

“A flea? Just you wait! Just you wait, and you shall see!”

And the king sprang from his bed, twisted his coverings, and shook the sheets, all of which was quite useless, for the good flea had hidden itself in the royal beard.

“Ah,” said the king, “it has gone now, and I shall be able to get a sound sleep.”

But scarcely had he laid his head on the pillow, when——


“How? What? Again?”

“Bite! Bite!”

“You dare to return, you abominable little flea? Think for a moment what you are doing! You are no bigger than a grain of sand, and you dare to bite one of the greatest kings on earth!”

“Well, what of it? I don’t care a rap!” answered the flea in the very words of the king.

“Ah, if I only had you!”

“Yes, but you haven’t got me!”

The wicked king did not sleep all that night, and he arose the next morning in a killing ill humor. He resolved to destroy his enemy. By his orders, they cleaned the palace from top to bottom, and particularly his bedroom; his bed was made by ten old women very skilful in the art of catching fleas. But they caught nothing, for the good flea had hidden itself under the collar of the king’s coat.

That night, this frightful tyrant, who was dying for want of sleep, lay back on both his ears, though this is said to be very difficult. But he wished to sleep double, and he knew no better way. I wish you may find a better. Scarcely had he put out his light, when he felt the flea on his neck.

“Bite! Bite!”

“Ah, zounds! What is this?”

“It is I—the flea of yesterday.”

“But what do you want, you rascal—you tiny pest?”

“I wish you to obey me, and to make your people happy.”

“Ho, there, my soldiers, my captain of the guard, my ministers, my generals! Everybody! The whole lot of you!”

The whole lot of them came in. The king was in a rage, which made everybody tremble. He found fault with all the servants of the palace. Everybody was in consternation. During this time the flea, quite calm, kept itself hid in the king’s nightcap.

The guards were doubled; laws and decrees were made; ordinances were published against all fleas; there were processions and public prayers to ask of Heaven the extermination of the flea, and sound sleep for the king. It was all of no avail. The wretched king could not lie down, even on the grass, without being attacked by his obstinate enemy, the good flea, who did not let him sleep a single minute.

“Bite! Bite!”

It would take too long to tell the many hard knocks the king gave himself in trying to crush the flea; he was covered with bruises and contusions. As he could not sleep, he wandered about like an uneasy spirit. He grew thinner. He would certainly have died if, at last, he had not made up his mind to obey the good flea.

“I surrender,” he said at last, when it began to bite him again. “I ask for quarter. I will do what you wish.”

“So much the better. On that condition only shall you sleep,” replied the flea.

“Thank you. What must I do?”

“Make your people happy!”

“I have never learned how. I do not know how——”

“Nothing more easy: you have only to go away.”

“Taking my treasures with me?”

“Without taking anything.”

“But I shall die if I have no money,” said the king.

“Well, what of it? I don’t care!” replied the flea.

But the flea was not hard-hearted, and it let the king fill his pockets with money before he went away. And the people were able to be very happy by setting up a republic.