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

The Schildburghers (Published in the 16th Century)

The New Town Hall

Tieck’s Modern Version

IN the mighty kingdom of Utopia, in the region of Calcutta, lies a little town called Schilda, whose inhabitants, after the fashion of other mortals, would have followed in the footsteps of their ancestors, had not necessity, which knows no law, ordered things otherwise.

The first Schildburgher, or inhabitant of Schilda, was an exceedingly wise and wary man, and you may imagine that he did not let his children grow up in ignorance or folly. Nor did he spare severity, and, in consequence, his children grew up to be incomparable for the possession of all possible virtues. Hence their fame and that of their admirable descendants spread to all parts of the world, and their wisdom was known and honored by distant princes and potentates. And a custom grew up for such princes and potentates to invite the citizens of Schilda to attend upon their various courts and assist them with counsel in the affairs of state, which counsel was always found to be most wise and salutary. The consequence was, that very soon there remained no male Schildburgher at Schilda, and the management of affairs was left to their wives and servants. For lack of culture, their fields ceased to yield fruit, their cattle became lean and ran wild, and, what was worse, children and servants, free from the authority of absent fathers and masters, grew unruly and wicked….

To put an end to these untoward conditions, the Schildburghers assembled in their own town. How could princes and chancellors be prevented from commanding their presence away from home? But as the hour was late, they deliberated only little on that day. Instead, they ate an excellent meal made savory with wise discourse, which is sweeter than honey and fairer than gold and silver.

But on the following day these grave gentlemen met under the linden-tree where they had always been wont to hold counsel in summer. In winter they assembled in their town hall. Now, when they had compared the losses which they had suffered by reason of their absence from home to the amount of the gifts that they had received from princes in reward of their wisdom, they found that the former by far exceeded the latter. And so they asked each other how the matter was to be mended. Many spoke, and wisdom and understanding were dispensed in great quantities. At last, however, one of the oldest of the Schildburghers arose, and spoke as follows:

“Since our wisdom is the sole cause why we are forced to abandon our homes, would it not be best to prevent further molestation by cultivating folly and stupidity? Just as we used to be called away on account of our wisdom, we should then be left at home on account of our folly. Therefore my advice is, that we, one and all, men, women, and children, behave as strangely and absurdly as possible, and leave undone no queer action that opportunity offers. This must be practised especially by those who are now the wisest, for it takes no little art to be a proper fool.”

This advice was taken by the Schildburghers with the utmost seriousness, and, on account of the importance of the whole question, a vote was taken. The result was favorable to the adoption of the proposed plan, which they determined to carry out. Thereupon the assembly broke up, in order that each one might have an opportunity to decide how best to fit the desired coxcomb on his head. To be sure, there was many a one who did not forsake without a pang the wisdom for which he had been noted so many years, and was loath to become a fool in his old age. But for the sake of the common weal, for which each man would willingly have sacrificed his life, they all determined in their hearts to be quit of sense and prudence forever….

As the Schildburghers had fully agreed and determined to lead an entirely different life, upon an entirely different basis, it seemed to them that the first thing they would need would be a new town hall, airy and spacious, and dedicated to the deliberations of folly. But since they did not wish to make their assuming the coxcomb too immediately or glaringly noticeable, they determined to go to work with comfortable ease and slowness. This one fact they, however, all agreed upon, that a town hall was the most pressing of their needs.

When a list had been made of the materials necessary for the erection of the new building, it appeared that all that was lacking was some fiddler or flute-player, who might, in the manner of an Orpheus or Amphion of old, have persuaded the woods and stones to follow him to the appointed site by the alluring sweetness of his music. But as such a one was unfortunately not to be found, the good citizens of Schilda determined to go to work themselves, to help each other faithfully, and not to cease their labor until the new building should be entirely completed. The wisdom of the Schildburghers, though it was like a guttering candle, was obviously not yet quite extinguished, for they still knew that wood and stone were necessary to the erection of a building. Genuine fools would have begun building without either stone, wood, or mortar. Hence, one and all, they made a pilgrimage to the wood that lay beyond the hills in the nearest vale, and felled trees according to the directions of their architect. Now, when the trees had been properly stripped of bark and branches, the Schildburghers wished for nothing so much as for a huge blunderbuss with which to shoot the trees home. Such an instrument, they averred, would save them untold toil and trouble. But no such weapon could be found; and so, not without mighty groaning and sweating, they pulled the trees up the hill, deposited them there, and then pulled and carried them down the other side, except one solitary log. This single log, which happened to be the last, they hoisted to the top of the hill with ropes and pulleys and great difficulty. They then proceeded, as they had done with all the others, to haul it down the other side of the hill. But their ropes and pulleys had weakened a little, something snapped, and behold, the log, unhelped, unpushed, rolled down the declivity of its own accord. The Schildburghers looked at the log in blank astonishment. They were dumfounded, in their now ripening stupidity, that a mere log should show such enterprise and good sense. At last one of them exclaimed, “What fools we were to drag the trees down the hill, and to wait for a log to teach us how easy our work might have been!” “That mistake of ours is easily remedied,” said another. “All we have to do is to drag the logs up on the hill again, and then let them roll down. Thus shall we not only rehabilitate our characters as sensible people before them, but we shall also have as a further compensation the pleasure of seeing them roll down.”

This piece of advice appealed profoundly to the Schildburghers, and each, indeed, was ashamed in his heart that he had not offered it himself. If these good people had trouble enough to drag the great, heavy logs down the hill, you can imagine that now, when they were weary, they had thrice as much to get them up again. The one log alone, the one that had rolled down, they did not pull up again. They wanted to spare it the trouble on account of its cleverness. Then, after they had worked themselves half to death, they stood at the top of the hill, let the logs roll down the slope one by one, and were mightily pleased at the sight. Nay, so mightily proud were they of this first illustration of their successful folly, that they adjourned in a body to the inn, and ate and drank a great hole into the public purse.

The logs were now sawed and planed; stone, sand, and mortar were procured; and the Schildburghers began to build with such unanimous zeal, that any one could see how bitterly in earnest they were. In a few days the three walls had been erected, for, since they wished to have something peculiar and distinctive, the new town hall was to be triangular in shape. They made a great gate in one wall in order to cart in the hay and grain that was the legal portion of the town council, and the proceeds of which they hoped to expend at the inn. This gate would also do for another purpose, they discovered at the last moment—namely, that it would serve as an entrance to the good citizens themselves. That they needed a door, and would else have been obliged to climb in through the roof, had never really occurred to any one. They then proceeded to build the roof. This they constructed of three huge triangles, each of which tipped over its wall, so as to form a gable. The first day, however, they put up only the framework of this roof, and left the actual covering undone. And then they went to the inn, and drank a new barrel that had just been opened.

The next morning the public bell was rung, advising the citizens of Schilda that a public duty called them together, and that no one should on that day perform any private work. So they all assembled at the new town hall, to cover which was the problem of the day. As the heap of shingles with which the roof was to be laid was at a considerable distance from the new building, the problem arose, how the workmen on the top of the walls could make use of them. The Schildburghers were not slow in solving this momentous problem. They formed a chain which extended from the heap of shingles to the new building, up its walls by means of ladders, and then to the framework of the roof, from beam to beam. Thus every individual shingle passed through the hand of each citizen, and no one was idle. This method had a further pleasant consequence. Those farthest from the building, who had come to work last and done least, were therefore those nearest to the inn, and quickest there at the hour of dinner, and sitting at the head of the table. All this was, of course, appropriate to the new manners and ideas of the Schildburghers….

At last the building was finished. In solemn conclave, and with joy in their hearts, the citizens of Schilda proceeded to enter it. First went the mayor, then the beadle, then the gravedigger, who was held to be very grave indeed, then the other citizens in proper order of estates and dignities. And behold, it was pitch-dark in their new town hall, dark to such a degree that one could not hear, much less see. Astonishment and chagrin reigned supreme. They tried to find their way out again, and at last succeeded. From all sides they examined their new hall; regarded its distinguished shape, its handsome walls; were inconsolable that it had so serious a fault. But it occurred to no one that each of the three walls was a solid mass, and that the builders had forgotten to put in any windows.