Was Good King Wenceslas a complete idiot?

Good morning, St Stephen’s Day. Apparently, St Stephen is patron saint of headache sufferers among other things, which is presumably something to do with his association with Boxing Day. But the Feast of Stephen is most commonly known as the date when Good King Wenceslas looked out.

Saint Wenceslaus I, Duke of Bohemia in a less welcoming mood

I’m happy to let a lot of strange things go in carols, but Good King Wenceslas is more or less a complete and detailed story about a supposed event, and it bothers me, because I don’t think it makes any sense at all.

The King looks out of his castle, and sees a peasant gathering winter fuel, or firewood in other words. So far, so simple. But when he asks his page who the man is, it gets very weird. Apparently, he lives miles away, “right against the forest fence”. So why would he walk “a good league” to gather firewood in the vicinity of the castle when he has such a fine supply on his doorstep? It just doesn’t make sense.

It’s just about conceivable that the forest’s private and he isn’t allowed past the fence, but you’d still think there should be a decent amount of wood around the forest, or at least within a few miles. You wouldn’t expect there to be many trees near the castle, and if there were, he must have gone through them and out the other side to be visible from the window. Very odd.

Normally, I’d assume the page has just got it wrong in an epic way, but he leads the King to the peasant’s house later on, so it appears he knows what he’s talking about. But if the page’s information is right, what’s the peasant doing looking for firewood near the castle?

The only answer I can come up with is that he’s some sort of spy. He’s probably in the pay of a sinister pretender to the throne, watching the castle under the cover of collecting the odd twig to add to his fire. And Wenceslas then goes and personally delivers a massive feast to his house – what an idiot!

How much wood could you drag a good league?

Or maybe he’s being very clever – maybe the flesh and wine he brings to make a gift to the peasant is his cover for checking exactly what he’s up to and how much he knows. It’s also possible that he’s already made up his mind to deal with this suspicious type and intends to do so by poisoning him.

If you pay careful attention, there may be a sinister undertone in the King’s instructions:

Bring me flesh and bring me wine,
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
When we bear them thither

The King intends to ensure that the peasant consumes his poisoned food, so that he knows the spy’s been dealt with and will pose no further trouble. He’ll make him eat the poison, watch him die, then return to the castle. Or so it seems to me.

It’s possible that I’ve spent rather too long thinking about this.

Photos by Šarūnas Burdulis and *clairity*, used under Creative Commons Generic Attribution License 2.0


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About Recovering Agnostic

I'm Christian by upbringing, agnostic by belief, cynical by temperament, broadly scientific in approach, and looking for answers. My main interest at the moment is in turning my current disengaged shrug into at least a working hypothesis.

3 responses to “Was Good King Wenceslas a complete idiot?”

  1. Chris says :

    Very entertaining! For my part, I think that the page had prepped the peasant in advance… Knowing Wenceslas’ good nature. Maybe…

  2. pipsqueak says :

    Damnit, now you’ve made me suspicious of the peasant as well as Wenceslas.

    I’ve always been profoundly distrustful of the model of charity portrayed in this carol – as though Big King W had only just discovered that poor people get cold and hungry in winter, and as though a single big meal would sort it all out. To me a king who genuinely cared about his poorest subjects would be doing rather a lot more for them, and not just once in a year (or perhaps once in a lifetime).

    It’s like those horrible Christmas present charity schemes – what a struggling family really needs is a piece of plastic junk chosen by a complete stranger instead of long-term help to ensure that they are fed, housed, safe, and have access to opportunities to make their world better,

    • Recovering Agnostic says :

      Hi Pip!

      Yes, I can just picture it – stuffed from an enormous Christmas feast, he gets up the next day, looks out of the window and is amazed to discover that there are poor people out there.

      “Hither, page! This peasant appears to be poor, but I thought everyone lived in luxury like me! Never mind, I’ll take him an enormous feast that will probably just make him ill, and then bugger off again – that should sort it. Unless there’s more than one poor person in the kingdom, but what are the chances of that?”

      It’s an incredibly important point, and now I feel guilty for my much less worthy messing about.

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