Saturday, 12 October 2013

Asking the Right Questions

By James Kyle

It was obvious that something was about to go bang. At least it was obvious to the knight scrutinizing the ring on his left index finger. Obvious because, once more, the absurdly large precious stone set into the ring pulsated with a yellow white heat.

With a sigh he took his gaze from the magical ring and sat down wearily on a rock by the side of the dirt road. His sigh accompanied thoughts of previous occasions when he had eagerly awaited the imminent manifestation. Now his eyes reflected only frustration and anticipated disappointment. The ring, meanwhile, continued to flash intensely at an ever increasing rate. Flashing faster and faster until, at last, something did go bang. The knight however, concerned about hearing loss, had stuffed up his ears as a precaution. So this time, it could be argued, the explosion from the ring just went pop.

The pop set off the anticipated hiss. A noisy hiss. The kind that doesn’t stop there. The kind determined to become a woosh. And fulfilling its promise it did, blasting air aside as a gaseous mist sprayed out of the ring. The liberated mist swirled, condensed, then swirled some more, stylishly sculpting itself into a luminous yellow genie. The knight of course, pursuing a round table quest, interpreted the scene on the basis of his expectations. He did not see a genie. He saw a divine vision sent to help him on his holy quest. An angel descended from heaven. In like manner, throughout the Middle East, when people rub lamps and are rewarded by divine visions, they, of course, have a tendency to consistently see genies appearing.

The divine vision, or genie if you prefer, looked expectantly at Eric. The genie knew the name of the small slightly paunchy figure in front of him as a result of their extended conversations over many months. Enough months for Eric to have gradually cultivated a respectable if somewhat graying beard and mustache. Unfortunately the slow progress of Eric’s facial hair had been matched so far by the slow progress of his onerous quest.

Erik continued to sit in relentless despair. Once again he had been rewarded for his valorous deeds by an opportunity to further his quest. The divine vision was his to command. Well, at least question. Many months ago, when Merlin had loaned him the ring to assist him with the quest, he had tried to explain the subtle distinctions between divine beings that would actively intervene in the world of men, and those that one could merely question. Eric could not follow the arcane explanations. He did however feel somewhat miffed when he found out that he could only ask the celestial being a single question upon each visitation. And his was such a momentous quest. To find the Holy Grail.

Eric was in his element with all the sub-tasks along the way. His reputation proceeded him. Dastardly nobles suddenly changed their hobbies when he visited town: Eric did not approve of exploiting the poor as a pastime. Dragons relocated to colder climes if they even suspected that Eric might drop by. Damsels voted him the most reliable delivery service year after year. True, it would have been better to be delivered from evil by a more romantic figure. In other words a suitor, male, in a suit of mail. But while they were flamboyant, Eric was reliable. And it is no consolation to know that a handsome knight in shining armor is on his way, if he is half an hour late and the dragon can not be convinced to take a rain check. Eric the dependable. Minstrels sang songs about his heroic deeds. At least the most creative ones did; the ones that could find words to rhyme with Eric.

And all these heroic feats were required. Merlin had explained that a ring of summoning only functioned once charged and that charging the ring required the accomplishment of worthy deeds over many days. This was the easy part. The hard part was to come up with the right questions to help him complete his main quest. Eric’s despair was that so far he had failed to do so. And worse than that. After today he could only count on one more opportunity. The summer solstice was not far off and on that date he had to surrender the ring.

Erik had begun his quest on the summer solstice the year before. At the time he had been very proud of his initial questions. Did the Grail really exist? Was the Grail to be found in this kingdom?  Would he recognize the true Grail? Yes was the reply to each question. With each yes he felt himself taking one more step towards his goal. But then he lost his way. He began to receive more no than yes answers. And even the yes answers were not clear, some seemingly contradicting others.

Eric, lost in his thoughts, continued to ignore the genie. Head bent over, bowed by the immensity of his problem, he held the weight of his forehead with his right hand, supporting his right elbow on his knee. He sat for some time in this classical thinking pose that is the time-honored response to all disheartening problems. The pose that invariably indicates the absence of any possibility of any further progress being made. Unless a miracle happens. And, of course, Erik was on a holy quest. So as Erik was looking down he just happened to notice for the first time that the ring on his left hand, although no longer flashing, still sparkled slightly. He looked closer. Across the surface of the precious stone he was surprised to see some small but legible luminous writing: For best results don’t ask yes/no questions. How could he have been so stupid? He thought back over the questions he had asked so far. In the beginning he had been incredibly smug about his personal ability to wrestle with this intellectual challenge and to come up with exactly the right questions. Starting with some fixed ideas about how to go about finding the Grail he had, in fact, just asked questions to support or refute his assumptions. And the outcome was that he had set up a pattern of asking yes/no questions, and then never broken out of it.

Eric’s face brightened as he realized he could change that pattern now. He could, in fact, ask the obvious question: Where is the Holy Grail? But, not so fast. This was his next to last chance to get it right. Would knowing where it was be sufficient? Might the answer be ambiguous?

Suddenly a smile broke over his face and he looked up at the genie and said, “Divine being, this is my question. To …” He stopped. He knew he had the right question but there was still something that bothered him. He had a nagging feeling that there was something he was missing. He waited a few moments but he couldn’t work out what was wrong. Attributing the uneasiness  to nervousness he tried again, “Divine being, this is my question. To …” There was definitely something wrong. What was he forgetting? He had this feeling that he was about to make a big mistake when he was about to hear the answer he needed. Of course, to hear! His ears were still stuffed up. He had almost asked the question while he couldn’t hear the answer. If he was asking for guidance it would most definitely be a good idea to be open to hearing the reply. He unblocked his ears, “Divine being, this is my question. To help me find the Grail, what is the best question to ask?”

The genie smiled, and told him.

Image courtesy of Boykung /

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