I wonder if you have ever come across the story of ‘King Louis’ talking horse’. I have met this parable, which lends support to the most incurable optimism, on several occasions over the years but I’ve absolutely failed to find the original source, and can now only identify three published references. The story runs roughly as follows:
King Louis had two thieves imprisoned under sentence of death. One demanded to see the King and returned from the interview looking very cheerful. ‘The King has pardoned me provided that in a year I will teach his horse to talk’. His fellow prisoner replied ‘You’ll never succeed, no one could’. The first prisoner responded ‘well, in a year I might die anyway, or King Louis might die, or the horse might talk.’
Now as I say I have come accross this story several times. The details vary; sometimes it’s King Henri rather than King Louis, once I believe that it was two heretics in the prison. The horse may be taught to sing hymns, or psalms, rather than talk.
One printed version I can currently identify is in the SF novel by Larry Niven ‘The Mote in God’s Eye’ (if you’ve not read this I really wouldn’t bother). Niven attributes the original story to Herodotus (obviously not with King Louis of France!). I find this hard to believe since I am passably familiar with Herodotus, at least in translation, and have never come across anything remotely similar. I rather like the idea that the story may have been around since the time of classical Greece however.
A second account of the story is given by Catherine Heath in her most amusing novel ‘Behaving Badly’, once televised by Channel 4. In her version King Henri of France condemned one of his servants for breaking the hunting laws. The servant is threatened with death by torture if the King’s favourite horse does not talk but otherwise the story is identical. Recently I encountered a final reference in Francis Hackett’s biography of Henry VIII ( published c1930). In this work the horse is an ass, and King Louis XI is the monarch concerned. The author seems to be quoting a person called Paget but the biography note is unreferenced so there, at the moment, the matter must rest.
If you ever come across this story in literature, or hear a mutter of conversation in a paddock, I should be most grateful for a note.