Tolstoy’s three questions: a timeless parable

The hero of my tale, whom I love with all the power of my soul, whom I have tried to portray in all his beauty, who has been, is, and will be beautiful, is Truth.
– Leo Tolstoy, from Sevastopol in May, 1855

Leo Tolstoy, photograph by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908.

Leo Tolstoy, a wonderful and rare color photograph by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky, 1908.

One of the chores my kids have to finish before David’s family descends upon our home for Thanksgiving is to clean their rooms, particularly clearing off their floors so that their cousins have a place to set up their air beds. While cleaning his room over the weekend, my son, Jacob, brought to me a children’s book that we used to read when the kids were much younger: “Remember this book, Mom?” he said with a smile. My face lit up! We read this picture book every evening during one magical stretch of time. We three loved it – for its beautiful watercolor illustrations and its big-hearted message, which was intuitively grasped by my kids, evidenced by the wonder in their eyes and their requests to have it read again and again.

The Three Questions, based on a story by Leo Tolstoy, was written and illustrated by Jon J Muth and published in 2002. The children’s book took its cue from a short story Tolstoy published in 1885 as part of his collection What Men Live By, and other tales. Tolstoy’s parable involves a king who believed that if he knew the answers to three questions he would be successful at anything he attempted. His questions were: When is the right time to do the right thing, or when is the best time to do each thing? Who are the people I most need, and to whom, therefore, should I pay more attention to than the rest, or who are the most important people to work with? What affairs are the most important and need my attention first, or what is the most important thing to do at all times?

Tolstoy’s king announces a reward to anyone who can come up with the right answers, but he is besieged by myriad responses from learned men across his kingdom. Confused and dissatisfied, the king seeks out a hermit who is known for his wisdom. Because the hermit only sees common folk and never leaves the woods, the king dresses as a peasant and leaves his bodyguard and horse at a certain point in the woods on his journey to the hermit’s dwelling. He finds the frail hermit digging in his yard. The king poses his questions, but the hermit keeps digging. Finally, the king realizes that the hermit is exhausted from digging and offers to dig for the hermit. The king digs two beds and again poses the questions to the hermit. The hermit merely responds by telling the king to take a break. The king refuses and keeps digging until the sun begins to set. Irritated, the king sets down the spade and declares that if the hermit is not going to respond the king will return home.

At that moment, the hermit spies a man running toward them who is bleeding heavily from a stomach wound. The king tends to the man, stanching the flow of blood, until his situation stabilizes after several hours. Exhausted and with night descending, the king falls asleep in the hermit’s home. In the morning, the wounded man admits to the king that he knows the king’s identity and in fact was on a mission to assassinate him, laying in wait for his return to the woods, because the king had his brother executed and his property confiscated. After impatiently waiting and no sign of the king, the man had come out from hiding, only to be attacked by the king’s bodyguard. The man was able to run away, but was bleeding to death. Now with his life having been saved, the man swears his and his sons’ allegiance to the king.

Painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1891.

Painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1891.

Shocked, the king is nevertheless relieved to have made a friend out of an enemy and pledges to have his physician look after the man. He then seeks out the hermit, who is sowing seeds in the plowed beds, and again poses his questions, requesting answers for the last time. The hermit replies that the king’s questions have already been answered: If the king hadn’t helped the hermit dig the soil, he would have gone back into the woods and been killed by his assassin. “So the most important time was when you were digging the beds; and I was the most important man; and to do me good was your most important business,” the hermit responds.

“Afterwards when that man ran to us, the most important time was when you were attending to him, for if you had not bound up his wounds he would have died without having made peace with you. So he was the most important man, and what you did for him was your most important business,” the hermit goes on.

“Remember then: there is only one time that is important – Now! It is the most important time because it is the only time when we have any power. The most necessary man is he with whom you are, for no man knows whether he will ever have dealings with any one else: and the most important affair is, to do him good, because for that purpose alone was man sent into this life,” the hermit concludes.

Close-up of painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1901.

Close-up of painting of Leo Tolstoy by Ilya Repin, 1901.

Jon Muth’s beautifully illustrated tale posed these questions: When is the best time to do things? Who is the most important one? What is the right thing to do? The protagonist, the king, is recast as a boy named Nikolai, who hangs out with three friends, all of whom have distinct personalities  – a heron named Sonya, a dog named Pushkin, and a monkey named Gogol, who was a memorable character for Jacob because he was playful and carefree. The three friends try to help Nikolai come up with answers, answers that matched their animal personalities. Nikolai decides to seek counsel from Leo, the wise old turtle who lives in the mountains. Instead of an assassin, as in Tolstoy’s tale, Nikolai attends to a momma panda whose leg is injured when a fierce storm fells nearby trees, and later rescues her baby, who was lost in the forest.

Muth once said, “I think children are intuitively capable of grasping wisdom as readily as adults are.” So true. He effortlessly combined his studies of Zen with his ode to Tolstoy to bring to children the importance of compassion and living in the moment. Leo the old turtle tells Nikolai: “Remember then that there is only one important time, and that time is now. The most important one is always the one you are with. And the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side. For these, my dear boy, are the answers to what is most important in this world. This is why we are here.”

After Jacob let me borrow his book, I researched the Tolstoy story and reread Muth’s book. The wonder returned. The deeper story resonated deep within me, just as it did for me and Jacob and Isabella: That’s why we are here.