The Three Dolls

The following Indian story is one of my favourites. It is the story that guides my life as a listener.
The Three Dolls
There was once a King who received an anonymous gift. He servants brought him a box deposited on the steps of the castle. He opened the box and found inside a note and three dolls. The note read, ‘Are you wise enough to discern the difference between each doll?’
The king removed each doll in turn and laid it out upon a table. For the rest of the morning he set about discovering how the dolls differed from each other. He examined them closely, bringing all his senses to bear, and by mid morning concluded that there was no difference at all between them. However, he was dissatisfied with his verdict and decided to call on a certified ‘wise man’ to inspect the dolls. 
The next day the chosen advisor sat before the King and listened to his request. He then closeted himself in the King’s chamber and carried out his investigation. By evening he emerged and presented his findings to the King.
‘I am unable to tell you anything about these dolls. There is no difference between them. Thank you.’ And with that he left.
The King was stunned. All day the wise man had spent with the dolls, only to come up with the same conclusion that he himself had reached. In frustration he thumped the table and blurted, ‘I may as well have asked a fool to look at them!’
As if on cue the door burst open and the court jester  cart-wheeled across the floor.
‘You called your Highness,’ he announced, ‘how can I be of assistance?’
The king looked at the jester and replied, ‘Well as a matter of fact you can’t be any more useless than the wise man. Can you find any difference between these three dolls?’
The fool took the dolls with an exclamation of pleasure and began to juggle them.
The king watched the performance and at the end of the performance the jester replaced the dolls and bowed before the King.
‘Your majesty I can say with all the certainty of a fool that there is no difference at all between these three dollies.’
‘Dismissed,’ grumbled the King, and the court jester left the room.
As the days passed, the King grew more obsessed with the dolls and finding their differences. Finally he called all of his advisors for a conference and one of them timidly but forward the possibility of a storyteller being called in.
The King was willing to try anything and so the local teller of tales was brought forth. A woman of a certain age and experience she listened to the King’s story of the dolls and who had already tried and failed in their attempts to find the differences.
‘She was,’ he stated, ‘a last resort.’ 
He rose to leave the room so she could go about her business, but the storyteller bade him stay.
‘Storytelling requires both a listener and a teller. ‘
Unused to being told what to do the King was a little taken aback.
‘Now,’ she continued, ‘listen while I tell you a story.’
She picked up the first doll and looked at it. 
‘I will need your assistance, your Highness,’ she said, ‘could you offer me your head?’
The king jumped up.
‘You seek my crown?’ he bellowed.
‘No dear King,’ she said, ‘I have enough hats. What I want is this.’
So saying she plucked a solitary hair from his head and then proceeded to feed it into the ear of the first doll, until it disappeared.
‘This is the doll of the wise man,’ she declared. ‘He listens, taking in every word and keeping it deep within his heart.’
She then requested the King to offer his head once more and subsequently plucked another hair. She then proceeded to feed it through the ear of the second doll and pull it out through the other ear.
‘This doll,’ she declared, ‘belongs to the fool. What he hears goes in one ear and out the other.’
She then picked up the third doll and the King, anticipating her request lowered his head. She pulled out one final hair and proceeded to feed it into the ear of the third doll and then pull it out again through the doll’s mouth.
‘This doll is the storyteller’s doll,’ she said. ‘What she hears she passes on to others.’
The King was thrilled with the storyteller’s appraisal of the dolls.
‘Which doll is the most valuable then?’ he asked.
The storyteller smiled and addressed the King.
‘There are times when you will be like the wise man and privy to stories that must be kept in the strictest confidence. Not shared with another person, but kept in silence in your heart. And there are times when you will hear tales that are not worthy of retaining or repeating but must be treated like the foolish words they are; going in one ear and out the other. And finally there are stories that you are beholden to pass on to others. Stories that must be kept alive through their retelling. Each of the dolls teaches us that everything has a value. Wisdom is knowing which doll to employ when we listen to another.’
And with that the storyteller bid the King farewell, and the King resumed his business, a wiser and happier man.


This Indian story is also known as The Three Statues and a source for it can be found online 
However in this version it is the wise man’s statue is valued the most. In David Novak’s version in Ready-To-Tell Tales edited by David Holt and Bill Mooney August House 1995, the storyteller is presented with unraveling the difference between them all and concludes with an explanation with an interesting twist, which I won’t spoil for you but encourage you to read his version. 
As I mostly tell this story in a workshop situation I have chose to show the value of each method of listening, depending on its context.


headspace (2009),  wire sculpture, Roman W. Schatz

4 thoughts on “The Three Dolls

  1. Wonderful story. Do you know which part of India it originates? Just a bit of history… to pass on.
    I’ll try telling this on World Story telling day

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