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Think about the last time you listened to music.
Maybe you heard a song on the radio or you attended a concert. Perhaps you enjoyed a lullaby, sung by one of your favorite grown-ups.
Music is so powerful, it can make you tap your toes, or soothe you to sleep.
In this story, we’ll hear about a King who — thanks to his wife, the Queen — discovers something else music can do... much to his surprise!
Our story is called “The Lute Player.” Versions of this tale come from Russia, Germany, and many other parts of Europe.
Voices in this episode include James Konicek, Keith Mascoll, Anne Undeland, Thom Whaley, Delores King Williams, Annie Parisse and Paul Sparks. Grown-ups, check out Annie in Friends From College on Netflix, and Paul in Sweetbitter on Starz and House of Cards on Netflix. Plus, watch for him in the upcoming romantic comedy, The Lovebirds, co-starring Kumail Nanjiani and Issa Rae.
This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir and edited by Jessica Alpert, founder of the podcast. Original music and sound design by Eric Shimelonis. Our artist is Sabina Hahn.
ADULTS! PRINT THIS so everyone can color while listening. We’re also keeping an album so share your picture on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Pinterest, and tag it with #CircleRound. We'd love to see it! To access all the coloring pages for past episodes click HERE. Our resident artist is Sabina Hahn and you can learn more about her HERE.
Things To Think About After Listening
Given how powerful music can be, how about making some of your own, and recording it for others to hear? Pick a song you enjoy — or write one of your own — then record yourself singing it, or playing it on a musical instrument. A grown-up can help you with the recording. You can use an audio program on a computer, or the voice-memo app on a smartphone!
Once you’re done, send the recording to someone you like to have fun with. And, if you’re up for it, send it to us! Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Musical Spotlight: Lute
Back during the Renaissance — we’re talking 1300ish to 1600ish — the lute was the most universally-adored instrument in the Western world. Kings and queens loved its magical, majestic sound. And everyday people would stop and listen as lute players performed on street corners and in pubs. The lute, by the way, is a later version of the oud, which you heard Eric Shimelonis play in one of our Middle Eastern folktales, The Unwelcome Guest!
NARRATOR: Once upon a time there was a King and Queen.
Together, they presided over a peaceful land full of happy people, fertile farmland, and lush, green forests as far as the eye could see.
Word eventually reached the King and Queen that a mean and greedy ruler far, far away was invading the countries around him. He called himself “The Overlord.”
KING: My Queen, the Overlord is on the attack… and it’s only a matter of time before he invades our own kingdom! Listen. Why don’t you stay here and govern our people, while I head out with our troops?
NARRATOR: The King and Queen had always shared the duties of the kingdom equally. When they sat on the throne, they sat hand-in-hand. But the Queen understood her husband’s fears.
QUEEN: Alright, my love. I will stay here and govern while you are away. (beat) But please - stay safe, and come back soon!
NARRATOR: In the King’s absence, the Queen ran the kingdom wisely and well. The Overlord’s much-feared troops never arrived. Instead, the Queen’s land remained at peace with its neighbors, and the people prospered.
Still, the Queen worried about the King every day he was gone. To pass the time, she learned to play a pear-shaped stringed instrument called the lute. She found that playing her lute calmed her mind, and warmed her heart.
And she wasn’t the only one! Whenever the Queen plucked and strummed those strings, everyone in the palace would stop what they were doing… and sway to the music.
The Queen practiced her lute day after day. But as days turned to weeks, and weeks turned to months… the King still had not returned.
Then, early one morning, one of the Queen’s butlers walked in with a crumpled scroll of paper.
BUTLER: This letter just arrived for you, Your Majesty. The handwriting on the envelope - it looks like the King’s!
NARRATOR: Quickly, the Queen unrolled the letter. Indeed, the handwriting was the King’s - though his clear and elegant penmanship was much shakier and more scribbled than usual.
Eagerly, the Queen began to read.
QUEEN: (trying to make out the scribbled, shaky words) “My dear Queen… The reason you have not heard from me is because I have been taken prisoner by the Overlord --” [stops reading] Oh no!
NARRATOR: The Queen felt the color drain from her face. Her hands began to shake. But she kept on reading.
QUEEN: (continuing to read) “...I befriended a guard who helped me send this letter to you. The only way I can imagine being set free is if we pay the Overlord a ransom...”
NARRATOR: The King instructed the Queen to sell the palace... and all of their royal possessions... and bring the gold coins to the Overlord, in exchange for the King’s freedom.
QUEEN: (continuing to read) “...Then, perhaps the cruel sovereign will let me go, and you and I will be together again. All my love, Your King.”
NARRATOR: The Queen clutched the letter to her heart.
QUEEN: Oh, what should I do? If I sell everything we own and give the money to the Overlord, our kingdom will be impoverished! We’ll have to raise taxes, and that would be such a burden on our people.
NARRATOR: She began pacing up and down her chamber.
QUEEN: But let’s say I did follow the King’s orders, and deliver the gold coins myself. Who’s to say the Overlord wouldn’t take me prisoner as well? (sigh)
NARRATOR: The Queen plopped down in a velvet chair, and began twirling a lock of her long, brown hair.
QUEEN: (suddenly realizing) And wait - what if the Overlord doesn’t even want the money? What if he’s already ridiculously rich, and just laughs at our gold?
NARRATOR: The Queen’s heart began to race; her breath grew quick and shallow. To calm herself, she picked up her lute... and began to play.
As her pulse slowed down and her breath deepened, she knew what she would do.
That night… while everyone in the palace was asleep… the Queen found a pair of scissors and ran to the mirror. She took a deep breath and snipped her long, brown hair ‘til it was cropped close to her head.
Then, she tiptoed into the room where the palace musicians kept their things, and put on one of their outfits, complete with a cap and cloak. She jotted a quick note saying she was leaving on a trip, and placed it on her throne.
Next, she packed up her lute… and crept out of the palace.
QUEEN: Alright, Overlord. (determined) Ready or not, here I come!
What do you think the Queen has up her sleeve?
We’ll find out… after a quick break.
NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “ The Lute Player.”
When we left off, a Queen was hatching a plan to free the King from the mean and greedy Overlord. The King had told the Queen to sell everything they owned, and use the gold coins to pay a ransom for the King’s freedom.
But the Queen had another plan in mind.
Disguised as a young musician, she slipped out of the Palace in the dark of night. Over the next weeks, she played her lute for anyone who’d give her a ride, whether by horse or by ship.
By the time she reached the Overlord’s castle, her face was dirty from the voyage. Her borrowed clothing was dusty, her cloak tattered and worn. The disguised Queen sat down in a courtyard beside the castle... picked up her lute... and began to play.
As note after note wafted through the air, the Overlord’s gardeners dropped their spades and shovels. The chefs dropped their spoons and knives. Even the guards standing at attention dropped their shoulders and began to sway back and forth.
Eventually the music reached the Overlord’s throne room, where the malicious man was planning his next invasion.
OVERLORD: Hmmmm. Which country shall I take over next? There is that one kingdom, on the other side of the lush, green forest - (suddenly hears the music, softens) What is that? Music?!? Who in the world is playing such a beautiful tune? I must hear more! More!
NARRATOR: The Overlord summoned the disguised Queen to his throne.
When she stepped inside the castle, she was struck by how dark and gloomy the place was. Even the Overlord’s throne was in the shadows. Yet, when he spoke, his voice was full of light.
OVERLORD: Lute player, your music is nothing short of magnificent! Tell me: where do you come from, young man?
NARRATOR: The Queen’s heart skipped a beat. The Overlord had fallen for her disguise!
QUEEN: (disguising her voice a bit, to sound like a “young man”) My country, my lord, is far away - across many seas and a lush, green forest. For weeks I have been wandering the world... making my living, and gaining my passage, by playing music.
NARRATOR: The Overlord nodded.
OVERLORD: You must be very tired, then! (beat) Listen. Stay here three days and play your lute for me. And when you want to go, I will give you whatever your heart desires.
NARRATOR: The disguised Queen bowed.
QUEEN: Thank you, my lord.
NARRATOR: And with that, she began plucking and strumming her lute… filling the dark castle with the sunshine of music.
The next day, she played some more.
And at the end of the third day, as the moon rose in the darkening sky, the Overlord stayed true to his promise.
OVERLORD: Alright, lute player. Three days have passed. Much as I hate to see you go, it’s time to name your reward. Whatever your heart desires, it shall be yours.
NARRATOR: The Queen knew exactly what she would ask for. But she pretended to think it over.
QUEEN: (faux-mulling it over) Hmmm… Well, I get pretty lonely when I travel. It might be nice to have some company, someone to talk to. (beat) Might you give me one of your prisoners?
NARRATOR: She held her breath as she awaited the Overlord’s response. Much to her delight… and relief… he grinned.
OVERLORD: One of my prisoners? Of course! Come - follow me!
NARRATOR: The Queen shivered as the Overlord led her into the dungeon, where all the prisoners were fast asleep. Gazing around the room, the Queen recognized someone very familiar - though she hadn’t seen his face in years.
She raised her finger...
QUEEN: I think...
NARRATOR: ... and pointed at her husband, the King.
QUEEN… I want him.
NARRATOR: The Overlord smiled.
OVERLORD: As you wish! We’ll wake him up, and then, he is yours.
NARRATOR: The Queen was so well-disguised that when the King awoke, he had no idea who she was. Together, they made their way out of the Overlord’s castle.
KING: Young man, I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Believe it or not, back in my home country, I’m a King! And my people depend on me - very much. On behalf of all of them, I thank you for giving me my freedom.
QUEEN: (very much disguising her voice) You are most welcome, Your Highness. Thank you for accompanying me on my journey. It is an honor.
NARRATOR: The King and disguised Queen traveled for several weeks. Again, the Queen traded her lute-playing for horse rides and ship rides. And every time she plucked and strummed those strings, the King was mesmerized.
KING: Such beautiful music you play, young man! If only I could hear music like this every day. (beat) Hey - what if you come to my palace and be my royal musician?! I promise I’ll pay you handsomely.
NARRATOR: The Queen’s eyes twinkled.
QUEEN: (still disguising her voice) I appreciate the offer, Your Majesty, but I must decline. I promise, though: when the time is right, you will see me at your palace. You have my word.
NARRATOR: When the King and disguised Queen reached their own country, they bid each other farewell and went their own ways. The King was eager to get back to his castle, but the Queen knew a shortcut, and arrived home long before her husband did.
It was the middle of the night, so no one saw her sneak inside. She hurried to her chamber, where she stripped off her musician clothing, took a quick bath, put on her nightgown, and slipped into bed.
An hour later, she was jolted awake by excited voices outside her door.
PALACE WORKER 1: Is it true?
PALACE WORKER 2: Can you believe it?
PALACE WORKER 3: Our King is back!
PALACE WORKER 4: After all these years, Our King has returned!
NARRATOR: The Queen jumped out of bed, wrapped her short hair in a scarf, and burst through the door. At the bottom of the staircase, she saw the King. He was smiling brightly and embracing each member of the palace staff, one by one.
The Queen was about to run down and throw herself into her husband’s arms. But as soon as the King glanced up the stairs and spotted her, his smile turned to a scowl… and his cheeks glowed red with rage.
KING: (reproachfully) You! For years, I sat there in the Overlord’s dungeon, waiting to be ransomed! Waiting… waiting… waiting… and yet no ransom came! Did you not receive my letter?
NARRATOR: Before the Queen could respond, one of the butlers chimed in.
BUTLER: I gave her your letter myself, Sire! But she disappeared from sight that very night! She left a note saying she was going on a journey, but we haven’t seen hide nor hair of the Queen until this very minute!
NARRATOR: The King clenched his jaw. His hands began to tremble.
KING: Is that so…?
NARRATOR: Infuriated, the king began pacing around the room, looking only at his staff - never at the Queen.
KING: Can you believe it, people? While I was languishing in prison, Her Royal Highness was out and about having a great old time! (beat) Lucky for me I was rescued by a young lute player, who saw to it that I made it safely back home again!
NARRATOR: A thoughtful, faraway look flooded the King’s eyes.
KING: (softening) And oh... this lute player’s music… believe me when I say you’ve never heard anything like it. One pluck or strum from that instrument and you can’t help but drop whatever it is you’re doing... and listen.
KING: (not realizing what’s happening) Why, my memory of that boy’s music is so clear, so vivid, it’s like he’s playing right here, right now! And I tell you, if he were here now, I would give him anything. Anything!
QUEEN: (using her disguised lute-player voice) ...Anything…?
NARRATOR: The sound of the lute player’s voice yanked the King out of his reverie. He turned his head toward the top of the stairs, and there — to his eyes, anyway — stood the lute player, instrument in hand.
KING: Yes! Anything! I’ll give you anything your heart desires!
NARRATOR: Little did the King know that while he had been angrily pacing the room, the Queen had crept away and slipped back in to her musician outfit!
QUEEN: (using her disguised lute-player voice) Well, since you’re offering…
NARRATOR: She pulled off her cloak, revealing her royal gown beneath.
QUEEN: (no longer disguising her voice) ...my heart’s desire… is you!
NARRATOR: For a moment, the King was speechless. Then he bounded up the stairs, wrapped his arms around the Queen and begged her forgiveness… saying how sorry he was to doubt her courage, her wisdom... her love.
The Queen accepted his apology. Then, she told him all about her plan: how she thought it wiser to rescue the King herself - or, rather, for the young lute player to rescue him.
You see, the King had believed that money would get him out of the Overlord’s castle. But as the Queen waited and yearned for her beloved partner to return home, she had learned a very important lesson:
Sometimes, all you need to set you free… is music.
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