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'The Banker’s Riddles' | Circle Round 7917:31

(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)
(Sabina Hahn for WBUR)

Think about the last time you helped someone.

Maybe you helped a friend with homework, you dried the dishes as your grown-up washed them, or you offered a kind word to somebody who was having a rough day.

We’re about to meet a man who has the opportunity to help a whole lot of people — an entire town, actually! But instead, he leaves them puzzled. Very puzzled.

Our story is called “The Banker’s Riddles.” Versions of this folktale come from China and Vietnam, two countries in Asia.

Voices in this episode include Evan Casey, Kevin Corbett, Hana Kenny, Thom Whaley and Jeannie Mai. Grown-ups, look for Jeannie’s talk show, The Real, now in its sixth season. And listen for her new podcast, Listen Hunnay.

This episode was adapted for Circle Round by Rebecca Sheir. It was edited by Circle Round’s executive producer, Katherine Brewer. Circle Round’s original music and sound design is 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 FacebookTwitterInstagram 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

Let’s say you want to tell a riddle that will twist somebody’s brain. Maybe you already know one, maybe you want to use your imagination to make one up. Either way, find someone you like to have fun with, and tell them your riddle. Maybe they’ll tell you one, too!

Musical Spotlight: Clavichord

Invented in the early 14th century, the clavichord is a predecessor to the piano. Unlike the piano, the clavichord makes sound when the keys strike brass or iron strings with small metal blades called “tangents.” Music experts have described the clavichord’s sound in all sorts of creative ways: a famous German music theorist compared it to “the comfort of the sufferer and the sympathising friend of cheerfulness”; an American instrument maker says the clavichord “has the sound of thought.” And according to a biographer of composer J. S. Bach, Bach preferred the clavichord over all keyboard instruments, since he could ''express his most refined thoughts'' with its ''variety in the gradation of tone.''


NARRATOR: Long ago, in a far-off town, there lived a very clever man.

BANKER: (haughty) There’s no riddle I can’t answer! No puzzle I can’t solve! (ad-lib proud, haughty laughter) Ha ha ha!

NARRATOR: Obviously, the clever man was very cocky, too… always bragging about how smart he was.

BANKER: (cocky) Only the smartest person in all the land! (ad-lib proud, haughty laughter) Ha ha ha!

NARRATOR: Now… in addition to being clever… and cocky… the man was also very wealthy. He made his fortune working as a banker. He lent money to all the people in town... and those townspeople weren’t nearly as well-off as he was. In fact, although they worked very hard, most of them struggled to make ends meet.

So they came to the banker for loans. But there was something very different about the way the banker lent out money.

Let’s say you borrowed money from the banker. If you couldn’t afford to pay him back when your debt was due, he would ask you… a riddle.

BANKER: Okay, listen up. What has three feet but can't walk… tells you things but can't talk… sometimes bends but is mostly straight… and is like a scale, but can't tell your weight?

NARRATOR: If you could solve the riddle…

PERSON 1: Ummm… is it a yardstick?

NARRATOR: … your debt would be forgiven.

BANKER: That is correct! You don’t owe me a cent!

NARRATOR: But if you couldn’t figure out the banker’s riddle…

PERSON 2: Uhhhh…

NARRATOR: ...if you were totally stumped…

PERSON 2: Is it, uhhh… could it be…? (beat) I don’t know! I give up!

NARRATOR: ...then the banker would charge you extra… a whole lot extra... for every day your payment was late!

And given how tricky the banker’s riddles were, most of the townspeople were up to their ears in debt… and seething with resentment.

One afternoon, the banker was walking around town, collecting on his debts. He arrived at a little house with a tiny front yard, where a grocer lived with his daughter. The grocer’s shop hadn’t been doing well, and the poor man owed the banker a bunch of money.

GROCER: (nervous) Good day, sir. I’m afraid I can’t pay back your loan today. I’ve been working myself to the bone — my daughter, too! — but I just don’t have the cash!

NARRATOR: The banker arched his eyebrows.

BANKER: You can’t pay me back, you say? Not to worry! Answer my riddle, and your debt will be forgiven.

NARRATOR: The grocer was a simple man, and had never been big on puzzles or brain-teasers.


GROCER: (sigh; resigned)

NARRATOR: ...what else could he do?

GROCER: (resigned, with dread) Alright. What is the riddle?

BANKER: Well, this one’s more of a quest. I need you to bring me two things. First: fire wrapped in paper. And second: a dead tree that makes music. Find those two things, deliver them to me by tomorrow, and you won’t owe me a cent. But if you can’t bring me those two things, your debt will be doubled! No - tripled!!!

NARRATOR: The grocer felt his palms get clammy. “Fire wrapped in paper”?!? “A dead tree that makes music”?!? He had absolutely no idea what the banker was talking about!

As soon as the banker was gone, the grocer burst into tears and collapsed on the floor in a heap.

GROCER: (ad-lib weeping sounds; keep going long enough to provide coverage under Narrator and Daughter below)

NARRATOR: Before long, the grocer’s daughter arrived home from another slow day at the shop. To keep busy, she’d given the store a thorough cleaning. Then she lost track of the time.

DAUGHTER: (coming into the room) Father! Sorry I’m late coming home, but I started scrubbing the floors and dusting the shelves and you wouldn’t believe how much I had to — (sees her dad crying) Father?!?? What’s wrong?!? Why are you crying?!??

GROCER: (stops crying) Oh, daughter! It’s terrible! It’s horrible! (beat) The banker… he came by just now, to collect on his debt! I didn’t have the money to pay him back… so he asked me one of his riddles!

DAUGHTER: (delighted/intrigued) Oh…?

NARRATOR: Something you should know about the grocer’s daughter: she was as clever as clever can be… though she never boasted about it, like the banker did! And when she heard her father mention the word “riddles,” the witty woman’s eyes lit up.

DAUGHTER: (getting excited) So, the banker asked you one of his riddles, eh? What was it, father?

GROCER: (calming down) It was impossible, is what it was! But perhaps you can figure it out, my dear. You’ve always been so terrifically clever. (beat) So… as his riddle... the banker asked me to bring him two things. First: fire wrapped in paper.

DAUGHTER: (mental wheels turning) ‘Fire wrapped in paper’…

GROCER: ...And second: a dead tree that makes music!

DAUGHTER:  (mental wheels turning) ‘A dead tree that makes music’...

GROCER: Right. If I can find those two things, we won’t owe the banker a cent. But how in the world will I ever find them?

NARRATOR: The grocer’s daughter took a deep breath. She closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was beaming from ear to ear.

DAUGHTER: Don’t you worry, father. I’ll solve the banker’s riddles... and show him that two can play at this game!

NARRATOR: How do you think the grocer’s daughter will crack the banker’s code?

We’ll find out what happens, after a quick break.


NARRATOR: Welcome back to Circle Round. I’m Rebecca Sheir. Today our story is called “The Banker’s Riddles.”

When we left off, a rich banker offered to forgive a poor grocer’s debt. All the grocer had to do was answer a riddle. If the grocer got it right, he wouldn’t owe the banker a cent. If he got it wrong, he’d have to shell out a whole lot of extra cash… cash that neither he nor his daughter had!

If you remember the banker’s riddle, you’ll recall he told the grocer to find two things. One:

BANKER: wrapped in paper.

NARRATOR: And two?

BANKER: ...a dead tree that makes music.

NARRATOR: The grocer was positively perplexed by this riddle. Beyond baffled! But his clever daughter… was excited.

The next day, she walked over to the banker’s enormous mansion at the edge of town.

[fancy doorbell ring]

BANKER: May I help you?

DAUGHTER: I believe you can! I’m the grocer’s daughter. I’ve come to pay his debt… with these!

NARRATOR: She held up two boxes.

BANKER: (condescending) Oh! Let me guess: those boxes contain the answers to my riddles! (beat) Well, this’ll be fun. I can’t wait to see what that simple grocer came up with!

DAUGHTER: Alright, then! First, I offer you…  fire wrapped in paper!

NARRATOR: The grocer’s daughter reached into one box and pulled out a round paper globe. Inside the globe was a candle, which the daughter promptly lit. The bright flame made the paper globe glimmer and glow.

DAUGHTER: This, sir, is a paper lantern! It’s left over from my birthday party last month. And as you’ll see, with the candle inside, it’s none other than fire wrapped in paper.

NARRATOR: The banker blinked his eyes.

BANKER: (caught off guard) Well, that riddle was a piece of cake! I figured I’d go easy on that father of yours. Surely, you didn’t bring me the other thing I asked for...!?

DAUGHTER: (relishing all of this) Oh! You mean “a dead tree that plays music”?

NARRATOR: She opened the other box... and pulled out a flute.

DAUGHTER: This flute, sir, was made from a bamboo tree… a bamboo tree that someone had to chop down. A chopped-down tree is definitely dead, wouldn’t you say? And this flute definitely plays music! (beat, sweetly) Would you like to give it a try?

NARRATOR: The banker’s cheeks burned a blazing red.

BANKER: That won’t be necessary! (beat, getting flustered, making things up as he goes) Listen, miss. You may have solved my riddles — but I should tell you, the rules have changed! Your father owes me so much money, I’m afraid that one silly little riddle simply will not do! You’ll have to answer more!

NARRATOR: The banker expected the grocer’s daughter to shudder. Instead... she smiled.

DAUGHTER: Answer more riddles, you say? (beat) It would be my pleasure!

BANKER: (thrown off, but trying to stay cool) Fine! Next week, I will visit your house. And when I do, I expect three things. First: you must weave me a cloth as long as the road. Second: you must make as much wine as there is water in the ocean. And third: you must raise a pig that’s as heavy as a mountain.

DAUGHTER: (mental wheels turning) Okay... so… a cloth as long as the road… as much wine as there’s water in the ocean… and a pig as heavy as a mountain. Is that all?

BANKER: (haughty) Oh, that should be more than enough for you! I’ll see you next week!

NARRATOR: One week later, as promised, the banker returned to the little house where the grocer and his daughter lived. The grocer answered the door with a grin.

GROCER: (smiling, over the top) Come in, sir! Come in! We’ve been expecting you!

NARRATOR: The banker looked around the room. He noticed three objects sitting on a rickety table: a ruler… a set of measuring cups… and a weighing scale.

BANKER: Sir… these aren’t the three things your daughter thinks I want, are they?  I told her to weave a cloth as long as the road! To make as much wine as there is water in the ocean! And to raise a pig that’s as heavy as a mountain! What good, then, are a ruler, measuring cups, and a scale?

DAUGHTER: Oh, they’re plenty good!

NARRATOR: The grocer’s daughter breezed through the door with a gleam in her eye. She waltzed over to the table, and lifted up the ruler.

DAUGHTER: Good sir. I will gladly weave you a cloth as long as the road… if you first measure the road, so I know how long the cloth should be!

NARRATOR: Next, she picked up the measuring cups.

DAUGHTER: And I will happily make you as much wine as there’s water in the ocean… if you first measure the ocean, so I know how much wine I should make!

NARRATOR: Finally, she pointed to the scale.

DAUGHTER: And I would be delighted to raise a pig that’s as heavy as a mountain… if you first weigh the mountain, so I know how heavy that pig should be!

NARRATOR: The banker was speechless… and impressed… and humbled. At last, he’d been beaten at his own game! The grocer’s daughter had thrown the banker’s riddle right back at him!

That was the last time the banker used riddles to separate people from their money. He became a lot less cocky… and a lot more friendly… especially with his new friend, the grocer’s daughter. The two of them told riddles constantly… but now it was just for fun! So even though their brains got twisted... and their minds got tied in knots… they never got bent out of shape.

Rebecca Sheir Twitter Host, Circle Round
Rebecca Sheir is the host "Circle Round," WBUR's kids storytelling podcast.


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