A Short Story on Corrupt Power - "The Empty Drum" by Leo Tolstoy
The Empty Drum
This is quite an interesting short story from Tolstoy. A poor peasant man and his holy wife are living in peace when the king happens to meet the man's wife who he then lusts after, desiring to take her for his own. He decides to have the man worked to death and to then take his wife, and so he assigns the man extremely difficult manual labor tasks to complete. If he does not die in the process of completing these impossible tasks, the kill will kill him for disobedience and behead him. By miracles and the help from his wife he is able to complete all the tasks that the king sets before him. Finally, the king provides the most absurd task of all. He must go to "I don't know where" and get "I don't know what" for the king. No matter what the man does, the king has an excuse to kill him. It is here that his wife sends him to her grandmother, a woman who continually weeps. She gives the man instructions on how to find help from the king's nonsense command. At the end of her instructions, the man gets his hands on a military drum. When he returns to the king, he is rejected from his presence, but in leaving he begins to play the drum ... summoning the king's army to himself and stripping the king of his power. Finally, he is able to get his wife back and live in peace.
What is the story about? I do not claim to perfectly understand it, but my interpretation is that it is a reflection on the abusive nature of those in power, such as the king. It is clear that the king is corrupt, and that his means of ruling has more to do with gratifying himself than the good of his people. He is able to gratify his desires because his whims can be enforced by his army. The king is able to give absurd commands like his "go to I don't know where and find I don't know what," and his subjects are supposed to obey unto death. The soldiers encountered in the story relay the same command as being given to them, a command which had confused them for years, seemingly. The grandmother who sits and cries is likewise said to be the mother of soldiers. Tolstoy is making it clear that those in power can play with the lives of those subject to them with no regard for their dignity. His senseless whims which lead their sons to their death are the bane of wives and mothers. And yet why do these young men follow the king? There is something innate in young men to follow the drum of war and to serve their country, even if it means their own destruction ... even if it is at the whims of a corrupt tyrant. The military drum is described as that which men will follow more than their mother or father. "When you see something men obey more than father or mother, that is it."
And so ... the military drum is empty. On a brief personal note, I have thought lately, more and more, about the wars that we have been engaged in over the last 30 years, and I wonder how many are real, and how many were fought to line the pockets of those in charge.
The story begins very abruptly with a worker, Emelyan, who encounters a woman in the fields one day who wants to marry him. He protests that he has no money, but she is not worried and the two marry. They live in a small hut of hers. 1 One day the king is riding by this part of the town and Emelyan's wife goes outside to see. The king, in seeing her, is stunned and stops the convey to speak with her. He praises her beauty and asks why should have married a simple peasant. It is clear, though, that her heart is a pure one, as she says, "'Thank you for your kind words,' said she, 'but a peasant husband is good enough for me.'" The king continued to his palace, but could not get the woman out of his mind and so plotted how to take her for himself. His aides suggested that they be called to live in the palace and to have the husband be ordered to complete such difficult manual tasks that it would actually kill him, and the king could take the woman for his own. And so the message is sent out. The wife, though, again is not only pure but wise, and she tells the husband to go work, but she will stay in their home, and to come back to her at night time also. 2
The first day Emelyan is saddled with a large amount of work, but yet he completes it and returns home to his wife. She has taken care of the house and provides him a hearty dinner. He expresses his cares to her, and she gives him some wise advice in the face of this growing threat. "... 'it's a bad business: they give me tasks beyond my strength, and want to kill me with work.' 'Don't fret about the work,' said she, 'don't like either before or behind to see how much you have done or how much there is left to do; only keep on working and all will be right.'" And so the next day Emelyan did just that, and even though they multiplied his work, he completed it and returned home at night to his wife. "A week passed, and the king's servants saw they could not crush him with rough work so they tried giving him work that required skill. But this, also, was of no avail." It got to the point where the king was enraged at his aides for not having the man dead yet. 3
The aides, in defending themselves, explain how they have tried to crush him with sheer volume or work, with skillful labor, and the like, but there was no success. It gets to the point where they are going to ask him to build a cathedral in one day. "We have now thought of setting him to build a cathedral in a single day. Send for Emelyan, and order him to build a cathedral in front of the palace in a single day. Then, if he does not do it, let his head be cut off for disobedience." Emelyan tells his wife that they must flee because there is no way that he can complete this. She says, no, that they need to stay because they would be caught fleeing anyway. Rather, give the strength that he has to completing the task. 4
Here, we see the depth of this woman's beauty. "'Eh, good man, don't be downhearted. Eat your supper now, and go to sleep. Rise early in the morning and all will get done.' So Emelyan lay down and slept. His wife roused him early next day. 'Go quickly,' said she, 'and finish the cathedral. Here are nails and a hammer; there is still enough work there for a day.'" And so when Emelyan got to the palace, there it was, a cathedral stood, only needing the work of one day to complete for the king. The king, having seen this was not pleased, and threatened to cut off the heads of his aides if they could not figure out a solution. And so the aides give Emelyan the task of creating a river around the palace with ships sailing in it. Again, Emelyan flees to his wife asking her to run away with him, but she steadies him, telling him to just do what he can do with his strength. 5
She comes up with a plan, though. She tells him that he must journey to her grandmother (mother of many soldiers), bringing a wallet and spindle as signs that he is truly her husband. She is going to be taken by force to the palace, she knows it, but if the plan works, she will be freed soon by Emelyan. So whatever the grandmother gives him in return to his request for help, take that right away to the king. On his journey to find the grandmother he runs into some other peasants who were soldiers. He tells them the request from the king, and they too admit that since they have been soldiers they have been be stumped by an aimless order. "'From the day we became soldiers,' said they, 'we go 'don't know where,' and never yet have we got there; and we seek we 'don't know what,' and cannot find it. We cannot help you.'"
Emelyan journeys on, though, and stumbles upon a hut with the grandmother in it. There she is sitting, knitting and crying tears constantly. 7 Upon hearing Emelyan's story and she gave him something to eat, and the help he was looking for. She gives him a ball of much thread and tells him to roll it out in front of him. Wherever the ball rolls, then follow behind it. Eventually he will reach the sea and also see a large city. Stay the night, she says, in the further house in the city, and then he will receive what he needs. "'When you see something men obey more than father or mother, that is it. Seize that, and take it to the king. When you bring it to the king, he will say it is not right, and you must answer: 'If it is not the right thing it must be smashed,' and you must beat it, carry it to the river, break it in pieces, and throw it into the water. Then you will get your wife back and my tears will be dried.'" 8
After following the woman's instructions and spending the night in the further house of the city by the sea, Emelyan awoke the next morning and heard a father and son talking. The father was having his son go out to cut wood for their fire. The mother too insisted, but the son decided to go back to sleep. ... until there was a loud noise in the street which aroused him. "Up jumped Emelyan, too, and ran after him to see what it was that a son obeys more than father or mother." It was a military drum being played. "'And is it empty?' 'Yes, it is empty.'" The soldier would not give it Emelyan, and so he followed the man and later stole it from him. Emelyan ran back to his own town and to the palace of the king. 9
The king, of course, rejected Emelyan's story, and so he left. As he left the palace, he did what he was told and began to beat the drum. Hearing the noise, the king's army came out and began to follow Emelyan, ignoring the shouts of the king. The king then wanted the drum, but Emelyan wouldn't give it to him, rather he went down to the river and destroyed it. Upon doing so, the soldiers dispersed, but having so defeated the king, Emelyan took back his wife, went home, and was not bothered again. 10
1 - Tolstoy, Leo. The Gospel in Tolstoy. The Empty Drum. (New York. Plough Publishing House, 2015). Pg. .