The Miller and the Professor

Most stories on this web are not fully written out text, just the skeleton of a tale I tell. However, for a change (and because I recently had to write this tale out for inclusion in a book) here is a full text.
As you can tell, it was written for the German reader.
I often tell it when performing for a university audience!

Once upon a time there was a professor. Now, like so many of the very best and very cleverest professors, he lived in Germany. He spent his time teaching, and speaking the most amazing German – a delight to hear – sentences as long as your arm – you had to wait two minutes to find out what the verb was.

Anyway, all of this just goes to show what an intellectual man he was: he’d even read all of Shakespeare – and this was at least two hundred years before Shakespeare was born! Indeed he was reckoned to be one of the cleverest men in the whole of Europe.

Now at this time there was a bit of trouble in some of the universities. Perhaps I should remind you that at this time all universities were, of course, controlled by Holy Mother Church – or perhaps I don’t need to remind you – perhaps you think that they still should be. Anyway, as I was saying, there was a bit of trouble at that time, and in fact the worst of it was in the three English universities. It was getting really close to a serious student revolution – the standard of Latin declinations was declining, monks weren’t shaving their heads, meat was being eaten on Fridays, students were chewing chewing-gum in the lectures – and naturally the Church authorities were becoming alarmed.

So, of course, they turned to this professor. They decided to send him to England and give him full powers of visitation – hoping his reputation alone would frighten all the rebellious students into penitence and earnest study of the holy doctrines. The Church said he was to test all the students, and, knowing how important positive reinforcement is in the learning process, he was to give a prize to best of the three universities.

And so off he went, our good professor – horse and carriage – straight through the Channel Tunnel – off to the universities of Oxford and Durham. And what a lot he did there – showing what real academic standards were – inspiring the other professors (don’t they love to be inspired?) – frightening the students (don’t they love to be frightened?) – setting the most abstruse examinations – really putting things to rights!

Now of course, news of all this spread through the academic grapevine like lightning, especially the news about the examinations, and the poor students of the last university he was to go to, Cambridge, not surprisingly, they began to panic.

So the students there met one evening – the bar of the Students’ Union – and when they had fully discussed the matter one of the students, a young man called Jack – very clever chap, although he only had one eye – you know, he wore a black patch over the missing eye – anyway, Jack had this idea of seeing if they could play a trick on the professor to make him think the academic standards of the place were so high that he didn’t need to set an examination at all, and he’d just give them the prize.

And this is how the trick worked. A group of students dressed themselves up as workmen – rags, picks and shovels, you know – and went down the road the professor would drive along to get to Cambridge. At a crossroads outside the town they first took down the signpost, and then they started to dig a great big hole right in the middle of the road.

Sure enough, along came the professor’s carriage and, sure enough, the professor stopped the carriage to get round the hole. And as the carriage was going round the hole, he asked the “workmen” which way he should take to get to Cambridge. And the “workmen” answered in Latin.

Of course, the professor was very impressed by the educational influence the university was obviously having on the area. But when he came to the next crossroads, where there was also a hole, and he had to ask another group of “workmen”, and they actually answered him in Greek, then he knew that this was a truly extraordinary situation.

So far, so good. This was just what the students had wanted him to think. But they had made one fatal mistake; they had forgotten to take into account that this was a professor in the true Prussian tradition – Gründlichkeit was his second name! And instead of saying, “Everyone is so clever here, I needn’t give them an exam” he in fact said, “Everyone is so clever here, I must think of a very clever sort of exam indeed”.

It was to their horror, the very next day, that they heard the professor was going to give them all an exam – and an exam without words – an exam with signs! Of course, the first thing they all did was to go and start shouting at poor old Jack – you remember Jack with his one eye? How they moaned at him, blamed him for getting them into more trouble than ever.

“And we expect you to get us out of it”, they shouted. “You were clever enough to think of your clever idea, now you’d better be clever enough to answer the professor’s clever questions and make sure that at least someone can win that damned prize of his.”

The testing of the students was to take place the next day. Poor Jack, he’d been shouted at all morning, he’d been worrying all afternoon, he’d been sleepless all night. What chance did he have of understanding the German professor’s “signs”? What chance did he have of saving the reputation of the university? The poor young man, he got up early in the morning and, in despair, went for a walk along the river, a place he often went to when he needed to think.

And it was down by the river that, as he walked by the mill, he met his old friend the miller.

Now you must understand that the miller was, like most millers, a jolly chap, a bit of a laugh, just the sort of man to share a pint of beer with – but academic he was not. The miller, he took one look at poor old Jack, saw how miserable he looked, and of course asked why. And Jack explained, explained about how his trick had gone wrong, how everyone was angry with him, how it was up to him to save the reputation of the university in the exam that very day – and how he hadn’t a hope in the world of understanding anything of the professor’s signs.

“Well,” said the miller, “I don’t want to say I’m cleverer than you; but have you never heard that sometimes a fool can answer questions a wise man can’t understand? Look, you’ve got nothing to lose. Let me dress up as you, let me try and see if I can’t understand his signs after all.”

Poor Jack, he didn’t think much to the idea, but, as his friend the miller had said, he really didn’t have anything to lose. So they changed clothes. The miller put on Jack’s eye patch, put on the student’s gown, pulled the hood over his face a bit. In the end, he really did look rather like Jack the student. And off the two of them went to the big hall where the exam was taking place.

By the time they got there, just about all of the students had already been tested. And of course they had all failed – hadn’t had a clue as to what the professor’s signs had meant. Naturally the hall was packed, the students, the other professors, they were all waiting for their last hope of saving their reputation – they were waiting for one-eyed Jack.

And at last in he walked – the miller in disguise. The two men – the miller and the professor – stood facing each other.

After about a minute of silence, the professor, looking very grim, suddenly pushed his hand into his pocket, fished about in it, pulled out an apple and held it out to the miller.

The miller looked at this, pushed his hand into his pocket, fished about in it, pulled out a piece of bread.

The professor looked at this for a moment, then suddenly held out one finger and pointed it at the miller.

A moment later the miller held out two fingers and pointed them at the professor.

The professor then replied by pointing three at the miller.

The miller immediately held up his fist at the professor, who cried, to the amazement of all those watching them, “Ah, he has won the prize!”

In the cheering and clapping that followed, the miller was able to slip outside and quickly change clothes with Jack, who returned to the hall to hear the professor explain to the other professors and students what all these signs had meant.

“You see, I began by holding up an apple, a symbol not only of the whole world, but also of man’s original sin in the Garden of Eden. Naturally, the student correctly replied that this sin had been atoned for by Christ, symbolised by the Bread of Life. I then held up one finger, to affirm that there is but one God. He held up two, to remind me of God the Son and God the Holy Ghost. I held up three fingers to enquire into the three-fold nature of God. He then replied with a closed fist, symbolising the unity of the Trinity, as expounded in the holy doctrines of Mother Church. And thus he wins the prize!”

Naturally, everyone in the hall was amazed that anyone could be so clever. But no one was more amazed than Jack, that his old friend the miller could have taken part in such abstract doctrinal intercourse – and in symbols at that!

As soon as he could, he went back to the mill, and he asked the miller to explain how he’d managed to be so clever.

“Oh, it was easy,” said the miller. “Didn’t I tell you that sometimes a fool can answer questions a wise man can’t understand? Now this is what happened. First, the professor, he fished about in his pocket, he pulled out an apple, and he made as if he wanted to throw it at me. Now I wasn’t having none of that, so I fished about in my pocket to see what I’d got. All I found was an old crust of bread, but I sure gave him to understand if he threw that apple, I’d throw the bread.

Now that quietened him for a bit, but then he suddenly stuck out a finger, as if to say he wanted to poke out my one eye. Well, I wasn’t going to stand for that, and I showed him I’d poke out his two.

Then, that seemed to get him real mad, and he put out three fingers, as if to say he wanted to scratch my face. But I showed him my fist, so he knew what he’d get if he tried. And then I suppose he’d had enough, because he suddenly said that I’d won the prize.”

A tale of a fool and a wise man – and now you know who was the cleverer …

My original source was the German collection Diederichs Märchen der Weltliteratur, ed. Hans-Jörg Uther, Rowohlt Taschenbuch Verlag, 1992.
But I have also found it in the excellent collection English Folktales, ed. Neil Philip, Penguin Books, 1992.
The text on this page is © Richard Martin.

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