“Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” by Leo Tolstoy

Tales in which a supernatural visitor teaches a misbehaving character a lesson by showing him how his vice will lead to his destruction, such as Leo Tolstoy’s “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” (1903), remind me of “The Story of King Midas” (1953), a stop-motion children’s short film that my family had on VHS when I was growing up. In this version of the Midas tale, a devilish (and apparently vampiric) figure visits the greedy King in his castle and gives him the golden touch, which Midas gleefully abuses until he turns his own daughter into gold. After emphasizing the moral of the story, the devil takes away the golden touch and restores Midas’s daughter to flesh and blood. Not so devilish in the end!

I think it was because I watched it as a child, but this film still makes me feel very strange. The design of the puppets, the dark and spotty visual quality, the film’s age: these details create a vaguely unsettling atmosphere. The film’s basis in an old tale is yet another part of this.

Victory stele of Esarhaddon. Photograph credit: Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

The tale is a straightforward form of literary narrative. The moral of “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” is clear enough, and in case you miss it, Tolstoy’s supernatural visitor, an “old man,” gives it to Esarhaddon explicitly: “[l]ife is one in them all, and yours is but a portion of this same common life.” But the simplicity of the tale paradoxically allows for great depth and even a kind of strangeness, the same strangeness that the creators of “The Story of King Midas” achieve. “Esarhaddon, King of Assyria” is a part of a set of spiritual tales Tolstoy wrote later in his life, after his religious awakening, such as “Little Girls Wiser Than Men” (1885), “The Three Hermits” (1886), and “The Repentant Sinner” (1886). But even if you are familiar with these tales, Tolstoy might surprise with how far he goes in “Esarhaddon.”

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