How many drops of water are there in the ocean?
How many stars are there in the sky?
How many seconds of time are there in eternity?
These are the questions asked by an Emperor to a shepherd boy in a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. In the story, the boy answers each of the three questions in turn, and the Emperor, impressed by his wisdom, adopts him as his own child.
Why am I writing a blog post about this? Well, I happen to be a big fan of the television series Doctor Who, in other words, a ‘Whovian’. And one of my favourite episodes is partly inspired by this fairy tale.
The episode is called ‘Heaven Sent’, and I could watch it over and over on a loop. Everything about it is unique and mesmerising. The writing, the acting, the direction, the music, the plot line – you name it, the whole thing is totally spot-on.
To understand the episode properly, you have to be a fan of the show, but even for those of us who are, it takes watching it a few times before you can grasp all of the concepts and appreciate its remarkable scale and uniqueness.
The Doctor has been trapped in a prison, and is being constantly pursued by a slow-moving creature called the Veil; hooded and surrounded by perpetually buzzing flies. He ends up staying for 4.5 billion years, repeating the same cycle time and again in the name of escaping and saving the life of his companion, Clara.
In the beginning, he does not know that he has been there for so long. He has no idea what is going on, or who is imprisoning him. The only way he can escape is by uttering confessions to the Veil. The water around the castle is full of skulls, and there are obscure clues that help him on his way. It is only later when he finds out who they belong to.
(I hope this description is easy enough to understand 🙂 🙂 )
This is where the questions of the shepherd boy come in. They are used as a metaphor throughout the episode, but particularly towards the end, where the Doctor is faced by a wall of azbantium, a stone that is 400 times harder than diamond.
As he slowly penetrates the wall, he recites a series of lines inspired by the shepherd boy’s answer to the Emperor’s final question. Every time, he gets slightly further into his recital before being mortally burned by the Veil, until the next go (it’s complicated!). But finally, after many, many years, he breaks the wall and reaches the end of the story.
Here is the shepherd boy’s answer to ‘How many seconds of time are there in eternity?
“In Lower Pomerania is the Diamond Mountain, which is two miles and a half high, two miles and a half wide, and two miles and a half in depth; every hundred years a little bird comes and sharpens its beak on it, and when the whole mountain is worn away by this, then the first second of eternity will be over.”
And here is the version of the story told by the Doctor.
The Doctor acts as the bird in the metaphor, the azbantium acts as the Diamond Mountain, and he is trapped in the prison for an eternity. I cannot do the brilliance of the story justice, but the subtlety and symbolism of the metaphor is what helped make me love it so much.
The visuals are incredible. The writing is flawless and unbelievably clever. There are moments which give me goosebumps, and Peter Capaldi’s performance as the Doctor is unrivalled.
If you would like to read the whole fairy tale, it is available here.
Have you enjoyed something that is based on a fairy tale, a folk tale, or a poem? If you have, please let me know in the comments!
Happy reading 🙂