"The Young King" is a short historical fiction story for children by the Irish author Oscar Wilde. It was first published in 1891 as part of the anthology House of Pomegranates, which also includes "The Birthday of the Infanta", "The Fisherman and his Soul" and "The Star-Child".
The action of "The Young King" takes place in an unnamed kingdom at an unspecified point in the past. The story's title character and protagonist is a 16-year-old boy. Although he has grown up in poverty, after he becomes king, he thinks only of rare and beautiful objects. His attitude towards those objects changes radically after he has three bad dreams. In the dreams, he sees how other people suffer and even die in order to obtain and create the objects for him. The story has strong moralistic and religious overtones.
The Young King has spent most of his childhood in the home of a poor goatherd and his wife. He believes that the poor couple are his parents and does not know that he is really the grandson of the Old King. His mother was a princess. The true identity of his father is unknown but he is rumored to have been either a painter or a musician. The boy's mother died in mysterious circumstances shortly after he was born and was hastily buried. Some people say that the boy's murdered father was buried in the same grave. The baby boy was given to the childless goatherd and his wife. Sixteen years later, when he is on his deathbed, the Old King acknowledges the boy as his heir.
As soon as he arrives at the palace, the Young King happily casts off his old leather tunic and sheepskin cloak. He soon becomes fascinated by works of art and other rare and beautiful objects of all kinds. He sends people all over the world to seek out such objects for him. For some time, he thinks of nothing but the cloak of gold cloth and the ruby-studded crown which he is to wear and the pearl-studded scepter which he is to carry at his upcoming coronation.
On the night before his coronation, the Young King has three bad dreams. In the first dream, he sees the weavers who are making his cloak of gold cloth. The weavers, men, women and children, are all pale and thin. One of the weavers explains to the King that they are typical of the poor in that they are forced to work hard to produce things for others which they can never afford for themselves. The weaver insists that, although they are technically free, they are little more than slaves to the rich. In the second dream, the Young King finds himself off the coast of Arabia on board a huge ship which is rowed by hundreds of slaves. The ears and nostrils of one of the slaves are filled with wax and he is forced to dive into the sea in search of pearls. Several times, the slave returns to the ship, bringing a single pearl each time. When the slavemaster finally declares that he has brought a pearl suitable for the Young King's scepter, the slave dies. In the final dream, the Young King finds himself on the edge of a jungle. He can see miners digging for rubies to decorate his crown. All of the miners are killed by three successive plagues.
In the morning, the Young King refuses to put on the cloak and crown and refuses to carry the scepter. He ignores the pleas of his courtiers and tells them about his dreams. He puts on his old leather tunic and sheepskin cloak, carries his old shepherd's crook instead of the scepter and fashions a crown for himself out of some vines.
As he rides to the cathedral for his coronation, the Young King is mocked by his subjects for his appearance. He tells them about his dreams but they are unimpressed. One poor man comes forward from the crowd. The man says that the poor rely on rich people's love of luxury in order to make a living. He admits that working for a hard master is unpleasant. He goes on to say, however, that it is better than not working at all and having no money for food. Inside the cathedral, the bishop is surprised by how the Young King is dressed. After he is told about the three dreams, the bishop points out that there are a great many problems in the world and that it is impossible for the King to solve all of them. Disappointed with the bishop's attitude, the Young King walks past him and goes to the altar to pray.
Some nobles come into the cathedral with their swords drawn. They say that the dreamer King in his peasant's clothes is unworthy to rule them and that they are prepared to kill him. After he has finished praying, the Young King turns to face the nobles. At that point, sunlight comes in through the stained glass window and makes the Young King appear to be wearing a cloak of gold cloth. At the same time, lilies "whiter than pearls" miraculously bloom on his shepherd's crook and roses "redder than rubies" miraculously bloom on his crown of vines. The nobles put away their swords and bow down before the King. The bishop also bows down before him and says, "A greater than I hath crowned thee."