The traveler and the Monk Narrative Joke


“There was a man who was driving down a long stretch of road in the middle of nowhere when his car broke down. He gets out, tries to fix it, can’t, and decides to walk down the road to see if he can find any help. He eventually comes across a monastery. He walks up, knocks on the door, and asks the monk at the door “hey my car broke down just down the road, could I spend the night here until I get it fixed?” The monk happily agreed, not only welcoming him in, but offering to fix his car and get the traveler on his way. The man is grateful to the monk for his generosity, and enters the monastery for the night. The man meets the rest of the monks, has a great meal, and they show him to his room. As they were walking down the hall to his room, he passed a locked door with a very strange sound coming from it. He asks the monk “What is that sound?” The monk replies “I cannot tell you, for you are not a monk”. The man accepts the monk’s response, goes into his room, and tries to get a good night’s rest. However, he stays awake all night, unable to sleep because of the mysterious sound. It gets to a point where the guy just can’t take it anymore. So he gets up, wakes up the monk, and says: “Please can you please tell me what that sound is driving me crazy” The monk gives him the same response: “I cannot tell you, for you are not a monk”. The man is frustrated, but tries to go back to sleep. Still, he is kept awake by the sound, and is dying even more now to figure out what it is. In the morning, the man goes up to the monk, and says: “I need to figure out what the noise is, how do I become a monk?” The monk says “you must first travel around the world and count every blade of grass. Only once you have counted every blade of grass, can you become a monk. The man sets out, travels the world counting blades of grass. He covers every plain, every mountain, every hill, until he finally counts the last blade of grass. He travels back to the monastery, and tells the monk: “I have counted all 1 quadrillion, 985 trillion, 743 billion, 892 million, 41 thousand and 6 blades of grass, can I become a monk now? The monk says that is correct, but to become a monk you must first travel the world, and count every grain of sand on the earth. Only once you have done that can you become a monk” The man is so eager to figure out what the sound is, that he agrees. He sets out, goes to every beach, every dessert, every sand dune, and counts every grain of sand on the earth. He returns to the monk, and says: I have counted all “58 quintillion, 8 quadrillion, 247 trillion, 133 billion, 21 million, 607 thousand, 522 grains of sand, can I become a monk now? The monk says, that is correct, you can finally become a monk. The man is overjoyed, and he immediately follows the monk up to the room where he heard the sound, and figures out what was making it. 

“What was the sound?”

“I can’t tell you, because you’re not a monk”

Context: My informant is my younger brother who heard this story from one of his friends in highschool. His friend told him this story on a road trip as a way to pass the time. My brother says the idea of the story is to drag it out as long as the other person will take, usually adding quests the traveler must continue to complete, and stretching out the set up and conclusion. Then once the traveler finds the sound, you wait for the listener to ask what it was, then deliver the punchline. 

Analysis: I found this joke to be especially interesting because the funny part isn’t necessarily the punch line, but how the storyteller has essentially tricked the listener into sitting through a long story that is building up to a climax that is never delivered. Furthermore, the longer the story is continued, the more and more the climax of learning the sound is built up, to the point where no possible source for the sound could explain the traveler wanting so desperately to find it. But by using the punchline as a sort of anti-climax, it both preserves the sense of curiosity in the listener, and instills the same frustration that the traveler felt throughout the story.