Cole was always a jovial and rotund individual, though he started out far from kingship. He was the son of an apple-pedlar, who died and left as his estate only a fiddle and a vicious and unruly donkey. Cole played the fiddle and rode the donkey; as an itinerant musician, he traveled the countryside, earning his meals with his music. This continued until he was an elderly man, with a bald head and bushy white eyebrows.
He never tried to steer his cranky mount, but let the donkey follow its own inclination. Eventually their course led them to Whatland. The king of the land had just died without heir; an obscure Whatish law held that in such a case, the prime minister go out among the people blindfolded, and the first person he touched would be the new king. This was done; the people of the land, not knowing what was happening, avoided the blindfolded politician when they saw him coming. As it fell out, Cole was the man chosen as the new king.
Once on the throne, old Cole called for someone to bring him his pipe; he called for a bowl (of punch), and for fiddlers to play music, so that he and his courtiers could dance. The people were pleased to realize that they had gotten a cheerful and benign monarch. King Cole continued to ride on his old donkey, though he had a golden saddle made for the beast, and a gem-studded bridle.
King Cole also decided law cases, in his own unique way. When two men brought him a dispute over a cow, the king had the animal butchered and its meat distributed among the poor. When two subjects argued over ten pieces of gold, Cole confiscated the gold and gave it to the beggars outside the palace. The people quickly learned not to bring their quarrels to the king, and Cole had a peaceful reign as a result.
After ruling the land for many years, Cole died; his successor, chosen in the same manner, turned out not to be jovial, or merry, or kind-hearted at all. Instead, he ruled with great severity. The Whatish people learned to look back fondly to the days of Old King Cole.
"Old King Cole" is one of the dozen stories in the collection that bears a Maxfield Parrish illustration.
Unlike most of the tales in Mother Goose in Prose, "Old King Cole" anticipates features in Baum's later fiction. Cole and his crabby donkey foreshadows King Rinkitink and Bilbil in Rinkitink in Oz. The method by which Whatland chooses its king is similar to the way in which Bud is chosen king of Noland in Queen Zixi of Ix.