This week’s story comes from Paul Hamlyn London’s 1967 collection Legends from Eastern Lands, retold by Jaroslav Tichý, and the ambiguity of the title means I’m not entirely sure which eastern land it actually comes from, only that it is one ruled by emirs. An egotistical sort emir, in fact, who demands admiration from all and sundry for anything and everything that is his. This includes his very beautiful daughter. He has carefully considered what qualities he wants in a son-in-law, and decides that as wisdom is the thing he wants most from any addition to the family, he will set a riddle for her suitors. Not a terrible idea, you could learn a lot about someone by their answer to the right question – only that’s not what the emir has in mind.
He catches a flea, feeds it so full of blood that it grows to the size of a camel, then has it killed and skinned and that skin brought before the suitors who come to court the princess. The man who can guess what creature the skin belonged to is the one who will be given the princess’s hand. Only, of course, no one can. And anyone who can’t guess right is given ten lashes and driven out of the palace.
So the emir sits on his throne sniggering at an ever-changing scene of perplexity and pain. What he doesn’t take into account, though, is how his servants might feel about keeping so juicy a secret. One man who knows the full story (and is therefore automatically barred from competing for the princess) is so frustrated by the fact he can’t tell anyone that he sneaks out of the palace and whispers the truth into an old well. Do you imagine for ONE MOMENT that he goes unheard? A water sprite happens to be visiting the well right at that moment and seizes the opportunity. He gives himself the shape of a beggar and shows up at the palace gates, where the guards turn him away contemptuously. But he returns to the next day, and the day after that, and eventually the guards get so sick of the sight of him that they let him in just to shut him up.
The emir assumes he will guess wrong, like everyone else, but when the beggar gets it right he does not feel at all obliged to hold up his end of the bargain. He orders this undesirable suitor to be driven out of the palace and, outraged, the sprite takes his true form. He commands a terrible darkness fall over the palace that will not be lifted until he is given the princess. The emir quickly capitulates. There is a little accident as the sprite is lifting the darkness; he accidentally summons a plague of rats and spiders instead. Hey, it could happen to anyone! Correcting his mistake, he sends the emir off to arrange the princess’s departure.
The emir hurries off to consult with his wife. Not, you’ll note, with his DAUGHTER, the one whose life is on the line here. She is the last to be told, and is given the least say in the matter. When her bizarre bridegroom decides during the wedding feast that he wants to leave straight away, the only choice she has is what horse to take. Going to the stables, she is about to mount up on an impressive black stallion when a small mare she has often petted suddenly discovers a human voice and pleads to be taken instead. The mare also advises she bring a mirror and comb, some salt, and a red pepper pod.
The princess is past the point of being bothered by things like talking horses. Advice is advice is advice, and she’ll take what she can get. While the emir toddles off for ‘a well-earned rest’, she is riding out with her new husband and a caravan of eighty slaves. No sooner have they reached the outskirts of the city than the sprite turns around and eats them all up, and their mounts as well. But the princess’s horse is made of tougher stuff – she tells her rider to sweep onward, demanding imperially that the sprite show her the way. He does so, leaving the princess a little way behind. This is when she locates the magic whip stuffed into her saddle that allows her mare to fly.
The water sprite might not be that bright, but he does notice when his wife takes to the sky. To slow his pursuit, the mare tells her to drop the pepper pod. This transforms the steppes below into a mass of thorns, and the water sprite is soon caught in the thicket. All the same, he soon gets free and begins to gain on the princess again. This time she sprinkles the salt. This turns the land below into a desert, in which the sprite quickly dries out. He is on the point of death when he stumbles across a fortuitous well and can restore himself. Next falls the comb. It becomes a mountain range, but that doesn’t stop the sprite either. Lastly, the mirror: it becomes a raging river, with a young man on it in a fishing boat.
The water sprite, unexpectedly nervous of his own element, pays for passage on the boat and only realises halfway across that he’s wasted both time and money. I did say he wasn’t too bright. In more evidence of this, he tries to stab the fisherman to death and ends up held up against a boulder by his angry intended victim. He tries to wriggle his way out of it – “I would not hurt a hair upon your head because my heart is as soft as marzipan” – but the princess, on the other side of the river, calls a warning and the fisherman throws the sprite against the boulder after all. The creature explodes into a shower of dirty water.
The fisherman, accidental hero, gives the princess a lift back across her own river and she rides with all possible speed back to her father’s palace to explain what has happened. He lets her get as far as “Send for the fisherman on the bank of the distant river without delay!”, but misinterprets what she wants and assumes that the young man has committed some terrible crime. When the fisherman arrives, he is expected to confess, and of course he can’t. “Come forward, executioner,” the emir roars, “and cut off his head for not knowing of any wrong he has done!”
Fortunately the princess puts her foot down at this point and makes her father listen to the rest of her explanation, which is that the fisherman saved her life, and she intends to marry him. If the emir drives him away like he did to everyone else (except the man-eating water sprite, let’s not forget), she’ll follow the fisherman to the river and take him for her husband anyway. She stamps her foot for emphasis, having discovered a bit of hereditary wilfulness of her own. Her father, cornered, agrees. So she ends up having two wedding feasts on the same day, and choosing her own husband after all.
Fathers generally don’t come off awfully well in fairy tales. They are most often criminally negligent, astoundingly stupid, or dead. It isn’t often that a fairy tale actually acknowledges that though, let alone in the title. This story has a lot in common with the Sicilian fairy tale ‘Cannatella‘, but in this one it isn’t fear of another marriage arranged by her father that drives the princess into her second husband’s arms – she chooses him of her own free will. You know, I have a feeling that this particular emirate is about to see a changing of the guard…