This Arabic fairy tale, from Ruth Manning Sanders’ 1973 collection A Book of Dwarfs, contains a real rarity in folk lore – a dwarf who is not a magical miner from underground, just a very vulnerable human being. ‘Little Mukra’ is the affectionate nickname given by a loving father, but then his father dies and when the orphaned boy turns to the rest of his family for help they will have nothing to do with him. More specifically, they tell him “be off with you, and don’t come pestering your betters, you hideous dwarf!” So Little Mukra puts on his father’s turban and ties on his father’s knife, and goes forth to seek his fortune alone. Unfortunately his relatives haven’t cornered the world’s market in bigotry. Everywhere he goes he is only laughed at, and tossed a few scraps if he’s lucky.
Arriving in a large town, he has a day of his usual luck. Starved, exhausted and despairing, he is at the end of his endurance and about to collapse in a doorway when a bell is rung nearby. “Supper!” shouts a voice from the end of the street. “Everyone who’s hungry come to supper!” It looks like life is finally playing him a nice card and Little Mukra isn’t arguing, but neither is he the only one to hear the call. The street is suddenly full of stray dogs and cats, all racing towards the same open door faster than Little Mukra can move, and he only just manages to slip inside before it slams shut. He trips over in his haste and is dragged to his feet by a woman in long silk robes that are, appropriately, embroidered with cats. She is unimpressed by his presence. “I don’t feed people,” she shouts at him, but he’s in such a terrible state that she gives him some food anyway and lets him fall asleep in her house.
He wakes up in what may be the world’s first pet salon. It is a beautiful room furnished with many little red velvet sofas, each of which is occupied by a sleeping cat or dog. The shouty woman may feed the strays and let them stay the night with her, but these are her adored ‘children’ and having considered the matter, she decides that Little Mukra can stay to help her look after them. He is a one man entourage to her gloriously spoiled pets while she is out during the day, and takes over the feeding of the strays when she comes home in the evenings. She does not speak very kindly of these animals, and in fact she’s not very kind to Little Mukra either – she works him hard, she doesn’t pay him wages, and when she gets angry she growls ferociously and shakes all the breath out of his body. But she doesn’t mock him for how he looks, and he always has plenty to eat. How can he leave the comparative safety of her house when he has nowhere better to go?
He is standing at the window one day looking down into the street and thinking about this problem when a soft voice behind him remarks on the terrible condition of his slippers. He turns around to find a small white dog sitting at his feet. Animals in fairy tales only talk when they have excellent advice to give, and this dog is no exception – it suggests Little Mukra take his due wages and leads him up into a cluttered garret to find some money. Instead, though, Little Mukra becomes enchanted by a beautiful crystal vase that screams and actually leaps, suicidally, out of his hands.
Well, there’s no going back now, and no time to think either. In a mad panic at what his employer will do to him if she returns to find the shards of crystal where her vase used to be, Little Mukra snatches up a pair of old slippers he sees lying in a corner, runs down the street, and keeps running until he reaches the outskirts of town. That’s when he tries to stop, and discovers that the shoes have ideas of their own. They don’t care that he’s tired; they were made for runnin’, and runnin’ is what they’ll do. At last he cries “Whoa!” like he’s talking to a pair of runaway horses, and to his relief they respond. Exhausted, but also hopeful, he falls asleep beside the road with the magic slippers clutched to his chest.
He wakes up to the frantic panting of the small white dog. It has followed him all the way from his erstwhile employer’s house, though it meant running through the night, so as to deliver the explanation Little Mukra wouldn’t stop to hear before. The slippers won’t just run – if he uses them right, they will fly as well. The dog then sits patiently watching his new friend practice until he can spin on his heel three times while wearing the oversized slippers. Having mastered the magic, Little Mukra catches up the dog under his arm and wishes himself over to the Sultan’s palace.
The warrior outside the gates takes one look at the two of them and bursts out laughing. He only laughs harder when Little Mukra challenges the fastest of the Sultan’s messengers to a race, but considers it such a good joke that he delivers the message, and the Sultan is intrigued enough to allow Little Mukra into his presence. Soon the dwarf has an entire court laughing at him. That is not such a bad thing as it would first appear; the Sultan likes to laugh, so he’s put in a good mood straight away and not only agrees to the race, he lets Little Mukra eat and sleep at the palace that night.
In the morning there is a sharp mismatch at the starting post – the Sultan’s fastest messenger, a tall man with very long legs, and the young dwarf in his oversized old slippers. When Little Mukra starts to spin on his heel, the crowd laugh at the sight. But then Little Mukra stops spinning, and starts flying instead. Three times he whirls around the racecourse set out by the Sultan, and by the time he alights the messenger hasn’t even reached the end of his first lap. The laughter turns to cheers. Little Mukra asks if he has earned a place among the Sultan’s messengers. The answer is: no. He will lead them. So Little Mukra is given a home at the palace, and work he loves, and he lives happily ever after with his friend the small white dog.
This is a sweet story on many levels. Little Mukra himself is an unlikely hero – his enemy is not a vengeful sorceress or dastardly king, it is the widespread bigotry of ordinary people. He overcomes it with dogged persistence…though a bit of magic doesn’t hurt, of course. As for the shouty woman, well, I wouldn’t want to work for her, but as pet owners go she is a heroine. She’s also a one-woman animal welfare league to a town’s worth of strays. This is a fairy tale that takes on human prejudice and it’s the marginalised – the waifs, the strays – that come off best. Basically, this story just makes me happy.