This Tajik fairy tale is from Sergei Palastrov’s 1986 collection of retellings Folk Tales from the Soviet Union, and begins with that commonest of themes, the royal father who’s desperate to get his daughter married off. She is equally determined not to marry until she’s good and ready. The padishah has his viziers search for a man who can live up to the princess’s standards, and when they fail, sets off to look for himself. He doesn’t bring his daughter, which seems rather counter-productive, but perhaps that’s all for the best because the man who stops him in his tracks is elderly with a beard as green as seaweed. He is seated by a river, writing on white pebbles that he then throws into the river. When the padishah rides up to question him, the old man explains that he is telling futures. Whatever he writes will come to pass.
The padishah asks him what will become of his beautiful daughter, who intends to marry only the handsomest man in the world. The old fortune teller smiles wickedly, tosses a pebble in the river, and announces, “Your daughter will marry neither a pauper nor a labourer, she’ll marry a slave.” This is not what the padishah hoped to hear. Panic-stricken, he remembers a young male slave who is even now at work in his own palace and rides home straight away to avert the crisis. Luckily the princess is still unmarried when he gets there, and he goes into a huddle with his viziers to decide how best to keep things that way.
“Woe unto us, woe!” he wails. “That wretched slave intends to marry my daughter! What am I to do!” “Chop off his head,” suggest the viziers. Of course that’s their solution, they are VIZIERS. Why does he even have viziers, hasn’t anyone told him they’re always bad news? He takes their advice, though, and sentences the slave to death. When the slave assures them he really doesn’t want to marry the princess, the viziers say that’s an equally good reason for him to die. There is no way to win in this situation.
Fortunately, the slave has someone in his corner, though he doesn’t know it yet. An ancient man arrives at the palace, carried on a rug by his neighbours, to protest against the padishah’s cruelty. His advice is to give the boy some fool’s quest and send him off into the world, never to come back, and the padishah – who has a certain reluctant respect for the wisdom of his elders – orders the slave to bring him two pearls the size of walnuts with the light of the moon inside them. If he finds them, he’ll be granted his life and his freedom. If he doesn’t…well, the executioner’s always got space in his schedule, shall we say.
The slave sets off. For a long time he merely wanders, lost and ridiculous on a quest no one, least of all himself, expects to be achievable. Then he comes to the bank of a river, where he meets with a green-bearded old man. As has become his practice, the slave politely asks if the stranger knows where moonglow pearls are to be found. “You are as trusting as a child, I see,” the old man sighs. “I know who sent you and why. Oh well, I’ve got to help you.” It’s nice to see the freaky agent of fate taking responsibility for his actions for once, I must say. The old man steps into the river and emerges with an armful of glowing pearls. His advice is to give the padishah only the two pearls he asked for, and then wait to see what happens. The slave thanks him gratefully and returns to the palace.
The padishah, when he sees the pearls, thinks quickly. It doesn’t suit him to let the slave go free; he wants him dead, so he accuses the boy of stealing the two pearls from the palace treasure-box instead of finding them for himself. The slave quietly opens his bundle and lets the rest of the jewels spill onto the floor, leaving the padishah silenced.
For a little while, anyway. It’s not long before he’s gathered his viziers again for another conference. They’re still stuck on the idea that the slave means to marry the princess, so the padishah goes back to plan A, also known as plan Axe. His viziers, who are less convinced, don’t want to outright disagree with him when he’s in a mood like that. Their advice is to call in the same ancient man who suggested the quest in the first place, and it’s hardly surprising that when the padishah does call him in, the old man’s reaction is basically, you made a promise, mate. Furiously, the padishah tells his slave to go to the end of the world and work out how the sun and moon rise. Surely THAT’S impossible?
Well, not for a good astronomer, but the slave doesn’t know where to find one of those. For months he travels through mountains and deserts, relying on the kindness of strangers for food – and they’re not always very kind. Eventually he comes to a mountain so high he cannot climb it. He just sits on the ground and stares at it sadly for so long that a peri (that is, a fairy woman) who lives on the mountain takes pity on him, appearing to ask his business.
After he has explained his new quest, she tells him to close his eyes, and when he opens them again he finds himself at the top of the mountain in a green meadow. The peri leads him to a wide lake where the sun and moon come to bathe. “This lake does magic things,” she explains. “If you bathe in it right after the moon has taken a dip, you’ll become even more handsome than you are now and the padishah’s daughter will gladly marry you.”
The slave wearily explains that he really, really doesn’t want to marry the princess – all he wants is to be free. That being the case, the peri advises that he wait until after the sun has swum in the lake, because then he will be granted extraordinary strength. So the slave waits through the day by the lakeshore, until the sky darkens and the moon rolls into the water, making it sparkle silver. But the slave doesn’t want beauty; he continues waiting.
As dawn approaches the moon dwindles and this time it’s the sun’s turn to bathe, emerging from the lake in fiery brilliance. At last the slave can dive into the water, drinking and swimming and letting the strength of the skies soak into his body. When he grabs a branch to pull himself out of the water, he accidentally pulls the whole tree in. He discovers a shield, sword and armour hidden among its roots, and a horse nearby for the journey home. He showers the peri in gratitude, and her only request in return for her help is that he uses his strength with kindness. The slave promises he will…once he’s settled up with the padishah.
Whose daughter is still not married. The padishah is getting rather desperate. When a young knight shows up outside the palace and the princess actually takes a fancy to him, a feast is thrown in the hope of convincing the handsome stranger to stay and get married. Even after the slave reveals who he really is, the padishah is willing to cut his losses and take him on as a son-in-law. “Marry my daughter,” he tells his slave, “and I’ll give you your freedom.”
“Then you don’t rightly know what freedom means if you want to give it to me in addition to your conceited daughter,” the young man retorts. “When I wore the rags of a slave I did not seem a human being to you and your daughter!” Outraged, the padishah calls for his guards, but the slave throws them aside easily with his newfound strength, and his former master runs away. Leaving the palace behind, the man who was once a slave and is now a knight sets off to fight evil, defend the weak, and dammit, free the slaves!
Which means either the princess will marry a completely different slave, or the fortune teller by the river was a tricksy charlatan, but either way, it’s nice to see a pair of fairy tale characters so steadily refute tradition as this princess and this young hero both do. The retelling in this collection is rather down on the padishah’s daughter. I’m not, I think she’s fantastic for picking a standard and sticking to it, but I love the character of the slave too, who doesn’t seem to know he’s in a fairy tale at all. He doesn’t marry the princess. He doesn’t marry the peri. In fact, nobody marries anybody! And nothing awful happens as punishment to the princess at the end!
Maybe that fortune teller knew what he was doing after all.