This Kashmiri story comes from Angela Carter’s Book of Fairy Tales, published by Virago Press in 2009. The blurb inside the front cover declares ‘once upon a time fairy tales weren’t meant just for children’ and goes on to list a contents of ‘lyrical tales, bloody tales, hilariously funny and ripely bawdy stories from countries all around the world from the Arctic to Asia – and no dippy princesses or soppy fairies’. So I have mixed feelings about this book for what I hope are obvious reasons! I’m also going into this fairy tale blind, having never read it before. All I know is that it’s been sorted under the category of ‘Witches’. Here we go!
The first character we meet is Ali Mardan Khan, governor of the Valley of Kashmir. Ali Mardan loves hunting and one day, while he’s riding through the forest, he outpaces his friends in pursuit of a stag. The animal eludes him but as he’s looking about to find where it’s gone, he hears the sound of weeping and finds instead a beautiful and fabulously dressed young woman who introduces herself as the daughter of a Chinese king. The princess explains that her father was killed in battle and she had to flee for her life. “I weep for my father, I weep for my mother, I weep for my country and I weep for myself,” she cries out. “What will become of me, friendless and homeless, how can I live?”
Ali Mardan tries to soothe her, offering a place in his palace. “And were you to ask me to become your wife,” the princess replies, which sounds like a fairly broad hint, “I should not be able to refuse you.” Ali Mardan thinks that is a great idea and they promptly get married. At first, all seems well. The princess convinces her husband to build her a new palace overlooking the nearby lake, a beautiful building surrounded by flower gardens, and Ali Mardan is happy because she is happy. But one day Ali Mardan wakes with a pain in his stomach that grows worse over the course of the day. Though the royal physician treats him with medicine and the princess stays in his sickroom to tend his needs, days pass and Ali Mardan’s condition does not improve.
A passing Yogi notices the palace and stops to rest in its gardens, falling asleep beneath a tree. Ali Mardan finds him there while taking a rare and very slow walk, surrounded by attentive courtiers. He orders that the Yogi be lifted onto the best of beds and that the jar of water at his side be treated with great care. When the Yogi wakes, there is even an attendant on hand to explain where he is and what’s going on, and to escort him to meet his host. The Yogi explains that he is the disciple of a Guru who lives in the forest, and was sent to fetch water from a sacred spring. When he returns to the Guru, the Yogi praises Ali Mardan’s hospitality and speaks of his mysterious ailment. The Guru decides to pay a visit himself and see if there’s anything to be done.
The Guru is welcomed into the palace and examines Ali Mardan. He immediately asks if Ali Mardan is recently married. “Just as I suspected,” the Guru says grimly, when Ali Mardan describes his meeting with the Chinese princess. Step 1 in the Guru’s plan to heal the governor is to prepare two meals, one sweet and one heavily salted, arranged so that when the princess comes to eat with her husband, the salty food is laid before her. Step 2: the Guru orders that all water be removed from the room and the door is locked from the outside, trapping the sleeping princess inside. When she wakes, desperately thirsty, she checks to see that her husband is still asleep then transforms herself into a snake and slides out the window to drink from the lake.
Only Ali Mardan was not sleeping and is now completely freaked out. He doesn’t feel much better the next morning when the Guru calmly explains that the princess is in fact a Lamia. According to him, if a snake lives a hundred years away from human eyes, it will become king of snakes; after two hundred years, it becomes a dragon; and after three hundred years, it becomes a Lamia, possessed of great powers such as the ability to change shapes. If the Lamia suspects that her secret has been revealed, the Guru fears she’ll not only kill Ali Mardan, she’ll savage his country as well.
The Guru arranges for a little house to be built, no more than a bedroom, a kitchen and an ominously large oven. Ali Mardan relocates there and his wife comes with him. After a few days, Ali Mardan asks her to prepare a special kind of loaf. “I dislike ovens,” the Lamia comments, but Ali Mardan coaxes her into it. While she is bent over the oven to tend to the loaf, he comes up behind her and pushes her in, locking the lid down tight so that she cannot escape. And then, just to be on the safe side, he sets the house on fire. That’s one hell of a Gretel manoeuvre.
The Guru sends Ali Mardan back to the palace to rest. Within two days his pain is gone, his health returning in full measure. On the third day he returns to the site of the burnt cottage to meet with the Guru. All that’s left behind are a heap of ashes and a single pebble. “Which will you have,” the Guru asks, “the pebble or the ashes?” Ali Mardan chooses the pebble, which turns out to be a philosopher’s stone that turns any metal into gold. As for the ashes, the Guru takes those with them, and whatever their secret, it’s one he keeps. Ali Mardan never sees him again.
What is it about witches dying in ovens? There is a strong parallel to be drawn between this story and the German Hansel and Gretel, as well as the Russian Old Witch Boneyleg. For that matter, there’s a disturbing similarity to witch burnings. Perhaps that’s why the Lamia, who is never explicitly referred to as a witch within the story, is grouped under the category of ‘Witches’ in this collection. One more point of interest: this is a story in which the archetypes of witch and princess are combined in the same shapeshifting con artist snake person, and technically she, or it, is a king to boot. That’s quite the claim to fame.