Another adventure of the Three Princes of Serendip, from the Peregrinaggio.
When we finished the last post, the three princes of Serendip were staying comfortably as guests of the Emperor Beramo, who much appreciated their company and their conversation. After the brothers saved Beramo from an assassination attempt by one of his own counselors, Beramo decided to ask them to help him with a problem that had vexed him since he began his reign. This is the story he told them:
“Back in the ancient times, the philosophers and wise men of our realm discovered how to create a special mirror, which they called the Mirror of Justice. When two people came in front of a judge to settle a dispute, the judge would have both of them look into the magic mirror. Whichever party was wrong, their face would turn black, while the blameless party’s face stayed unchanged. The one whose face turned black would remain that way. The only way to cure them was to confine them to a cistern, where they lived, eating nothing but bread and water, for forty days. When they came out from the cistern, the guilty one had to confess their sins publicly. After that, their face would turn back to its natural color.
“Because everyone feared exposure by the Mirror of Justice, all the people of the kingdom tried to live as blameless a life as possible, and to get along with their neighbors. The kingdom was peaceful, and everyone who lived here prospered. Things went on this way until my grandfather’s reign.
“My grandfather had two sons: my father and my uncle. After my grandfather died, the two brothers both claimed the throne, and my father’s claim succeeded. My uncle didn’t take his defeat gracefully, but instead stole the Mirror of Justice and ran away to India, where he presented the mirror to the Queen of India. Unfortunately, he couldn’t demonstrate the mirror’s magical powers, because the mirror didn’t work outside of our realm.
“Now it happens that at this time, there was a strange entity terrorizing the Queen’s realm. Every day at sunrise a giant, open, upright hand would appear out on the sea, near the Queen’s capital city. The hand remained there until sunset. When night fell, the hand would reach out and snatch some unfortunate person, then move out to sea, carrying this victim away. This happened day after day, and many of the Queen’s subjects perished.
“When the Queen’s counselors saw the Mirror of Justice, even though it didn’t work as claimed, they wondered: maybe
there was still some magic in the mirror that could help them against the giant hand. So they took the mirror to the shore and faced it out to sea, towards the hand. That evening, when the hand reached out to shore, instead of taking a person, it took a horse! And from then on, as long as the mirror faced the hand, the hand would take an animal: a horse, or a steer, but never a person. This wasn’t ideal, but the Queen and her people felt that it was the lesser evil.
“Meanwhile, in our kingdom, bad people no longer feared punishment via the Mirror of Justice. As a result, the kingdom became far less peaceful and happy than it had been before. So my father sent an envoy to India, requesting the return of the magic mirror. But the Queen refused, saying that for the safety of her subjects she needed the mirror to combat the hand. But she did promise that if someone could figure out how to defeat the hand for good, she would return the Mirror of Justice to us.
“My father and his counselors pondered and searched for a solution for all the rest of his reign, and I, too, have been searching for an answer. Until now, no one has found one. But now I have met the three of you, and you are all learned and wise; so I ask you — can you free the Queen’s subjects from the hand, and recover the magic mirror?”
The three princes had become quite fond of the Emperor during their stay in his kingdom, and were grateful for his generous hospitality. So they agreed to set out for India, and attempt to recover the Mirror of Justice.
When they arrived at the Queen’s capital, they presented themselves to her and her court as envoys from Emperor Beramo, sent to try to rid the Queen’s realm of the giant hand. This pleased the Queen, who promised that if they could defeat the hand, she would give them the Mirror of Justice to return to Beramo. Then she ordered a great feast, and she and the princes and the court spent the rest of the evening in good food, music, and pleasant conversation.
The next morning the princes and the Queen’s barons and counselors went out to the shore just before sunrise. The people had all heard about these three strangers who had come to confront the hand, so when the princes arrived there was a great crowd on the beach, waiting to see what would happen.
As the sun rose, the hand appeared, open and upright, with the palm facing the shore. The oldest prince stepped forward, faced the giant hand, and raised his own hand — but with only his index and middle fingers up, and the other three fingers against his palm. At that moment, the giant hand immediately sunk below the surface of the sea and vanished — never to be seen again.
The people on the beach were astonished. But it had happened so quickly, and there was nothing else to see, so they eventually dispersed. The princes and the barons and counselors returned to the palace, sending a messenger ahead to the Queen. She was overjoyed, and when the princes arrived at the city walls they were greated with cheering crowds and great festivities. The princes presented themselves to the Queen, who thanked them profusely and promised them great rewards (in addition to the magic mirror). She also wanted to know how they did it.
The first brother bowed to her and said, “Your highness, when I saw the hand rising from the sea, I realized that it was a symbol. The hand represented the statement that if five people can unite themselves to a single purpose, they can conquer the world. Because no one recognized the hand’s message, it caused great damage to your people. But I understood the message, and I replied.”
The prince held up his hand with two fingers raised, as he had on the beach.
“I told the hand that not five, but only two people united in a single purpose would be enough to conquer the world. And so the hand, knowing it was wrong, retreated in shame. It won’t bother you again.”
The Queen was amazed at the nobility and wisdom of the prince and his brothers, and admired them all greatly.
That night they had a great celebration, and the next morning the Queen met with her counselors about returning the Mirror of Justice. But one counselor objected.
“How can we be sure that the hand won’t come back? And without the mirror, what can we do if it does?”
The Queen considered.
“We promised Beramo to return the mirror,” she said, “and we must not break our word. But I think I have another solution to keep us safe from the hand.”
What is the Queen planning? Find out in the next post.
Again, this retelling is based on Augusto and Theresa Borselli’s translation of Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo.
You can read about the background of this sixteenth-century Italian text here.
I forgot to mention in the last post that the Italian original is also online, at Italian Wikisource.
Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.
Les trois figures, Leon Spilliaert. Source: WikiArt
Self-Portrait in Mirror, Leon Spilliaert (1908). Source: WikiArt
My Left Hand, Photo by strowberry cake. Source: PublicDomainPictures.net. Remixed by Nina Zumel
Hand of boyarynya Morozova, Vasily Surikov. Source: WikiArt