The Three Princes of Serendip and The Queen of India’s Puzzles

The three Princes of Serendip conclude their adventure in India. From the Peregrinaggio.

When we last saw them, the princes had just defeated the giant hand that had been terrorizing India. In exchange, the Queen of India promised to return the Mirror of Justice to the Emperor Beramo. But one of her counselors objected.

“How can we be sure that the hand won’t come back? And without the mirror, what can we do if it does?”

But the Queen wouldn’t go back on her promise. Luckily, she had another plan.

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“Before he passed away, my father your late King gave me this advice,” the Queen told her counselors. “He said, ‘Daughter, many princes and lords will try to marry you to gain control of your realm. But a kingdom must be ruled by prudence and wisdom as well as strength. So promise me that you will never take as a husband any man who can’t solve the two puzzles that I’m about to give you. And if you do find a man who can solve them, you must take him to be your Prince Consort.”

The Queen went on. “Now, these three strangers have a noble bearing about them. I have to believe that they are the sons of a great Lord. I want you, my counselors, to find out from them their lineage. If, as I suspect, they are of noble birth, then I will pose my father’s puzzles to them, and try to marry whichever one can solve at least one of them. They seem so wise and intelligent that I’m sure that they can solve the puzzles, and if I marry one of them, then he will help me rule this kingdom, and we won’t have to fear if the hand should return.”

This plan seemed good to the counselors, so they sent one of their number to ask the brothers about their family, as the Queen was curious to know. The brothers had been traveling incognito since they had left their father’s kingdom, so they told the counselor that they were the sons of poor commoners, who had found a place in Beramo’s court by luck. But the counselor didn’t believe them, and insisted that they swear to their claim under oath.

The brothers weren’t willing to perjure themselves, so they confessed to the counselor that they were the sons of King Giaffer of Serendip, and related how they had ended up in Beramo’s court. The counselor reported this back to the Queen, who was quite pleased by the news.

Calling the princes into her presence, she said to them, “My greatest thanks to you for saving my kingdom from the giant hand. As I promised, I shall give you back the Mirror of Justice, and you may take it and return to Beramo whenever you please. But before you do, I’d like to presume on your wisdom and intelligence once more, and ask you another favor.”

The princes agreed to help her, if they could. The queen told them that as a little girl, she had once heard her father wondering if a man could eat an entire storehouse of salt in a day — certainly, the king had never met a man who could do so. Could the princes solve this mystery?

The second brother stepped forward. “Your highness, not only is it possible to eat a single storehouse of salt in a single day, but I offer to do exactly that, any time you wish.”

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So the Queen ordered her barons to set aside the next day for the test. Early the next morning, the barons escorted the second brother to the salt storehouse, and opened the doors. The prince entered the storehouse, licked the tip of his finger and touched the salt, picking up a few grains. Then he ate the grains, left the storehouse, and told the barons that he had fulfilled the Queen’s wish.

Well, the barons weren’t so sure about that, but they locked up the storehouse and brought the prince back to the Queen and his brothers, who all awaited him in the throne room. She, of course, wanted to know why the prince asserted that he had carried out her wishes.

“Anyone who has eaten even as much salt as I have, with a friend, is bound by the obligations of friendship,” the prince said. “These obligations hold whether they eat a few grains of salt, or an entire storehouse, or even ten. So the amount of salt that I ate today is the equivalent of an entire storehouse, and I have kept my promise.”

After thinking it over, the Queen decided that the prince had a point, and she congratulated him on so cleverly solving the puzzle.

“Now, there is one more mystery I would like you to solve for me,” she said.

The third brother stepped forward and offered to try his skill. The Queen told him to come back to her the following morning.

The next morning, when the third prince arrived, the Queen awaited him, along with her First Counselor. She opened up a little case that held five eggs. Then she said to the prince:

Five eggs

“As you see, we are three people in this room, and here are five eggs. I want you to divide them in three equal parts, without breaking them. If you can do that, I’ll be convinced that you and your brothers are the wisest, most remarkable men in the world.”

“This is nothing at all, your Highness,” the prince said.

Taking the eggs from the little case, the prince put three of them down in front of the queen, gave one to the counselor, and kept the last.

“Now there are three equal parts, and no egg has been broken,” he said.

The Queen asked him to explain.

The prince answered, “The three portions are equal, because — forgive me — the counselor and I already have two eggs each in our pantaloons, and you have none. So I gave you three from the case, and the counselor and myself, one each. Now we all have three, and the portions are equal.”

This answer made the Queen blush, but she agreed that it was correct — and quite clever. She complimented the prince and sent him to join his brothers. Then she consulted with her First Counselor, saying that the princes had solved puzzles that no man before them had been able to solve, and so any of them were worthy to become her Prince Consort.

“Which one do you choose?” asked the counselor.

“They all have superior minds, but the one I like best is the one who solved the mystery of the salt,” the Queen said.

And so the counselor went to the princes and told them about the promise the Queen had made to her father regarding her future spouse, and added that while all of them were worthy, the Queen wished the second prince to become her husband.

This surprised the brothers quite a bit — especially the second brother — and at first, they thought the counselor was playing a joke on them. After he convinced them that he was entirely serious, the brothers consulted among themselves. Finally, the second brother stepped forward and graciously accepted the Queen’s proposal, adding that he and his brothers were all appreciative that the Queen held them in such high regard. However, even though their father had banished them from his kingdom (or so the brothers believed), as obedient sons they should still inform him of the situation. So with the Queen’s permission, the brothers proposed to first return the Mirror of Justice to Emperor Beramo, then return to Serendip to inform their father of the marriage. After that, they would return for the Queen and second Prince’s wedding.

The Queen was pleased to hear that her proposal had been accepted, and she graciously agreed to the brothers’ request. After exchanging pledges and engagement tokens with the second prince, she gave the brothers the Mirror of Justice, as well as many rich gifts for themselves. And the brothers joyously set out for Beramo’s kingdom, to return the mirror.

Personally, I would have picked the brother who solved the egg puzzle.


Retold from 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. The Italian original is also online, at Italian Wikisource.

The adventures of the Three Princes form part of the framing story of the Peregrinaggio. In upcoming posts, I’ll share some of the tales that form the novellas embedded within the overall narrative.

In the Middle East, eating salt (or salt and bread) with someone traditionally symbolizes a mutual obligation of hospitality and friendship between the diners. Possibly the best known example of this to Westerners is the story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Towards the end of the story, the captain of the thieves, disguised as a merchant named Cogia Houssain, gets himself invited to Ali Baba’s house. When Ali Baba asks Houssain to dine with him, Houssain pretends that he has an allergy to salt, and Ali Baba, as a good host, orders the meal prepared without salt. The reasoning here is that if Houssain had eaten salt with his host, the obligation of friendship would have prevented Houssain from killing Ali Baba, which of course was his entire reason for being there. If you’ve read the story, you know this doesn’t go well.

References

Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio. Edited, with Introduction and Notes, by Theodore G. Remer. University of Oklahoma Press, 1965.

Salt article from the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, Edited by James Orr. 1939

Images

Asoka’s Queen by Abanindranath Tagore, 1910. Source: WikiArt

Salt. Source: Max Pixel.

Five eggs. Source: pxhere Remixed by Nina Zumel

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