Sunday, November 25, 2007

The Clever Maiden (Kazak)

There was once a heartless sultan who even in the best of times would slay his subjects left and right for sometimes the slightest misdeeds. So fearsome was he that even ghosts were afraid of him. One day, when he was in a bad mood, he summoned his three ministers before him.

"My dear councilors," he began, "I have three questions to ask you. First, what is the most beautiful thing in the world? Second, what is the hardest thing in the world? Third, what is the sweetest thing in the world? Whoever can answer each question correctly shall be rewarded; whoever cannot shall lose his 'brain sack.' Now, prepare to answer."

The three ministers stood still in deep thought. Finally, the first among them spoke up and said, "Your Majesty, I think everyone has a different idea about what is the most beautiful, the hardest or the sweetest. Ask a hundred people, and you shall receive a hundred answers."

"I see," said the Sultan, clapping his hands for his guards. "You, sir, did not answer the questions. Guards! Take him to the chopping block. Display his head for all to see!"

The guards led the unfortunate man to his doom.

"And you," the Sultan addressed the second minister, "how do you respond?"

This man rubbed his beard, shrugged, and replied much the same way.


Now there was just the third minister alone with the Sultan.

"And I suppose your reply will be the same?" the Sultan asked him.

"No, Your Majesty, it is not," he said, his knees quaking. "I do not have any answers yet. However, if Your Majesty would kindly permit me to have three days' time, I will certainly come up with the correct answers."

"Oh, so be it," said the Sultan, yawning. "All right, you have three days." He then dismissed the man.

The minister returned home, but there he could neither eat his lamb nor drink his tea. He felt agitated and tossed and turned all night, trying to come up with answers that would allow him to keep his head. He thought and thought and thought until he felt his brain was ready to burst.

His daughter was alarmed to see her father so upset and asked him what was troubling him. He then told her he had only two more days to find out answers to three questions posed by the Sultan.

When she had heard what the questions were, the daughter laughed and said, "Why, Father, those questions are easy to answer! The most beautiful thing in the world is cotton. The hardest is poverty. The sweetest is love. Give those answers to the Sultan, and if he asks from where you got them, tell him that you had heard them from me."

The minister then reported back to the Sultan, announcing that he had the answers to the three questions.

The Sultan listened to the answers and mused over them for several minutes.

The monarch accepted the three responses, but when he heard the minister's daughter had coached her father on what to say, he said, "Since your daughter gave you the answers, I summon her to appear before me to explain her reasoning but under these conditions: first, she cannot arrive here by either walking or riding; second, she cannot wear clothes, but neither can she appear in court naked! For her to violate either one of these demands will mean instant death for both of you. Now go and fetch her here before the day is done!"

The minister returned home, hanging his head all the way, and told his daughter she was to appear that day under two impossible conditions.

When she had heard what the conditions were, the daughter replied, "Have no fear, Father. I know what to do. Leave it up to me."

She then retired to her chamber, where she took off all her clothes and wrapped herself up in the finest transparent gauze from all of Arabia. She next had her father call for two servants and a sedan chair. She then climbed up onto the chair, allowing her left leg to dangle from the chair so that her foot would be able to touch the ground. The daughter now ordered the two servants to take her to the palace. Her father walked on ahead.

The Sultan observed her as she entered court. She was riding yet not riding, since her left foot was walking upon the ground as the chair was being carried. And her person? She appeared to be both clothed and unclothed at the same time. The Sultan felt he had no choice but to admit her into court. She had met the two conditions.

"All right, girl. Why do you say that cotton is the most beautiful thing in the world?" asked the Sultan.

"Your Majesty," she respectfully replied, "flowers bloom, wither and fall to the ground without doing anything other than being pretty to look at for a very short time. Cotton, however, lasts and lasts and can be made into warm and lovely garments. Is there truly anything more beautiful than that which can keep us both clothed and attractive?"

"Very well, " said the Sultan. "Now how is it that poverty is the hardest thing in the world?"

"Nearby our home, Your Majesty," said the daughter, "there lived a widow with several children. After her husband had died, she had to work even harder than before to feed her young ones and herself. She had to do the work of two adults day in and day out. She worked and suffered to the point of being a walking skeleton without having anything to show for her sacrifices and anguish. She sold off everything her husband had ever given her, and she was still unable to put enough food on the table. One cold morning, her children found her swinging from the rafters . . . This is why I say that poverty is the hardest thing on earth."

"All right. Those are two good replies with one more to go. Love. Why is it the sweetest?"

"Your Majesty, once my father and mother had an argument," said the daughter, "and my mother nearly broke her hand hitting him. All night long did Mother's hand throb and ache. Early the next morning, though, I tiptoed into their chamber, and there they lay, the sore hand between Father's palms and a smile on both of their faces. From then on, I have always believed that love is the sweetest thing on earth. Do you not think so, Your Majesty?"

"I would have to say . . . yes," said the Sultan. He nodded his approval, and told the maiden that she had answered each question in a very satisfying way. He immediately appointed the young woman to the post of minister, alongside her father. She and her father then together served the Sultan and the land faithfully, and both lived very long and happy lives.

(from The Wonderful Treasure Horse)


Xinjiang minjian wenxue, pp. 65-67.

One of several stories in which a woman's wisdom saves the day. This story perhaps reflects the conclusions Bar-Itzhak and Shenhar made about the Jewish folktale "Queen Alfahima," that in the patriarchal and patrilineal communities of old, men were delegated the duty of exhibiting anger, while women were called upon to serve as the pacifiers for that anger (133-134). AT 875. Motifs: H512, "Guessing with life as wager"; H541, "Riddle propounded with penalty for failure."

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