“The Three Princes of Serendip” Fairy Tale: The Origins of Serendipity

Serendipity is the art of discovering new things by observing, and learning from encountering unexpected information. It has received attention in several fields from sociology of science to epistemology, from psychology and innovation studies to information and computer science. It is no surprise that there is no wide consensus on its meaning. It is indeed widespread to consider serendipity as a romantic ill-defined buzzword. It is today a rather known concept often defined as “an unexpected experience prompted by an individual’s valuable interaction with ideas, information, objects, or phenomena”. In particular, nowadays serendipity is researched in digital environments as an emerging design and ethical principle in order to counteract so-called filter bubbles, algorithmically personalized environments in which it is increasingly difficult to encounter the unexpected: what the algorithms are not able – or willing – to infer from your profile.

Image. Frequency of the word serendipity in literature.

Actually, serendipity is relatively a neologism with no equivalent in languages other than English. It originated from Horace Walpole in 1754, that was inspired by the Persian fairy tale “The Three Princes of Serendip”. This English version of the story originated from ‘Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo’ published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Christophero Armeno, who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau’s Hasht-Bihisht of 1302. The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations. Serendip is the Perso-Arabic name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon). The story has become known in the English-speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” in which the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

Here is reported a Condensed Plot of The Three Princes of Serendip from “Chase, chance, and creativity: The lucky art of novelty.” by Austin, J. H. (2003).

Main Characters:

King Giaffer of Serendip (Ceylon)

His sons, the three princes of Serendip

A camel driver

Emperor Beramo of Persia

Diliramma, a beautiful musician whom Beramo loves

The virgin queen of India

The Fairy Tale:

King Giaffer of Serendip had three sons. He loved his sons so dearly that he wanted them to have the best possible education, not only in the ways of power but in the many other virtues which princes in particular are apt to need. And so he employed skilled tutors to train them in each of many special fields.

One day, to test their progress, the king deliberately misled each of his sons, telling them that he planned to retire to a monastery. The first prince said that he did not wish the throne as long as his father was alive, and the second and third sons added that it would not be right for them to inherit the throne as long as their older brother was alive. From their prudent answers the king knew that they had reached the peak of their book knowledge, and he was wise enough to know that the rest of their education could come only from the experience of traveling in other lands. Feigning anger at their unwillingness to take over the kingdom, he banished them, knowing that this was the only way he could send them out on their own.

In the course of their wanderings, they finally entered the distant Persian kingdom of the Emperor Beramo. Outside his capital they met a camel driver who had lost his camel. He wondered if they had seen it, and purely as a joke the princes supplied the camel driver with all sorts of semicontrived details.“Was your camel blind in one eye?” “Yes,” said the camel driver. And the second prince said, “Did your camel have a tooth missing?” “Yes,” said the owner. The third asked if the camel were lame. “Yes,” said the driver. Misled when he heard these details, the driver retraced the Princes’ steps along the trail, but needless to say, did not find his camel. When he encountered them again, he accused them of deception, but the first prince said, “Your camel carried a load of butter on one side and of honey on the other.” The second said that the camel also carried a woman, and the third prince added that she was pregnant. The camel driver, convinced that anyone this well informed must have stolen his camel, had the princes jailed as camel thieves. When Emperor Beramo heard about the crime, he sentenced the princes to death. In their innocence they then confessed they had played a joke on the camel driver, and that their imaginations must have gotten the better of them because some of their descriptions happened to coincide with the truth. Later, when the real camel was found, the emperor released the princes. He then inquired how they could have guessed so many details. The brothers, in turn, confessed the following camel story:! “I thought he must have been blind in the right eye, because only the grass along the left side of the trail was eaten even though it was not as thick as that over on the right side.” “I guessed that the camel lacked a tooth because the way the grass cuds were chewed indicated that a tooth was missing.” “I guessed that the camel was lame because only three footprints were clearly indicated, whereas the fourth print was dragged.”

They continued, “I guessed that the camel had a load of butter on one side because there were many ants on one side of the trail, and I thought he carried honey on the other side because many flies gathered along the other side of the trail.” “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman because I noted a footprint and found some female urine near where the camel had knelt.” And the third prince concluded, “I guessed that the woman was pregnant because the hand prints nearbyshowedthat shehadhelped herselfupwith her hands after urinating.”

The emperor, pleased by the intelligence of the princes, asked them to remain as guests in his palace. There, one day, he overheard them as they were dining. The first prince said, “I think this wine came from a grape vine with its roots down in a cemetery.” The second added, “I believe the lamb we are eating was suckled not by a sheep but by a female dog.” And the third prince said, “I think the emperor is responsible for the death of one of his Counselors’ sons and that for this reason the Counselor plans to kill the emperor. All three conclusions were shrewdly correct, and the emperor asked the princes how they had guessed.

The first prince said that the wine he tasted caused him to feel depressed rather than happy, and he realized that only wine from a cemetery could have given rise to this feeling. The second prince said that the meat was so salty and full of foam that he knew the lamb could only have been fed by a bitch. And the third mentioned that he happened to notice the Counselor’s face one day when the emperor was talking about punishing criminals. He noted that his face changed color, that he became thirsty, and from this he concluded that the Counselor had suffered a great loss such as the death of his son in punishment for a crime. The emperor then asked the third prince to suggest a way he might escape from the revenge of his Counselor whose son he had indeed put to death. The prince then suggested that the emperor woo the Counselor’s concubine and extract from her details about the forthcoming plot. At the next banquet, the emperor, forewarned by the concubine that the Counselor planned to poison him, cleverly extracted a full confession from him, and banished him from the kingdom.

Now thoroughly impressed with the princes’ wisdom, Beramo enlisted their help in solving a very difficult problem facing his kingdom. It seemed that the ancient philosophers of his realm in former years had possessed a magic mirror called the “Mirror of Justice.” Whenever there was a trial, the contending parties had to look into the mirror. The faces of the innocent would be unaffected, but the faces of those in the wrong would turn black. Because of this, prosperity reigned in the old days. But then Beramo’s father became involved in a dispute with his brother over the succession to the throne, and his brother, for revenge, ran off with the magic mirror to the land of a virgin queen in India. Now it happened that the land of the virgin queen was beset by a calamity: every sunrise a huge open hand would rise above the surface of the sea and remain there until sunset. Then, as night fell, the hand would sweep in, clutch an innocent victim and move back out to sea. Although the magic mirror was placed on the shore to offset the hand, its power was weakened outside of its original kingdom, and the only advantage now was that the hand grasped a horse or steer instead of a man. Emperor Beramo begged the three princes to liberate the Indian kingdom from the fateful hand and return the mirror to his own kingdom. He promised them a large treasure in reward. Shortly after they departed for India, Beramo fell in love with a beautiful slave girl, Diliramma, an exceptionally talented musician. But on a deer hunt, after Diliramma offended his manly pride, he had her taken out to the forest and left to be devoured by the wild animals. Diliramma, however, was fortunately rescued by an elderly merchant who took her back to his own country and adopted her as his daughter. Beramo’s great love soon overcame his wounded pride, but though he tried to find Diliramma, his search was to no avail. Assuming that she was dead, he fell into a deep depression. The three princes, meanwhile, had traveled on to India and there met the virgin queen. Confronted by the giant hand at sunrise, the first prince raised his own hand and stuck up two fingers, his index and third, to indicate the victory sign. This bold gesture quickly felled the hand and banished it into the depths of the sea. The queen, amazed, asked for his secret. He had discerned, he said, that the hand was only a symbol of the fact that five men united for a single purpose could conquer the world. Believing, as he did, that only two men were needed for such a task, he had thus put the symbol to shame.

By then, the virgin queen had guessed from their noble bearing that the three brothers were princes from a distant kingdom. To prevent the return of the evil hand, she wished to marry one of them and keep him on to rule her own land. But, which prince to marry? Luckily, the queen’s father, before he died, had given her two tests for her suitors. One requirement was to eat an entire storehouse of salt. The second prince passed this test to her satisfaction when he consumed a few token grains of the salt, and then observed that anyone who would eat this much salt could realize the full extent of the obligation. For the next test, she invited the third prince to her palace to meet with her and her Counselor. There, she removed five eggs from a box and asked the prince to divide them into three equal parts without breaking them. The prince rose to the occasion. He placed three eggs in front of the queen, gave one to the Counselor and kept one for himself. “The eggs are now divided into three equal parts, Madam, and none has been cracked.” But the queen did not understand his solution and asked him to explain. “The three portions are perfectly equal because, you see, both your Counselor and I already have two eggs each in the crotch of our pants and you have none. Now, we each have three, and from this you will see that my way of dividing them was correct.”

The queen blushed, but was nonetheless pleased by the answer. Impressed by the intelligence, wisdom, and prudence of all three princes, the virgin queen pledged her hand to the second prince who had, with subtlety and taste, solved the problem of the salt. The royal wedding was deferred, however, until the prince could return the magic mirror to Emperor Beramo in Persia.

When the princes returned to Beramo’s kingdom, they found him so despondent over his loss of Diliramma that he was on the verge of death. The eldest prince then prescribed the following remedy. “You should build seven beautiful palaces, each of a different color, and stay for a week in each of them.” And his brother added, “You should have seven virgin princesses brought forth from the seven parts of the world and entertain one a week in each palace.” And the third prince concluded, “You should then invite the best storyteller from each of your seven main cities to tell you their most beautiful stories.” Beramo was entranced by these suggestions. The seven palaces were constructed forthwith and a beautiful virgin and a storyteller were lodged for a week in each palace in succession. The individual garments and draperies in each palace had the same color motif, with the key as follows: silver, red, various bright colors (unspecified), yellow, green, dark brown, and gold.

We naturally hesitate to abbreviate any of the hours at Beramo’s disposal, but for the purposes of this story it will suffice to skip the novellas of the first six storytellers because they do not involve the princes. But the seventh tale was about a beautiful maiden who played the lute with great skill and who one day had been found and adopted by an old merchant. This fair maiden could never play without sighing, because long ago she had been loved by a noble lord, who, however, banished her to the forest after she offended him. Beramo, listening to this tale, instantly realized that this was the true story of his love for Diliramma. Knowing now that she was still alive, he dispatched messengers to bring her back. Reunited with his long-lost love, he completely recovered his health.

Beramo then sent for the three princes of Serendip, asking them how it was that, despite all the physicians he had seen, they alone were discerning enough to advise him so wisely. The first prince answered, “I believed your major problem was lack of sleep, and so I prescribed a change of dwelling every week knowing that the contrast would help you recover your ability to sleep.” The second prince said, “I thought that your losing Diliramma was the major problem, and I believed that if you could divert yourself with other maidens, you would gradually forget her. For this reason I prescribed a different beautiful maiden in each of your seven palaces.” The third prince concluded, “I could not believe that Diliramma had been killed by animals because no trace of her was ever found in the forest. I believed that once it became widely known you would reward them with rich gifts, one of the seven storytellers might bring news about Diliramma.”

Beramo was again most impressed by the intelligence of the three princes and sent them back to Serendip bearing precious gifts. There, King Giaffer greeted his long-departed sons with much joy and saw how they had truly reached perfection in absorbing so wisely the different manners and customs of the various lands. Content with this knowledge, he blessed them all and then died.

The eldest prince became the successor to the kingdom of Serendip and went on to rule his country well. The second prince returned to marry the virgin queen of India and became the ruler of that kingdom. The youngest prince married Beramo’s daughter, and on his death succeeded to the throne of Persia. And so ends the story.


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