Annotated Fairy Tale #3 — The Prince and the Tortoise

You didn’t think you were getting off this easy, did you? This has always been one of my favorites, probably because a great many people act surprisingly rationally, (instead of everybody acting batshit crazy) and it contains one of the greatest lines in all fairytale-dom. Compared to the sheer cracked-ness of “Master-Maid,” though, this one is pretty straightforward.

This is from a translation of the Arabian Nights from Powys Mathers, 1964.

The Prince and the Tortoise

It is related that there was once, in the antiquity of time and the passage of the age and of the moment, a powerful sultan whom Allah had blessed with three sons: Ali, the eldest, Hussein, the second, and Muhammad, the youngest. They were all indomitable males and heroic warriors; but the youngest was the most handsome, the bravest and the most generous. Their father loved them equally and, in the justice of his heart, had resolved to leave to each an equal part of his riches and his kingdom.

Compared to the last couple of kings we’ve dealt with, this sultan is awesome. No beatings, and I bet he didn’t skimp on the pensions, either.

Also, when they came to marriageable age, the king called his wise and prudent wazir to him, saying, “O wazir, I wish to find wives for my three sons, and have called you to me that you may give me your advice.”

Seeking wise and prudent advice! This is wonderful! Go, Sultan! Buck that trend!

The wazir reflected for an hour, and then answered, lifting his head, “O king of time, the matter is delicate, for good and evil chance are not to be told beforehand, and against the decree of destiny there is no provision. I suggest that you take the three princes, armed with their bows and arrows, up to the terrace of the palace, and there, after bandaging their eyes, make them each turn round several times, After that, let them fire their arrows straight ahead of them, and let the houses upon which the arrows fall be visited. Have the owners of the houses brought before you and ask of each his daughter in marriage for the marksman of the arrow which fell upon his house. Thus each of your sons will have a bride chosen by destiny.”

…or, y’know, not so much. Seriously, what are you paying this guy? What if the prince shoots his bride-to-be in the head? That’s going to be really awkward.

“Your advice is excellent, and I shall act upon it!” cried the sultan.

I applaud his enthusiasm, even as I question his judgement.

As soon as his sons returned from hunting, he told them of the trial which was to be made and led them up, with their bows and quivers, to the terrace of his palace.

The dignitaries of the court followed and watched with breathless interest while the eyes of the young men were bandaged.

Small bets were placed on whether they would accidentally shoot anyone important. 

The eldest prince was turned about, and then discharged his arrow straight in front of him. It flew through the air with great swiftness and fell upon the dwelling of a most noble lord. In like manner the second prince’s arrow fell upon the terrace of the commander-in-chief of the king’s army.

But, when Muhammad drew his bow, the arrow fell upon a house whose owner was not known.

The king, with his retinue, set forth to visit the three houses, and found the great lord’s daughter and the commander-in-chief’s daughter were girls as fair as moons, and that their parents were delighted to marry them to the two princes. But when the king visited the third house, on which Muhammed’s shaft had fallen, he found in it no inhabitant except a large and lonely tortoise.

Awww. I admit, the fact that it is a large and lonely tortoise gets me. You go, lonely tortoise!

Therefore, deeming that there could be no thought for a moment of marrying a prince to such an animal, the sultan decided that the test should be made again. The youngest prince mounted again to the terrace and again shot an arrow blindfold, but it fell true upon the house of the large and lonely tortoise.

The tortoise, by this point, was probably getting a little annoyed at all the holes in her roof. It’s not easy to climb a ladder when you’re a tortoise.

The king grew angry at this, and cried, “By Allah, your shooting is not fortunate today, my son! Pray for the prophet!”

“Blessing and peace be upon him and upon his companions and those who are faithful to him!” answered Muhammad.

“Now invoke the name of Allah,” exclaimed the king, “and shoot a third arrow.”

“In the name of the merciful, the compassionate!” exclaimed Muhammad, as he strongly drew his bow and sent a third shaft onto the roof of the house inhabited by the large and lonely tortoise.

We should probably take a moment here to point out that the tortoise is a homeowner, which is pretty impressive. You may be large and lonely and lacking in thumbs, but you’re livin’ the dream, baby!

When the Sultan saw, beyond any manner of doubt, that destiny favored the tortoise, he decided that his youngest son should remain a bachelor, and said to him, “My son, as this tortoise is not of our race, or our kind, or our religion, it would be better for you not to marry at all until Allah takes us again into his compassion.”

You do get the impression that if she had been a Muslim tortoise, there would have been fewer objections. Nevertheless, please note how rational the sultan is being here—pray, ask for mercy, try again, then give it up and call it a day. At no point is the tortoise persecuted (other than the holes in her roof) and he hasn’t started beating his son with weasels. There is nothing freaky going on here!

This is deeply unusual for a fairy tale.

But young Muhammad cried in dissent from this, “I swear by the virtues of the prophet (upon whom be prayer and peace!) that the time of my celibacy is over! If the large tortoise is written in my destiny I shall assuredly marry her.”

…well, we knew it couldn’t last.

Celibacy does strange things to a young man’s brain. (Including, apparently, making tortoises hella sexy.) So…err…yeah.

“She is certainly written in your destiny!” cried the astonished sultan. “But it would be a monstrous thing for a human being to wed with a tortoise!”


It’s worth noting that there are probably a round dozen Animal Bride stories, and the most objection anyone makes in any of the others is “Dumbass, you married a frog.” Nobody ever points out that it is freaky and wrong to be married to a frog, nobody speculates on what the frog and the fella get up to, it’s just “Dude, only losers marry frogs.” (I will have to review one of these later, just for the contrast.) The sultan is winning mad props from me on this one, for being the only guy in a fairy tale I’ve read to point out that it is Not Cool To Marry A Reptile.

“I have no predilection for tortoises in general,” cried the prince. “It is this particular one whom I wish to marry.”

Despite my above statement, I have to admit, that is possibly my favorite line in any fairy tale ever.

The sultan, who loved his son, made no more objections but, though the weddings of Ali and Hussein were celebrated with great splendor for forty days and forty nights and then felicitously consummated, no one at court, neither his two brothers, nor their wives, nor the wives of the amirs and dignitaries, would accept an invitation to Muhammed’s bridal feast, and, instead, they did all in their power to spoil and make it sad.

Aw, c’mon! Sure, your brother’s developed a freaky terrapin fetish, but the tortoise was already large and lonely, and now you’re being mean. I hope your roof leaks from all those arrow holes.

Poor Muhammad was bitterly humiliated by the mocking smiles and turned backs which everywhere greeted him; but of his marriage night he would say nothing, and only Allah, from whom no secrets are hid, can tell what passed between the two. It is certain, at least, that no one in that kingdom could imagine how a human youth might couple with a tortoise, even though she were as big as a stock jar.

And let’s give the Arabian Nights a big hand here for actually addressing the mechanics-of-hot-tortoise-lovin’ issue that we were all mentally either trying to work out or trying really hard not to work out! You don’t get that in the Brothers Grimm!

Having said that, let’s just assume they cuddled.

In the time which came after the three weddings, the years and preoccupations of his reign, added to the emotion of his disappointment in Muhammad, bowed the king’s back and thinned his bones. He pined away and became yellow. He lost his appetite and, with his appetite, his vision, so that he became almost completely blind.

The fact that he turned yellow presumably means his liver is in a bad way...

The three princes, who loved their father dearly, resolved to leave his health no longer in the ignorant and superstitious care of the harem.

I’d think the harem would rather resemble the tastes of the man who assembled it, so we may have a finally got a strike against the sultan here.

When they had concerted together, they approached the sultan and kissed his hand, saying, “Dear father, your face is becoming yellow, your appetite is weakening, and your sight is failing you. If these things go on, we shall soon be tearing our garments for grief that we have lost the prop of all our life. Therefore you must listen to our counsel and obey it. We have determined that our wives and not the women of the harem shall henceforth prepare your food, for these last are great experts in the kitchen and by their cookery can give you back appetite which shall furnish strength, strength which will furnish health, and health which will restore your vision.”

The sultan was deeply touched by this care on his sons’ part. “May Allah shower his blessings upon you!” he said. “But I am afraid that this will be a great nuisance for your wives.”

Leaving aside the harem, the Sultan still comes across as incredibly self-effacing. “No, no, don’t let me be a bother…”

“A nuisance to our wives?” they cried. “They are your slaves and have no more urgent object in life than to prepare the food which will restore you to health.”

Do your wives know about this? I hear the tortoise has been going to grad school…

“We have agreed that each of them shall prepare a separate dish, and that you shall choose your favorite in appearance, odor, and taste. Thus appetite will come back to you, and your eyes be cured.”

“You know better than I do what is for the best,” answered the sultan, as he embraced them.

Particularly after that debacle where you picked wives by shooting at them. We fired the wazir.

The three princes went joyfully to their wives and bade them prepare the most admirable dish they could, and each said further, to excite a spirit of emulation, “It is essential that our father should prefer the cooking of our house.”

Really, guys, wouldn’t it be enough to have your beloved father recover from being blind and jaundiced? Do we have to make this into a competition?

After they had given their orders, the two elder brothers were for ever mocking Muhammad and asking him how a tortoise cooked, but he met all their jests with a calm smile.

I have an image of her gripping the frying pan handle in her beak and practicing omelet flips. “Better get the towel, Bob, the mistress has blinded herself with fried eggs again…”

His wife, the large and lonely tortoise,

She’s still lonely? Aw, man. That poor tortoise. You live your life, you save enough to buy a house, and then some dude shoots arrows in your roof and expects you to cook a dinner that will reverse advanced liver disease and macular degeneration. I was hoping the cuddling would help with the loneliness.

had only been waiting for such an opportunity to show what she could do. At once she set to work, and her first care was to send a confidential servant to her elder sister-in-law, begging her to send back all the rat and mouse dung which she could collect in her house, that the tortoise, who never employed any other condiment, might use these matters for seasoning the rice dishes which she was preparing for the sultan.

I am now picturing the most unsettling set of salt and pepper shakers ever.

“As Allah lives, I will do no such thing!” said Ali’s wife to herself. “If these things make really good seasoning, let the wretched tortoise find her own. I can make all the use of them that is necessary.” Then aloud to the servant she said, “I regret that I have to refuse your mistress’s request, but I have hardly enough rat and mouse dung for my own requirements.”

Why you gotta be hating on the tortoise? What did the tortoise ever do to you?

When the servant returned with this answer, the tortoise laughed happily, and sent her to Hussein’s wife with a request for all the hens’ and pigeon’s droppings which she had by her. The servant returned from this mission empty handed, with a bitter and disobliging message from the second princess. But when the tortoise had caused the words to be repeated to her, she fell into an ecstasy of contentment and laughed so heartily that she fell over on her backside.

Get the pry-bar, Bob, the mistress is flipped on her shell again.”

As soon as she was a little recovered, she prepared those meats which she could cook best, covered the dish which held them with a wicker cover, and wrapped the whole in a rose-scented napkin. Then she dispatched her servant with the dish to the sultan, at the same moment as his other two daughters-in-law were sending theirs by slaves.

The time of the meal arrived, and the sultan sat down before the three dishes; but, when he had lifted the lid of that sent by the eldest son’s wife, there rose so foul a steam and odor of rat turds that it might well have asphyxiated an elephant.

Now, let’s stop and think about this for a minute. Let’s assume that for some reason you have a grudge against a large and lonely tortoise, who, I don’t know, wore the same hat as you to a party once.  And now the tortoise has sent to you for rat turds and pigeon crap, claiming that she is going to make a dinner out of them.

Even assuming that you are so lost to reason as to believe this, wouldn’t you think “Ha, ha, stupid tortoise and her lack of understanding of human spices!”and go make your best dinner?

But okay, fine. Let’s even assume that you envy the tortoise for her snazzy house, now that the roof has been patched, and the bit where she’s trying to get her PhD in Chelonian Studies. You’re about to prepare a meal so awesome that it is expected to heal the dying.

Have you ever seen the cooks on Chopped panic when they get a secret ingredient in the basket that they’ve never heard of before? You need a little time to figure out what an ingredient does and how you cook it and all kinds of things. And it’s not like Chopped, and somebody handed you a basket and said “Hearts of palm, pomegranate seeds, gummi bears and RAT TURDS! You have fifteen minutes–go!” You don’t have to use the rat turds!

And even assuming all these things, would you not at least sample the dish beforehand, and then go “Hmm, maybe tortoise palates are different!”

People have been acting so intelligently so far. This is a real disappointment.

The sultan was so disagreeably affected by this stench that he fell head over heels in a swoon, and, when his sons succeeded in bringing him to with rose-water and the use of fans, he sat up and cursed his daughter-in-law heartily.

In a little while he became calmer and consented to try the second dish; but, as soon as it was uncovered, a fetid stink of burnt birds’ droppings took him by the throat and eyes so that he thought that the hour of blindness and death was upon him. It was not until the windows had been thrown open and the dish removed and benzoin burnt with incense to purify the air, that the disgusted old man felt himself strong enough to say, “What harm have I done to your wives, my sons, that they should try to dig me a grave before my time?”

It’s a fair question. (And “took him by the throat and the eyes so that he thought that the hour of blindness and death was upon him”—now how’s that for vivid writing?)

The two elder princes could only answer that the thing passed their understanding; but young Muhammad kissed his father’s hand and begged him to forget his previous disappointments in the delight of the third dish.

“What is that, Muhammad?” cried the king in an indignant rage. “Do you mock your old father? When women can prepare such frightful foods, do you expect me to touch the cooking of a tortoise? I can see that you have all sworn to destroy me.”

It’s well known in the marketplace that she’s ruined a fortune in omelet pans!

Muhammad went on his knees and swore, by his life and by the verity of the faith, that the third dish would make up for all, and that he himself would eat anything of it which was not to his father’s taste. He urged with such fervor and humility that the sultan at last signed to the slave to lift the third cover, and waited with a set jaw, murmuring, “I seek refuge in the protection of Allah!”

You gotta admire the old guy’s fortitude.

But it was the soul of all fine cooking which rose from the dish that the tortoise had prepared. It exquisitely dilated the fans of the old man’s heart, it nourished the fans of his lungs, it shook the fans of this nostrils, it brought back lost appetite, it opened his eyes and clarified his vision. He ate for an hour without stopping, then drank an excellent sherbet of musk and pounded snow, and finally gurked several times from the very bottom of his satisfied stomach.

I like a good gurk myself, in the privacy of my own kitchen.

In great delight he gave thanks to Allah and praised the cooking of the tortoise. Muhammad accepted his congratulations modestly, in order not to excite the jealousy of his brothers. “That is only one of my wife’s talents, dear father,” he said. “Allah grant that she may some day find a chance really to earn your praises.” Then he begged the king to allow his future nourishment to be entirely in the hands of the tortoise, and his delighted father readily agreed to the arrangement, which in a few weeks entirely reestablished his health and eyesight.

Fortunately she had just completed her thesis by this time and could turn to cooking.

To celebrate his cure the sultan gave a great feast, and bade his three sons attend it with their wives. At once the two elder princesses began to make preparation that they might appear with honor and success before their father-in-law.

The large tortoise also schemed how to whiten her husband’s visage before the people by the beauty of her escorting and the elegance of her clothes.

Her first step was to send her confidential servant to Ali’s wife with a request for the loan of the big goose which she had in her courtyard, that the tortoise might use it as a fitting steed on which to ride to the festivities. The princess gave so peremptory a refusal that the good tortoise fell over on her backside in the convulsions of laughter which it occasioned her.

“Bob, get the prybar, the mistress—” “Already on it.”

Then she sent to the second sister to borrow her large he-goat for the same purpose, and never has the tortoise been so convulsed and dilated with pure joy as was this one when she received a second and much ruder refusal.

There is still no reason to be rude about this! It is perfectly possible to compose a civil note about why you can’t spare the he-goat!

The hour of the feast came, and the old queen’s women were drawn up in good order at the outside door of the harem to receive the three royal brides. As they waited, a cloud of dust rolled towards them and, when it dissipated, they saw a gigantic goose waddling forward with the speed of the wind, throwing her legs to left and right, beating her wings, and carrying the first princess of the kingdom clinging to her neck in disordered fright.

Dude, forget the rest of this fairy tale—she’s got a riding goose! How awesome is THAT? Forget warhorses! Can you imagine the enemy’s reaction when geese come at them? Geese are savage! A goose will kill a man just to watch him die! Pound for pound, the only thing meaner than a goose is a mantis shrimp, and those don’t do well on land for prolonged periods.

Almost immediately afterwards, a he-goat, rearing and savagely bleating, came up to the entrance also, bearing upon his back the second princess, all stained with dust and dung.

And positively anti-climatic after the goose.

The sultan and his wife were deeply offended by this double exhibition, and the former cried, “See, they are not content with strangling and poisoning me; they wish to mock me before the people!”

First note of the existence of his wife. Nevertheless, I would think that a great warrior like yourself would recognize the awesome potential of the War Goose.

The queen received the two women coldly, and an uncomfortable pause was only broken by the arrival of the third princess. The king and his wife were full of apprehension, saying to each other, “If two humans could show so absurdly, what can we expect from a tortoise? There is no power or might save in Allah!” So saying, they waited with caught breath for what might appear.

We seem to be switching erratically between “king” and “sultan,” which we’ll chalk up to translation.

The first rank of couriers appeared, announcing the arrival of prince Muhammed’s wife, and presently four handsome grooms, dressed in brocade and rich tunics with trailing sleeves, led up the palanquin. It was covered with bright-colored silks, and the black men who carried it set it down by the stairs. An unknown princess of bright splendor stepped from it, and the women, supposing her to be a maid of honor, waited for the alighting of the tortoise. Yet, when the palanquin was borne away, and this delightful vision mounted the steps alone, they recognized her as Muhammed’s bride and received her with honor and effusion. The sultan’s heart rejoiced to see her grace and nobility, her charming manners and musical movements.

At once the sultan bade his sons and their wives be seated by him and by the queen, and, when they had taken their places, the feast was served.

The first dish was, as usual, a profusion of rice swollen in butter. Before anyone could take a mouthful the beautiful princess lifted the dish and poured all its contents over her hair. Immediately each grain of rice turned to a pearl, and the pearls ran down the long strands of hair and tinkled to the floor in a bright cascade.

“Dude. I was eating that.”

Before the company could recover its wits after so admirable a prodigy, she also lifted a large tureen, filled with thick green soup, and poured its contents over her head in the same way. The green soup changed to an infinity of emeralds among her hair, and these fell about her like green rain, to mingle their sea-tints with the pearls upon the floor.

“Muhammed, your wife is gorgeous, but her table manners leave something to be desired.”

During the delighted confusion which followed, the servants brought other supplies of rice and green soup for the guests to eat, and the two elder princesses, now yellow with jealousy, could not leave well alone. The eldest seized on the dish of rice and the second on the tureen of green soup; both poured the contents of these things upon their heads. But the rice remained rice in the hair of the first, horribly daubing her with butter, and the soup, remaining soup, ran down in a sticky course over the hair and face and garments of the second, for all the world like cow slop.

And again we have the “when someone is behaving strangely, we do not imitate them!” problem. Sigh.

The sultan was disgusted at these accidents and commanded his two elder daughters-in-law to withdraw from the feast, also he proclaimed that he wished never to see them again, or smell them, or hear of them. Their husbands, therefore, led them away in a great rage, and you may suppose that all four noses trailed very near the ground. So much for them.

“Even though I made you marry women chosen by shooting blindly into the air, I am appalled!” Sultan loses points here. Although “So much for them” is a nicely conversational dismissal. 

When prince Muhammad and his magic princess were left alone with the sultan, he embraced them and took them to his heart, saying, “You alone are my children!” He wrote a will leaving his throne to his youngest son and, calling together his amirs and wazirs, made his intention known to them. Then to the two young people, he said, “I wish you both to stay with me in my palace until the end.”

“To hear is to obey,” they answered. “Our father’s desire is upon our heads and before our eyes.”

That she might never again be tempted to resume the appearance of a tortoise and so shock the old sultan, the princess ordered her servant to bring the large and lonely shell which she had left at home that day and, when it was fetched, burnt it without compunction. Ever afterwards she remained in her own delightful form. And glory be to Allah who gave her a faultless body, a marvel to the eyes of men!

And a doctorate. Looks only last so long, kids.

The giver showered his blessings upon these two and delighted them with numerous children.

Several of whom were tortoises.

Standard ending of course, but one way that this runs counter to the usual run of fairy-tales is that the bride is the one who burns the tortoise shell. The vast majority of Animal Bride tales require the husband to find the skin that the bride wears in animal form and then burn it (the response from the bride varies wildly.) but this is the only one I know where the bride takes the matter into her own hands. Which is an interesting bit of agency.

But I really just love it for the line about having a predilection for tortoises.


17 thoughts on “Annotated Fairy Tale #3 — The Prince and the Tortoise

  1. tanita says:

    I think I just scared the neighbors with the loud whoop of laughter. “The mechanics of hot-tortoise lovin'” were just not something I had previously considered: Thanks, Arabian Nights!

    This one did make a HECKUVA lot more sense than the last one, even WITH the singular reptile predilection.

  2. Snowflake says:

    I’m stuck on “horribly daubing her with butter”. I mean, how horrible a daubing are we talking here? I can see some grossness happening, but the use of the word “horrible” just makes me think there is something else going on with that butter.

  3. Sixwing says:

    Oh my.

    ..must not howl with laughter at work, it’ll scare the neighbors. Thank you so much, not only for the wonderful commentary, but for introducing me to a tale I’d never heard!

  4. Hawk says:

    Snowflake: imagine how hot the butter is, considering the rice has been cooked IN the butter…she was probably being scalded quite spectacularly…

    I laughed VERY hard at that line about the predilection…

  5. Alfred Lord Tennyson says:

    More of these, please! And then publish a volume of heavily-annotated and illustrated fairy tales! They’d sell like hot tortoise-prepared dishes!

  6. Angela says:

    I like how it notes that the rude daughters-in-law have slaves, but the tortoise has servants. A tiny insight into characters.

  7. Frances says:

    When I got to the bit about Bob and his prybar,I spilt my tea everywhere,,,
    sheer,amazing ,lunatic (in the best posible sense) genius!

  8. Pingback: Tea with the Squash God » Annotated Fairy Tale #3 — The Prince and the Tortoise – - GothtiggerGothtigger

  9. seamstress says:

    I love your annotated fairytales – they’re most of them new to me and they’re only improved by your commentary! I read the Arabian Nights at age 10 and was very surprised that sex was alluded to regularly (“and I spent the most wonderful night of my life with her”) but did you know that the Brothers Grimm actually edited out references to sex and related topics from their fairytales? In the original transcription of Rapunzel, the reason she can’t keep the witch from knowing that a prince has been visiting her is that her clothes start being too tight because of her pregnancy – instead, they made her seem a stereotypical dumb blonde when she blabs out the news in the question “How come you’re so much heavier than the prince?”. My feminist heart was very annoyed when I found out 🙂

  10. Pingback: Pear cake top side up, and bits and pieces « thiacassidy

  11. Wanna Sex says:

    You’re so awesome! I don’t believe I’ve truly read something like this before. So good to discover someone with original thoughts on this issue. Really.. many thanks for starting this up. This site is one thing that is needed on the web, someone with a little originality!

Leave a Reply