33. In Search of a Dream
A king had three sons, two of whom were idiots. The youngest son was a smart fellow and the king was very fond of him. He had even decided to pass the kingdom on to him.
One night, the king had a weird dream. In it, he saw a beautiful garden and, in the middle of it, a silver tree with emerald leaves and a ruby fruit. From its branches hung a golden swing. On it perched an emerald parrot, singing and swinging gently. In the dream, the king had a serpent-jewel in his hand with which he struck the bird, and the whole garden vanished at once.
The king wanted to see in real waking life what he had seen in his dream. So he called his three sons, described the dream to them, and said, “If any of you can show me what I saw in that dream, this kingdom will be his.” All three agreed to try, and the king made all the necessary arrangements for their journeys. The two older brothers headed in one direction and the youngest took the opposite direction.
The two older brothers journeyed for five days and got bored. The road was rocky, the forests scary, the towns tempting. So they stopped in a nice place, spent time there enjoying themselves till all their money was gone, and went home to tell their father they couldn't find the garden or the bird of his dream.
Meanwhile, the youngest son found an old woman who asked him to stay with her. He behaved himself and was a good boy for three days. When he was sure that the old woman liked him a lot, he told her what he was after. She knew all about it already, and told him, “If you walk to the north of this town, you'll find a marble fortress. Inside its walls is a garden. It's very hard to get to it. But I'll tell you how to get in. First, look for a large peepul tree. You'll see a snake hole under it. A giant serpent lives there. Every night it comes out of its hole, takes out the divine serpent-jewel from its forehead, puts it down under the tree, and looks for food by the light of the jewel. If you can somehow get that jewel, its light will show you the way into the garden, where you'll find four princesses. At night one of them becomes the silver tree, another becomes the emerald leaves, the third the ruby fruit. The fourth changes into a golden swing. If you show them the jewel in your hand, they will all become yours. You spoke of an emerald parrot. I know nothing about it. But I've an elder sister in the next town. Go and ask her. She may know something about it.”
The young prince saluted her gratefully and traveled northwards for three whole days till he found the marble fortress. Its gates were shut. He waited till night fell and the gates opened by themselves. He went in and was soon in front of an enormous peepul tree. Sure enough, there was a snake hole under it. He climbed the tree, hid among the branches, and waited for the snake. It was a long fearsome creature when it came out. It chose a spot, shook out the jewel from its forehead, which lighted up the ground all around it. While it foraged for food in that circle of light, the prince came down with handfuls of leaves he had plucked and deftly covered the jewel with them. The light was gone and the snake looked all over in the dark for its jewel for a long time, getting more and more frustrated. Finally, in utter rage, it struck its hood again and again on a rock nearby and died a bloody mess.
The prince quickly picked up the jewel and by its light he could now see a beautiful garden in front of him. As he entered it, he could see the silver tree, the emerald leaves, the ruby fruit, and the golden swing. As soon as he pointed the jewel towards them, all of them vanished and in their place stood four princesses, each one lovelier than the other. Each said to the other that she would marry this young man. But he asked them to stay where they were till he had finished the next task, and promised to come back for them in a few days.
The prince now went in search of the emerald bird. He went to the next town, where again he earned the goodwill of an old woman by being a very good boy for three days. Once he was sure that the old woman liked him enough, he asked her if she had any sisters and brothers. She said, “Yes, I've a younger sister in another town.” Then he told her how he had met her sister, and how she had helped him, and how he was now looking for the emerald parrot. The old woman knew all about it and told him: “On the other shore of the seven seas, you'll find a lake. A large lotus grows in it. A princess plays on the lotus leaf all day and changes into an emerald parrot by night.”
“How do I get there?” asked the prince.
“You already have the means. Worship the snake-jewel with real devotion, and a garuda-bird will appear. It will take you beyond the seven seas.”
The prince did as he was told, and a giant garuda promptly appeared, took him on his back, flew over the seven seas, and landed him near a lake. He looked for a large lotus and there it was, in front of him. Under it was an even larger lotus pad, on which the sweetest-looking princess of all was fast asleep. When he pointed the shining serpent-jewel at her face, she woke up with a start, looked long at the prince standing in front of her, and suddenly bent her head, overcome with shyness. He asked her, without any ceremony whatever, “Will you marry me?”
She moved her head in consent.
Then the two of them sat on the garuda and flew over the seven seas. The giant bird left them safely in the second old woman's house and took leave. The old woman blessed them and showed them the way back. Then they entered the marble fortress, and the four princesses he had left behind were delighted to see the fifth one. He told them his father's dream, and they said, “All five of us are sisters. A wicked demon kidnapped our eldest sister and kept her in a lake beyond the seven seas. At night, he slept under water in the lake. He was sure no mortal would ever come there, but you are braver than all: you went and released our sister from that bondage. We'll never leave you. Marry us.”
“But what shall I do if my father asks me to make his dream come true? He wants to see again in broad daylight whatever he saw at night in his dream,” he said.
They had an answer. “Stand all five of us in a row and with one stroke cut off our heads. We'll change into all the things your father saw in his dream. If you strike the parrot with the snake-jewel, we'll return to our human forms. That's all.”
Delighted that his task had been accomplished, he took them to the first old woman, who blessed them all. But she had one wish. She wanted to live with her elder sister. The prince at once took out the jewel and offered worship to it. At once, the garuda arrived and took the old woman to her sister.
The prince now traveled on with his bevy of princesses and reached home. His father said, “I asked you to make my dream come true. Instead you've gone and got yourself all these women.” The prince asked the five princesses to stand in a row and, to everyone's horror, took out his sword and with one stroke cut off all their heads. At once, miraculously, the king's dream was reenacted right before his eyes: the silver tree, the emerald leaves, the ruby fruit, the golden swing, and the emerald parrot.
The prince now struck the parrot with the jewel, and the princesses reappeared in their original forms. The king was ecstatic. He arranged a splendid wedding with the five princesses for his youngest son and gave him the kingdom. The young man was a good ruler and made everyone happy, including his two dim-witted brothers.
Types and Motifs
Type AT 550, Search for the Golden Bird, is known to the tellers of The Thousand and One Nights and is told in both the Middle East and Europe. It has been collected in many regions of India (twenty-seven known variants).
In the present telling, a special emphasis is placed on the dream. The story is explicitly about a search for a dream—the quest is not for a magic bird or a princess (though we have them too) but to make a night's dream come true by day. So the usual dreamlike folktale motifs of transformation (princesses into tree, fruit, bird, and twig) are literally shown to be components of a dream. The king's dream, on the other hand, has shown him something real but not yet actual. The dreamer dreams of what's already real somewhere else, which is why it can be searched for and made present. Meanwhile two sets of sisters (the two old women and the five princesses) are reunited. The usual motifs of the dim-witted elder brother(s) betraying the younger and usurping the bride, quite common in other tellings of AT 550, are absent here because the emphasis is on making a dream actual, not on sibling rivalry.
The youngest brother naturally wins princesses and a kingdom, pursuing another dream, that is, a young man's dream. The old king's caprice turns out to be a test of his son's ability to make an impossible dream come true, a wise test for leadership. Such a tale begins in caprice and ends in wisdom. Beheading the princesses to transform them is a dramatic lesson: every dream has its price. Daring, an appropriate use of violence, and a trust in the ultimate return to normalcy are part of a hero's equipment.
[For a Santali telling of AT 550, see Ramanujan 1991a:181–186.]