Monday, January 11, 2016

The Fairy Serpent: A Chinese Beauty and the Beast Tale

Once there was a man who had three daughters, who were skilled in embroidery. Every day on his way home from work he would gather flowers for them to use as patterns. One day he found no flowers along the road and went into the woods, and unintentionally found his way into the land of a fairy serpent. The serpent coiled around him and hissed at him for entering his garden.

The man pleaded that he was only trying to get gifts for his daughters. The snake refused to let the man go unless he promised to give one of his daughters to him. The man pleaded to find any other way, but the snake would accept nothing else. At last, worried about his daughters deprived of his protection, made his promise and returned home.

He was so anxious he could not eat, and his daughters tried to discover the source of his sorrow. The eldest urged him to take food, and he said he would do so, if she went to marry a snake for his sake. She refused, and her father was still deeply troubled. The same thing happened with the second daughter, but the youngest declared she would wed the serpent if her father took care of himself. The father returned to health, and the family was happy again.

But later, the girls were sitting and embroidering, when a wasp flew into the room and demanded that his master's bride come with him. The girls poked the wasp with their needles until he flew away.

The next day, two wasps came, and three the day after that, and after a while, the girls could not withstand the wasps or their stings, and the youngest decided to relieve her family of the wasps and go with them. She found a beautiful palace filled with luxuries and treasures, and a snake with beautiful eyes and a musical voice, but warty skin, and she shuddered at the idea of seeing him about.

But the young bride told the snake that she appreciated the excellence of his provisions, and she would do her best with her domestic tasks. The snake doted on her and was so kind, she began to appreciate his presence.

One day she was in the forest fetching water, and when she returned she found the snake dying of thirst. She grabbed him and plunged him into the water, from which he rose transformed, as a handsome man. He had been enchanted, but by her "dutiful quest and gracious pity she set him free. Thereafter she often with her admirable husband visited her old home and carried gifts to those who were less happy than she."

Tale found in Surlalune's Beauty and the Beast Tales From Around the World and is available to read in full on Surlalune; collected between 1873 and 1889, it was published in Adele M. Fielde's Chinese Fairy Stories. Illustrations by Kam Mak for The Dragon Prince

I like this unusual version of "Beauty and the Beast". First of all, the narration goes to greater lengths than most to show that the father really cares for his daughters and tries to get out of giving any of them away. He has a sweet relationship with all of them, and in this one Beauty is not set apart by a different request-the flowers are for all of them.

And although her sacrifice is for her father, the episode with the wasps shows that she is doing it for the sake of the rest of her family as well (besides being humorous, and showing a rare instance of Beauty stalling for time after promising to wed a Beast.)

Also, the mention of charity at the end is pretty rare in fairy tales. Most fairy tales represent inward journeys, and the hero is content to simply enjoy his or her new wealth and royal spouse, but I like this positive message.

Also, in honor of David Bowie's recent passing, I thought I'd repost his "Beauty and the Beast," although it really has nothing to do with the fairy tale other than sharing the same name:

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