East of the Sun & West of the Moon | The Serpent (An Italian Tale)

The following is an annotated version of the fairy tale. I recommend reading the entire story before exploring the annotations, especially if you have not read the tale recently.


Of the Second Day


THE cat was compassionated beyond measure, seeing that she had received such unworthy recompense for her well-doing. But there were those who considered she might have found consolation in the thought that she was not alone; for in these days ingratitude hath become a domestic evil, and hath become quite a common disease, like the French sickness, and the horned evil. And there are many who have made and unmade and lost their fortune, and ruined their lives to serve an ungrateful race, and whilst they think of holding a golden cup in their hand, they find themselves decreed to die in the hospital. Meanwhile Popa had prepared herself to speak, and all present were silent, whilst she began as follows:

Whoso seeketh to know through curiosity other folk's affairs usually droppeth the axe on his own feet: as can be instanced by the King of Starza-longa, who for putting his nose in whatso concerned him not, spoiled his daughter's happiness, and ruined his son-in-law; and attempting to break a head, remained with a broken head himself.

There lived a peasant-woman, who longed sorely to have a son, more than a litigant desireth to win his suit, and the sick a glass of water, and the innkeeper his gain. But no matter how much the husband delved all the night long, he could see no sign of her fertility. One day of the days he fared forth to the foot of a mountain to get a fagot of wood, and in bringing it home he discovered a pretty little serpent among the boughs. At this sight Sapatella (thus was the peasant's wife hight) drew a long sigh, and said, 'Even the serpents have their little ones, but I brought ill-luck with me to this world, I have an useless husband, that although he is a gardener, is not capable to engraft a single tree.' And the serpent answered to these words, 'As thou canst have no children, take me, and thou wilt do a good deed, and wilt find thyself contented, and I will love thee better than mine own mother.' Sapatella, hearing a serpent speak, was frightened with sore affright, but after a little while heartened her heart, and said, 'As thou dost desire it, f or the loving words thou hast spoken to me, I am content to accept thee just as if thou wert born out of mine own knee;' and thus, taking the serpent home, she found a hole for him to go into, and fed him of whatsoever she possessed with the greatest affection, so that the serpent grew from day to day. And when he had grown large, he said to Cola-Matteo (thus was the gardener bight), whom he treated as his father, 'O my sire, I desire to be married.' Said Cola-Matteo, 'By thy leave, shall we find another serpent like thee, or shall we mate thee with some other race?' Answered the serpent, 'What are thou saying? wouldst thou mate me with serpents, vipers, and others of this kind? go, thou art verily a foolish fellow, and thou makest of all herbs one bunch. 'Tis my desire to wed the king's daughter, and therefore go thou at once to the king's presence, and ask of him his daughter in marriage and tell him that a serpent desireth to make her his wife.' Cola-Matteo, who was a simpleton, and understood naught of these things, went straightway to the king and delivered his message, saying, 'An ambassador is not punished, else there would be many whose backs would be broken. Thou must know that a serpent desireth to wed thy daughter, therefore I was bidden to come, and try if we can engraft a serpent with a dove.' The king seeing that he had to deal with a simpleton, to get rid of him, replied, 'Go and say to this serpent that, if he will make all the fruit in my garden to become gold, I will give him my daughter in marriage.' And so saying, and laughing in his face, he bade him take his leave.

When Cola-Matteo went home and conveyed this answer to the serpent, he said, 'Go early to-morrow morning, and gather all the stones of fruit that thou wilt find in the city, and throw them about the park, and thou wilt behold pearls threaded in gold.' As soon as the sun with his golden besom swept the dust of the shadows of night from the fields watered by the dawn, Cola-Matteo did as he was bid, without asking questions or contradicting anything, and basket on arm, fared on from market-place to market-place, and gathered the stones of peaches, nectarines, cherries, plums, and what ever he found in the streets; and going to the king's park, sowed them as the serpent had directed him. In no time the trees sprang up, and boughs, leaves, buds, and fruit were all sheening gold, at the sight of which the king marvelled with extreme marvel, and was glad with exceeding gladness. But when Cola-Matteo was Sent by the serpent to the king to ask him the fulfilment of his promise, the king said, 'Do not go so fast, I must have another gift from thy master, if he desireth to take my daughter in marriage, and 'tis, that he buildeth all the walls, and the ground of the park, with gems and precious jewels.' And the gardener returned and told this to the serpent, and he said, 'Go to-morrow morning, and gather up all the broken bottles and platters and other earthen wares thou canst find, and throw them about in the paths and on the walls of the park, and thus we will reach the end of this lame intent.' And Cola-Matteo, as soon as the night, after protecting with her gloom all thieves and malefactors, went about gathering the fagots of the twilight of heaven, taking a large basket on his head, began to collect pieces of broken pots, and of ewers' handles, and lids of jugs, and bits of lanterns and of night chamber-pots, and slabs, arid handles, and all kinds of broken earthenware. And he did with them as the serpent had told him, and all at once the park walls and paths mantled with emeralds, and carbuncles, and sapphires, and diamonds, and rubies, and amethysts, which shone in the sun with glitter enough to blind the sight; and exceeding marvel struck every heart. Whereat the king remained in an ecstasy of amazement, and could not realise what had befallen him. But when the serpent sent for the third time to ask him to fulfil his promise, the king answered, 'That which he hath already done is naught, if he let not this my palace become all of gold.'

When Cola-Matteo referred this other caprice of the king to the serpent, he thus replied, 'Go and gather several herbs, and anoint with their juice the foundation of the palace, and thus we will try to satisfy this beggar.' Cola-Matteo, obedient to the serpent's orders, went and gathered tender leaves, small radishes, burnet, porchiacca, rocket, and charvel, and anointing the foundations of the palace with the juice, behold, it at once glistened with gold enough to enrich a thousand houses beggared by fortune. And the gardener returned to the king with the serpent's message, and seeing there was no escape, and that he must maintain his promise, the king sent for his daughter, Princess Grannonia hight, and said to her, 'O my daughter, I have asked gifts and deeds which seemed impossible to me to attain of one who desireth to become thine husband, and whom I liked not, but he hath fulfilled all that I asked, and now I feel obliged to fulfil my promise, and I beseech thee, O my blessed child, not to refuse, so that I may keep my trust, and to try and be content of whatso Heaven hath sent thee, as I am constrained to do.' Answered the princess, 'Do as it please thee, O my sire, I will not gainsay thy will.' The king, hearing these words, sent to Cola-Matteo to bid the serpent come to the presence; and the serpent, hearing the royal command, mounted a golden car, drawn by four elephants caparisoned in jewels and gold, and came to court. But wherever he passed, all folk fled in wild fear, beholding such a large serpent parading the city in a golden car. And when he arrived at the palace, all the courtiers fled, and not even the scullions remained. And the king and queen fled also, and hid themselves in one of the chambers. Princess Grannonia alone stood firmly awaiting his coming. And the father and mother cried out to her, 'Fly, run Grannonia, "save thyself Rienzo,"' but she moved not one step, saying, 'Must I run away from the husband that ye gave me?' But no sooner had the serpent entered the room, than he caught the princess by the waist with his tail, and kissed her many times, whilst the king felt the worms dance in him with fright, and if a leech could have bled him in that moment, no blood would have come forth from his veins. And the serpent led the princess into an inner chamber, and bade her shut the door, and shaking off his skin, became a most handsome youth, with an head covered with golden curls, and eyes which caused a thousand sighs; and embracing his bride, he gathered the first fruits of his love. When the king saw the serpent withdraw into an inner chamber with his daughter, and shut the door after him, he said to the queen, 'Heaven give peace to that good soul of our daughter, surely she is dead by this: and that accursed serpent will have swallowed her up like the yolk of an egg.' And going forward, he put his eye to the key-hole, desiring to know what had become of her; but beholding the grace and beauty and comeliness of the youth, and the serpent's skin thrown off on the floor, the king gave a kick to the door, and both he and his wife entered, and taking the skin, threw it into the fire and burned it.

When the youth saw this, he cried, 'O ye renegade dogs, ye have done for me;' and taking the shape of a pigeon, flew to the window. But the windows being closed, he struck his head against the pane of glass and broke it, and he was sore wounded, so that he had no unhurt place on his head. Grannonia, who had been very happy, and beheld herself deprived of all joy, happy and unhappy, rich and poor at the same moment, beat her breast, and buffeted her face, and wept and lamented with her father and mother, upon the trouble that had come upon her, the poison that had embittered her sweetness, and the change of fortune wrought by those who believed to do her service, but instead had brought her evil. And both excused themselves, saying that they had not meant to do harm.

The princess stayed quietly awaiting till the night came forth to light the torches of the scaffold of heaven for the sun's funeral, when, knowing that the folk slept, she took all jewels and gold which were in her desk, and donning a disguise, fared forth from a secret postern, and thought only of wandering about in search of her lover till she found him. And she issued forth from the city, guided by the moon's rays, and she fared on till she was met by a fox, who asked her if she wished for company; and Grannonia answered, 'It will please me very much, O my gossip, as I know not well this country.' And thus they fared on together till they came to a forest, where the trees, playful as children, had built small houses for the shadows to dwell in. And feeling fatigued of their long walk, and desiring to rest, they retired under the shadows of the trees where a fountain played upon the cool grass; and lying down upon this bed of grass, paid the tribute of rest to nature for the wares of 1 and they stirred not nor awakened till the sun gave the sign with his burning rays to sailors and couriers that they could proceed on their journey. And when they arose, they still remained in the spot to listen to the warbling of various birds, and Grannonia listened with great enjoyance to their singing, and the fox, seeing her pleasure, said, 'Still more pleased wouldst thou be if thou couldst understand what they are saying, as I understand it.' Grannonia, hearing these words, (for all women are as full of curiosity as they are of chatter) begged the fox to relate to her what she heard in the birds' language. The fox, allowing her to beg and pray for some time, so as to provoke the more her curiosity, to give more importance to what she had to tell, at last said that those birds were talking to each other about a great misfortune that had happened to the king's son, who was a very beautiful and graceful youth, because he would not satisfy the licentious desires of an accursed ghula, who had charmed him and given him the curse that he should be a serpent for seven years. And the time had nearly come to an end, when he had fallen in love with a charming damsel, the daughter of a king, and had asked her in marriage of the king her father; and being one day for the first time in a room with his bride, he had left his skin on the floor, and her father and mother out of curiosity rushed in, and seeing the skin on the ground had burned it, whereupon the prince, taking the shape of a pigeon, tried to escape, and in flying out of a window had broken the pane of glass with his head, and wounded himself sorely, so much so that the doctors despaired for his life. Grannonia, hearing thus her sorrows discussed, inquired whose son this prince was, and if there was any hope or remedy for his sickness. The fox answered that those birds were just saying that his father was the King of Vallone-grosso; and there was no other secret to heal those wounds in his head, so that his soul should not come forth, than to anoint them with the blood of those very birds who had related the story. Grannonia, hearing these words, knelt down before the fox, and besought her to do her this kind deed, and to catch those birds for her, to get their blood, and they would afterwards divide the gain. Said the fox, 'Softly, let us await till night darkeneth and the birds are asleep, let thy mother do her will, I will climb up the tree, and I will slay Them one by one.' And they passed the day, talking of the youth's beauty, of the mistake of the king, the bride's father, of the misfortune to the youth. And discussing these matters, the time passed, and earth strewed the black pasteboard to gather in all the wax of the torches of night.

The fox, as soon as she beheld the birds fast asleep upon the boughs, clomb up the tree quite quietly, and slew one by one as many bullfinches, swallows, sparrows, blackbirds, larks, chaffinches, woodcocks, wild fowls, owls, crows, magpies, and flycatchers as were upon the tree, and put their blood in a small juglet, which the fox always carried with her to refresh herself by the way. Grannonia was so overjoyed that her feet scarcely touched ground, but the fox said to her, 'Thy great joy is but a dream, O my daughter, thou hast done naught, if thou hast not also my blood to mix with the birds'; and having said these words, she took to her heels. Grannonia, seeing all her hopes fall to the ground, had recourse to woman's art, which is cunning and flattery, and said, 'O my gossip, O fox mine, thou wouldst do well to save thy skin if I were not so much indebted to thee, and if there were no other foxes in the world. But as thou knowest what I owe thee, and thou knowest also that in these woods there is no lack of thy companions, thou mayest rest assured of my faith, and needest not, like the cow, kick the tub when 'tis full of milk. Thou hast done and undone, and thou wilt lose thyself at thy best: stay; believe me; and accompany me to the city to this king's presence, so that he may buy me for his slave.' The fox, never dreaming that the other was a quintessence of foxery, found a woman more a fox than herself; therefore turning back, she walked with Grannonia. But they had not gone an hundred steps when the princess struck her a blow, with the stick which she carried, upon the head, which forthwith stretched her at her feet, and slaughtering her, at once took her blood, mixing it with that of the birds in the juglet. She fared on till she came to Vallone-grosso, and entering the city, went to the royal palace, and sent word to the king, that she had come to heal the prince. The king sent for her to the presence, and marvelled with exceeding marvel to perceive a young damsel undertake to do that in which the wisest doctors in all his kingdom had failed; but as to try doeth no harm, he said that he wished to see the experiment. But replied Grannonia, 'If I succeed in my endeavour, and thou perceive a beneficial effect of my cure, and I fulfil thy heart's desire, thou must promise to give the prince to me in marriage.' The king, believing that his son would certainly die, answered, 'If thou wilt give him to me free and healthy, I will give him to thee healthy and free, as 'tis not such a great gift to give a husband to whoso giveth me a son.' And going to the prince's chamber, the princess stood by the bedside, and anointed his head with the salve, and no sooner had she done so than he rose up in good health, just as if he had never been ill.

When Grannonia beheld the prince hale and strong once more, she bade the king keep his promise, and the king, turning to his son, 'O my son, I gazed upon thee as one dead, and I see thee alive and can hardly believe it. But I gave a promise to this damsel that, if she healed thee, and I beheld thee in health and strength, thou wouldst become her husband, and now that Heaven hath granted this grace, let me fulfil this promise, an thou lovest me: as it is a debt of gratitude which must be paid.' And the prince replied, 'O my lord, would that I could freely do as thou biddest me, and give thee satisfaction, and proof of the great love which I bear to thee; but I have given my faith to another damsel, and thou wilt not ask me to break my troth; and neither will this damsel advise me to act wrongfully and treacherously to one I love, nor can I change my thoughts.' The princess, hearing the prince's words, felt unspeakable joy not to be described, seeing the remembrance of her so deeply impressed in her lover's heart: and the delicate tint of carmine tinging her cheeks, she said, 'But if I could satisfy this young damsel, beloved by thee, and she would willingly give thee up, wouldst thou still be adverse to my desire ' rejoined the prince, 'It shall never be. I can never chase from my mind the sweet image of my love, and in my breast will I keep her enthroned. Let her love me an she will, or chase me from her presence, I will ever remain with the same longing and desire, the same deep affection, and the same thought, and even if I were in danger to lose my life once more, I would never do such a deed, I will never withdraw my plighted troth.'

Grannonia, being unable to resist any more, threw off her disguise, and discovered herself; and when the secret was out, and the prince recognised her, he took her in his arms in deep joy, telling his sire who the damsel was, and what he had done for her sake; and she related to them also what befell her after he had left her, and how through the fox's rede she had been able to heal the prince. And the king sent for the King and Queen of Starza-longa, and all agreed that the marriage-feast should take place at once, and they rejoiced to think how Grannonia had outwitted the fox, concluding at the last that

'To the joy of love
Grief is ever the sauce.'

Basile, Giovanni Batiste. Il Pentamerone, or The Tale of TalesSir Richard Burton, translator. London: Henry and Company, 1893.

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