Kathasaritsagara (the Ocean of Story)

by Somadeva | 1924 | 1,023,469 words | ISBN-13: 9789350501351

This is the English translation of the Kathasaritsagara written by Somadeva around 1070. The principle story line revolves around prince Naravāhanadatta and his quest to become the emperor of the Vidhyādharas (‘celestial beings’). The work is one of the adoptations of the now lost Bṛhatkathā, a great Indian epic tale said to have been composed by ...

Note on the “magic obstacles” motif

Note: this text is extracted from Book VII, chapter 39.

In a Norwegian tale, called “The Widow’s Son,” p. 295 of Thorpe’s Yule-tide Stories, will be found an incident closely resembling the pursuit of Śṛṅgabhuja by Dhūmaśikha. The widow’s son has, contrary to the orders of a Troll, in whose house he found himself, entered several chambers, in one of which he found a thorn-whip, in another a huge stone, and a water-bottle. In the third he found a boiling copper kettle, with which he scalded his finger, but the Troll cured it with a pot of ointment. In the fourth room he found a black horse in a stall, with a trough of burning embers at its head, and a basket of hay at its tail. The youth thought this cruel, so he changed their position.

The horse, to reward him, informed him that the Troll on his return would certainly kill him, and then continued: “Lay the saddle on me, put on the armour, and take the whip of thorn, the stone, and the water-flask and the pot of ointment, and then we will set out.”

When the youth mounted the horse it set off at a rapid rate.

After riding some time, the horse said: “I think I hear a noise; look round, can you see anything?”

“A great many are coming after us, certainly a score at least,” answered the youth.

“Ah! that is the Troll,” said the horse, “he is coming with all his companions.”

They travelled for a time until their pursuers were gaining on them.

“Throw now the thorn-whip over your shoulder,” said the horse, “but throw it far away from me.”

The youth did so, and at the same moment there sprang up a large thick wood of briers.

The youth now rode on a long way, while the Troll had to go home to fetch something wherewith to hew a road through the wood.

After some time the horse again said: “Look back, can you see anything now?”

“Yes, a whole multitude of people,” said the youth, “like a church congregation.”

“That is the Troll; now he has got more with him; throw out now the large stone, but throw it far from me.”

When the youth had done what the horse desired, there arose a large stone mountain behind them. So the Troll was obliged to go home after something with which to bore through the mountain; and while he was thus employed, the youth rode on a considerable way. But now the horse bade him again look back. He then saw a multitude like a whole army, they were so bright that they glittered in the sun. “Well, that is the Troll with all his friends,” said the horse. “Now throw the water-bottle behind you, but take good care to spill none on me.” The youth did so, but notwithstanding his caution he happened to spill a drop on the horse’s loins. Immediately there arose a vast lake, and the spilling of a few drops caused the horse to stand far out in the water; nevertheless he at last swam to the shore. When the Trolls came to the water, they lay down to drink it all up, and they gulped and gulped it down till they burst. (Folk-lore demons experience great difficulty in crossing water.) Now we are quit of them,” said the horse.

In Laura von Gonzenbach’s Sicilianische Märchen, vol. ii, p. 57, we find a similar incident. In the story of Fata Morgana, a prince, who carries off a bottle filled with her perspiration, but imprudently wakes her by kissing her, is pursued by her with two lions. He throws three pomegranates behind him: the first produces a river of blood, the second a thorny mountain, the third a volcano. This he does by the advice of his horse, who is really Fata Morgana’s brother transformed by magic. See also vol. i, p. 343. Cf. also the seventy-ninth tale in Grimm’s Kinder-und Hausmärchen (16 th edition in one volume), “Die Wassernixe.” In Orient und Occident, vol. ii, p. 113, Dr Köhler, in his remarks on the Tales from the West Highlands, collected by J. F. Campbell, compares the story of Agniśikha with the second story in Campbell’s collection, entitled “The Battle of the Birds.” In this a king’s son wishes to marry the youngest daughter of a giant. The giant sets him three tasks to do: to clean out a stable, to thatch it with feathers, and to fetch eggs from a magpie’s nest in the top of a tree more than five hundred feet high. All these tasks he accomplishes by the help of the young lady herself. In the last task she makes a ladder of her fingers for him to ascend the tree by, but in so doing she loses her little finger. The giant requires the prince to choose his wife from among three sisters similarly dressed (see p. 225). He recognises her by the loss of the little finger.

When bedtime came the giant’s daughter told the prince that they must fly or the giant would kill him. They mounted on the grey filly in the stable. But before starting the daughter cut an apple into nine shares; she put two at the head of the bed, two at the foot, two at the door of the kitchen, two at the house door, and one outside the house. The giant awoke and called, “Are you asleep?” several times, and the shares answered: “No.” At last he went and found the bed empty and cold, and pursued the fugitive couple.

At the break of day the giant’s daughter felt her father’s breath burning her back. She told the prince to put his hand in the horse’s ear and fling what he found behind him. He found a sprig of sloe, flung it behind him, and prpduced a wood twenty miles long. The giant had to go back for his axe and wood-knife.

In the middle of the day the prince finds in the ear of the filly a piece of grey stone. This produces twenty miles of rock behind them. The giant has to go back for his lever and mattock. The next thing that the prince finds and flings behind him is a bladder of water. This produces a freshwater loch twenty miles broad. In it the giant is happily drowned. The rest of the story has no bearing upon the tale of Śṛṅgabhuja. Köhler compares a story in William Carleton’s stories of the Irish peasantry. Here there is a sprig, a pebble and a drop of water producing a wood, a rock and a lake. He compares also a Norwegian story, Ashbjörnsen, No. 46, and some Swedish stories collected by Hylten Cavallius and G. Stephens. The three tasks are very different in the various forms of the tale. The ladder of fingers is only found in the Celtic form.

It is only in the Gaelic and Irish forms that the objects thrown behind to check pursuit are found in the ear of the horse.

In another variant of the story, “The Mermaid,” Thorpe’s Yule-tide Stories, p. 205, we have the pursuit with much the same incidents as in our text. See also Ralston’s remarks on the story in our text, at pp. 132 and 143 of his Russian Folk-Tales. Cf. also Veckenstedt’s Wendische Sagen, p. 216. An Indian parallel will be found in Miss Frere’s Old Deccan Days, pp. 62, 63. A modern Greek one in Bernhard Schmidt’s Griechische Märchen, pp. 76-79. Cf. also for the tasks the story of Bisara, Kaden’s Unter den Olivenbäumen, and that of Die schöne Fiorita.” Herr Kaden aptly compares the story of Jason and Medea. Another excellent parallel is furnished by the story of Schneeweiss-Feuerroth” in the same collection, where we have the pursuit much as in our text. The pursuit and tasks are found in the tale called La Montagne Noire,” on p. 448 of Mélusine, a periodical which appeared in the year 1878, and in Branca-flor,” No. 14 in Coelho’s Contos Populares Portuguezes, and in Gaal’s Märchen der Magyaren, p. 60. The pursuit also occurs in the Pentamerone of Basile (Burton, vol. i, p. 52 et seq., and pp. 145-146).

——The motif of the Magic Obstacles has appealed to story-tellers in all parts of the world, and examples of it are found in nearly every collection of stories extant.

It would be superfluous to detail these variants, for not only would the list occupy too much space, but the ground has already been sufficiently covered. I would, therefore, merely give the chief references where variants are to be found, and a few remarks on the possible origin of the motif itself.

An important list of variants is that in Bolte and Polivka, Anmerkungen zu den Kinder-und Hausmärchen der Brüder Grimm, vol. ii, p. 140 et seq., while special reference should be made to V. Chauvin, Les Obstacles Magiques,” Revue des Trad. Pop., vol. xvi, 1901, p. 538 et seq. (see also p. 223 et seq. of the same volume). See also Cosquin, Contes Populaires de Lorraine, vol. i, story 3, p. 32 et seq., and p. 152 et seq,; ditto, Études Folkloriques, p. 591 et seq.; Clouston, Popular Tales and Fictions, vol. i, pp. 439-443; Ralston, Russian Folk-Tales, p. 143; and Saintyves, Les Contes de Perrault, pp. 383-387.

Some very interesting variants—Basuto, Kafir, Aino, Siamese, Samoan, etc.—are to be found in Macculloch’s Childhood of Fiction, p. 171 et seq. On p. 177 the author suggests that perhaps in the earliest form of the incident of the transformed objects there was no transformation at all, only some object thrown down delayed the pursuer, as Atalanta was delayed by the golden apples of Hippomenes.

I feel, however, it would be better merely to recognise the early existence of this variety of the motif and not to take it as the original form of the motif. That it was not so is surely proved by the ancient Egyptian story of the “Two Brothers” (Maspero, Stories of Ancient Egypt, p. 8), which dates from the nineteenth dynasty. Here we read that when Baîti was pursued by his elder brother, Phrā-Harmakhis caused a large piece of water full of crocodiles to appear as an obstacle to check the pursuit.

The idea of hindering a pursuer, whether animal or human, is, I think, one of those motifs which would naturally occur to all peoples, both primitive and civilised. So natural, indeed, does the motif appear that it seems quite useless to attempt to attach any particular origin to it.

Among primitive tribes the doctrines of totemism, the external soul, the belief in transformations, and, above all, sympathetic magic, can all be detected in the Magic Obstacles” motif.

In many of the variants we notice that the object resembles that into which it is transformed—e.g. in the story of the “Flea,” Pentamerone, fifth diversion of the first day (Burton, vol. i, p. 47 et seq.), a twig becomes a forest, a drop of water a river, a stone a fortress. In other variants a comb becomes a range of mountains, a mirror a lake, and so on. This is, of course, the outcome of the belief in sympathetic magic, and without doubt is a very important factor in this motif, although it does not account for all the variants. Local environment and the individuality of the story-teller, adaptor, or scribe are probably responsible for variants where the objects bear no resemblance at all to what they produce.

This motif, then, appears to be one which has not migrated, but is the spontaneous production of many different lands and of varying stages of civilisation. Variants may have travelled from country to country, but the basic idea of hindering a pursuer is universal.—n.m.p.

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