Cooperation: What Fairy Tales and Legends Have to Say


The other day, a painful event in my own life reminded me of how powerful human egotism can be. I witnessed a person who wanted to be the "only one" - a person afraid of sharing victory, afraid of sharing affection, afraid of only being a part and not the whole, afraid of not being "everything" - shut other people out of a situation in which they could have helped. In the process, a person who they all wanted to help, may have been injured.

Sometimes, in real life, when this occurs, there is little that you can say. The door is closed, and even a mild protest seems like a deadly attack, and will be treated as such. Then, it is time for fairy tales and legends to take over, and for the truth to be slipped in, without names.

According to Scheherazade, enchanting narrator of The Thousand and One Nights, there once was a beautiful princess, and three brothers who sought her hand in marriage. To choose between three such accomplished and magnificent youths, there was no choice but to set them a task to prove the extent of their love, and to reveal the depths of the courage and resourcefulness in their hearts.

The brothers set out in high spirits, regretting the need to compete against each other in this way, yet, at the same time, inspired by the challenge and totally enamored of the princess. Each agreed to return to the princess, in one year’s time, with an extraordinary gift which would win her undying admiration and fill her heart with love for himself, alone; and leaving her with this bold promise, set out for the ends of the earth in search of ways of fulfilling it.

Of course, each brother’s journey was long and arduous, difficult and sometimes dangerous. Adventure and mystery abounded every step of the way. At times, their lives were threatened, and only the face of the princess, shining like a moon in the dark sky of their fear, kept them from turning back, to live without her, in the shadow of what could have been. Each brother, confronted with the choice, chose his dream over life, and clung to the precious, fragile treasure of his heart - the mirage that only fools can ever hope to turn into reality. And each won his desperate gamble, in his own way, on his own night of nearly perishing in solitude.

After some time, in a bazaar in a city not on any map, the first brother came, at last, upon a flying carpet, which a sympathetic merchant pointed out to him from amidst all the other carpets in the marketplace, each one of them beautiful, and years in the making. "With this, no woman, not even a princess, shall be able to resist you," the merchant promised. "For who has ever seen such a wonder?" And the first brother was well-satisfied.

In the meantime, the second brother had stumbled upon a treasure of his own: a magic telescope, with which he could see anything he desired, no matter how far away. And looking upon the princess, back at the palace, wandering in her garden, he said, "Sweet princess, may God forgive me, for each time I see you, I commit the sin of idolatry. I bow down before the image of your beauty."

As for the third brother, he, wounded and weak after struggling to defend himself from robbers, who stole a chest of giant rubies he had dug up from underneath a mountain, was rewarded for his perseverance by a fragrant, unblemished apple, offered to him by a traveler who respected his struggle. The magical apple, he was assured by this most honorable man, had been given to him by a wondrous physician from another land, and could revivify and heal anyone who ate of it. This brother, of course, deferred from eating the apple himself, but bravely bore the pain of his many wounds so that he might bring it back, intact, to the princess who he cherished.

On the way back towards the princess, it so happened that the first two brothers crossed paths in a town through which the roads home passed.

"Well, dear brother, begin to think of who else you may marry, for with this gift, the princess surely belongs to me!" And the first brother took the second brother on an exhilarating flight, high above the earth, atop his magnificent carpet.

"Dear brother, you have, indeed, encountered a fabulous treasure," replied the second, after they had landed, "but not yet the equal of mine. For with this telescope, I can see any part of the world I choose." And he showed his brother the market at Isfahan, and a busy port upon the Indus River, and a caravan passing over the Roof of the World, the snowy peaks of Tibet. "And here - here is our dear brother!" he laughed.

"With an apple?" laughed the first brother. "He will be lucky to marry anyone at all!"

And then, of course, they finally gave room to the very heart of their curiosity and desire, and trained the scope upon the princess’ palace. "Magic scope, only if she is clothed," the second brother said most chivalrously, for the telescope was meant to delight the princess, not to take advantage of her.

What the two brothers saw next, however, horrified them, far more than if they had discovered she had married somebody else during their long absence. They found her pale, silent, lying on her bed, her father and mother and servants sitting beside her, their faces long with worry, tears staining their cheeks, their wounded hearts visible in the distance, yet nearness, of their eyes: eyes that seemed like all the beauty of life falling off of a cliff. "You might as well prepare the rope to hang me," the royal physician told the girl’s father. "I can do nothing for her."

"I’ll not offend the sweetness of her heart by killing you," the father said, who had, indeed, made such a threat in the beginning. "I know you have done everything in your power to save her." Whereupon, the mother and servants all began to break down into fits of uncontrollable weeping.

"By God! What can we do?!" gasped the second brother, in disbelief, shaking his brother by the shoulders, desperate. "And all these presents - these ‘treasures' - useless!"

"Let’s fly back to her at once!" exclaimed the first brother. "On my carpet!"

"To watch her die?" demanded the second.

"To be at her side, at least," said the first.

"And our brother?"

"If my geography is correct, he is but two hundred miles’ distance from us. Not far to fly. Let’s pick him up and inform him of the princess’ condition. He’s our brother, after all, and he deserves to know. We’ll all go together, back to the princess’ side, to sit down by her and pray; to witness a miracle, if God will have it; otherwise, to say good-bye, and give her a final kiss - one kiss of the many that were to be ours."

The two brothers agreed, and immediately climbing back upon the magic carpet, flew to the place where the third brother was, heading back home in his own way, along his own path.

"By God, that’s you?!" he cried out to the first brother, seeing him land the carpet beside the road. "You’re certainly putting up a good fight. Though, as I recall, wasn’t the princess afraid of heights?"

"No time for jokes," said the first brother grimly, whereupon they told him the terrible news.

"Here," said the third brother, handing back the telescope to the second brother. "Well, then - let’s go. But just so you know that you are flying not to see the princess die, but to restore life to her, know that this radiant apple I am holding in my hands is no ordinary apple, but a fruit most magical, capable of healing any sickness, and of bringing anyone who tastes of it back from the very door of death." The first two brothers, astonished, beheld the apple, and trusting in their brother’s ability to distinguish truth from lie, exclaimed, at last, "By God! It’s the miracle we’ve been praying for! God be praised!"

"Here," the third brother said to a poor man who was passing by on foot, handing him the bridle of his splendid horse. "It is yours."

"But Sir!"

"God has surely brought you on this path to reward you for your courage in enduring poverty. Please accept this gift, may it help you and your family, and add more power to our prayers!" Whereupon the third brother leapt upon the carpet, with his brothers, and exclaimed, "Let’s go, dear brother! Make haste, for now it is your carpet that will decide if joy or sorrow is to rule our lives!"

And so, the three brothers headed home, back to their native land, not even stopping to ask the gatekeeper of the palace to open the mighty doors before them, but flying straight over the parapets as startled guards cried out in amazement. "Hold your arrows," the brothers shouted to them, "for we come to save the princess!"

"She is about to take Death’s hand," a servant said, as they entered the tragic chamber; while someone outside was still shouting, "A flying carpet! They came upon a flying carpet!"

"Keep your gifts," the father said, surprised and momentarily animate upon seeing the brothers, before he slid back into the deep pool of his melancholy, drowning in regal silence - a ruler of vast lands, and commander of powerful armies, but also a helpless parent in love with a beautiful child, who was dying at the very moment of her birth as a woman. "There is no gift greater than life; no treasure, from the ends of the earth, greater than this dying child of mine, fading from the world before my very eyes."

"Indeed, no greater gift," the brothers replied. "Which is exactly what we have brought. A tiny treasure, to restore the luster of a treasure far greater."

Whereupon the third brother held the apple beside the face of the pale princess, whose breathing could not be heard, and surrounded her with its healing fragrance. "O sweet princess," he said, "do not sleep just yet. Not that sleep, so heavy, that does not answer the dawn." And he continued to hold the apple beside her while everyone in the room, at first believing it was his imagination, thought he could see the color of life returning to the princess’ pale cheeks, and the beginnings of a slight up-and-down movement emanating from deep within her chest, that seemed to be breathing. And suddenly her eyes opened, clear and shining, like those of a child, shut during a game, who has just finished counting to ten. And no sign of her sickness remained, except for an incredible calmness, that only one who God has graced by dipping in the sea of death, to wash away life’s ignorance of its beauty, could possess.

"Here. Eat," the girl’s mother said, handing her the apple the brothers had brought. While the girl’s father told the third brother, "My daughter belongs to you, and to your great and noble soul, for it is your gift of life that has restored her light to the world."

But the third brother, delighted though he was, was compelled by the very nobility which the princess’ father had recognized in him, to object. "Great Sir, Lord of this great land. Much as I would love to accept this incomparable reward for the gift I have brought, I feel that I have no choice but to admit that my role in saving your daughter’s life is no greater than that of my other brothers. For without my first brother’s discovery of the flying carpet, I would have had no means to reach you before your daughter’s precious life had faded from the earth. While without my second brother’s magic telescope, my brothers would never have discovered the condition of the princess, and dared to return to your palace before the time of one year set for our return; nor would they have been able to find me, and the apple of health which Destiny, in love with the princess also, had been so kind as to deliver to me. Indeed," the third brother concluded, "no one of us, alone, could have saved your daughter. Instead, we were like the three pieces of a puzzle - the puzzle of her salvation - each one needed, as much as the other, to complete the puzzle which has today been put together. And it is in this way, and only in this way, that joy - like a shining jewel lost in a dark well - has been recovered from the depths of a kingdom in mourning. That a country has, once more, the sun of a magnificent princess in its sky."

Of course, the third brother was right, and a new test would have to be designed to distinguish between the three equal brothers. But my retelling of the story ends here - at the point of a princess being saved. Saved because the love of those who loved her was real love - a love of her, more than a love of their own pride and pleasure; a love which drove them to cooperate, to give up the chance of being everything, and accept the risk of being but a part, because they would rather that a light was shining in the world, than extinguish it in the struggle to put it under a glass with their name on it.

Contrast this with the spirit of the possessive Duke portrayed in Robert Browning’s "My Last Duchess": a man whose desire to own, to control, to be the center of his wife’s universe at any price, led to her destruction:

"…She had

A heart - how shall I say? - too soon made glad,

Too easily impressed; she liked whate’er

She looked on, and her looks went everywhere.

Sir, ‘t was all one! My favor at her breast,

The dropping of the daylight in the West,

The bough of cherries some officious fool

Broke in the orchard for her, the white mule

She rode with round the terrace - all and each

Would draw from her alike the approving speech,

Or blush, at least. She thanked men, - good! But thanked

Somehow - I know not how - as if she ranked

My gift of a nine-hundred-years-old name

With anybody’s gift.

… Oh, sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene’er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile?"

And so, he ended up destroying what could not be his, alone.

Or consider the more heroic, yet just as deadly drive to be everything, that emerges from The Song of Roland, the renowned medieval classic that describes the destruction of Charlemagne’s rearguard at Roncesvalles in 778AD, in the treacherous passes of the Pyrenees. Suddenly confronted by a huge enemy army falling unexpectedly upon them in the mountains, Roland, bravest of Charlemagne’s knights, and leader of the rearguard, was urged by his companion Oliver to blow the horn which would alert the rest of Charlemagne’s army about the attack, and bring them marching back to their support:

"Oliver says: ‘The pagans have a huge army, and our French appear to be very few. Therefore Roland, my companion, sound a blast on your horn. Charles will hear it, and he will return with his host.’

"Roland answers: ‘That would be the act of a fool! I would forfeit the fame I have in sweet France.’"

Oliver asks again: " ‘Roland, my companion, sound your ivory horn, and Charles will hear it and command the army to return, and the king will come to our help with all his barons.’

"Roland answers: ‘God forbid that my ancestry should be shamed by an act of mine, or that I should make sweet France an object of scorn! Instead, I will attack unsparingly with my good sword Durendal, which I have girded here at my side. You will see this weapon running with blood from one end to the other.’"

Still, Oliver persists: " ‘Roland, my companion, sound a blast on your ivory horn. Charles will hear it as he marches through the pass, and I promise you the Franks will return.’" And: " ‘I see nothing shameful in your sounding a blast now on your horn. I have seen the Saracens of Spain. The valley is now covered with them, and the mountains, and the hills, and the plains. The foreigners have an enormous army, and there are few, very few, in our company.’"

But Roland rejects Oliver’s entreaties yet again. " ‘God forbid that any man living should be able to say that because of the pagans I blew my ivory horn! … May God in heaven and his angels forbid that the fame of France should be diminished because of me! I would rather die that be brought to shame. The Emperor’s love will go to those who strike hardest.’"

Of course, Roland’s tragic overestimation of his fighting ability - great, but not beyond the limits of men - led to disaster. His desire to be self-contained, to be everything, to be above all need of help and cooperation, was responsible for many wasted lives that day.

In vivid detail, the famous epic describes the carnage. "The battle is awesome and vast; the French fight hard with their burnished spears. There you would have seen terrible suffering, so many men maimed and bleeding, lying piled on each other, face up, face down." Roland and his men exacted a terrible toll upon the enemy. And yet, sheer numbers began to overwhelm them, as the great knights fell one by one. "When Count Roland sees the slaughter of his knights, he calls to his companion, Oliver: ‘Fair sir, dear companion, in God’s name, what do you think now, seeing so many good vassals lying on the ground? We may well mourn for sweet, fair France, which is despoiled of such noble knights as these!’" Roland, at last, realizes his mistake, and he blows the horn, but, by now, it is far too late. Charlemagne’s forces will not be able to arrive on time. And Roland must witness the death of all his comrades, and his beloved friend, Oliver. And the anguish overcomes him. "When Count Roland sees all the peers dead, and Oliver whom he had loved so dearly, tenderness wells up in him and he begins to weep. His face has grown pale, and his sorrow is so great that he cannot keep to his feet any longer, but his will forsakes him and he falls to the ground in a faint."

The brave knight - the bravest of knights - weakened by loss of blood and the extent of the tragedy his pride had brought down upon others - lingered on, courageous, to the end, yet also tormented, haunted by the bloody vision of wasted lives, for which he was responsible; by the terrible panorama of fallen warriors who had depended upon his judgment, but been betrayed by his arrogance - men who Roland realized, only at the end, only as he lay dying, had greater value than any dream or glory he could ever attain by sacrificing them.

Could any story make the point more clearly?

Sometimes, sad to say, it is hard, in real life, to approach those who seek to do it all by themselves, shutting out others because they do not trust them, because they fear to lose control, because they are afraid that if there are other planets circling around the sun which they want to possess completely, their share of the warmth will fall, and their world become too cold to live in. It is not an uncommon defensive response, not an uncommon act of fear. But unfortunately, it is a response meant to defend oneself, and not the object one claims to love, whether that object be a person or a goal. It is an act of egotism, wearing the name of love. And it would starve what it desires, rather than share it; and bury it alone, rather than let it live outside the shadow of its power. And it would isolate and hide and suffocate what it "loves", rather than let it ever take a breath beyond its door.

But, as I have said, in real life it is not easy to get this point across. People blame others, not themselves. They build up fantasies in their minds to convince themselves that they are the only ones who love, the only ones who know, the only ones who can help, and deceive themselves into thinking they are the great protectors, rather than the great destroyers.

That is why I send this message in the form of a fairy tale, in the form of a poem, in the form of a legend. With all the substance of reality, but no names. The lesson that cooperation brings life, and that the desire to be everything and control everything brings death.

May the lesson reach those who need to learn it, while there is still time!


SOURCES: The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments (my own, very much transformed retelling of an episode from "The Story of Prince Ahmed and Periebanou").

"My Last Duchess", Robert Browning.

"The Song of Roland", translated by W.S. Merwin, in Medieval Epics (Modern Library). A clear, excellent, and moving translation of the epic.


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