1 noiembrie 2015

The Tale of Emperor Aleodor, by Petre Ispirescu, translated into English by Robert Nisbet Bain

Robert Nisbet Bain (1854–1909) was “a British historian and linguist who worked for the British Museum”, and “most prolific translator into English from Hungarian in the nineteenth century”, according to Wikipedia, the universal repository of knowledge about all knowable things, and even quibusdam aliis, as the saying goes. In 1896 he published a most delightful translation of several Turkish fairy and folk tales, which had been collected by the Hungarian folklorist Ignácz Kúnos.

To the Turkish tales “snatched from the burning” by Kúnos, Nisbet Bain appended “four semi-Turkish tales” from Petre Ispirescu’s Legends or the Tales of the Romanians: namely the tale of Emperor Aleodor, the tale of the Enchanted Hog, the tale of Prâslea the Strong and the Golden Apples, and that metaphysical gem of Romanian fairy tales, Youth without Age and Life without Death. Nisbet Bain recommends warmly Ispirescu’s book to the lovers of folklore, as “curious and original,  abounding as it does in extraordinarily bizarre and beautiful variants of the best-known fairy tales, a very natural result of the peculiar combination in Roumanian of such heterogeneous elements as Romance, Slavonic, Magyar, and Turkish”.

The magnificent Internet Archive has a digitized copy of the 1901 edition of Nisbet Bain’s Turkish Fairy Tales, with splendid illustrations by Celia Levetus (1874–1936). From this edition I reproduce the tale of Emperor Aleodor, curiously retitled by Nisbet Bain as “The Story of the Half-Man-Riding-on-the-Worse-Half-of-a-Lame-Horse”.

Comparing the Romanian text, graciously put online by Wikisource, with Nisbet Bain’s English text, one cannot but notice some peculiarities of the translation. Romanian readers will undoubtedly wonder why the half of a lame rabbit had to become the worse half of a lame horse, how did the horse-fly become an ant, and why did Nisbet Bain consider that he had to use old-fashioned English with “thou” and “thine” and “dost” and “mayest” when Ispirescu wrote in plain modern Romanian. In order for the reader to form an idea of the faithfulness of the translation here is a fragment from the original Romanian compared with the corresponding paragraph in Nisbet Bain’s English:

Aleodor voi să se codească oarecum, ba că trebile împărăției nu-l iartă să facă o călătorie așa de lungă, ba că n-are călăuz, ba că una, ba că alta; dară ași! unde vrea să știe pocitul de toate astea! El o ținea una, să-i aducă pe fata lui Verdeș împărat, dacă vrea să scape de ponosul de tâlhar, de călcător de drepturile altuia, și să rămâie cu sufletul în oase.
Aleodor se știa vinovat. Deși fără voia lui, dară știa că a făcut un păcat de a călcat pe moșia slutului. Mai știa iară că de omul dracului, să dai și să scapi. Să n-ai nici în clin, nici în mânecă cu dânsul. Făgădui în cele din urmă să-i facă slujba cu care-l însărcina.
    Aleodor would very much have liked to have got out of the difficulty some other way, as affairs of State would not allow him to take so long a journey, a journey on which he could find no guide to direct him; but what did the monster know of all that? Aleodor felt that if he would avoid the shame of being thought a robber and a trampler on the rights of others, he must indeed find the daughter of the Green Emperor. Besides, he wanted to escape with a whole skin if he could; so at last he promised that he would do the service required of him.

Nisbet Bain translates Făt-Frumos as Boy-Beautiful: it’s a well-found, reasonable translation. English-speaking readers will probably want to know how to pronounce the name of the protagonist; in Romanian it’s /ale.o'dor/. I’d say that the best English approximation is to pronounce it Aleodore, with -eodore as in Theodore.

These being said, without any further delay I present the tale of Emperor Aleodor by Petre Ispirescu, retold in English by Robert Nisbet Bain.


The Story of the Half-Man-Riding-on-the-Worse-Half-of-a-Lame-Horse

Petre Ispirescu
(Legende sau Basmele Românilor, 1874)

translated into English by
Robert Nisbet Bain
(Turkish Fairy Tales and Folk Tales, 1896)

Once upon a time, long long ago, in the days when poplars bore pears and rushes violets, when bears could switch themselves with their tails like cows, and wolves and lambs kissed and cuddled each other, there lived an Emperor whose hair was already white, and who yet had never a son to bless himself with. The poor Emperor would have given anything to have had a little son of his own like other men, but all his wishes were in vain.

At last, when he was quite an old old man, Fortune took pity on him also, and a darling of a boy was born to him, the like of which the world had never seen before. The Emperor gave him the name of Aleodor, and gathered east and west, north and south, together to rejoice in his joy at the child’s christening.
The revels lasted three days and three nights, and all the guests who made merry there with the Emperor could think of nothing else for the rest of their lives.

But the lad grew up as strong as an oak and as lovely as a rose, while his father the Emperor drew nearer every day to the edge of the grave, and when the hour of his death arrived he took the child on his knees and said to him:

Aleodor and the Emperor.
(Illustration by Celia Levetus)

“My darling son, behold the Lord calls me. The moment is at hand when I am to share the common lot of man. I foresee that thou wilt become a great man, and though I be dead my bones will rejoice in the tomb at thy noble deeds. As to the administration of this realm I need tell thee nought, for thou, with thy wisdom, wilt know how it behoves a king to rule. One thing there is, nevertheless, that I must tell thee. Dost thou see that mountain over yonder? Beware of ever setting thy foot upon it, for ’twill be to thy hurt and harm. That mountain belongs to the ‘Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-horse,’ and whosoever ventures upon that mountain cannot escape unscathed.”

He had no sooner said these words than his throat rattled thrice, and he gave up the ghost. He departed to his place like every other human soul that is born into the world, though there was never Emperor like him since the world began. Those of his household bewailed him, his great nobles bewailed him, his people bewailed him also, and then they had to bury him.

Aleodor, from the moment that he ascended the throne of his father, ruled the land wisely like a mature statesman, though in age he was but a child. All the world delighted in his sway, and men thanked Heaven for allowing them to live in the days of such a prince.

All the time that was not taken up by affairs of State, Aleodor spent in the chase. But he always bore in mind the precepts of his father, and took care not to exceed the bounds which had been set him.

One day, however—how it came about I know not—but anyhow he fell into a brown study, and never noticed that he had overstepped the domains of the Half-man till, after taking a dozen steps or so onwards, he found himself face to face with the monster. That he was trespassing on the grounds of this stunted and terrible creature did not trouble him over-much, it was the thought that he had transgressed the dying command of his dear father that grieved him.

“Ho, ho!” cried the hideous monster, “dost thou not know that every scoundrel who oversteps my bounds becomes my property?”

“Yes,” replied Aleodor, “but I must tell thee that it was through want of thought and without wishing it that I have trodden on thy ground. Against thee I have no evil design at all.”

“I know better than that,” replied the monster; “but I see that, like all cowards, thou dost think it best to make excuses.”

“Nay, so sure as God preserves me, I am no coward. I have told thee the simple truth; but if thou wouldst fight, I am ready. Choose thy weapons! Shall we slash with sabres, or slog with clubs, or wrestle together?”

“Neither the one nor the other,” replied the monster. “One way only canst thou escape thy just punishment—thou must fetch me the daughter of the Green Emperor!”

Aleodor would very much have liked to have got out of the difficulty some other way, as affairs of State would not allow him to take so long a journey, a journey on which he could find no guide to direct him; but what did the monster know of all that? Aleodor felt that if he would avoid the shame of being thought a robber and a trampler on the rights of others, he must indeed find the daughter of the Green Emperor. Besides, he wanted to escape with a whole skin if he could; so at last he promised that he would do the service required of him.

Now the Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-horse knew very well that, as a man of honour, Aleodor would never depart from his plighted word, so he said to him: “Go now, in God's name, and may good luck attend thee!”

So Aleodor departed. He went on and on, thinking over and over again how he was to accomplish his task, and so keep his word, when he came to the margin of a pond, and there he saw a pike dashing its life out on the shore. He immediately went up to it to satisfy his hunger with it, when the pike said to him: “Slay me not, Boy-Beautiful!¹ but cast me rather back into the water again, and then I will do thee good whenever thou dost think of me.”

¹ Fet frumosŭ, the favourite name for all young heroes in Roumanian fairy-tales.

Aleodor listened to the pike, and threw it back into the water again. Then the pike said to him again: “Take this scale, and whenever thou dost look at it and think of me I will be with thee.”

Then the youth went on further and marvelled greatly at such a strange encounter.

Presently he fell in with a crow that had one wing broken. He would have killed the crow and eaten it, but the crow said to him: “Boy-Beautiful, Boy-Beautiful! why wilt thou burden thy soul on my account? Far better were it if thou didst bind up my wing, and much good will I requite thee with for thy kindness.”

Aleodor listened, for his heart was as kind as his hand was cunning; and he bound up the crow’s wing. When he made ready to go on again, the crow said to him: “Take this feather, thou gallant youth! and whenever thou dost look at it and think of me, I will be with thee.”

Then Aleodor took the feather and went on his way. He hadn’t gone a hundred paces further when he stumbled upon an ant. He would have trodden upon it, when the ant said to him: “Spare my life, Emperor Aleodor, and I’ll deliver thee also from death! Take this little bit of membrane from my wing, and whenever thou dost think of me, I’ll be with thee.”

When Aleodor heard these words, and how the ant called him by his name, he raised his foot again and let the ant go where it would. He also went on his way, and after journeying for I know not how many days he came at last to the palace of the Green Emperor. There he knocked at the door, and stood waiting for some one to come out and ask him what he wanted.

He stood there one day, he stood there two days, but as for any one coming out to ask him what he wanted, there was no sign of it. When the third day dawned, however, the Green Emperor called to his servants and gave them a talking to that they were likely to remember. “How comes it,” said he, “that a man should be standing at my gates three days without any one going out to ask him what he wants? Is this what I pay you wages for?”

The servants of the Green Emperor looked up, and they looked down, but they had not one word to say for themselves. At last they went and called Aleodor and led him before the Emperor.

“What dost thou want, my son?” inquired the Emperor; “and wherefore art thou waiting at the gates of my court?”

“I have come, great Emperor, to seek thy daughter.”

“Good, my son. But, first of all, we must make a compact together, for such is the custom of my court. Thou must hide thyself wheresoever thou wilt three times running. If my daughter finds thee all three times, thy head shall be struck off and stuck on a stake, the only one out of a hundred that has not a suitor’s head upon it. But if she does not find thee thrice, thou shalt have her from me with all imperial courtesy.”

“My hope, great Emperor, is in the Lord, Who will not allow me to perish. We will put something else on this stake of thine, but not the head of a man. Let us make the compact.”

“Thou dost agree?”

“I agree.”

So they made them a compact, and the deeds were drawn out and signed and sealed.

Then the daughter of the Emperor met him next day, and it was arranged that he should hide himself as best he could. But now he was in an agony that tortured him worse than death, for he bethought him again and again where and how he could best hide himself, for nothing less than his head was at stake. And as he kept walking about, and brooding and pondering, he remembered the pike. Then he took out the fish’s scale, looked at it, and thought of the fish’s master, and immediately, oh wonderful!—the pike stood before him and said: “What dost thou want of me, Boy-Beautiful?”

“What do I want? Thou mayest well ask that! Look what has happened to me! Canst thou not tell me what to do?”

“That is thy business no longer. Leave it to me!”

And immediately striking Aleodor with his tail, he turned him into a little shell-fish, and hid him among the other little shell-fish at the bottom of the sea.

When the damsel appeared, she put on her eye-glass and looked for him in every direction, but could see him nowhere. Her other wooers had hidden themselves in caves, or behind houses, or under haycocks and haystacks, or in some hole or corner, but Aleodor hid himself in such a way that the damsel began to fear that she would be vanquished. Then it occurred to her to turn her eye-glass towards the sea, and she saw him beneath a heap of mussels. But you must know that her eye-glass was a magic eye-glass.

“I see thee, thou rascal,” cried she, “how thou hast bothered me, to be sure! From being a man thou hast made thyself a mussel, and hidden thyself at the bottom of the sea.”

This he couldn’t deny, so of course he had to come up again.

But she said to the Emperor: “Methinks, dear father, this youth will suit me. He is nice and comely. Even if I find him all three times let me have him, for he is not stupid like the others. Why, thou canst see from his figure even how different he is.”

“We shall see,” replied the Emperor.

On the second day Aleodor bethought him of the crow, and immediately the crow stood before him, and said to him: “What dost thou want, my master?”

“Look now, senseless one! what has happened to me. Canst thou not show me a way out of it?”

“Let us try!” and with that it struck him with its wing and turned him into a young crow, and placed him in the midst of a flock of crows that were flying high in the air in the teeth of a fierce tempest.

Then the damsel came again with her eye-glass and searched for him in every direction. He was nowhere to be found. She looked for him on the earth, but he was not there. She looked for him in the rivers and in the sea, but he was not there. The damsel grew pensive. She searched and searched till mid-day, when it occurred to her to look upwards also. And perceiving him in the glory of the sky in the midst of a swarm of crows, she pointed him out with her finger and cried: “Look! look! Rogue that thou art! Come down from there, man, that hast made thyself into a bit of a bird! Nothing in the fields of heaven can escape my eye!”

Then he came down, for what else could he do? Even the Emperor himself now began to be amazed at the skill and cunning of Aleodor, and lent an ear to the prayers of his daughter. Inasmuch, however, as the compact declared that Aleodor was to hide three times, the Emperor said to his daughter: “Wait once more, for I am curious to see what place he will find to hide himself in next.”

The third day, early in the morning, he thought of the ant, and—whisk!— the ant was by his side. When she had found out what he wanted she said to him: “Leave it to me, and if she find thee I am here to help thee.”

So the ant turned him into a flower-seed, and hid him in the very skirts of the damsel without her perceiving it.

Then the Emperor’s daughter rose up, took her eye-glass, and sought for him all day long, but look where she would she could not find him. She plagued herself almost to death in her search, for she felt that he was close at hand, though see him she could not. She looked through her eye-glass on the ground, and in the sea, and up in the sky, but she could see him nowhere, and towards evening, tired out by so much searching, she exclaimed: “Show thyself then, this once! I feel that thou art close at hand, and yet I cannot see thee. Thou hast conquered, and I am thine.”

Then when he heard her say that he had conquered, he slipped slowly down from her skirts and revealed himself. The Emperor had now nothing more to say, so he gave the youth his daughter, and when they departed, he escorted them to the boundaries of his empire with great pomp and ceremony.

While they were on the road they stopped at a place to rest, and after they had refreshed themselves somewhat with food, he laid his head in her lap and fell asleep. The daughter of the Emperor could not forbear from looking at him, and her eyes filled with tears as they feasted on his comeliness and beauty. Then her heart grew soft within her, and she could not help kissing him. But Aleodor, when he awoke, gave her a buffet with the palm of his hand that awoke the echoes.

“Nay but, my dear Aleodor!” cried she, “thou hast indeed a heavy hand.”

“I have slapped thee,” said he, “for the deed thou hast done, for I have not taken thee for myself, but for him who bade me seek thee.”

“Good, my brother! but why didst thou not tell me so at home? for then I also would have known what to do. But let be now, for all that is past.”

Then they set out again till they came alive and well to the Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-horse.

“Lo, now! I have done my service,” said Aleodor, and with that he would have departed. But when the girl beheld the monster, she shivered with disgust, and would not stay with him for a single moment. The hideous cripple drew near to the maiden, and began to caress her with honeyed words, that so she might go with him willingly. But the girl said to him: “Depart from me, Satan, and go to thy mother Hell, who hath cast thee upon the face of the earth!”

Then the half-monster half-man was near to melting for the love he had for the damsel, and, writhing away on his belly, he fetched his mother that she might help to persuade the maid to be his wife. But meanwhile the damsel had dug a little trench all round her, and stood rooted to the spot with her eyes fixed on the ground. The hideous Satanic skeleton of a monster could not get at her.

“Depart from the face of the earth, thou abomination!” cried she; “the world is well rid of such a pestilential monster as thou art!”

Still he strove and strove to get at her, but finding at last he could not reach her, he burst with rage and fury that a mere woman should have so covered him with shame and reproach.

Then Aleodor added the domain of the Half-man-riding-on-the-worse-half-of-a-lame-horse to his own possessions, took the daughter of the Green Emperor to wife, and returned to his own empire. And when his people saw him coming back in the company of a smiling spouse as beautiful as the stars of heaven, they welcomed him with great joy, and, mounting once more his imperial throne, he ruled his people in peace and plenty till the day of his death.

And now I’ll mount my horse again, and say an “Our Father” before I go.

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