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Old Persian Tales – The Farmer’s Son and the Magician

There was an old widow who had a son named Kian. Kian was fine boy, who worked hard to support his aging mother by managing the farm that they had inherited from his father who had died a few years before. He spent dawn ’til dusk working on the farm everyday, tending to the sheep and cattle, and raising grains and grass to feed them.

One day, Kian told his mother than he had met a particular girl in town bazaar where he went to sell his cattle and sheep, and they had fallen hopelessly in love with each other. As was the tradition in those days, he begged his mother to go ask for the girl’s hand in marriage from her parents.

The old widow was initially happy to hear that her fine son and grown up and was considering marriage, and asked the name of the girl who had stolen his heart. To her surprise, her son replied that the girl was the Princess, and the Shah’s only daughter. The widow tried to convince her son that the King would never accept his marriage proposal, but Kian was insistent, and so she reluctantly agreed to visit the King the very next day, and ask for his daughter’s hand.

And true to her word, the widow appeared at the gates of the Shah’s palace early next morning, and asked to see the Shah in person. The King received her graciously, and patiently listened to her as she explained the reason for her presence before him. The courtiers, officials, and royal guards were aghast when she told the King that her son wanted to marry his only beloved daughter, but the wise King showed no reaction, and only stroked his beard quitely as the widow spoke.

After some thought, the King replied, “I knew your husband, who was honest and hardworking. By all accounts, Kian has followed in his footsteps, and has proven himself to be dutiful son.  However, your son is still a young man. He has no education, no skills, and has seen nothing of the world except for your farm. Tell him that he can have my daughter’s hand once he proves himself worthy, and not before then.”

Later that evening, Kian heard the news from his mother, and was crestfallen. He immediately swore to dedicate himself to gaining skills and knowledge that would make the King proud of him, and decided that he would set out the very next day to travel far from his home to learn as much as he could about the world. His poor mother was again not able to dissuade him, so she baked him a loaf of bread and blessed him as he started on his journey the following morning.

Kian walked for months and months, across valleys, forests and mountain-tops, and passed through many towns and villages where he learned a great deal about the world and its inhabitants. Eventually, he came to a river and decided to rest a bit under the shade of a nearby walnut tree. As he sat down, he said “O-ah-o! I am so tired and weary from all this walking, but all I have learned is that the world is the same everywhere I go!” 

No sooner had these words come out of his mouth than a strange little man appeared on the pathway to the walnut tree. His height reached only to Kian’s knees, but his beard was so long that it dragged on the ground behind him. He wore an enormous green turban shaped like a fresh walnut, and his slippers were made of tree bark.

“Why hello my weary friend, what brings you here, and why did you call my name?” the little man asked.

“I did not call your name, and I do not know who you are!” replied Kian, who was surprised at the sight of the curious little man.

“My name is O-ah-o, and you clearly called out my name when you sat down under this walnut tree. Tell me, what world do you come from?” said the little man.

“Are worlds like hen’s teeth, with many more besides this one?” asked Kian, bewildered, to which the little man replied, “Perhaps many, many more! But please tell me want you want from me, I would be only happy to help.”

Kian thought for a moment, and decided to tell his story to the little man. Once O-ah-o heard Kian’s story, he laughed out loud and said, “You have clearly come to the right place, for I am O-ah-o, the greatest magician who has ever lived, and I am looking for a worthy apprentice. I will show you one of the many other worlds that exist, but only if you only follow me into this walnut tree.” After saying that, he waved his walking stick at the walnut tree, which immediately split right open. A bright light came through the opening in the tree, and the little man stepped into the opening, while beckoning Kian to follow him.

Kian was hesitant to follow the little man, but when he peered into the opening in the tree, he saw a lovely scene. There was a small house made of walnut shells, neat and tidy,  on rolling hills covered with strange plants and flowers. A small river ran near the house, and there he saw a beatiful young girl, dressed in tree leaves, playing in the water. Curiosity got the better of Kian, and he followed the little man into the tree, which promptly closed up behind him as soon as he had set foot on the other side. 

The girl, who was named Pari and was O-ah-o’s daughter, ran to meet them. She graciously welcomed her father and his guest, and helped them settle into the house. She helped her father remove his curious shoes and turban, and prepared a meal for the weary travelers. While her father was washing-up and changing out of his dusty travel clothes, she quitely asked Kian what he was doing with his father. When Kian explained his quest, and that he wanted to become an apprentice to O-ah-o, she became fearful for him.

“You are in grave danger,” Pari warned Kian, “for while it is true that my father is a great magician, the magic has turned him into an evil person. He has trained many apprentices, but when they learn anything from him, he puts them to sleep, and places them inside the pickle jars in the basement. Once he is too old and tired to work, he plans on reviving them and forcing them to do his bidding.”

At hearing this, Kian was extremely frightened, and begged Pari to help him escape back to his own world. Pari told him that only her father could open the walnut tree, but she had a plan which could save Kian: “No matter what magic spells my father tries to teach you, pretend you can’t learn anything. Always play dumb, and then perhaps he will eventually simply let you go.” 

Kian took Pari’s advice, and for the next months, whenever O-ah-h tried to teach him a lesson in magic, he would deliberately pretend to not learn it. Kian acted dumb so well that even the old magician was tricked and perplexed. O-ah-o tried to show Kian how to change form into different animals, how to read people’s thoughts, and how to predict the future, but the harder O-ah-o tried to teach magic to Kian, the less Kian seemed to learn and the dumber he seemed to get. After many frustrating months, when it seemed that Kian had not learnt a single magic spell, O-ah-h decided that enough was enough, and he wanted to be rid of his dumb apprentice. He told Kian, “My boy, you have been away from your home for a long time now, and your mother is no doubt concerned about you. Perhaps you should go back and visit her?”

Kian, who was of course waiting for this opportunity to escape, immediately agreed with O-ah-o, and they both set off towards the walnut tree. Oh-a-o waved his walking stick, and as before, the tree opened up. Kian quickly bid O-ah-o farewell, and stepped through the opening, happy to be back into his own world. No sooner had Kian crossed to the other side than O-ah-o yelled out after him, “Good bye and good riddance! You spent months eating my daughter’s cooking, and learned nothing of magic no matter how hard I tried to teach you. Go, and never try to come back here again!” Then he waved his stick, and the tree closed with a thump.

Kian, who was happy and relieved to have escaped the magician, had no plans to ever come back anyway and immediately rushed back home. His old mother was happy to see him again, and said, “Tell me my son, what can I offer you after such a long journey to reward your effort at gaining knowledge of the world?” But when Kian looked around his old house, he noticed that his mother had nothing to offer, for she had grown poor in his absence, and the farm was left untended.

Kian felt guilty for leaving his mother destitute, so he smiled and said, “Don’t worry, for I have a plan. Tomorrow morning, when you go into the barn, you will see a fine goat there. Take him to the bazaar and sell him for 10 silver pieces, and nothing less — but make sure to remove the bridle from the goat before you sell him, and bring the bridle home.”

Kian’s mother agreed, and the next morning she was surprised to see that indeed, there was a handsome goat in the once-empty barn. It had long, luxurious and silky kashmir wool, bright eyes, and massive horns.  She took the goat to the market, and offered it for sale. Many people asked about the price of the goat, and when she said that it cost 10 silver pieces, they all balked. However, at the end of the day, a wealthy landowner came by, and when he saw the goat he decided that he had to have it at any cost. When his friends advised against purchasing the goat for such a high price, the wealthy landowner declared that he had never seen a finer goat, and it was well worth the price since it was better than any goat his neighbors had, and would no doubt have many kids of a similar quality which he could sell, thus recouping his money and eventually making him even richer. He counted out 10 pieces of silver for the  old widow, but when she removed the bridle from the goat he got upset. “Will you begrudge me that old piece of rope for the handsome price I paid for this goat?” the buyer asked half in jest, but the old woman was adamant that she had to keep the bridle, as her son had instructed. The wealthy landowner sighed, put his own bridle on the goat, and trudged proudly out of the market, followed by his friends and his new goat.

The landowner had walked a bit out of town towards his own property, when the goat suddenly jerked and tugged so hard on the bridle around his neck that it fell out of the landowner’s grip, and the goat was free. The landowner cursed, yelled for help and tried to catch the goat with the assistance of his friends, but the goat quickly ran into some bushes and thorny shrubs, where no one could see or reach it. There, the goat suddenly transformed itself into a mouse, and scurried back to the market. 

In the meantime, the old widow had used the money to buy as much food and other necessities that she could carry, and had started walking back home, not noticing the mouse that was hidden inside one of her packages. When she got home, she put down the packages and was busy changing her dusty clothes when the mouse quitely snuck out of his hiding place, and with a puff of smoke,  turned back into Kian, her son. He had learned the lesson of changing form from O-ah-o rather well, after all!

The old widow proudly showed her son the money she had earned from the sale of the goat, not knowing that the goat was really just her son. They ate well that night, and slept soundly, but before the widow went to sleep, her son told her that the very next morning, she should go to the dog house, where she would find a fine hunting hound. She should then take the hound to the bazaar, and sell it for 40 pieces of silver, but Kian reminded her that she should not sell the dog’s collar with the dog, and must instead bring it back home.

And the very next morning, the widow was surprised to see that there was indeed a fine and noble-looking hunting dog in the once-empty dog house. The dog was long and sleek. It had a powerful back and long legs, but was also friendly and obedient. “This dog is no doubt the best hunting dog in the Kingdom!” the old widow marvelled. She put a leash on the dog’s collar and took it to the market, where it attracted a lot of attention from the lords and noblemen who hunted. They each tried to bargain with the old widow, in the hopes of paying a bit less than the 40 pieces of silver that she demanded for the dog, but to no avail.

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Finally, a wealthy and proud nobleman agreed to pay the full price for the dog. When the widow was about to remove the collar from around the dog’s neck, the buyer objected.”What if he runs away if you remove the collar?” the nobleman asked. The old widow sought to assure him, and said, “Don’t worry, for this is an obedient and well-trained dog — it will not run away.”  So the nobleman put his own leash and collar on the dog, and walked proudly out of the bazaar gates.

But no sooner had the nobleman walked a distance from the bazaar than the dog caught the scent of a hare, and pulled on his leash with such force that the nobleman tripped and fell, releasing his grip on the dog’s leash. And with that, the dog was off, never to be seen again no matter how much the nobleman called after him. And just as before, the dog turned into a mouse, and returned with the old widow back to her home.

Again, the old widow and her son ate well that evening, and marvelled at the amount of money that they had managed to obtain from the sale of the dog and the goat. Even though it was more than enough money to last them through the next planting season, and even the one after that one, Kian wanted to ensure that his old mother would never have to work again, and would instead be able to live like a noblewoman. So before they went to bed that night, he told his mother that the very next morning she would find a horse in the stable like no other horse in the world. She was to take the horse to the market, like before, and sell it for the highest price that anyone offered to pay, but not for less than 100 gold pieces. “And remember,” Kian warned his mother, “never sell the horse’s bridle, even if they offer you a kingdom for it!”

And so the very next morning, the old woman found in the stable a marvelous Turkomen stallion worthy of a caliph. The horse had long, muscular legs, a long and graceful neck, and a shiny, metallic coat. “This is no doubt a fine horse,” the widow thought as she led it to market, “but I doubt that even this horse can fetch the price of 100 gold pieces!”

But as luck would have it, the Prince was visiting the bazaar that day, along with his tutor and royal guards. No sooner had the Prince seen the horse than he decided to pay whatever the widow was asking for it. He commanded the head of his royal guards to pay the old woman, and guard prompty laid out a silken handkerchief before the widow and poured out 100 gold pieces onto it from a sack of money. But at that very moment, a wealthy merchant appeared amongst the gathering crowd, and offered 500 pieces of gold for the horse. The widow was shocked and surprised by the new offer, but remembered what her son had told her about accepting only the highest offer. So, she accepted the wealthy merchant’s offer, much to the chagrin of the Prince. The merchant then tossed a large sack of gold pieces before her feet, which split open, and gold coins poured out of it. The widow was so busy gathering-up and counting the gold pieces that she totally forgot to remove the horse’s bridle before the merchant hopped onto the horse’s back and rode off. When she did finally remember the bridle, the rider and his horse were long gone. “No matter,” thought the widow as she carried her heavy sack of gold home on her back, “for what is an old bridle worth compared to all this money!” But little did she know that as long as the horse wore the bridle, Kian was trapped in the form of a horse and could not change back. When she reached her home, she was surprised that Kian was nowhere to be found. She was even more surprised when she opened the sack of gold and saw that all the pieces of gold had magically turned into walnuts!

Meanwhile, once they had ridden a way out of the town, the horse neighed and reared up on its hind legs, trying to toss off its rider. But the rider held on tight to the horse’s bridle, and dug his heels roughly into the horse’s ribs. “Don’t bother trying to get rid of me,” the rider whispered in the horse’s ear, “for it is me, O-ah-o! I heard that someone was selling marvelous animals in the market for enormous sums of money, and I became suspicious. So I visited the market today in this form of a wealthy merchant, and I immediately recognized you, even while you were in the form of this horse! Now, I will take you back to my farmhouse, and teach you a good lesson for fooling me!” And after saying that, O-ah-o rode the horse through the old walnut tree, and tied him up by his house. Kian felt very sorry for himself and cried out, “Oh, this end is what my own greed has brought upon me, for I tricked three people from their bargains in the bazaar, and now I shall be forced to work the fields like a common farm animal!  Truly, my magic had made me as evil as O-ah-o!”

But O-ah-o’s heart had turned into stone, and he ignored the horse’s lamentation. “Be careful of this horse, for it is none other than Kian, the scoundrel trickster,” O-ah-o warned his daughter.  Then he bade her to watch the horse, and said, “I will go and find a yoke to put on him, so he can work in my fields like a real horse!”  Pari was sad to see Kian in such a state, and so she brought the horse some food and water while her father went to find a yoke. She then took off the horse’s bridle to brush his coat. But no sooner had she removed the bridle than Kian turned himself into a sparrow and flew to the old walnut tree. He chanted the magic spell he had heard O-ah-o say, and the tree opened up for him as it had for O-ah-o,  so the swallow flew right through it.

Upon seeing this, O-ah-o cursed his luck,  immediately changed himself into a swift-winged falcon, and chased the swallow through the tree. The swallow beat its little wings as hard as it could, but the falcon was quickly catching up. Beneath him, Kian saw the King’s rose garden where the King was resting with his only daughter, and decided to hide there. He changed himself into a rose,  and sat among the other roses surrounding the King’s daughter. But then O-ah-o changed himself into an old dervish, and appeared at the gate of the King’s garden, demanding to see the King.

Once the King was informed by his guards that a dervish was at the door, he told the guards to pay a bit of money to the holy man, and send him on his way. “I seek not your money,” the dervish yelled out from behind the gate, “but rather, beauty. Allow me to pick the rose that grows above her head, and I will pray for your daughter’s good health!” 

The kind-hearted King granted the ascetic his request, but no sooner hand the dervish reached for the rose than it immediately changed into a large emerald and fell onto the Princess’s crown. The King, surprised at the sight of emeralds falling from the sky, jumped up in surprise. The dervish then grabbed for the emerald, but it immediately changed into a pomegranate. It fell onto the ground, split open, and the red seeds inside burst all over the ground around the Princess’s golden slippers. Much to the greater amazement of the King and his daughter, the old dervish then turned into a rooster, and hungrily pecked at the seeds on the ground. But when the rooster attempted to eat the last pomegranate seed, the seed changed into a fox, which quickly caught the rooster around the neck and ate him.

And so it was that Kian ate O-ah-o, and the world was rid of the evil old magician!

The King’s guard, however, had seen the commotion and started firing their arrows at the fox which was trapped in the garden. To save himself, Kian changed back into his usual form, and threw himself at the King’s mercy. “Forgive my intrusion, your Majesty, but I had nowhere else to turn!” cried Kian. He then told his story to the King, from the day he met the old magician, and promised to pay back the hunter and landowner whom he had cheated in the bazaar.

For his part, the King was so taken by Kian’s experiences and his honesty that the King agreed to give him his daughter’s hand in marriage. The King was also so impressed by Kian’s mastery of magic that he appointed Kian as his royal magician, and granted him a stipend more than sufficient for Kian and his mother to live happily ever after.

Published inOld Persian Tales

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