Today's classic tale is from the Green Fairy Book, a collection of tales assembled and translated by Andrew Lang, published in 1892.
Caliph Chasid, of Bagdad, was resting comfortably on his divan one fine afternoon. He was smoking a long pipe, and from time to time he sipped a little coffee which a slave handed to him, and after each sip he stroked his long beard with an air of enjoyment. In short, anyone could see that the Caliph was in an excellent humour. This was, in fact, the best time of day in which to approach him, for just now he was pretty sure to be both affable and in good spirits, and for this reason the Grand Vizier Mansor always chose this hour in which to pay his daily visit.
He arrived as usual this afternoon, but, contrary to his usual custom, with an anxious face. The Caliph withdrew his pipe for a moment from his lips and asked, ‘Why do you look so anxious, Grand Vizier?’
The Grand Vizier crossed his arms on his breast and bent low before his master as he answered:
‘Oh, my Lord! whether my countenance be anxious or not I know not, but down below, in the court of the palace, is a pedlar with such beautiful things that I cannot help feeling annoyed at having so little money to spare.’
The Caliph, who had wished for some time past to give his Grand Vizier a present, ordered his black slave to bring the pedlar before him at once. The slave soon returned, followed by the pedlar, a short stout man with a swarthy face, and dressed in very ragged clothes. He carried a box containing all manner of wares—strings of pearls, rings, richly mounted pistols, goblets, and combs. The Caliph and his Vizier inspected everything, and the Caliph chose some handsome pistols for himself and Mansor, and a jewelled comb for the Vizier’s wife. Just as the pedlar was about to close his box, the Caliph noticed a small drawer, and asked if there was anything else in it for sale. The pedlar opened the drawer and showed them a box containing a black powder, and a scroll written in strange characters, which neither the Caliph nor the Mansor could read.
‘I got these two articles from a merchant who had picked them up in the street at Mecca,’ said the pedlar. ‘I do not know what they may contain, but as they are of no use to me, you are welcome to have them for a trifle.’
The Caliph, who liked to have old manuscripts in his library, even though he could not read them, purchased the scroll and the box, and dismissed the pedlar. Then, being anxious to know what might be the contents of the scroll, he asked the Vizier if he did not know of anyone who might be able to decipher it.
‘Most gracious Lord and master,’ replied the Vizier, ‘near the great Mosque lives a man called Selim the learned, who knows every language under the sun. Send for him; it may be that he will be able to interpret these mysterious characters.’
The learned Selim was summoned immediately.
‘Selim,’ said the Caliph, ‘I hear you are a scholar. Look well at this scroll and see whether you can read it. If you can, I will give you a robe of honour; but if you fail, I will order you to receive twelve strokes on your cheeks, and five-and-twenty on the soles of your feet, because you have been falsely called Selim the learned.’
Selim prostrated himself and said, ‘Be it according to your will, oh master!’ Then he gazed long at the scroll. Suddenly he exclaimed: ‘May I die, oh, my Lord, if this isn’t Latin!’
‘Well,’ said the Caliph, ‘if it is Latin, let us hear what it means.’
So Selim began to translate: ‘Thou who mayest find this, praise Allah for his mercy. Whoever shall snuff the powder in this box, and at the same time shall pronounce the word “Mutabor!” can transform himself into any creature he likes, and will understand the language of all animals. When he wishes to resume the human form, he has only to bow three times towards the east, and to repeat the same word. Be careful, however, when wearing the shape of some beast or bird, not to laugh, or thou wilt certainly forget the magic word and remain an animal for ever.’
When Selim the learned had read this, the Caliph was delighted. He made the wise man swear not to tell the matter to anyone, gave him a splendid robe, and dismissed him. Then he said to his Vizier, ‘That’s what I call a good bargain, Mansor. I am longing for the moment when I can become some animal. To-morrow morning I shall expect you early; we will go into the country, take some snuff from my box, and then hear what is being said in air, earth, and water.’
Next morning Caliph Chasid had barely finished dressing, and breakfasting, when the Grand Vizier arrived, according to orders, to accompany him in his expedition. The Caliph stuck the snuff-box in his girdle, and, having desired his servants to remain at home, started off with the Grand Vizier only in attendance. First they walked through the palace gardens, but they looked in vain for some creature which could tempt them to try their magic power. At length the Vizier suggested going further on to a pond which lay beyond the town, and where he had often seen a variety of creatures, especially storks, whose grave, dignified appearance and constant chatter had often attracted his attention.
The Caliph consented, and they went straight to the pond. As soon as they arrived they remarked a stork strutting up and down with a stately air, hunting for frogs, and now and then muttering something to itself. At the same time they saw another stork far above in the sky flying towards the same spot.
‘I would wager my beard, most gracious master,’ said the Grand Vizier, ‘that these two long legs will have a good chat together. How would it be if we turned ourselves into storks?’
‘Well said,’ replied the Caliph; ‘but first let us remember carefully how we are to become men once more. True! Bow three times towards the east and say “Mutabor!” and I shall be Caliph and you my Grand Vizier again. But for Heaven’s sake don’t laugh or we are lost!’
As the Caliph spoke he saw the second stork circling round his head and gradually flying towards the earth. Quickly he drew the box from his girdle, took a good pinch of the snuff, and offered one to Mansor, who also took one, and both cried together ‘Mutabor!’
Instantly their legs shrivelled up and grew thin and red; their smart yellow slippers turned to clumsy stork’s feet, their arms to wings; their necks began to sprout from between their shoulders and grew a yard long; their beards disappeared, and their bodies were covered with feathers.
‘You’ve got a fine long bill, Sir Vizier,’ cried the Caliph, after standing for some time lost in astonishment. ‘By the beard of the Prophet I never saw such a thing in all my life!’
‘My very humble thanks,’ replied the Grand Vizier, as he bent his long neck; ‘but, if I may venture to say so, your Highness is even handsomer as a stork than as a Caliph. But come, if it so pleases you, let us go near our comrades there and find out whether we really do understand the language of storks.’
Meantime the second stork had reached the ground. It first scraped its bill with its claw, stroked down its feathers, and then advanced towards the first stork. The two newly made storks lost no time in drawing near, and to their amazement overheard the following conversation:
‘Good morning, Dame Longlegs. You are out early this morning!’
‘Yes, indeed, dear Chatterbill! I am getting myself a morsel of breakfast. May I offer you a joint of lizard or a frog’s thigh?’
‘A thousand thanks, but I have really no appetite this morning. I am here for a very different purpose. I am to dance to-day before my father’s guests, and I have come to the meadow for a little quiet practice.’
Thereupon the young stork began to move about with the most wonderful steps. The Caliph and Mansor looked on in surprise for some time; but when at last she balanced herself in a picturesque attitude on one leg, and flapped her wings gracefully up and down, they could hold out no longer; a prolonged peal burst from each of their bills, and it was some time before they could recover their composure. The Caliph was the first to collect himself. ‘That was the best joke,’ said he, ‘I’ve ever seen. It’s a pity the stupid creatures were scared away by our laughter, or no doubt they would have sung next!’
Suddenly, however, the Vizier remembered how strictly they had been warned not to laugh during their transformation. He at once communicated his fears to the Caliph, who exclaimed, ‘By Mecca and Medina! it would indeed prove but a poor joke if I had to remain a stork for the remainder of my days! Do just try and remember the stupid word, it has slipped my memory.’
‘We must bow three times eastwards and say “Mu...mu...mu...”’
They turned to the east and fell to bowing till their bills touched the ground, but, oh horror—the magic word was quite forgotten, and however often the Caliph bowed and however touchingly his Vizier cried ‘Mu...mu...’ they could not recall it, and the unhappy Chasid and Mansor remained storks as they were.
The two enchanted birds wandered sadly on through the meadows. In their misery they could not think what to do next. They could not rid themselves of their new forms; there was no use in returning to the town and saying who they were; for who would believe a stork who announced that he was a Caliph; and even if they did believe him, would the people of Bagdad consent to let a stork rule over them?
So they lounged about for several days, supporting themselves on fruits, which, however, they found some difficulty in eating with their long bills. They did not much care to eat frogs or lizards. Their one comfort in their sad plight was the power of flying, and accordingly they often flew over the roofs of Bagdad to see what was going on there.
During the first few days they noticed signs of much disturbance and distress in the streets, but about the fourth day, as they sat on the roof of the palace, they perceived a splendid procession passing below them along the street. Drums and trumpets sounded, a man in a scarlet mantle, embroidered in gold, sat on a splendidly caparisoned horse surrounded by richly dressed slaves; half Bagdad crowded after him, and they all shouted, ‘Hail, Mirza, the Lord of Bagdad!’
The two storks on the palace roof looked at each other, and Caliph Chasid said, ‘Can you guess now, Grand Vizier, why I have been enchanted? This Mirza is the son of my deadly enemy, the mighty magician Kaschnur, who in an evil moment vowed vengeance on me. Still I will not despair! Come with me, my faithful friend; we will go to the grave of the Prophet, and perhaps at that sacred spot the spell may be loosed.’
They rose from the palace roof, and spread their wings toward Medina.
But flying was not quite an easy matter, for the two storks had had but little practice as yet.
‘Oh, my Lord!’ gasped the Vizier, after a couple of hours, ‘I can get on no longer; you really fly too quick for me. Besides, it is nearly evening, and we should do well to find some place in which to spend the night.’
Chasid listened with favour to his servant’s suggestion, and perceiving in the valley beneath them a ruin which seemed to promise shelter they flew towards it. The building in which they proposed to pass the night had apparently been formerly a castle. Some handsome pillars still stood amongst the heaps of ruins, and several rooms, which yet remained in fair preservation, gave evidence of former splendour. Chasid and his companion wandered along the passages seeking a dry spot, when suddenly Mansor stood still.
‘My Lord and master,’ he whispered, ‘if it were not absurd for a Grand Vizier, and still more for a stork, to be afraid of ghosts, I should feel quite nervous, for someone, or something close by me, has sighed and moaned quite audibly.’
The Caliph stood still and distinctly heard a low weeping sound which seemed to proceed from a human being rather than from any animal. Full of curiosity he was about to rush towards the spot from whence the sounds of woe came, when the Vizier caught him by the wing with his bill, and implored him not to expose himself to fresh and unknown dangers. The Caliph, however, under whose stork’s breast a brave heart beat, tore himself away with the loss of a few feathers, and hurried down a dark passage. He saw a door which stood ajar, and through which he distinctly heard sighs, mingled with sobs. He pushed open the door with his bill, but remained on the threshold, astonished at the sight which met his eyes. On the floor of the ruined chamber—which was but scantily lighted by a small barred window—sat a large screech owl. Big tears rolled from its large round eyes, and in a hoarse voice it uttered its complaints through its crooked beak. As soon as it saw the Caliph and his Vizier—who had crept up meanwhile—it gave vent to a joyful cry. It gently wiped the tears from its eyes with its spotted brown wings, and to the great amazement of the two visitors, addressed them in good human Arabic.
‘Welcome, ye storks! You are a good sign of my deliverance, for it was foretold me that a piece of good fortune should befall me through a stork.’
When the Caliph had recovered from his surprise, he drew up his feet into a graceful position, bent his long neck, and said: ‘Oh, screech owl! from your words I am led to believe that we see in you a companion in misfortune. But, alas! your hope that you may attain your deliverance through us is but a vain one. You will know our helplessness when you have heard our story.’
The screech owl begged him to relate it, and the Caliph accordingly told him what we already know.
When the Caliph had ended, the owl thanked him and said: ‘You hear my story, and own that I am no less unfortunate than yourselves. My father is the King of the Indies. I, his only daughter, am named Lusa. That magician Kaschnur, who enchanted you, has been the cause of my misfortunes too. He came one day to my father and demanded my hand for his son Mirza. My father—who is rather hasty—ordered him to be thrown downstairs. The wretch not long after managed to approach me under another form, and one day, when I was in the garden, and asked for some refreshment, he brought me—in the disguise of a slave—a draught which changed me at once to this horrid shape. Whilst I was fainting with terror he transported me here, and cried to me with his awful voice: “There shall you remain, lonely and hideous, despised even by the brutes, till the end of your days, or till some one of his own free will asks you to be his wife. Thus do I avenge myself on you and your proud father.”
‘Since then many months have passed away. Sad and lonely do I live like any hermit within these walls, avoided by the world and a terror even to animals; the beauties of nature are hidden from me, for I am blind by day, and it is only when the moon sheds her pale light on this spot that the veil falls from my eyes and I can see.’ The owl paused, and once more wiped her eyes with her wing, for the recital of her woes had drawn fresh tears from her.
The Caliph fell into deep thought on hearing this story of the Princess. ‘If I am not much mistaken,’ said he, ‘there is some mysterious connection between our misfortunes, but how to find the key to the riddle is the question.’
The owl answered: ‘Oh, my Lord! I too feel sure of this, for in my earliest youth a wise woman foretold that a stork would bring me some great happiness, and I think I could tell you how we might save ourselves.’ The Caliph was much surprised, and asked her what she meant.
‘The Magician who has made us both miserable,’ said she, ‘comes once a month to these ruins. Not far from this room is a large hall where he is in the habit of feasting with his companions. I have often watched them. They tell each other all about their evil deeds, and possibly the magic word which you have forgotten may be mentioned.’
‘Oh, dearest Princess!’ exclaimed the Caliph, ‘say, when does he come, and where is the hall?’
The owl paused a moment and then said: ‘Do not think me unkind, but I can only grant your request on one condition.’
‘Speak, speak!’ cried Chasid; ‘command, I will gladly do whatever you wish!’
‘Well,’ replied the owl, ‘you see I should like to be free too; but this can only be if one of you will offer me his hand in marriage.’
The storks seemed rather taken aback by this suggestion, and the Caliph beckoned to his Vizier to retire and consult with him.
When they were outside the door the Caliph said: ‘Grand Vizier, this is a tiresome business. However, you can take her.’
‘Indeed!’ said the Vizier; ‘so that when I go home my wife may scratch my eyes out! Besides, I am an old man, and your Highness is still young and unmarried, and a far more suitable match for a young and lovely Princess.’
‘That’s just where it is,’ sighed the Caliph, whose wings drooped in a dejected manner; ‘how do you know she is young and lovely? I call it buying a pig in a poke.’
They argued on for some time, but at length, when the Caliph saw plainly that his Vizier would rather remain a stork to the end of his days than marry the owl, he determined to fulfil the condition himself. The owl was delighted. She owned that they could not have arrived at a better time, as most probably the magicians would meet that very night.
She then proceeded to lead the two storks to the chamber. They passed through a long dark passage till at length a bright ray of light shone before them through the chinks of a half-ruined wall. When they reached it the owl advised them to keep very quiet. Through the gap near which they stood they could with ease survey the whole of the large hall. It was adorned with splendid carved pillars; a number of coloured lamps replaced the light of day. In the middle of the hall stood a round table covered with a variety of dishes, and about the table was a divan on which eight men were seated. In one of these bad men the two recognised the pedlar who had sold the magic powder. The man next him begged him to relate all his latest doings, and amongst them he told the story of the Caliph and his Vizier.
‘And what kind of word did you give them?’ asked another old sorcerer.
‘A very difficult Latin word; it is “Mutabor.”’
As soon as the storks heard this they were nearly beside themselves with joy. They ran at such a pace to the door of the ruined castle that the owl could scarcely keep up with them. When they reached it the Caliph turned to the owl, and said with much feeling: ‘Deliverer of my friend and myself, as a proof of my eternal gratitude, accept me as your husband.’ Then he turned towards the east. Three times the storks bowed their long necks to the sun, which was just rising over the mountains. ‘Mutabor!’ they both cried, and in an instant they were once more transformed. In the rapture of their newly-given lives master and servant fell laughing and weeping into each other’s arms. Who shall describe their surprise when they at last turned round and beheld standing before them a beautiful lady exquisitely dressed!
With a smile she held out her hand to the Caliph, and asked: ‘Do you not recognise your screech owl?’
It was she! The Caliph was so enchanted by her grace and beauty, that he declared being turned into a stork had been the best piece of luck which had ever befallen him. The three set out at once for Bagdad. Fortunately, the Caliph found not only the box with the magic powder, but also his purse in his girdle; he was, therefore, able to buy in the nearest village all they required for their journey, and so at last they reached the gates of Bagdad.
Here the Caliph’s arrival created the greatest sensation. He had been quite given up for dead, and the people were greatly rejoiced to see their beloved ruler again.
Their rage with the usurper Mirza, however, was great in proportion. They marched in force to the palace and took the old magician and his son prisoners. The Caliph sent the magician to the room where the Princess had lived as an owl, and there had him hanged. As the son, however, knew nothing of his father’s acts, the Caliph gave him his choice between death and a pinch of the magic snuff. When he chose the latter, the Grand Vizier handed him the box. One good pinch, and the magic word transformed him to a stork. The Caliph ordered him to be confined in an iron cage, and placed in the palace gardens.
Caliph Chasid lived long and happily with his wife the Princess. His merriest time was when the Grand Vizier visited him in the afternoon; and when the Caliph was in particularly high spirits he would condescend to mimic the Vizier’s appearance when he was a stork. He would strut gravely, and with well-stiffened legs, up and down the room, chattering, and showing how he had vainly bowed to the east and cried ‘Mu...Mu...’ The Caliphess and her children were always much entertained by this performance; but when the Caliph went on nodding and bowing, and calling ‘Mu...mu...’ too long, the Vizier would threaten laughingly to tell the Chaliphess the subject of the discussion carried on one night outside the door of Princess Screech Owl.