The Three Princes of Serendip – origin of the word Serendipity

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“The story has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

“This discovery indeed is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right – now do you understand serendipity? ”  http://livingheritage.org/three_princes.htm

In a separate line of descent, the story was used by Voltaire in his 1747 Zadig, and through this contributed to both the evolution of detective fiction and also to the self-understanding of scientific method.”

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Edgar Allan Poe in his turn was probably inspired by Zadig when he created C. Auguste Dupin in “The Murders in the Rue Morgue”, calling it a “tale of ratiocination” wherein “the extent of information obtained lies not so much in the validity of the inference as in the quality of the observation.” Poe’s M. Dupin stories mark the start of the modern detective fiction genre. Émile Gaboriau, and Arthur Conan Doyle were perhaps also influenced by Zadig.

The Three Princes of Serendip is the English version of the story Peregrinaggio di tre giovani figliuoli del re di Serendippo published by Michele Tramezzino in Venice in 1557. Tramezzino claimed to have heard the story from one Cristoforo Armeno, who had translated the Persian fairy tale into Italian, adapting Book One of Amir Khusrau‘s Hasht-Bihisht of 1302. The story first came to English via a French translation, and now exists in several out-of-print translations.  Serendip is the Perso-Arabic name for Sri Lanka (Ceylon).

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“as their Highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of.” 

 

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendippo, in the Far East, a great and powerful king by the name of Giaffer. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”

The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences, they report it to the king. He, however, still doubts their training, and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify precisely a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the Emperor Beramo, where he demands punishment.

Beramo asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

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Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road that were the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. Because some urine was nearby, I wet my fingers and as a reaction to its odour I felt a sort of carnal concupiscence, which convinced me that the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating.”

At this moment, a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. Beramo spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them, and appoints them to be his advisors.” (wiki – The Three Princes of Serendip)

“The origin of the idea to which serendipity gives its name can be traced through a literary historiography and like many such terms has a wonderfully layered texture, a sort of stratigraphy of narrative, interpretation and contingency, almost as though the concept was an example of the very thing it named. The term was coined by Horace Walpole, an art historian, writer and political figure of the eighteenth century, based on a Persian fairy tale called The Three Princes of Serendip, (Serendip being the Persian name for Ceylon/Sri Lanka). The tale concerns three exiled princes who survived and prospered by their wits. Actually it has little to do with serendipity as we understand it today; it details something more like the application of deductive logic to evidence, a proto- semiotics. In the most famous story, the princes, by reading telltale signs, are able to describe a stolen camel that they have never seen – understandably leading to suspicion falling on them – before explaining their method and saving their own necks.”
dawnoftheunread blog

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