As we head into the last full week in October, MotD activities turn toward the literary. It is Tell-A-Dragon-Tale Week, a time to celebrate our friends – the fierce and the gentle, rampaging and wise – in word, verse, even film. (Thank you, Artists of the Internet!)
Today, since I fear I’ve given our Asian Dragons short shrift this month, I am starting with a tale from ancient Japan, The Bamboo Cutter’s Daughter. The original story is too long and involved for this space, but I did want to share my retelling of the section which is dragon-centric. Enjoy.
THE DRAGON JEWEL
Once upon a time, there was an old Bamboo Cutter and his wife. They were good, kind people who, though not rich, were blessed with everything they could want except a child. One day the old man was on his way home when he saw a stalk of bamboo glowing in the evening shade. He sliced open the stalk and there, inside, stood a radiant little girl, as small as a fairy and twice as lovely. He scooped her up and took her home; and he and his wife adopted the child as their very own.
The years went by and the girl grew into the sweetest, most beautiful young woman in all the Japans. And when it was time for her to be given a name, her parents called her the Bamboo Princess, because she was found in the bamboo and was more beautiful than any princess.
Word of the Bamboo Princess spread across from one end of the land to the other, and, as is the way of these things, five princes came pouring out of the woodwork to seek her hand in marriage. Now, there was just one problem. The Bamboo Princess didn’t want to get married to anyone. She wanted to be left alone to live the simple life in the woods with her parents. So she came up with a brilliant plan: give each of the princes an impossible task, and when they failed, she would have a good reason to turn them away.
The first prince she asked to go to India and bring her the stone bowl of the great Buddha. He failed.
The second prince was to bring her a branch from the jeweled tree on the floating mountain of Horai. He failed.
The third was to fetch a robe made from the skins of the legendary fire rat; the fourth, to bring her the magical shell which swallows hide in their nests. They, too, failed.
Which brings us to the last prince and the part about the Dragon: The fifth prince, Prince Lofty by name, was tasked with getting the great jewel that hung around the neck of Ryun-jin, the Dragon King.
Now, Prince Lofty may have been rich and royal, but he was also a great boaster and a terrible coward. Oh, he promised to get the Dragon’s jewel, but he had no intention of doing such a dangerous deed himself. So he called his servants and soldiers. “I want you to go and get me the jewel from the Dragon King,” he said. “Here is gold for your trouble, and for your widows and children, should you not return. Now go, and don’t come back without my jewel!”
Well, this was too good an offer to turn down. The servants and soldiers pocketed the prince’s gold and took off, but not to confront the Dragon. Some of them didn’t even believe in the Dragon’s gem and those who did believe, well, they weren’t foolish enough to anger Ryun-jin by stealing it. If the Prince wanted the jewel he could get it himself; and if he failed, well, it was no skin off their noses.
Of course, Prince Lofty, being a prince, was used to having his orders followed. He never thought for a moment that they wouldn’t complete his quest and win him the hand of the Bamboo Princess. So sure was he that he would marry her, he spent his time building a wondrous palace for his bride-to-be, with a hundred rooms, great towers, and gardens on every side. His land had never known such a beautiful palace. All the wood was lacquered, carved, or inlaid with gold and precious stones. The walls were hung with silks painted by the finest artists.
Now, while all this building was being done, the prince couldn’t help wondering why his men hadn’t returned with the Dragon’s jewel. He waited a whole year for them to come back and not a single one showed his face again. Prince Lofty got angrier and angrier as it finally dawned on him: they took his money and ran! It wasn’t even the loss of money he minded, but the fact that he would have to go after the jewel himself.
He called together the few servants who were left and told them to get a ship ready. He was going to find the Dragon King! But the servants were frightened and begged him not to go. “The Dragon will destroy us all!” they cried.
“Cowards!” scolded Prince Lofty. “Cowards, watch me. I’ll teach you how to be brave. Do you think I am afraid of a Dragon?”
So they set sail, and for two or three days the sea was calm, the skies fair. All was well. And the prince stood on the deck, with his arms akimbo and bragged at the top of his lungs, “Ha! The Dragon hides below the waves. He doesn’t dare show his face, he’s so afraid of me!”
Of course anyone who knows anything about Dragons knows two things for sure: They have excellent hearing and they are not afraid of anyone, especially not a puny prince.
In his palace deep beneath the sea, the Dragon King heard Prince Lofty’s words and grew angry. With a lash of his tail he stirred the waters and with a mighty roar he ordered the thunder and lightning out of the heavens. The ship rocked and dipped from stem to stern. The great waves broke in foam over the deck and soaked the crew to the bone. The rain poured down in torrents. The lightning flashed and the thunder growled and roared. It was the fiercest storm the sailors had ever known.
Suddenly Brave Prince Lofty wasn’t so brave. He was sure the ship would be dashed to pieces. And if he did not drown, then he knew a bolt of lightning would come down and kill him.
Seasick and scared out of his wits, he begged the pilot and crew to save him. “Why did you ever bring me to this place?” he cried. “Did you wish to kill me? Is this how you care for the life of your prince? Get me out of this at once or I shall shoot every one of you with my great bow.”
The crew could hardly keep from laughing, for it was only at the Prince’s order they’d set sail at all. As for shooting them, they knew he could not lift an arrow, much less pull the bow.
The pilot, who understood Dragons far better than his master, answered: “My prince, it must be the dragon who sends this storm. He has heard you say that you will kill him and steal the jewel from his neck. You must promise that you will not hurt him, and then perhaps he will call back the storm and let us live.”
“Anything,” Prince Lofty said. “Just please, please, please, make the storm stop!” And there and then, he vowed to never touch the Dragon, not so much as a whisker or a hair on the tip of his tail.
Fortunately, the Dragon King took the prince at his word, and his anger faded away. After a while the storm died down, the lightning ceased, and the sea was as still as glass. Prince Lofty was too sick, however, to know what happened until the pilot brought the ship to land. There his men lifted the prince out of the ship and laid him under a tree.
When at last he felt firm ground under him, Prince Lofty wept aloud, and swore that now he had land beneath his feet, he would never leave it. Though he was on an island far from Japan, he would not return on a ship, not for a thousand princesses. “You never know with Dragons,” he said. “He might just change his mind.” And so he stayed on the island, ruling over monkeys and tree crabs, for the rest of his life.
And the beautiful palace which he built for the princess had no one to live in it but the bats and owls, and sometimes a stray mouse or two. And that pleased the Bamboo Princess very well, indeed.