In Persia, there once was a wise king with three sons. He mock-banished the young princes from his kingdom so they could go out and test themselves against the dangers of the real world. Their journey became a fairy tale known as “The Three Princes of Serendip,” which was the ancient name of the country formerly known as Ceylon and currently known as Sri Lanka.
Barely into their adventure, the boys deduced they were following a lame camel down the road. The camel was blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and packing honey on one side and butter on the other. They deduced this even though they had not yet seen the camel. When they arrived at a nearby village and told the locals about the camel they were following, they were immediately arrested because the camel was reported missing and presumed stolen. They were hauled before the local monarch who demanded to know how they knew so much about an animal they said they had never seen and the princes defended themselves thusly:
The tracks on the road showed only three hoofs with the fourth being dragged, so the boys knew the camel was lame.
The grass along the sides of the road had only been eaten on the dry, dusty side while the nice green grass on the other side was untouched, so the boys surmised the camel must be blind in one eye. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the center of the road the size of a camel’s tooth, the boys inferred they fell through the gap in the camel’s mouth made by a missing tooth.
The butter and honey payloads were deduced by noticing ants had been attracted to the dripping butter on one side of the road and flies to the leaking honey on the other. The pregnant woman was explained by the smallness of her feet, the scent of her urine and the fact she needed to use her hands to remount the camel after a rest stop. Shortly after they presented their case, the lost camel was found. The angry ruler was so impressed with their deductive logic, he hired all three princes to become advisors to his country and complimented their father for the success of their educations.
This “silly fairy tale,” according to Horace Walpole, the man who gave us Serendipity, goes back nearly to the time of Christ as it was based on the life of Persian King Bahram V, who ruled the Sassanid Empire (420–440). Stories of his rule are told in epic style by poets of the region, Firdausi in 1010, Nizami in 1197 and Khusrau in 1302. The camel story is just one of many attributed to the charismatic, albeit short-lived, ruler.
Voltaire, in his classic Zadig published in 1737, used the Three Princes yarn, but substituted a dog and horse for the camel in the novel, which is credited with introducing detective fiction to French readers. When American Edgar Allan Poe created detective M. Claude Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue in 1841, he pioneered the modern fiction detective genre utilizing the analytic style of the three princes, as did British doctor, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of history’s most well-known detective, Sherlock Holmes, with his most famous explanation for how he solved the latest complex mystery: “Elementary, my dear Watson.”
Your inquisitive chronicler, who had never heard of The Three Princes before the etymological study of Serendipity published in these pages recently, was simply fishing for a fairy tale to rewrite for his grandchildren and accidentally stumbled on this incredible yarn of how detective-type stories were invented and institutionalized.
Do we need to point out in conclusion, THAT is the very definition of serendipity?
The word is a rockstar in the world of literary history.