Living Heritage of Sri Lanka

The Three Princes of Serendip

Part One

by Richard Boyle © 2000

In response to queries regarding his recent allusion to the origins of The Three Princes of Serendip, Richard Boyle now recounts the fabled story that inspired Horace Walpole to coin the word serendipity. See also Richard Boyle's "Serendipity: How the Vogue word became Vague"

The term serendipity is solidly entrenched in English usage, including book titles (above).
Poster for a play (above) and even household items (below) leverage the term serendiptiy.

On the morning of January 28, 1754, an exceptional Englishman sat down at his desk in the library of his gothic mansion, Strawberry Hill, to attend to his correspondence. It was a daily ritual, for the man in question was probably the greatest letter writer of his era, or of any other for that matter. On that winter's morning in Twickenham, London, he composed a letter in which he committed to paper for the first time a word that has contributed much to the English language. As a consequence, he resurrected a strange Oriental tale that would otherwise have been condemned to obscurity.

The man in question was Horace Walpole (1717-97), fourth Earl of Orford, son of Prime Minister Robert Walpole, connoisseur, antiquarian and author of the famous gothic novel, The Castle of Otranto (London, 1765). The word he invented was, of course, serendipity. And the tale he rescued from literary oblivion was The Three Princes of Serendip. The letter - to Horace Mann, an envoy in the service of King George II stationed in Florence – was written to acknowledge the safe arrival of a portrait of Bianca Cappello, a 16th century beauty and Duchess of Tuscany. This letter is contained among the 31 volumes of Horace Walpole's Correspondence (New Haven, 1937), edited by Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis.

It was in 1980 at a London library that I first accessed Horace Walpole's Correspondence in order to delve into the history and derivation of the word serendipity. The Index gave two references. Number one was to the letter in which Walpole made first written usage of the word, for Walpole infers that he coined it beforehand. It is necessary to quote this letter almost in its entirety to provide the precise context of the word's usage.

"The head", Walpole writes of the portrait, "is painted equal to Titian, and though done, I suppose, after the clock had struck five and thirty, yet she retains a great share of beauty. I have bespoken a frame for her, with the grand ducal coronet on top, her story on a label at the bottom, which Gray is to compose in Latin as short and expressive as Tacitus (one is lucky when one can bespeak and have executed such an inscription!) the Medici arms on one side, and the Capello's on the other. I must tell you a critical discovery of mine a propos: in an old book of Venetian arms, there are two coats of Capello, who from their name bear a hat, on one of them is added a flower-de-luce on a blue ball, which I am persuaded was given to the family by the Great Duke, in consideration of this alliance; the Medicis you know bore a badge at the top of their arms; this discovery I made by a talisman, which Mr Chute calls the sortes Walpolianae, by which I find everything I want a point nomme wherever I dip for it.

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? One of the most remarkable instances of this accidental sagacity (for you must observe that no discovery of a thing you are looking for comes under this description) was of my Lord Shaftsbury, who happening to dine at Lord Chancellor Clarendon's, found out the marriage of the Duke of York and Mrs Hyde, by the respect with which her mother treated her at table.

On reading Walpole's description of the process of serendipity - "They were always making discoveries, by accident and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of" it becomes evident that the example cited is not suited to the coiner's definition. The ineptness of this example, and the further one that Walpole cites with reference to Lord Shaftsbury, fail to illustrate the grand concept of serendipity.

I found the second reference to serendipity in Horace Walpole's Correspondence to be a footnote to a sentence in a letter to the social reformer and religious writer, Hannah More. The pertinent sentence from the letter, dated September 10, 1789, reads: "Nor is there any harm in starting new game to invention; many discoveries have been made by men who were a la chasse of something very different." The editor comments in the footnote to this sentence, "Horace Walpole coined the word ‘Serendipity' to describe this process: see Horace Walpole to Mann January 28, 1754."

Personal experiences of such a nature can be culled at will and need not be bothered with here. What is most significant is that history reveals many examples of accidental and sagacious discovery while in pursuit of something else. Christopher Colombus' discovery of America, Alexander Fleming's discovery of penicillin, and Alfred Bernard Nobel's discovery of dynamite, are just a few examples.

Of course numerous writers – including myself - have tried to link the Island of Serendip with the serendipitous experience, but most of these attempts have been contrived. There are exceptions, however. Take John Barth, for example, who writes in his extraordinary retelling of the Sindbad saga in Serendip, The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (New York, 1991): "You don't reach Serendip by plotting a course for it. You have to set out in good faith for elsewhere and lose your bearings serendipitously."

It was not until the late 1980s that the bibliographer H.A.I. (Ian) Goonetileke informed me of the existence of a seminal book on the subject titled Serendipity and the Three Princes: From the Peregrinaggio of 1557 (University of Oklahoma Press, Norman: 1964). Edited by Theodore G. Remer, this work contains a definitive etymology of the word serendipity, the history of The Three Princes of Serendip, and the first direct English translation of the tale. Having ascertained there was no copy to be found in any of the major public libraries in Sri Lanka (and, I suspect, in any private library), I asked an American friend to unearth one in the United States. Several years went by and nothing transpired. Then one day my faith in him was rewarded when he arrived in Sri Lanka with a photocopy of the book.

My first task on reading it was to make two further copies. One I sent to Ian Goonetileke, knowing that this was one book not to be found in his library, although he had, of course, encountered it in years gone by while engaged in his bibliographical labours. The other I sent to Arthur C. Clarke, as he had touched on the subject of serendipity in his autobiographical writings concerning Sri Lanka but had never had the opportunity of reading the tale.

I received a letter from Ian Goonetileke dated June 9, 1997 thanking me for his copy. As those who know Ian are all too aware, he is the Horace Walpole of Sri Lanka, a prolific and fastidious writer of letters. I quote the relevant section of his letter in full, because it not only mentions his first encounter with the book, but also provides an indication of his skill with correspondence.

"In a day of unusual tedium and ensuing diminution of mood, serendipity presented itself in both unexpected and curious fashion," Ian writes. "Along with a letter from our ambassador in Washington there was a dirty brown piece of postal advice saying a ‘damaged registered letter' for me had to be collected from the Athurugiriya Post Office. After lunch my wife's niece's husband got on his push bike and returned in half an hour with two torn pieces (originally constituting a white envelope with its Rs 16.00 stamp) and the virgin white copy of Remer's Serendipity. It produced an even greater sensation of accidental discovery than 30 years earlier when I asked at the famous round Reading Room of the British Museum for Remer's volume – and was totally absorbed. Since that calculated act of detection, this afternoon's joy was undiluted, and I did not let go of the copy till I had virtually read it in one sitting, and darkness set in. What an assiduous and arduous chase! The gift provided an ecstatic experience of a kind only too familiar and frequent in a past crammed with such happenings."

As I have mentioned before, The Three Princes of Serendip was published in Venice in 1557 by an enterprising printer called Michele Tramezzino. That Tramezzino was well-respected can be judged by the fact that the book bears the imprimatur of Pope Julius III. The title page of The Three Princes of Serendip claims that one Christoforo Armeno translated the book from Persian into Italian, but there are serious doubts as to whether Armeno ever existed, except in the fertile mind of Michele Tramezzino. Most likely Tramezzino was himself the compiler of the various tales, which were probably of ancient origin, mostly Indian.

It has been suggested that Tramezzino used Serendip in the title of his book not only because it imparted an exotic flavour, but also because the island was topical in 1555 when the book was being compiled. News was seeping through from Rome that the Spanish Jesuit Francis Xavier (who was canonized in 1622) had introduced Christianity to the island a few years earlier. As Sir James Emerson Tennent reports in Ceylon (London, 1859), "It was by the fisher-caste of Mannar that he was invited to Ceylon in 1544." For devout Venetians, this represented a victory for God and the Church, a victory in a strange and far-off land variously known as Ceilao, Zeylan, Taprobane, and Serendip.

"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."

So begins the fascinating story of The Three Princes of Serendip. In order to provide the best tutors for his sons, the king travels throughout the island until he finds a number of scholars, each specialized in a different field, "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."

As the three princes are endowed with great intelligence, they soon become highly trained in the arts and sciences. However, when the tutors inform the king of his sons' achievements, he is sceptical. So he summons his eldest son and announces that he wishes to retire to a monastery and that his son should succeed him as ruler. The eldest son politely refuses, insisting that his father is wiser and should reign until his death. The two younger sons also refuse when commanded in a similar manner.

Although the king is astonished by the wisdom displayed by his sons, he decides to send them on a prolonged journey so that they can acquire empirical experience. He summons his sons and, giving the impression of being angry and disappointed because they have all disobeyed him, banishes them from Serendip. "Thus they started their peregrination and moved out of his kingdom until they reached the kingdom of a great and powerful emperor, whose name was Beramo."

Misfortune befalls the princes when a camel driver stops them on the road and asks them if they have seen one of his camels. Although they have not, they have noticed signs that suggest a camel has passed along the road. Ever ready to dazzle with their wit and sagacity, the princes mystify the camel driver by asking him if the lost camel is blind in one eye, missing a tooth and lame. The camel driver, impressed by the accuracy of the description, immediately hurries off in pursuit of the animal.

After a fruitless search, and feeling deceived, he returns to the princes, who reassure him by supplying further information. The camel, they say, carried a load of butter on one side and honey on the other, and was ridden by a pregnant woman. Concluding that the princes have stolen the camel, the driver has them imprisoned. It is only after the driver's neighbour finds the camel that they are released.

The princes are brought before Emperor Beramo, who asks them how they could give such an accurate description of a camel they had never seen. It is clear from the princes' reply that they had brilliantly interpreted the scant evidence observed along the road.

As the grass had been eaten on one side of the road where it was less verdant, the princes deduced that the camel was blind to the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel's tooth, presumably 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 clear because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

The deduction regarding the pregnant rider is more complicated than the rest and is somewhat lewd, so I shall let the princes tell it themselves: "I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman," said the second brother, "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 near by, I wet my fingers (in it) 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 the third, "because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands while urinating."

Although Walpole mistakenly believed it to concern a mule, it is of course this camel episode that he latched onto as an example of serendipity, inadequate though it may be.

Part II of "The Three Princes of Serendip"