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The Emperor’s Dream
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The Emperor of China has such a vivid dream of his true love, that he is able to describe her to an artist who paints her portrait. A courtier then takes the picture of the emperor’s dream girl, and goes out in search of her in the real world.
Although this story is set in China, it actually comes from Persia. Bertie found it in a book called “Flowers from a Persian Garden and Other Papers by William Alexander Clouston” (1890) and he thought it was an exceptionally charming story. He’s rewritten his own version in modern English.
Read by Elizabeth. Duration 8.57. Storynory version by Bertie.
Proofread by Claire Deakin.
The emperor of China was in love with a dream, or to be more precise, with a girl whom he had seen in his dreams, but never in real life. Every night when he fell asleep, he saw her walking in a garden, wearing the most beautiful silks. He could hear her soft voice singing to herself. He could see her pick a cherry from a bowl and pop it into her delicate mouth.
He was so entranced with his dream girl that he asked the court painter to create a portrait of her. He described her elegant feet, her rounded nose, and everything about her, including the exact way she shook her head with a playful frown on her forehead. As the artist was very skilled, he turned the emperor’s words into their perfect likeness in paint.
Although the emperor was pleased with the picture, his courtiers understood that he would be even more delighted by a living copy of the dream, made out of flesh and blood. One of them, realising that he would receive a rich reward for discovering this beauty in real life, swore on oath to the emperor that he would find her within a year. The emperor agreed to let this young man take the portrait with him, and he set out in search of her.
He travelled through villages and cities, along rivers and over mountains, and wherever he went, he showed the portrait of the dream girl to those he met. Often, a cunning stranger, hoping to connect his family to the emperor, would lead him to his or her own daughter. He found several young women who indeed were very like the portrait, but none who bore an exact likeness to it. Eventually, as the year drew to a close, he began to fear the emperor’s anger when he confessed that he had failed in his quest. He wondered if it was safe to return to the Imperial Court without the dream girl. But as he was riding along the bottom of a deep ravine, he met an old hermit. He showed him the picture, and the hermit immediately recognised it as the portrait as Princess Rúm.
The young man hurried as fast as he could to the palace belonging to the father of the princess. The father confirmed that the picture was the exact likeness of his daughter. The young man was allowed a glimpse of her walking in the garden, and he saw that it was true. He had found the object of his quest. In great excitement, he told the prince that the emperor wished to marry his daughter.
The prince replied, “Unfortunately, my daughter has a great aversion to all men. On her sixteenth birthday she had a dream in which she saw a peacock and his family. He was a vain bird who liked to puff out his chest and make a great display of his plumage. All the females were greatly impressed by him, but when a polecat came into the garden, the proud peacock ran and hid behind the sheds while his wife and children were attacked and eaten. Ever since that dream, the princess has taken the view that all men are selfish and good for nothing. She has resolved never to marry.”
The young man was greatly disappointed with this news. He returned to the emperor’s palace, expecting to be punished for failing to live up to his boastful promise to bring back the real life likeness of the picture. He fell down before the emperor, told him of his discovery, and begged for mercy.
The emperor was not angry. In fact he was pleased, because it had turned out that the girl, like himself, was a great dreamer. He told the young man to return to the princess’s father to beg an audience with the young woman, and to relate to her the following story:
“One morning in spring, a family of deer were nibbling grass on the river bank when suddenly a flood of melted snow flashed down from the mountains. The fawn was carried away by the water. The doe, in terror for her life, fled away from the banks. The stag, however, jumped into the water and struggled to save the fawn, until he himself was swept away and drowned.”
The young man returned to the palace of Princess Rúm. He knelt before her in the garden and said, “Your Highness. One who dreams of your hand in marriage has asked me to tell you the following story…”
At the mention of “marriage”, the young girl shook her head with a frown, but the messenger continued resolutely to relate the emperor’s dream.
He repeated, “One morning in spring, a family of deer were nibbling grass on the river bank when suddenly a flood of melted snow flashed down from the mountains. The fawn was carried away by the water. The doe, in terror for her life, fled away from the banks. The stag, however, jumped into the water and struggled to save the fawn, until he himself was swept away and drowned… until he caught up with the fawn further down the stream and saved him.”
The princess listened to the story and was impressed by how closely it resembled her own dream, although one could draw a very different conclusion from it. She thought how remarkable it was that life had brought a reply to a concern that had existed only in her head. She told the messenger to wait while she walked around the garden and thought things over. Eventually she came back to the anxious young man and said, “You may return to your master, the dreamer, and tell him that I accept his proposal of marriage.”
Seven weeks later, Princess Rúm was married to the Emperor of China, and the couple lived and dreamed happily together to the end of their days.