Friday, May 25, 2007

The Three Treasures [Akutagawa Ryunosuke]


In a forest, three bandits are squabbling over some treasure. At first glance the treasure looks like worthless trash, but actually it is a pair of boots that allows the wearer to jump 1000 miles, a cape that turns its wearer invisible, and a sword that can slice through anything, even iron.

The First Bandit: “Give me the cape.”

The Second Bandit: “You be quiet. And give me that sword. Hey, who stole my boots?”

The Third Bandit: “Don’t you mean my boots? You’re the one who is stealing my things!”

The First Bandit: “So it’s settled. The cape is mine.”

The Second Bandit: “Fool! Who said you could have it?”

The First Bandit: “Hit me, will you? Hey, give me my sword back!”

The Third Bandit: “Never, you cape thief!”

And so on, and so on. Just then, a prince comes down the forest path on his horse.

The Prince: “What do we have here?” (He gets down off his horse.)

The First Bandit: “It’s all his fault! Not only did he steal my sword, but now he’s demanding that I give him my cape, as well!”

The Third Bandit: “No, he’s the one who started all this! He stole my cape!”

The Second Bandit: “No, no, the both of them are thieves! All of those things belong to me!”

The First Bandit: “You liar!”

The Second Bandit: “Who are you calling a liar, liar?!”

And so the fight begins anew.

The Prince: “Oh, come now. It’s just an old cape and a pair of boots with holes in them. What does it matter whose they are?”

The Second Bandit: “It matters because wearing this cape will turn you invisible!”

The First Bandit: “It matters because this sword can cut through even an iron helmet!”

The Third Bandit: “It matters because with these boots you can jump 1000 miles!”

The Prince: “I see. Well, those are certainly treasures worth fighting over. In that case, why don’t you each just take one of them?”

The Second Bandit: “What, and have the wielder of that sword come and kill me?”

The First Bandit: “What, and have the wearer of that cape come and steal from me?”

The Second Bandit: “Who could steal from you? Without those boots, we’d never get away!”

The Prince: “Hmm, I see your problem. Well how about this? If you sell me all three treasures, then you wouldn’t have to worry.”

The First Bandit: “Sell everything to you? What do you two think?”

The Third Bandit: “Hmm, that would solve our problem.”

The Second Bandit: “Depends on the price, I say.”

The Prince: “Indeed. In exchange for that cape I will give you this scarlet cape. Look at the embroidered hem! For those old boots, I will give you my shoes, trimmed in jewels. And perhaps this gold-filigreed sword would be a fitting trade for that one? What do you say to that?”

The Second Bandit: “Yes, I would take your cape for this one.”

The First and Third Bandits: “We’re happy with that trade as well.”

The Prince: “So we have a bargain, then.”

The Prince exchanges capes, swords, and boots, and then mounts his horse and starts back down the forest path.

The Prince: “Do you know of an inn nearby?”

The First Bandit: “Just outside of the forest you’ll see an inn called ‘The Golden Horn’. Safe travels to you.”

The Prince: “And to you, sir.” (He leaves)

The Third Bandit: “Well that was a profitable trade. I never thought that those old boots could become such a treasure. Look, these fasteners have diamonds in them!”

The Second Bandit: “Just look how splendid this cape is! It makes me look like a lord!”

The First Bandit: “Such a fabulous sword! Both the hilt and sheath are gold! But what a fool that prince is, to be tricked so easily.”

The Second Bandit: “Quiet, now! The trees have ears, and birds will sing. Now, let’s go off for a drink!”

The bandits head down the path in the opposite direction as the prince, laughing all the way.


The prince is chomping on some bread in a corner of the inn called the Golden Horn, surrounded by seven or eight other patrons. They all seem to be farmers from the nearby village.

The Innkeeper: “They say that the queen is to be married soon.”

The First Farmer: “That’s what they say. And I hear that her betrothed is some African king?”

The Second Farmer: “But the rumor is that she actually hates the man.”

The First Farmer: “Well if she hates him then why doesn’t she cancel the wedding?”

The Innkeeper: “Because he has three great treasures. First, he has a pair of boots that allow the wearer to jump 1000 miles. He also has a sword that can slice even through iron. And he has a cape that will turn its wearer invisible. They say that he offered these treasures for her, and so the greedy king of this kingdom is trading his own wife for them.”

The Second Farmer: “How horrible for the queen…”

The First Farmer: “Isn’t there anyone who can help her?”

The Innkeeper: “No, there are many princes from many countries who have offered their help, but none can match the offer of the African king. All they can do is sit by and watch it happen.”

The Second Farmer: “What could they do? The greedy king has set a dragon to guard her!”

The Innkeeper: “Not a dragon, an army!”

The First Farmer: “If only I knew some magic. I’d head straight off to help her…”

The Innkeeper: “Well, you could try. But if I knew some magic, I’d beat you there!” (They both laugh.)

The Prince: (Jumping into the group) “Fear not! I shall save her!”

All: (Surprised) “You will?!”

The Prince: “I will! And no African king will stop me. (Arms crossed, gazing at the crowd) I’ll chase him off, once and for all.”

The Innkeeper: “But, the king has three treasures! First, he has boots that can jump 1000 miles! And also…”

The Prince: “A sword that can cut even through iron, right? Well I have all of those things myself. Look at these boots. Look at this sword. And this old cape. These treasures are exactly like those that the African king has.”

All: (Surprised again) “Those boots?! That sword?! That cape?!”

The Innkeeper: (Suspicious) “But look, those boots have holes in them!”

The Prince: “Indeed they do. But they can jump 1000 miles nonetheless.”

The Innkeeper: “Truly, sir?”

The Prince: (Condescendingly) “I see that you doubt me. Very well, I shall show you. Open the door there. Now watch carefully, or you’ll miss it!”

The Innkeeper: “Could I ask you to please pay your bill first?”

The Prince: “Oh, come now, I’ll be right back. What would you like me to bring back as a souvenir? A pomegranate from Italy? A gourd from Spain? Or perhaps a fig from far-off Arabia?”

The Innkeeper: “Please bring back anything you wish. Now, let’s see you jump.”

The Prince: “And so I shall! One! Two! Three!”

The prince makes an impressive leap, but finds himself flat on his rump far short of even reaching the door. All those in the inn laugh loudly.

The Innkeeper: “Just what I expected.”

The First Farmer: “1000 miles? You didn’t move ten feet!”

The Second Farmer: “Well maybe he did jump 1000 miles, and then he immediately jumped the 1000 miles back here!”

The First Farmer: “You can’t be serious. You know that’s not what happened.”

They all give a big laugh again. The dejected prince picks himself up off the floor, and starts to leave.

The Innkeeper: “There, now. Don’t forget to pay your bill.”

The prince silently throws down some money.

The Second Farmer: “Where are our souvenirs?”

The Prince: (Putting his hand on the hilt of his sword) “What was that?”

The Second Farmer: (Bashfully) “Nothing at all.” (To himself) “That sword may not be able to cut through iron, but it could likely do a job on my neck!”

The Innkeeper: (Soothingly) “You are yet young. Perhaps it would be best if you headed back to your father’s kingdom. There is no way that you could stand up to the African king. Know thyself, as they say.”

All: “That’s right! That’s just what you should do! None would blame you!”

The Prince: “I…I thought that I could accomplish anything.” (Tears flow from his eyes) “Oh, I am so shamed.” (Hiding his face.) “I wish that I could just vanish from here.”

The First Farmer: “Why don’t you try wearing the coat? Maybe it will make you vanish.”

The Prince: “Damn you!” (Stomping the ground.) “Fine, make a fool of me. But I’ll show you! I’ll save that poor queen from the African king! The boots may not have worked, but I still have the sword! And the cape…” (Forcefully) “I’ll save her if I have to use my bare hands! We’ll see who laughs then!” (He runs from the inn like a madman.)

The Innkeeper: “My, what a mess. I just hope that the African king doesn’t kill him.”


And now we are in the garden of the king. A fountain rises from among roses. No one is there at first, but after a time the prince appears, wearing the old cape.

The Prince: “It would seem that this cape does indeed make one vanish. Since entering this castle I’ve met both soldiers and servants, yet none have challenged my presence. With this cape, I should be able to enter the queen’s chambers as easily as the wind passes over these roses. And who is that approaching but the queen herself? I should hide myself somewhere… But wait, what am I saying? With this cape on, I can just stand right here, and the queen won’t see me.”

The queen approaches the edge of the fountain, and gives a gloomy sigh.

The Queen: “Oh, such a piteous creature am I. In less than one week that horrible king will take me away to Africa! The land of lions and…and crocodiles!” (She sits upon the lawn) “I want to stay forever here in this castle, here in this garden, listening to the sounds of this fountain…”

The Prince: “Such a beautiful queen! I shall save her, even if I forfeit my life in the attempt!”

The Queen: (Looking surprised at the prince) “Who are you?”

The Prince: (To himself) “Alas, my words betray my presence!”

The Queen: “Your words? Are you perhaps insane? What a shame, for someone so fair of face…”

The Prince: “My face? You can see my face?”

The Queen: “Well of course I can. Why shouldn’t I be able to?”

The Prince: “Can you see this cape as well?”

The Queen: “Of course. And what an old cape it is.”

The Prince: (Despondently) “You aren’t supposed to be able to see me at all.”

The Queen: (Surprised) “How so?”

The Prince: “This cape is supposed to make its wearer vanish.”

The Queen: “That would be the cape of the African king.”

The Prince: “And this cape as well.”

The Queen: “But you are quite visible…”

The Prince: “I’m sure that I was quite transparent when I met the soldiers and the servants. Not one of them challenged my presence here!”

The Queen: (Laughing) “Well of course. With such a shabby cloak, they must have thought you a lowly commoner.”

The Prince: “A commoner!” (Sitting dejectedly) “This is just like the boots.”

The Queen: “What about your boots?”

The Prince: “These boots can jump 1000 miles.”

The Queen: “Like the African king’s boots?”

The Prince: “Yes…But when I tried to jump with them, I only flew a few feet. Well, at least I still have the sword. It can cut through even iron.”

The Queen: “Why don’t you try cutting something?”

The Prince: “No, I will not use it to cut anything before it cuts through the African king’s neck.”

The Queen: “Oh, my! So you’ve come to do battle with the African king?”

The Prince: “I didn’t come for the battle, but rather to rescue you.”

The Queen: “Truly?”

The Prince: “Truly.”

The Queen: “Oh, joy!”

Suddenly, the African king appears. The prince and the queen are startled.

The African King: “Hello. I have just now arrived from Africa, having traveled with but a single leap. Are my boots not amazing?”

The Queen: (Coldly) “Why don’t you use them to jump back to Africa?”

The King: “No! For today I come for a long conversation with you.” (Looking at the prince) “Who is this commoner?”

The Prince: “Commoner?” (Standing up angrily) “I am a prince. A prince who is come to rescue the queen! For as long as I am here, you shall not lay your hands upon her!”

The King: (Overly polite) “You do know about my three treasures, don’t you?”

The Prince: “That would be your sword and boots and cape? My boots do not allow me to jump more than a yard, but with the queen by my side I feel like I could leap one, even two thousand miles. Look at this cape. By making me look like a commoner it brought me to the Queen. By hiding my princely countenance, it has indeed made me invisible!”

The King: (Scoffing) “How impudent of you! Behold, the power of my cape!” (He puts on the cape, and promptly vanishes.)

The Queen: (Clapping her hands) “Oh, he’s gone! I’m always so happy when he leaves me.”

The Prince: “It would be quite convenient to have a cape like that. In fact, it is just the thing we need right now.”

The King: (Suddenly and inconveniently reappearing) “Yes, it is indeed just the thing you need. It doesn’t really do much for me, actually.” (He tosses the cape aside) “But there is this sword…” (Glaring at the prince) “For attempting to make off with the joy of my life, I challenge you to a duel! This sword can cut even through iron. Taking off your head will be a small piece of work.” (He draws the sword)

The Queen: (Leaping up in front of the prince) “Then it shall not be stopped as it passes through my breast as well. Go ahead! Run us through!”

The King: (Shrinking back) “I… I can’t cut you down!”

The Queen: (Mockingly) “My breast is enough to stop your sword? Though you brag that it can cut even through iron?”

The Prince: “Wait!” (Holding the queen back) “The king is right. I am his foe, and so it is I that must do battle with him.” (To the king) “Let us go to it, then!” (He draws his sword)

The King: “How noble, for one your age. Are you ready, then? You know of course that my sword will hew you down?”

The king and the prince cross swords. The king’s sword passes through the prince’s as though it were a twig.

The King: “Do you yield?”

The Prince: “You have cut through my sword, but nonetheless I stand here laughing before you.”

The King: “You mean you intend to continue the duel?”

The Prince: “Of course! Come, then!”

The King: “Well then the duel is finished.” (Throws his sword aside) “You have defeated me. My sword is of no use.”

The Prince: (Incredulously) “What’s this?”

The King: “Don’t you see? If I were to kill you, I would gain only the enmity of the queen.”

The Prince: “Yes, of course I know that. I was hoping that you had not yet realized it.”

The King: (Deep in thought) “I thought that with my three treasures I could gain a queen, but I see that I was mistaken.”

The Prince: (Places a hand on the king’s shoulder) “And I thought that with those three treasures, I could save the queen, but I see that I, too, was mistaken.”

The King: “Yes, it would seem that we were both mistaken.” (Taking the prince’s hand) “Come, let us be friends. Please, forgive my discourtesy.”

The Prince: “And you mine. I’m not sure which of us has won this duel.”

The King: “Truly, you have defeated me, and I have defeated myself.” (To the Queen) “I shall return to Africa. You have no need to fear. This prince’s sword was not able to cut through iron, but it has pierced something harder still—my heart. As a wedding gift to you two, I give you these three treasures, the sword, the boots, and the cape. With these gifts you should fear no enemy, but should any rise against you, you need but send word to my country. I shall come to vanquish any foe, accompanied by one million black warriors on horse.” (Sadly) “I had built a pavilion of marble in the center of the capitol of Africa to welcome you when you came. It is surrounded by lotus blossoms.” (To the prince) “I hope that you will some day use those boots to come and see it.”

The Prince: “I am sure that we will take advantage of your hospitality.”

The Queen: (Pressing a rose to the black king’s breast) “I have been very rude to you. I had no idea that you were such a kind person. Please, forgive me.” (She falls into the king’s arms, crying like a baby)

The King: (Stroking the queen’s hair) “Thank you. I am so relieved to hear you say so. I am no devil, despite what your fairy tales may say about my kind.” (To the prince) “Do you not agree?”

The Prince: “I do.” (To the onlookers) “Everyone! The three of us have learned something today. Evil black kings and princes with magical treasures exist only in fairy tales. Now that we have realized this, we cannot limit ourselves to living in one make-believe country. A larger world has come visible through the mist. Let us leave this world of roses and fountains, and head off to explore our new world. A larger world! An uglier world, and a more beautiful world, a wider world of fantasy! Heaven or hell may await us, we know not which. Yet off we go, marching onward towards it like a platoon of brave soldiers.”

(December 1922)


Tony said...

Thanks to Terry Bain for releasing the "Boots" illustration under a Creative Commons license!

The original Japanese text for this story can be found here.

Tony said...

There are two things about this story that I found very interesting. One is the phrase "kuronbo no ou" used in the original, which I translated here as "African king". The king is indeed from Africa, but the word "kuronbo" is now considered a pejorative term for a black person, much like... yes, that word. The story doesn't seem to have any strong negative stereotyping of blacks (setting aside the fact that a black king was chosen for the role of the "villain" in the first place), so I assume that linguistic drift has changed the meaning of this word in the 85 years or so since the story was written, much in the way that the word "negro" has in US English.

The second thing that fascinates me is the bizarre ending. Up through the end of the story it feels as if we are reading a moralistic fairy tale in the Western tradition, but then...the characters come to the realization that they themselves are characters in a fairy tale, and set out to explore this world of make-believe that they are living in?!?! Whoa... If any scholars of the period can let me know if that was a common device at the time, I eagerly await an email (or even better, a posting here) letting me know more about this.

Mandolin said...

I'm sorry for not being on topic to your post, but I had a question regarding your use of Heisig's Remembering the Kanji. If you would please respond to me at mandolin.beeATgmail(nospam).com it would be much appreciated. Do the obvious with the 'AT' and the (nospam) marker. :P

I appreciate your time and look forward to your reply. Thank you.

Unknown said...

this story is drama or short stories
please tell me cause I want to make research about this story
I appreciate if you want to reply
thank you

Tony said...

Hi, Fifi. If anything, I would call this a fable (though, as I mention in a post above, at the end it deviates from the pattern of a typical Western fable).