The Princes of Serendip

Horace Walpole, the effete author of the first gothic novel and the first gothic house, defined the word serendipity in response to the Persian tale.

The word means similar in experience to the Princes of Serendip (which is now Sri Lanka according to wikipedia).

The tale of the camel tells how the three princes deduce the characteristics of an individual camel that they have never seen. Walpole describes the story as a “silly fairy tale” but the brothers deductions are worthy of the feats of August Dupin or Sherlock Holmes. It is reminiscent of the episode at the beginning of Eco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ when William of Baskerville is able to describe the characteristics of a horse that he has never before seen. Detective fiction can be a bit ‘silly’, but not nearly as silly as all the gloomy Manfreds and Isabellas inhabiting Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.

I wonder why Walpole chose that particular silly fairy tale to describe, when countless others from the European tradition contain an equal amount of happy accident and cutesy sagacity?  Maybe it was more fashionable for an 18th century man about town to read exotica from the east than the folktales of his own country?  In any case, it was a serendipitous choice of story, for it is difficult to imagine a word with a better ring to it than that one.

The  word serendipity means anything resembling the experiences of the three princes of Serendip, in that story. That’s the definition – the hard  part is defining what qualities exactly characterise the experiences of the three princes of Serendip in that story. Right?

In a detective story, the detective encounters a series of seemingly random things, that are then made into clues by their ability to suggest meaning to the detective.  What makes this serendipitous is the actual fortuitousness of encountering these clues and that out of a huge range of possible explanations the detective is able to infer something from them.

I never actually heard the story of the Princes of Serendip before coming to Scotland.

When I was in Iran, there was a lot of pressure to only read books that were part of the culture, and I began to hate my own heritage. I wanted to leave Iran, so I tried to go to Canada, where my brother was studying, but all that fell through. Somehow, through some silly sort of cocktail of sagacity, circumstance and chance I ended up coming to Scotland. I took a flat in Edinburgh with a girl, I fell in love with her and married her shortly after. Then I took a job at Serena. Now I’m fulfilled.


As I get further away from my country I start to want to read about it more. I’m much more interested in reading The Book of Kings now and here, in Scotland, than I ever was in Mashhad.




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