Serendipity, My Dear Watson


The daily e-mail I get from Wikipedia mentioned about a week ago that the word “serendipity” was first used in a letter Horace Walpole dated 28 January 1754. The word has come to signify unintended good fortune, but where did it come from? Well, Serendip was an old name for Sri Lanka, but the specific reference was to the Persian fairy tale of the Three Princes of Serendip. There are several stories about these princes, who went out wandering around the world to gain knowledge, but the most famous one involves a camel. By examining several clues, they were able to determine that a camel that was lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, and carrying butter, honey, and a pregnant woman had passed through a particular area. Walpole wrote that the princes were “always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of,” which I suppose is technically true of the camel tale. Still, the princes’ success in this matter doesn’t seem to have been due to serendipity in the sense that we use the word today (those of us who do use it, that is).

It was actually an example of inductive reasoning, which involves coming up with the most likely explanation for something observed. Of course, this kind of reasoning could come up with the wrong answer, so there’s a certain amount of luck involved. It’s the sort of thinking generally performed by Sherlock Holmes, and before him by Edgar Allan Poe’s Auguste Dupin.

The Wikipedia article on the fairy tale mentions this possible connection, and proposes that if Poe and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle were familiar with the Serendip tale, it was likely by way of Voltaire’s similar story in Zadig. While anyone can do a certain amount of inductive reasoning, the skill of fictional detectives like the princes and Holmes lies in the constant observation of details other people don’t notice. Even if you haven’t read any Holmes stories (I can only recall reading one, although I’m not entirely sure my memory serves me correctly on this point), you probably know that the guy is brilliant, but also rather arrogant and socially awkward. The same seems to apply to Dupin; the narrator of The Murders in the Rue Morgue” writes, “He boasted to me, with a low chuckling laugh, that most men, in respect to himself, wore windows in their bosoms, and was wont to follow up such assertions by direct and very startling proofs of his intimate knowledge of my own. His manner at these moments was frigid and abstract; his eyes were vacant in expression; while his voice, usually a rich tenor, rose into a treble which would have sounded petulantly but for the deliberateness and entire distinctness of the enunciation.” I suppose that, if you assume humans are pretty much always going to do a certain thing in a certain situation and you’re usually right, it would give you rather a dim view of individualism and the like. I don’t watch a whole lot of television, but I’m aware that there are a lot of detective shows on today, and even the ones that aren’t direct retellings of the Holmes stories often show some influence from them, particularly in terms of investigators being socially awkward geniuses. I know some modern readers and viewers have diagnosed Holmes with Asperger’s Syndrome, and I can see that. I don’t know of any indication that the Princes of Serendip had such social problems, but the fact that they’re described as being brilliant and well-schooled but quite sheltered before going out into the world might hint at a similar sort of personality. The camel story really doesn’t suggest any particular differences between the three princes, which is sort of unusual as fairy tales about three princes going out into the world often involve the youngest succeeding where the other two fail. According to this blog post, later stories establish that the second son has an amazing signing voice and the third is a master storyteller. Another interesting bit of trivia is that the tale features an actual king, Bahram V of Persia and the Sasanian Empire, who ruled in the fifth century. In the story, the youngest prince married Bahram’s daughter and succeeds him as King of Persia. The historical record doesn’t bear this out, but it’s apparently not the only story in which Bahram makes connections with the Indian subcontinent, including one that says he married an Indian princess.

This entry was posted in Etymology, Fairy Tales, History, Iran, Television and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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