The Silkworm

retold by Heinz Insu Fenkl

Click play to listen to a narration of this story.
Narration provided by Stephen Kim



Long ago, two kingdoms were at war and the king whose land was under attack was anxious. Unless the situation turned very quickly, his palace would soon be overrun by the enemy.

Late one night, under the milky light of the moon, he paced uneasily back and forth in his garden, his brow furrowed and his countenance grave. The Princess had noticed her father’s distress that night, and she came to him in the garden.

“Father,” she said, “What troubles you so deeply and makes you so sad?”

“Ah, my daughter,” said the King, “What are you doing out here at this time of night? You should be sleeping.” He scolded her gently, for she was his only child, not only beautiful, but highly intelligent. All the people in the kingdom loved and respected her.

“Don’t worry about me, Father. Please, tell me what bothers you so.”

“You need not know such things,” said the King. “To have you worrying about them would only add to my own anxiety.”

“Father, I’m no longer a child. I know we are at war. Tell me what troubles you and perhaps I can help.”

The King was quiet for a while, and then he said, “Very well. Perhaps it is better that I tell you myself than for you to hear rumors in court. Since you want to know so much, the war goes very badly for us. Each passing day, thousands of our soldiers are dying on the battlefield, and unless things take a different turn immediately, I see no way to save the kingdom.”

To the King’s surprise, the Princess said, “Father, I know more than you might think. It is not only with my embroidery that I occupy myself. I’ve known for a while that our armies are losing, and I think I have an idea that will help us.”

“Oh?” said the King.

“No matter what happens to us, we must save the kingdom,” said the Princess. “I am willing to offer myself for the good of our people, Father. Tell your generals to make an announcement tomorrow. Tell them I will marry anyone who will cut off the head of the enemy commander. I would gladly be the wife of anyone so brave. And imagine what would happen, Father. With their commander dead, the enemy will be demoralized, and we could change the course of this war.”

“Do you realize what you’re saying?” asked the King. “It is noble and selfless of you to offer your hand to the man who kills the enemy general, but the man who marries you would also be successor to my throne!”

“Father, any man brave enough to kill the enemy commander would be a great man. Surely, he would make a good husband to me and a capable successor to you.”

The King was deeply moved by his daughter’s devotion. “Well,” he said, “Perhaps you are right, and your idea might work. Let us try it, my daughter. You are certainly not a child any longer.”

The next morning, the King ordered an announcement to be made in all parts of the kingdom: the Princess would marry anyone who killed the enemy commander and brought back his head, and this new prince would be heir to the throne.

But the ministers objected. “It is an unsound plan, Your Majesty,” they argued, “More care should be taken in selecting a husband for the Princess. He will be the new king, as you are well aware, and that is a most weighty matter best arrived at after long deliberation and consultation.”

“This is my daughter’s wish, and I am with her,” said the King. “The announcement shall go forth as I have ordered.”

As the ministers mumbled among themselves to formulate their reply, the loud neighing of a horse was heard from the palace garden, then a thunderous galloping that receded in the direction of the palace gate. It was quite strange, but no one gave it another thought until the next morning.

At the crack of dawn, all the people in the palace were awakened by the pounding of the victory drum and the sound of loud cheering. The King and the Princess ran out of their bedchambers, still disheveled with sleep, to see what had caused such excitement. Troops were gathering outside in the courtyard, full of joy and flushed with victory.

Before he could ask what was going on, the King heard the loud neighing of a horse from the direction of the palace garden—the same sound he had heard the previous evening. Thinking that perhaps a general had come to announce a victory, the King rushed to the garden.

There stood a stately white stallion, his flanks covered in foam and blood. In his mouth he held the head of the enemy’s high general, and when he saw the King, he reared up and dropped the grisly head at the King’s feet.

A soldier rushed forward and knelt before the King. “Your Majesty,” he said, “Your Majesty, it was most unbelievable! This horse attacked the enemy general and tore off his head. With their leader gone, our enemy was completely demoralized, and the rest of the battle was a rout!”

As the soldier spoke, the horse nodded its head modestly as if he were attesting to the truth of the report. The King embraced the horse, weeping with joy. “Oh, brave steed,” he said, “What a wonderful horse you are to bring us victory with your great valor.”

From that day, the King kept the stallion in its own stable with its personal attendant, and he used him as his personal mount. But the Princess was not satisfied. The King was secretly relieved that it was a horse, and not a man, that had brought the enemy general’s head. Now there was no problem with an unsatisfactory son-in-law or an inappropriate successor to the throne as the ministers had feared. The King no longer considered himself bound by the terms of his announcement.

But the Princess was of an entirely different mind, and she said, “Father, I consider the horse to be my husband. In order to remain faithful to my word, I will not marry anyone else.”

“What nonsense are you speaking?” said the King. “Don’t concern yourself with the horse. I am seeing to it that he gets the best treatment of any horse in the kingdom.”

But the Princess insisted that she be spiritually married to the stallion. “Father, I must do what is right. When you, as the King, make a decree, it becomes the unchangeable law. A King, more than any other man, must keep his promises, whether it be one he made to man or beast. And I am your daughter, Father. Therefore I must live with the horse until I die.”

His daughter’s resolve caused the King much displeasure. He was naturally upset at her refusal to marry anyone else, but the more serious problem, by far, was that he would have no successor as long as the Princess insisted on her foolishness. In a fit of annoyance, he commanded one of his men to put the stallion to death.

When the Princess heard the King, she rushed to him, crying, “No! No, Your Majesty! How can you even consider such a thing when the horse has saved the kingdom? What ingratitude to Heaven! I beg you, please withdraw your command.”

The King realized he had acted in haste, and he consoled her. “I will reconsider. If you wish to spare the horse’s life, simply promise me that you will give up this ridiculous idea of a spiritual marriage. Concern yourself no longer with the horse, and he shall live.”

The Princess’ reaction was unexpected. Her eyes flashed with anger, as she said, “Your Majesty, how can you dare break your promise? You are King, and your word is the law of the land. If you will not fulfill your promise, then I will.”

And now it was the King’s turn to be angry. He trembled with fury, embarrassed to be challenged by his own daughter before his ministers. “What are you waiting for?” he shouted to them. “I commanded you to kill the horse at once!”

“Father!” cried the Princess. “Please, I didn’t mean to anger you. Please reconsider!”

She knelt before him and clung to his sleeve, but even as she pleaded and begged, there came a high-pitched shriek from the garden. The horse was dead. The King had only wanted to change his daughter’s mind, but his temper and his pride had gotten the better of him, and now, though he had regained his composure, it was too late.

He ordered his men to skin the horse and hang its hide from a tree in the garden. Each morning, the Princess would come to the garden and spend the entire day there grieving for the horse. One day there came a loud scream from the garden. When the people in the palace ran to investigate, they saw a strange sight: the Princess had wrapped herself in the horse’s hide. As they looked on in horror, a sudden powerful gust of wind blew down from a clear sky and carried the Princess away.

The King was full of remorse, and he pined for his lost daughter. At length, he grew ill and took to his bed for a season.

In the spring, there came word that a horsehide had been found hanging from a tree in a remote part of the kingdom. The King went immediately to investigate the rumor, and he found the hide—obviously the same one that had hung in the palace garden, but much decomposed.

“Alas!” he said. “If the horse’s skin has thus decayed, then my poor daughter is surely dead.” He despaired at the thought of her lost body. “Remove this rotten flesh!” he commanded, and he wept for his daughter.

One of the ministers took the hide down from the tree and noticed an unusual worm on the inner side of the skin. He studied it for some time, and then he said, hesitantly, “Your Majesty, I believe this might be the spirit of the Princess. Her devotion to the horse has transformed her into this worm.”

“And why do you believe that?” asked the King.

“Upon close examination, Your Majesty, you will see that the mouth of the worm resembles the mouth of a horse. If you look closely, you will see that it nibbles at the leaf very much like a horse chewing on grass. And the smooth skin of this worm resembles the smooth complexion of our late Princess.”

The King examined the worm eating the leaf of the strange tree, and then he burst into tears again, wailing, “Alas! My daughter! Now you have been reborn a worm.” He ordered his ministers to bring the worm back to the palace and treat it with the greatest care.

Under the ministers’ vigilance, the worm laid many eggs. When they hatched the King had the new worms distributed them among his people, who had loved the Princess so dearly.

Over the years the worms came to be raised in every village. The people took special care of them, for their skins were milky white and they produced a thread that could be spun into the finest and most luxurious fabric. The people fed them only leaves from the mulberry tree, which is the tree in which the first worm was discovered.

It is said, even today, that the silkworm produces the delicate thread from its mouth because it is the reincarnation of the Princess, who was famous for her fine embroidery. In the remotest parts of the country, women still believe that by eating raw silkworms, they may acquire the smooth skin of the Princess. But whether that is fact or fancy, no one can say.

reproduced courtesy of Heinz Insu Fenkl and Bo-Leaf Books

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