This retelling of The Young Man Who Would Have His Eyes Opened from "If all the seas were ink we'd call them fish tales"


A retelling by J. Kearns

Concerning a seeker of knowledge who is told that to obtain the secrets of the night he must go to the place where, once in seven years, the serpent-king gives a great feast to his whole court. Before him rests a golden chalice filled with milk, in which he must dip a piece of bread and eat of it.

There was once a youth who was never happy unless he was prying into something. When he was a little, little boy he had to examine everything from all angles, and unless he did so he wasn't happy. Even before he could crawl, whatever toy was given him he would look at its top, and then turn it over and look at its bottom. As soon as he was able to crawl he went to all the things he'd been looking at eagerly before he was able to move about much and he would pick them up and examine all the sides he hadn't been able to see, he was that inquisitive and eager to know the world. This curiosity and desire to learn stayed with him, so that when he was finally a young man he wasn't happy unless he was pursuing hidden perspectives, which eventually led him down a mysterious path.

Some say (in whispers) there exists a secret language called the language of the birds. This language is considered very valuable, but it isn't taught in schools. Magicians and alchemists even argue whether or not it exists, because it isn't something you can learn by simple reduplication of even the most complicated formulaes like the alchemists do when working in their practical laboratories. The art of listening is subtle and the gift of discernment even subtler. More likely than not, those who argue they know all about the language of the birds, don't have the slightest clue what it is, and are unaware of this. And those who have come into possession of the language, which is somewhat like a gift (though indeed much hard work is required to be prepared for the receipt of that gift) often enough don't let on that they know this special language. It isn't that they are being secretive. It's only that the language is so multi-faceted that it is almost impossible to describe it to anyone. By means of this language you can sometimes prophesy. You can know things that are going on elsewhere in the world, which is like being in two places at one time. You can be standing in the present while at the same time traveling in the distant past. You listen and learn how before, no matter how observant you may have been, no matter how sharp your vision, you were only seeing the minutest fraction of the world, as if viewing its reflection within one droplet of rain water on a glass covered with droplets of rain water and different perspectives. You see and hear the net upon which the world is fabricated so that every little thing connects with every other little thing in an infinite variety of ways that form what seems one great picture that may (if you're curious enough) peel away to reveal yet another picture co-existing beneath. I have been told all this by reliable sources, who also say you can be sure that what I am telling you doesn't even begin to describe the wonder of this language.

This language of the birds might sound like it would be the greatest thing in the world to possess, but it is also terrifying.

Now, this youth came to know something about the language of the birds. He discovered accidentally that a great deal took place under cover of night which mortal eyes never saw, and mortal ears couldn't hear. From that moment on, he felt he couldn't rest until these hidden secrets were laid bare to him, and he spent his time wandering from one wizard to another, begging them to open his eyes, but found none who could help him.

At length, he came upon an old magician whose name was said to be Mana, whose learning was greater than that of the rest, who he believed could tell him all he wanted to know. However, when the old man had listened to the youth, after being silent a moment, he said in a grave voice of warning, "My son, you say you are a seeker of knowledge. Consider whether you are seeking knowledge or wisdom. Do not follow after empty knowledge, which will not bring you happiness, but rather evil. Much is hidden from the eyes of men and women, because did they know more their hearts would no longer be at peace. Knowledge kills joy. Therefore, think well what you are doing, or some day you will repent. But if you will not take my advice, then truly I can show you the secrets of the night. Only you will need more than a man's courage to bear the sight."

The magician halted and, of course, the youth nodded his head that he was willing.

"Tomorrow night," the wizard continued, "you must go to the place where, once in seven years, the serpent-king gives a great feast to his whole court. In front of him rests a golden chalice filled with milk. If you manage to dip a piece of bread in this milk, and eat it before you are obliged to fly, you will understand all the secrets of the night that are hidden from other men. It is lucky for you that the serpent-king's feast happens to fall this year, otherwise you would have had long to wait for it. But take care! Be quick and bold, or it will be the worse for you."

The young man thanked the wizard for availing him his knowledge, and went on his way, firmly resolved to carry out his purpose, even if he paid for it with his life.

When night came, the young man set out for the wide, lonely moor where the serpent-king held his feast. His sharp eyes examined eagerly all around him, but could see nothing but a multitude of small hillocks frozen in the moonlight. Crouching behind a bush, the young man hid himself, and waited.

The young man waited like this for some time, and felt that midnight couldn't be far off, when there suddenly arose in the middle of the moor a brilliant glow, as if a star was shining over one of the hillocks. All the hillocks covering the moor began to writhe and to crawl, as from each one came hundreds of serpents that made straight for the glow, where they would find their king. When these serpents reached the hillock where he dwelt, which was higher and broader than the rest, and had a bright light hanging over the top, they coiled themselves up and waited. The whirr and confusion from all the serpent-houses was so great that the youth didn't dare to take one step out from behind his bush, but remained where he was, watching intently all that went on. But, at last, he gathered all his courage and stepped out from behind his cover, his determination to taste bread sopped with the milk of the serpent-king's golden chalice compelling him.

What greeted the young man surpassed the worst of his nightmares, a sight so strange it dazed the imagination.

Thousands of snakes, big and little, of every color, were gathered together in one great cluster around a huge serpent, whose body was as thick as a beam, and which had on its head a golden crown from which, the youth observed, sprang the light that illuminated the hillock. The hissings and darting tongues of the seemingly innumerable snakes terrified the young man so that his heart sank, and he felt he would never have the courage to push on to what must be certain death, when suddenly he caught sight of the golden chalice in front of the serpent-king, and knew that if he lost this chance it would never return. His hair standing on end, and his blood frozen in his veins, he crept forwards.

Oh! What a noise and whirr rose afresh among the serpents as the young man made his way through them. Thousands of heads reared, tongues stretched out to sting the intruder to death, but the bodies of the serpents were so closely entwined with one another, almost as if they were one body, that they couldn't separate themselves quickly enough to prevent him from reaching his goal.

Like lightning, the young man seized a bit of bread, dipped it in the bowl, and put it in his mouth, then ran as if fire was pursuing him. On he flew as if a whole army of foes were at his heels, and he seemed to hear the noise of their approach growing nearer and nearer. At length his breath failed him, and he threw himself almost senseless on the ground.

While he lay there, on the ground, dreadful dreams haunted the young man that night. He thought that the serpent-king with the fiery crown twined himself round him, and was crushing out his life so that finally his skin burst open. With a loud shriek, such as he made when a baby and just born into this world, the youth sprang up to do battle with his enemy, when he saw that it was the bright rays of the new morning sun which had wakened him. Rubbing his eyes, he looked all round, but nowhere did he see of the foes of the past night, and the moor where he had run into such danger must have been at least a mile away. Still, it was no dream that he had run hard and far, or that he had drunk of the magic goats' milk. And when he felt his limbs, and found them whole, his joy was great that he had come through such perils with a sound skin.

Is it any wonder, that after the rigors and terrors of the night, the youth lay still till noon, regathering his strength. Indeed, he felt as if he had been asleep all his life, and only now truly awake. By the time he was ready to move about again, he had made up his mind he would go that very evening into the forest to try what the goats' milk could really do for him, and if he would now be able to understand all that had been a mystery.

That night, the young man entered the forest expecting certain terror. Hadn't the wizard said he would wish he had never started on this journey? And indeed, once in the forest the youth saw what no mortal eyes could behold--but what was that vision on this night? In place of the hillocks of the previous night, beneath the trees were golden tents with silver flags, brightly lit. The youth was wondering why the pavilions were there, when he heard a noise among the trees, as if the wind had been stirred up, and from the forest and its trees, on all sides, the most remarkable people stepped into the bright light of the moon and spilled over the moor, dancing already, whirling with and all about each other in ever-changing, ingenious configurations. All night, the young man watched them dance, and wished he had a hundred eyes in his head, for two were not enough to gather in the vision before him. Then as the sun began to rise, a silvery veil seemed to be drawn over the people, and they vanished from sight. But the young man remained where he was till the sun was high in the heavens, and then went home.

He felt like the day would never end, counting the minutes till night would come again and he could return to the forest to watch the people of the wood dance. But when the young man got there he found neither pavilions nor the people of the wood, and though he went back many nights thereafter he didn't see them though he was certain they were there, and could sometimes feel the wind of their dance against his skin. The youth thought about them night and day, and felt that he would be sick with his knowledge of, and his longing after, that beautiful vision for the rest of his days. The temptation was there for him to cease to care about anything else in the world.

That was the way the youth learned that the wizard had spoken truly when he said, "Blindness is man's highest good."

Retelling by j. Kearns based on Andrew Lang's version of "The Young Man Who Would Have His Eyes Opened" in The Violet Fairy Book.

Copyright 1999 j Kearns

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