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Commentary by Arnold J. Band on "The King and the Emperor"

Introduction to the tale

Though the literary form of The King and the Emperor differs significantly from that of "The Loss of the Princess," the basic religious situation is similar. In both cases the hero or heroine (in this story, the emperor's daughter) must struggle through a series of episodes to a goal that implies the restoration of cosmic harmony. In this story the emphasis is less on the psychological aspects of the struggle, the main theme of "The Loss of the Princess," than upon the cunning of the daughter, which seems to be a manifestation of a controlling destiny. The emperor had violated his pledge to marry his daughter to the king's son. The daughter - a narrative representation of the Shekhinah - undergoes exile several times, but by dint of her persistence and cunning regains her position of prominence and rediscovers her betrothed. The leitmotiv "to go home," so subtly suggested in each episode, becomes the triumphant pronouncement of the emperor's daughter to her rediscovered betrothed at the end of the story. The return from spiritual exile (first precipitated by the broken pledge and then repeated in the loss of the ring) is effected here, too, by persistence and ingenuity. Man lives in spiritual exile, in a fallen state, but the way home is open for those with the persistence and cunning. The return of the individual home from exile is portrayed as analogous to the return of the Shekhinah, a part of the divine presence, back to her home.

Notes to the tale

In "The Loss of the Princess" folk motifs were either shaped by or open to the allegorical impulse which was both eschatological and axiological. The correspondence between the Bratslav theory of literature as presented by Rabbi Nathan in the first Introduction to the tales and the structure of "The Loss of the Princess" is close enough to allow the story to serve as a paradigm of the theory. In The King and the Emperor the allegorical substructure is much slighter. If we were to identify the Emperor's daughter with the Shekhinah (like the Princess in "The Loss of the Princess" or the pauper's daughter in "The Burgher and the Pauper") we would be hard pressed to explain some of the other elements in the narrative. In general, there seems to be a tension between the narrative line and the putative allegorical system.

The basic plot of the story is familiar to anyone who has read romances from the Hellenistic period onward. A young couple, destined to marry, is prevented from doing so by one of their parents. To fulfill the pledge they had made to each other, they flee to the sea or the desert. Having been separated, they spend the remainder of the story struggling through many ingenious adventures toward a reunion and a happy ending. Actually, the emperor's daughter is the protagonist here while the king's son remains in exile and servitude until she redeems him at the end of the story. Martin Mantel has observed that while Rabbi Nahman's romance conforms to many of the features of the traditional literary romance, it avoids the exploitation of prurient elements, though opportunities to titillate abound in the story; the pretense of historical realism so common in the romance is absent here, and the story seems to take place in the limbo of fairyland space.

One might add that the tension between the demands of the genre and the allegorical impulse is evident throughout the story. The four episodes in which the emperor's daughter is the protagonist are designed to elevate her to a position of royal power and wealth from which she can declare that all exiles must be returned to the capital for the festivities accompanying her marriage. In the first episode (with the merchant's son) and in the third episode (with the pirates) she amasses great wealth. In the second (with the eleven daughters of the noblemen), the third, and the fourth (in which she kills the prince and, dressed as a male doctor, marries his wife), the bizarre theme of transvestism is dominant; it would otherwise be implausible for a woman to rise to prominence in a world of men without resorting to sexual seduction, a theme Rabbi Nahman clearly would want to avoid. While these episodes lead to a definite goal, the attention and inventiveness invested in them suggest a discernible delight in fabulation. The duplicity and ruthlessness of the emperor's daughter are difficult to reconcile with her figure as a representative of the Shekhinah: She deceives the merchant's son (in the first episode) and the king (in the second episode); she leads the eleven young ladies in the slaughter of the pirates and kills the frolicking prince (in the fourth episode), though he had not threatened her at all.

While broken pledges of marriage are common to the romance as a genre, they are also a standard topos in Jewish literature (cf. the book of Hosea or rabbinic homilies based on the Song of Solomon). Divine forces seem to be manipulating the story throughout. The king and the emperor are childless, but after they have met and pledged their hoped-for children to each other in marriage, they go home and beget children - of the proper genders for a match. Though this pledge is forgotten, it is renewed by the children themselves who "happen" to) study together in the same school. The pledge is sealed, as in the Jewish wedding ritual, by a ring given by the prince to the emperor's daughter. When the emperor tries to prevent the match and establishes a difficult trial for the king's son, the young couple take matters into their own hands and, upon the advice of the emperor's daughter, flee the country. But lust as the pledge has devolved from the parents to the children, the responsibility for breaking the pledge has become theirs: After a fateful act of negligence, they lose the ring and then lose both each other and the ship in their attempt to find the ring.

The narrative that follows is a description of an attempt not to recover the ring, but rather to reunite the couple. Having been married by the very act of his giving her the ring, they do not need to have the marriage consecrated again. The princess simply says to her newly rediscovered husband: "Let us go home." The original ring does not have to be discovered since the fact it symbolizes, the union of the couple, has been reestablished.

If the emperor's daughter is the Shekhinah, the story is a tale of the breaking of the covenant and its restoration, thus recapitulating the dynamics of shevirah and tikkun which suffuse so much of Bratslav thinking. The king's son would most likely be Knesset Israel, which is both the historical community of Israel and, in Kabbalistic terms, another aspect of the Shekhinah, both being aspects of the tenth or lowest sefirah of the sefirotic structure.

Were this story a simple romance, the emperor's daughter would have stayed on as king in her new kingdom, or, at least, the reader would expect some development to explain how the emperor's daughter revealed that she was really a woman masquerading as a man and how she was received when she returned home. Since, however, the central theme Is obviously exile and redemption - whether we accept the Kabbalistic allegory or not - the reader is expected to be satisfied with the simple statement of the emperor's daughter: "Let us go home." Reunion with her husband implies return to their home from their self-imposed exile.

Also on the Hasidic Stories Home Page: the full tale of The King and the Emperor

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Excerpt from Nahman of Bratslav, translation, introduction and commentaries by Arnold J. Band (Mahwah, NJ, Paulist Press, © 1978).
Used by permission of Paulist Press (997 Macarthur Blvd., Mahway, NJ 07430. Phone 201-825-7300, fax 201-825-8345).

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