The Iron-Eating Mice

Folktales of Aarne-Thompson-Uther Type 1592
edited by

D. L. Ashliman

© 2014


  1. Miracle upon Miracle (India, The Panchantantra).

  2. The Mice That Ate an Iron Balance (India, The Kátha Sarit Ságara; or, Ocean of the Streams of Story).

  3. The Iron Weights and Scales Which Were Eaten by Mice (India, The "Suka Saptati," or, The Seventy Tales of Parrot.

  4. The Faithless Depositary (France, Jean de La Fontaine).

  5. The Two Merchants (Russia, Leo Tolstoy).

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Miracle upon Miracle


In a certain place there once lived a merchant by the name of Nanduka, which means "cheerful one" and a merchant by the name of Lakschmana, which means "fortunate one." The latter, who had lost all his wealth, decided to travel abroad. For it is said: A person who has lived well in a particular place, but who stays there after he has lost his wealth, is of common mind. And further: A person who, reduced to misery, remains at a place where he once was happy, is worthy of reproach.

In his house there was a large set of heavy iron scales that had been acquired by his ancestors. He gave these to the guild-master Nanduka for safekeeping, and set forth for foreign lands.

After he had pursued his desires for a long time abroad, he returned to his homeland, and said to the guild-master Nanduka, "Guild-master, give me back the scales that I left here for safekeeping."

Nanduka replied, "Oh, your scales are no longer here. The mice ate them up."

When he heard this, Lakschmana said, "Well, Nanduka, if the mice ate them up, then it is through no fault of yours. That is the way of the world. Nothing in it is eternal. But now I would like to bathe myself in the river. Send your child with me, the boy named Dhanadeva, to carry my bathing things."

Nanduka, fearing Lakschama because of the theft he had committed against him, said to his son, "Child, your uncle Lakschmana wants to take a bath in the river. Go with him and carry his bathing things."

Yes, with truth they say: No one does a favor for another, unless driven by fear, greed, or some other purpose. And further: If someone shows you unusual courtesy, be cautious, lest it lead to a bad end.

Nanduka's son, carrying the bathing things, set forth happily with Lakschmana. After taking his bath, Lakschmana threw Nanduka's son Dhanadeva into a cave on the bank of the river, and sealed the opening with a large stone. Then he rushed back to Nanduka's house.

The merchant asked him, "Speak up, Lakschmana! Tell me, where is my child who went to the river with you?"

Lakschmana said, "He was taken away from the river's bank by a falcon."

The merchant cried, "You liar! How in the world can a falcon steal a boy? Give me back my son, or I will bring action against you at the king's court."

Lakschmana said, "Oh, you who always speak the truth! A falcon can carry away a boy, if mice can eat a large set of heavy iron scales. If you want your son back, then give me my scales!"

Thus quarreling one with another, they went to the king's gate, where Nanduka cried out loudly, "A dastardly crime has happened here! This thief has robbed me of my child!"

Hearing this, the judges said to Lakschmana, "Return the guild-master's son to him!"

Lakschmana answered, "What can I do? Before my very eyes a falcon carried him away from the bank of the river."

Hearing this, they said, "You do not tell the truth. How could a falcon be capable of carrying off a fifteen-year-old boy?"

Lakschmana answered, laughing, "Ha! Listen to this proverb: When mice can eat a thousand pounds of iron, then a falcon can carry away an elephant, to say nothing of a little boy."

The judges said, "What do you mean by that?"

Then Lakschmana told the whole story about the scales. After hearing this, they laughed at what Nanduka and Lakschmana had done, reconciled the two with each other, and made them respectively return the scales and the boy.

The Mice That Ate an Iron Balance


Once on a time the was a merchant's son, who had spent all his father's wealth, and had only an iron balance left to him. Now the balance was made of a thousand palas of iron; and depositing it in the care of a certain merchant, he went to another land.

And when, on his return, he came to that merchant to demand back his balance, the merchant said to him, "It has been eaten by mice." He repeated, "It is quite true, the iron, of which it was composed, was particularly sweet, and so the mice ate it."

This he said with an outward show of sorrow, laughing in his heart. Then the merchant's son asked him to give him some food, and he, being in a good temper, consented to give him some.

Then the merchant's son went to bathe, taking with him the son of that merchant, who was a mere child, and whom he persuaded to come with him by giving him a dish of ámalakas. And after he had bathed, the wise merchant's son deposited the boy in the house of a friend, and returned alone to the house of that merchant.

And the merchant said to him, "Where is that son of mine?"

He replied, "A kite swooped down from the air and carried him off."

The merchant in a rage said, "You have concealed my son," and so he took him into the king's judgment hall; and there the merchant's son made the same statement.

The officers of the court said, " This is impossible, how could a kite carry off a boy?"

But the merchant's son answered, " In a country where a large balance of iron was eaten by mice, a kite might carry off an elephant, much more a boy."

When the officers heard that, they asked about it, out of curiosity, and made the merchant restore the balance to the owner, and he, for his part, restored the merchant's child.

The Iron Weights and Scales Which Were Eaten by Mice


There was a merchant of the name of Bhudhara who lived in a town called Kundina. Unfortunately he lost all his money, and though it was not through any fault of his own, he was cut by all his family and relations.

As it has been said "A rich man is wise; a rich man is generous; a rich man is the incarnation of virtue; a rich man is thought much of, and has no end of friends. But if his money go, everything else goes with it."

So this Bhudhara having lost everything that he possessed except some weights and scales, went away to another country, leaving the relics of this property in the care of a friend, who was also a merchant. After a time he made another fortune and returned to his own country. The first thing he did was to go to his friend and ask for the weights and scales.

The merchant did not want to give them up, and after some demur he said: "Really I am very sorry, but they have been eaten by the mice."

Bhudhara said nothing but bided his time, and one day soon after this he was walking by the merchant's house, and saw his boy playing outside. Bhudhara promptly kidnapped the boy.

The merchant was in a terrible state at the loss of his son, and started off with his whole family to try and find him.

One of the neighbors met the party, who were full of weeping and lamentations, and said (hearing the cause of all this grief): "Oh! I know where the boy is; I saw him with Bhudhara."

So they went to Bhudhara's house, and the father asked Bhudhara to give him up his son.

"My dear friend," replied Bhudhara, "I am really very sorry, but I cannot! Your boy was with me, we were walking along the bank of the river, when an eagle came and carried him off."

On this the father grew very angry and had Bhudhara up before the magistrates, on the charge of having made away with his son.

Bhudhara appeared to answer the charge, and when the judge asked him what he had to say, he replied: "My lord! in a place where the mice can eat up weights and scales of iron, an eagle might easily carry off an elephant -- much more a boy."

The magistrate who heard the case decided that when the merchant returned the weights and scales his boy should be restored to him, and so the end of it was that Bhudhara got back his weights and scales, and the merchant, though he recovered his boy, was punished for the theft.

The Faithless Depositary

Jean de La Fontaine

The story goes: A man of trade,
In Persia, with his neighbor made
Deposit, as he left the state,
Of iron, say a hundredweight.

Return'd, said he, "My iron, neighbor."
"Your iron! you have lost your labor;
I grieve to say it, -- 'pon my soul,
A rat has eaten up the whole.
My men were sharply scolded at,
But yet a hole, in spite of that,
Was left, as one is wont to be
In every barn or granary,
By which crept in that cursed rat."

Admiring much the novel thief,
The man affected full belief.

Ere long, his faithless neighbor's child
He stole away, -- a heavy lad, --
And then to supper bade the dad,
Who thus plead off in accents sad:
"It was but yesterday I had
A boy as fine as ever smiled,
An only son, as dear as life,
The darling of myself and wife.
Alas! we have him now no more,
And every joy with us is o'er."

Replied the merchant, "Yesternight,
By evening's faint and dusky ray,
I saw a monstrous owl alight,
And bear your darling son away
To yonder tott'ring ruin gray."

"Can I believe you, when you say
An owl bore off so large a prey?
How could it be?" the father cried;
"The thing is surely quite absurd;
My son with ease had kill'd the bird."

"The how of it," the man replied,
"Is not my province to decide;
I know I saw your son arise,
Borne through the air before my eyes.
Why should it seem a strange affair,
Moreover, in a country where
A single rat contrives to eat
A hundred pounds of iron meat,
That owls should be of strength to lift ye
A booby boy that weighs but fifty?"

The other plainly saw the trick,
Restored the iron very quick,
And got, with shame as well as joy,
Possession of his kidnapp'd boy.

The Two Merchants

Russia, Leo Tolstoy

Before leaving on a journey a poor merchant left his ironware with a rich merchant for safekeeping. Upon returning he came to the rich merchant and asked for the return of his goods.

However, the rich merchant had sold everything, and to defend himself he said, "Something unfortunate happened to your goods."


"I stored your ironware in my granary where there are a lot of mice, and they gnawed it all to pieces. If you don't believe me, come and see for yourself."

The poor merchant did nothing. "Why bother?" he said. "I believe it. Mice are always eating iron. Good-bye."

The poor merchant went away. On the street he saw a little boy playing; it was the rich merchant's son. Caressing him, he took the boy by the hand he and took him home with him.

The next day the rich merchant met and told him about his misfortune, asking him if he knew anything about his missing son.

The poor man responded, "Yes, I saw him yesterday just as I was leaving your house. A hawk flew down and carried your son away."

"Don't make fun of me!" cried the rich merchant with anger. "No one can believe that a hawk could carry off a child."

"I am not making fun of you. It should surprise no one that a hawk could carry off a child. If mice can eat a hundred pounds of iron anything is possible."

The rich merchant understood what he meant. "The mice did not eat your iron," he said. "I sold it, and I shall reimburse you double its value."

"If that's the way it is, the hawk did not carry off your son. I shall return him to you."

Return to D. L. Ashliman's folktexts, a library of folktales, folklore, fairy tales, and mythology.

Revised March 24, 2014.