The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks Summary
by Katherine Paterson

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The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks Summary

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks is a book by Katherine Paterson that retells a Japanese folktale about beauty and kindness.

  • Two ducks, a drake and his wife, live together near a pond.
  • The drake is captured by the lord of the district, who wants to show off the drake’s brilliant feathers.
  • Yasuko, a maid, frees the drake. Shozo, a steward, takes the blame, and the lord sentences them to death.
  • Imperial messengers, who are implied to be the ducks, rescue Shozo and Yasuko, who have fallen in love. The couple lives happily in the woods for many years.

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Summary

The Tale of the Mandarin Ducks by Katherine Paterson is a retelling of a popular Japanese folktale. The story begins by introducing two mated ducks. The female duck has soft, earth-toned plumage, and her drake husband has magnificent and colorful plumage. They live happily in the wild together near a pond. When the drake goes to the pond for food, he is spotted by the lord of the district, a cruel and greedy man who seeks to possess all beautiful things for himself. The lord decides he wants to capture the drake to show off the drake’s beauty.

The lord’s steward, Shozo, tries to discourage the lord from doing so. “The drake is a wild spirit,” he says. “Surely he will die in captivity.” The lord angrily dismisses Shozo, whom he despises because Shozo is missing an eye, which the lord believes makes him ugly to look at. The reader learns that Shozo was once a mighty samurai but lost his eye in battle.

The lord instructs his men to set a path of acorns to tempt the drake, and the drake is caught in a net and carried back to the lord’s manor. There, the lord has a feast to show off the drake’s plumage. Miserable, the drake thinks about his wife, abandoned and sitting on her eggs back by the pond.

During the following days, the drake’s brilliant plumage becomes dull with sorrow. He refuses to eat, not tempted by even the most delicious dishes. Yasuko, a kitchen maid, understands that the drake is grieving for his mate. As the drake grows sicker, the lord becomes angry at his bird’s fading beauty. Shozo suggests that the lord should let the drake go, as his captivity is the cause of his illness, but this suggestion only angers the lord. He refuses to release the drake and instead has the drake’s cage hidden from sight.

Yasuko determines to save the drake’s life. One night, she sneaks over to the cage, opens it, and carries the sickly drake to the edge of the woods. The drake turns and appears to bow to her before he disappears into the night.

By midmorning, news of the drake’s disappearance reaches the lord. Furious, he summons Shozo, suspecting him of having stolen the drake. Because Shozo often dreamed of freeing the drake, he does not protest his innocence. The lord has Shozo stripped and beaten, and Shozo is forced to attend to the most grueling tasks at the manor. Yasuko begs Shozo to allow her to confess, but Shozo won’t allow it; he thinks there is no reason they should both be punished for a single crime. Over time, Shozo and Yasuko fall in love, and word of this reaches the lord.

The lord then accuses Shozo and Yasuko of conspiring to steal the drake. He sentences them both to death by drowning and has his men prepare to march the couple to the pond. As they are leaving, two mysterious and finely dressed messengers arrive at the manor. They claim they have been sent by the emperor himself. “His divine majesty has had a vision of the merciful Buddha,” they explain. Capital punishment has been abolished, and anyone sentenced to death must now be sent...

(The entire section is 885 words.)