May 17, 2007

Oriental Myths and Legends by W. W. Gibbings

Unfortunately, this is yet another book with a misleading title. Although called Oriental Myths and Legends, it's actually a book of folktales. I know the line is difficult to draw at times, but I wish it didn't happen so often that books of folktales are published as mythology. In this case in particular, the book was actually originally published in 1889 under the title Folklore and Legends - Oriental.

Also, when I think of Oriental I think of the Far East, and in this case even the cover led me to believe I was right. But this is actually a collection of tales from Old Persia.

I'm therefore going to take this off of my "Once Upon a Time" mythology list and put it in my folklore list instead. I decided, however, to move "The Book of Dragons and Other Mythic Beasts" from folklore to mythology, because while it describes both mythological and folkloric creatures, well, most are actually mythological. This is one of those books where the line is hard to draw, but Carl V. is a very flexible host, so hopefully this won't be seen as cheating. And I plan on reading other mythological books for the challenge, of course.

But back to this book. Misconceptions aside, this is actually a very enjoyable book. In the introduction to this edition, we are told,
The reader of these tales will observe many points of similarity between them and the popular fictions of the West - similarity of thought and incident - and nothing, perhaps, speaks more eloquently of the universal brotherhood of man than this oneness of folk-fiction.
This is in fact the case. One of the main reasons why I love reading folktales so much is because they remind me of how similar we all are deep down. Inside the outside shell of national differences, we all face more or less similar trials and tribulations, and we often react to them in astoundingly similar ways. But the differences, of course, are not to be ignored. They are interesting and beautiful and deserve to be celebrated. The introduction continues,
At the same time, the Tales of the East are unique, lighted up as they are by the gorgeous extravagance of imagination which never fails to attract and delight.
I was reminded of Tolkien's wise words in his essay "On Fairy Stories":
They are inclined to say that any two stories that are built round the same folk-lore motive, or are made up of a generally similar combination of such motives, are “the same stories.” We read that Beowulf “is only a version of Dat Erdm√§nneken”; that “The Black Bull of Norroway is Beauty and the Beast,” or “is the same story as Eros and Psyche”; that the Norse Mastermaid (or the Gaelic Battle of the Birds and its many congeners and variants) is “the same story as the Greek tale of Jason and Medea.” Statements of that kind may express (in undue abbreviation) some element of truth; but they are not true in a fairy-story sense, they are not true in art or literature. It is precisely the colouring, the atmosphere, the unclassifiable individual details of a story, and above all the general purport that informs with life the undissected bones of the plot, that really count.
Folktales are often similar because people are similar, but as a lover of stories, I love them for the uniqueness I find in the details. The little things, the local colouring, make all the difference.

In this collection, there are tales in which the cunning are rewarded, tales in which the hero is aided by magical artefacts similar to 7 league boots or invisibility veils, tales in which demons are defeated, and, in a very Arabian Nights-like fashion, an extraordinary series of tales within tales titled "The Relations of Ssidi Kur".

There is a story called "The Bird Man" that reminded me of the European Lindworm tales, which are among my favourites. In this case, however, burning the animal bridegroom's skin had adverse consequences.

There was also a story that reminded me of a Russian tale I read recently - a man finds himself in possession of a magical artefact, and goes around trading for others. But the second artefact he comes to possess has the particularity of recovering all the others.

In this collection I found universal elements, but they are enriched by particular things like Jinns and Ghouls, deserts and Chans, and they are therefore made absolutely unique.

1 comment:

  1. I tagged you on my blog Nymeth :p don't worry, it's an easy one.


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