Showing posts with label folk tales. Show all posts
Showing posts with label folk tales. Show all posts

Thursday, March 07, 2024


The Fox Wife: A Novel
Yangsze Choo
Fiction 392 pages
Henry Holt and Co., Press, 2024

“There are as many kinds of foxes as there are types of people. Some are criminals. Others seek to escape this world by refining themselves.”

“The Fox Wife” is told through two perspectives. First person narration comes through a female fox out for revenge, while an elderly detective’s attempts to solve a complex mystery are told through the third person. The chapters alternate, first one told in first person followed by the next in the third person. It works.

 I’ve had difficulty reading stories in which the main characters alternate. An interesting chapter can be followed by a dull one that ruins the effect of the first. But if dovetailed characters and plots are equally interesting, boredom doesn’t arise. An effective twined narrative requires a skilled writer and Yangsze Choo is that.

 Set in 1908 Manchuria, the year in which China’s empress died, and three years prior to its revolution, China’s Qing dynasty is in decline. Revolutionary fervor infects its students. The daughters of poor families are sold to brothels while multiple wives and concubines occupy wealthier homes. It’s a China on the edge of modernity. Old tales of shapeshifting foxes are increasingly considered superstition, yet Bao the detective puzzles over alternative explanations for unlikely occurrences. He has room for doubt remembering how in childhood his nurse worshiped at a fox shrine and his friend claimed to have met a fox in human form.

 This novel features love, lust, loss, mystery, murder and madness. It’s well worth a read.

Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio
Pu Songling (Died 1715) translated by Herbert A. Giles
Fiction 448 pages depending on edition
Public Domain, 1880 translation

Many tales of shapeshifting foxes can be found in Pu Songling’s story anthology. Here is an example.

Friendship with Foxes
A certain man had an enormous stack of straw, as big as a hill, in which his servants, taking what was daily required for use, had made quite a hole. In this hole a fox fixed his abode, and would often show himself to the master of the house in the form of an old man.

 One day the latter invited the master to walk into the cave, which he at first declined, but accepted on being pressed by the fox; and when he got inside, lo! he saw a long suite of handsome apartments. They then sat down, and exquisitely perfumed tea and wine were brought; but the place was so gloomy that there was no difference between night and day. By-and-by, the entertainment being over, the guest took his leave; and on looking back the beautiful rooms and their contents had all disappeared.

 The old man himself was in the habit of going away in the evening and returning with the first streaks of morning; and as no one was able to follow him, the master of the house asked him one day whither he went. To this he replied that a friend invited him to take wine; and then the master begged to be allowed to accompany him, a proposal to which the old man very reluctantly consented. However, he seized the master by the arm, and away they went as though riding on the wings of the wind; and, in about the time it takes to cook a pot of millet, they reached a city, and walked into a restaurant, where there were a number of people drinking together and making a great noise.

The old man led his companion to a gallery above, from which they could look down on the feasters below; and he himself went down and brought away from the tables all kinds of nice food and wine, without appearing to be seen or noticed by any of the company. After awhile a man dressed in red garments came forward and laid upon the table some dishes of cumquats; and the master at once requested the old man to go down and get him some of these. “Ah,” replied the latter, “that is an upright man. I cannot approach him.”

 Thereupon the master said to himself, “By thus seeking the companionship of a fox, I then am deflected from the true course. Henceforth I, too, will be an upright man.” No sooner had he formed this resolution, than he suddenly lost all control over his body, and fell from the gallery down among the revelers below. These gentlemen were much astonished by his unexpected descent; and he himself, looking up, saw there was no gallery to the house, but only a large beam upon which he had been sitting. He now detailed the whole of the circumstances, and those present made up a purse for him to pay his traveling expenses; for he was at YĆ¼-t‘ai—one thousand li from home.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Best eBook version of the Nights

This post, originally written in winter 2013 is rewritten below in winter 2021.

In order to base stories on the Arabian Nights one must be somewhat familiar with them. I sought a complete translation, which ruled out a number of translations intended for children. Since it also had to be accessible, I decided to use Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation.

Another criterion was that it had to be cheap. The Arabian Nights Entertainments is available from Project Gutenberg, however each volume of the work is a separate download. An edition available through Google Play does contain roundtrip hyperlinks. It also contains a short biography of Burton.  The MobileReference translation is a good online reference. It does not permit copying text. Most readers won’t care about this, but if they do, they can readily copy text from various internet sources.

The Kindle edition of Burton I used is no longer available on Amazon. If I were to begin again, I would go with the far costlier but far more entertaining versions by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons. Burton purposely used archaic language, thereby distancing his writing from his readers. Burton openly expressed adult sensibilities in Victorian society. It's his scandalous nature that first intrigued me.

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Noted British explorer serves up literary appetiser

Vikram and the Vampire; Classic Hindu Tales of Adventure, Magic, and Romance
Richard Francis Burton (Author), Isabel Burton (Editor)
Fiction 134 pages

Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton translated 10 volumes of the Arabian Nights proper, plus half as many volumes of supplemental material. However, his translation of Vikram and the Vampire only includes 11 of the original 25 stories. Not only is it a quicker read, its writing style is far less archaic than that of the Arabian Nights translation. Even so, it does not read like a contemporary bestseller, but, then again, it’s old stuff, but that adds to its charm.

This collection of folk tales, written in Sanskrit, and compiled in the 11th century, is the oldest known work to showcase stories collected around a framing device. As such, it predates other framed story collections, including the Arabian Nights, the Decameron, and the Canterbury Tales, by several centuries.

Perhaps King Vikram should not have given his promise to the yogi. Now it’s too late to withdraw it. He has agreed to retrieve a corpse, but there’s a catch — the corpse is possessed by a baital (or vetala) — an Indian demon or vampire. On the chosen night, Vikram and his son enter the cemetery where they find the vampire hanging upside down from a tree limb. After some effort, they capture the vampire, but it escapes. The vampire then strikes a deal with Vikram: He’ll allow himself to be carried while telling a story, but at its conclusion, a riddle will be asked. Once Vikram answers correctly, the vampire escapes. And so, story after story is told through the long night until finally Vikram is stumped for an answer.

The stories are witty, satirical and fantastic. In one, three suitors attempt to animate the remains of their intended bride. One carries her ashes, another carries her bones, and a third recites an incantation to bring her back to life. If they succeed in reviving the beauty, which suitor will marry her? Vikram knows and so will we.

In another story, a thief laughs during his execution. Why? Again, Vikram knows the answer. Yet, the vampire has another answer. Regardless, Vikram’s answer is close enough to allow the vampire to escape. Once again, Vikram must retrieve him from the tree limb in which he hangs in bat-like fashion.

In a story about a learned scholar and his three sons, ‘atheist’ receives four definitions. Of these, the most common is that an atheist is someone whose beliefs are different from one’s own. A bit of philosophical meandering follows, and then there’s a speech, “so stuffed with erudition that even the writer hardly understood it.” Such excesses of scholarship can only result in disaster. After the inevitable occurs, Vikram correctly names which of the four is the greatest fool.

The final story takes place several hundred years after Vikram’s death. Pale-skinned invaders will come from the north to conquer Vikram’s kingdom with “fire weapon(s), large and small tubes, which discharge flame and smoke, and bullets … And instead of using swords and shields, they will fix daggers to the ends of their tubes, and thrust with them like lances.” This reference to British soldiers makes one wonder if the original author, possibly Somadeva, was prophetic, or if, as N. M. Penzer claimed in 1924, Burton embellished the original with fictions of his own.

At the conclusion of the final story, the vampire allows Vikram to take him to the yogi, but not without first revealing the yogi’s evil purpose and the means of his defeat. Does Vikram defeat the yogi? You will have to read it for yourself.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An excellent sampling of Richard Purtill’s fiction

Parallel Worlds of Richard Purtill
Richard Purtill
Fiction 404 pages
AuthorHouse. 2011

This collection contains a full-length novel, “The Parallel Man” and ten additional stories, including some never before published. Some of the stories are science fiction, some fantasy, some combine elements of both. Regardless of genre, they are all delightful. For example:

What would it be like to be so empathetic that it causes emotional distress, or to see the world through the eyes of others instead of one’s own? Richard Purtill addresses extreme empathy in “The Chrysenomian Way”, and the second theme in “Other’s Eyes”. The situations in both stories, like those of most Purtill stories in this collection, have unexpected, yet satisfying, solutions.

When live actors perform in the space faring Universal Commonwealth, their psionic technique creates rapport with their audience. In “Blackout” an actor learns that gods can also use psionic rapport. Will he be able to face down a god and stop its killing spree?

Can a vampire live a comfortable life on a Greek island among malicious and superstitious neighbors? Is the arrival of a beautiful stranger his key to escaping an eternity of lonely despair?

The final four stories in the volume are adapted from Russian folk tales. Although each of the four stands on its own, together they form a suite of related stories. Several feature a knight named Karl, a war veteran now weary of killing, who seeks nothing more than a worthy cause to serve. Karl’s heroic humility will charm those who read his adventures.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

He read it all and lived to tell about it

Robert Irwin
Nonfiction 342 pages
Tauris Parke Paperbacks. 2004

Henry Reeve discussed the translations of the Arabian Nights available during his time, saying, “Galland is for the nursery, Lane is for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers.” Burton’s version of the Arabian Nights is full of archaic language, gratuitous vulgarity, and racism. It is also the most readily available complete translation, and the one you may have to read if you want to become thoroughly acquainted with this story collection.

During the time Burton was translating it, a Middle Eastern superstition claimed that no one could read the entire Arabian Nights without dying. Author, Robert Irwin, writes that he read the entire Burton translation without dying, but not without pondering suicide as an alternative to slogging through it. Fortunately, if you wish to be better acquainted with the Arabian Nights, you can read Irwin’s Companion instead.

Irwin explores the Arabian Nights from a variety of perspectives as evident in his chapter titles, including, “Street Entertainments”, “Low Life”, and “Sexual Fictions”. Of particular interest is Irwin’s discussion of how stories mutate, merge, migrate, and reappear elsewhere. For example, a short story about partners plotting to kill each other is the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Later it’s a movie plot in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Other versions of a story from the Arabian Nights, “The Tale of the Woman who Wanted to Deceive her Husband” also appears in Sanskrit in the 11th century, Latin in the 12th, and in the 14th both Persian and Italian in Bocccaccio’s Decameron. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann reused the plot once again in his Dr. Faustus.     

Besides Mann, other modern authors have found inspiration in the Arabian Nights, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Salman Rushdie.

Irwin’s The Arabian Nights : A companion offers an expansive and thoroughgoing look at this great work. There is little that he doesn’t touch upon. If you don’t want to risk death by reading the entire Arabian Nights, then read Irwin instead.

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

The Arabian Nights – Gathered, Privately Printed, and Out of Print

While not all of us are familiar with the titles, “The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment” or “One Thousand and One Nights”, most of us have heard the story, “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp”, and several others associated with the story collection informally known as the Arabian Nights.

Some of the collected stories are quite ancient and of Indian origin. Others relate the fictitious doings of actual historical figures from 9th century Baghdad. Still other stories contain historical fragments from 13th and 14th century Cairo.

Some of the most well-known Arabian Nights stories were not actually part of those stories collected in Arabic versions of the text. These additional Middle-Eastern stories included “Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”,
“Prince Ahmed and his Two Sisters”, and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”. They were added by French translator, Antoine Galland, and his successors.

After Galland released his 12 volume edition of the Arabian Nights, scholars began to seek the most authentic version of the text. The lengthy Egyptian version came to be considered the standard one. One of the earliest English translations by Edward Lane was heavily censored.

Although Richard Francis Burton’s translation is the most well-known uncensored version, it was preceded by John Payne’s version. Both Payne’s and Burton’s uncensored editions were printed for private subscribers, rather than the general public. Although Burton’s edition is the best known, it has been criticized for dwelling excessively on sexual matters and for its archaic language.

Most available printed editions of the Arabian Nights are abridged, intended for children, or both. A printed set of Burton’s volumes would cost you dearly, if you could find one. Luckily it is available for Kindle and other eReaders. One reviewer of the Halcyon Classics edition sold by Amazon faults it for not having working hyperlinks between the table of contents and the stories. For a broad selection of translators, this omnibus looks like a good choice.