Some of the oldest stories in the human repertoire are a collection of ancient animal tales, which have traversed the ages, and within which a few of Aesop’s fables offer us a faint and familiar echo.
Known centuries ago by Europeans travelling on the Silk Road as The Fables of Bidpai, this tapestry of stories is believed to have first originated (as far as we know) in India over 2,500 years ago in some of the Jataka Tales. That huge Pali collection featured Gautama Buddha in a vast array of animal forms: monkey, lion, deer, human and many other creatures. Hundreds of years later some of those stories migrated into Sanskrit to become The Panchatantra, which means “Five Looms”—denoting the five interwoven sets of narratives that make up the complete collection.
Kalila and Dimna remains the most enduring “book” of these animal tales, and endures as the first Arabic literary classic. It appeared in the medieval Islamic period around 750 CE as a translation of the same story from the old Pahlavi tongue of Iran. Hundreds of versions and translations of these stories have since fanned out across the globe, in a dizzying variety of trajectories, rivaling even the Bible in its reach.
In each of these collections, the main character, a wise savant known in certain depictions as Bidpai, instructs a king or a royal household with some important lessons of life using dramatic anecdotes from the lives of animals. Bidpai’s yarns, which act as a kind of medicine for the king, are told in story-within-a-story format. They draw the reader, or listener, into an ever-deeper latticework of narrative, moving back and forth, before returning to Bidpai and the start of the original tale.
British-American author Ramsay Wood has spent four decades producing versions of these tales for modern readers. He worked with English translations of the Kalila and Dimna corpus—including the first English version written by Sir Thomas North in the 16th century. He’s re-created four of the five books from the collection under the titles: Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal (Vol. 1) and Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue (Vol. 2).
These two works have since been translated into German, Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. In the Ramsay Wood versions, the writing is fresh, snappy and often incredibly funny; the characters are animated and leap off the page—something you don’t expect from a book of staid animal tales.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s review dubbed Vol. 1 “… a unique retelling… may well jolt literary sensibilities tuned to the solemnity or quaintness of our best-know version of animal fables.”
I spoke to Ramsay about his work on these books.
How did you discover these stories? And how did you decide to embark on doing your own version?
I came across Kalila and Dimna over four decades ago when a journalist friend told me she was trying to produce her own version. She complained that she was having a hard time doing so, and that it was driving her crazy. The more I spoke with her about it, the more intrigued I became. What was this huge work? It also wasn’t a straight story. It was a story-within-a-story. I supposedly studied literature at university yet didn’t have a clue about this book, which entered England from an Italian edition when Shakespeare was a Stratford lad of six.
Around 1979, I joined a London group of story-performers that became The College of Storytellers. We volunteered, usually working as a group of between six to ten of us, to tell an hour or two of a blend of personal anecdotes and traditional tales. Schools, hospitals, pubs, art or community centers and old-peoples’ home were our usual venues.
But we soon learned, sadly, to avoid the latter more elderly groups as usually a few among such audiences would be deaf, and often—in that keynote brief pause after someone’s dramatic conclusion, when maybe various invisible insights hover about in the aether—there would be a loud shout of “What’d she say?” Then an equally voluminous reply along the lines of “Dunno, I dinna hear her either!”
Of course this would crack up the whole room, which was fun but failed to give us amateurs the presentation-practice we needed. And that amateurism is important to note, for none of us among The College of Storytellers were professional actors like our friends at The Company of Storytellers, founded in the same era by the redoubtable Ben Haggerty—and which flourishes to this day as the keynote British standard-bearer of the ancient oral tradition.
Suffice it to say that traditional oral stories thus became a profound interest of mine. All my early experiences blended together into a strong stream which resulted in my becoming hooked into something that became a life-long project.
Why did you feel that yet another version of the Bidpai/Kalila tales needed to be produced? There were already so many of them in different languages, including several in English?
The last English source-version was from 1570. It is extremely good, but it remains an old book in pre-Elizabethan English and I felt it needed a modern update. While studying literature, I even enjoyed reading Edmund Spenser and other olden-days outlier poets like him. If it was obscure, I was by some weird technical preference drawn to it. But I also wanted to explore and find other works. And here was this kind of publicly unknown Eastern motherlode of ancient stories that had been translated into so very many languages for over two thousand years, before even the invention of writing. Yet it remained virtually unknown, even ignored, in the Western literary canon.
The largest collection of these early Arabic, Islamic, Persian and other books, can be found at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, in Paris. And Jean de La Fontaine was incredibly influenced by them. He even says, “I owe my stories to Bidpai,” in one of his introductions to his famous fables.
You’ve termed these stories elsewhere as ‘survivalist literature’? What do you mean by that?
I’ll first say that, in some ways, these stories aren’t cute and they don’t have cuddly morals. If a moral was put onto one, you could be sure that it was a priest, rabbi or imam who did so, and who said, “This is the way you should interpret this.” That’s what happened with the fables of Aesop, which share a few of these tales. Learning is rarely a linear process. Everybody is going to interpret the stories according to the circumstances they currently find themselves in.
All good stories are a preparation. I think such stories can ready you for things you haven’t yet experienced in life. They exist to remind you that events are seldom always nice or sweet. They’re not only vague emotional or intellectual experiences. They have the power to somehow subtly guide you through new situations. You may be perceptually-blocked and a story can cause you to recognize it allegorically and maybe learn about your own oft-useless habits.
One story in the Panchatantra corpus, which I called ‘The Cormorant and the Star’, involves a seagull that’s flying over the water at night. It sees the reflection of a star in the water and thinks the reflection is a fish. The bird dives for it, but it of course can’t capture anything except a chimera. It keeps diving repeatedly but comes up empty-beaked. Every now and then you might have a similar experience whereby you keep doing something over and over again and suddenly realize it’s a complete mirage. You’re just doing something that is not based on any kind of reality.
The Kalila and Dimna tales employ this story-within-a-story technique, also called a “frame story,” which is most famously used in The Arabian Nights. Apart from being a distinct narrative style, is there any functional purpose to that approach, as far as you can tell?
My guess is that it’s repeatedly placing you in new contexts so that you’ve forgotten the previous ones. The best comments about the book come from people who say, “I hate this book because I never know where I am.” Other people say, “I think it’s great that these stories take me away—and then I’m suddenly back as if I’ve moved quickly through a deck of cards.”
Each story draws you further and further away in a subsequent series of inter-linked frames. Yet meanwhile, there’s always the original frame hovering somewhere in our experiential background. A lot of this same technique was employed in The Decameron and also by Shakespeare. The frame story makes the context of trying to solve things more real because it depicts things as a fluidity, rather than just being a linear intellectual progression neatly bowling down a ten-pin set of related (or dare I say “fellated”?) fallacies.
It sounds like frame stories create a narrative circularity. Perhaps similar to standing between two large mirrors facing one another whose reflections vanish into an infinite yet indistinct curvature?
Exactly, assuming that metaphor helps calm you down to meet, courageously, the tenuousness of our shared unknown human future.
Could this story-within-a-story format be a way to stimulate the brain’s dual hemispheres harmoniously? The fact that the reader needs to follow both an immediate yarn and a preceding contextual narrative (and multiple receding ones) seems to suggest that phenomenon.
I’m not qualified to talk about that. In my experiences, such frames do reveal that events rarely necessarily proceed along straight logical lines. We all know that, yet we despise it because it can often be extremely annoying in thwarting our expectations. There is, as it happens, a worthy olden saying that goes; “The source of all human unhappiness is: ‘Expectation, Non-Delivery!’ But don’t tell Amazon that, because they’ve already factored it into their business model!
Here’s a good example. Abdullah ibn al-Muqaffa, the Persian who translated Kalila and Dimna into Arabic in the 8th century first worked for the Umayyad Caliphate and then for the Abbasids in Baghdad. When the first Abbasid Caliph, al-Mansur, came to power he told ibn al-Muqaffa: “Rewrite these stories.” It was like having previously worked for Obama and then having to work for Trump. Under the latter if you crossed a certain line the boss was going to fire you. Except when you were the Caliph YOU didn’t fire someone—they were fired for you. And that’s literally what happened—Ibn al-Muqaffa was burned to death in an oven. They got pissed off with him. They didn’t like him.
Why? What happened exactly?
Ibn al-Muqaffa was a Persian living in an Arab empire which had victoriously warred with Persia. He wasn’t trusted. But that’s another story. Ibn al-Muqaffa also fell out of favour because the Kalila and Dimna stories he translated take you in several different directions all at once. Authority doesn’t like that. They want simple, straight-forward, one-pathway answers.
The Caliph told ibn al-Muqaffa he did not approve of the delinquent jackal character Dimna getting away with his treacherous actions in the first batch of stories. Dimna, al-Mansur demanded, had to go to jail in the story. So, in the Arabic version he gets thrown in prison and murdered there because justice must be done—which totally differs from the Indian Panchatantra version.
That’s just a straight-line judgement as far as I’m concerned. In the original story and in the one I’ve written, Dimna gets away with his deceitful actions. As a journalist, I’m sure you know that’s not the only time that’s happened.
These tales still remain generally unknown in the West. What sense do you have from your travels and discussions with Easterners about how popular—or not—these stories remain in the Middle East and Asia?
If I mention this to anybody who is either first or second generation Arab or Iranian, they’ll often say, “Oh yeah, I know those. My father used to talk about those stories.” When I travelled to parts of Morocco and spoke to storytellers who perform in outdoor public squares, they would tell me, “Of course I know, and tell, those stories!”
The Kalila and Dimna collection is considered the great Arabic classic for style. In fact, the ibn al-Muqaffa version remains my inspiration (albeit blended too with its Buddhist and Hindu forerunners).
One of my favourite encounters involved a distinguished Middle Eastern woman at a party who said: “I hear you’re working on some Arabic stories. What are they?”
I answered: “They’re from Kalila and Dimna.”
She said, “Oh God, how boring! I used to have to read them as a punishment as a kid.”
These stories changed as they moved between cultures. As they migrated, the animals were changed to represent the fauna living in different geographical regions. And as you just mentioned, the medieval Arabic translation changed for political reasons. How did you, in turn, adapt them to a modern audience?
I altered the language, primarily.
If you’re going to read, for instance, a direct English translation of an old Italian book published in 1570, you have to become familiar with a more archaic style of literary exposition. Most people aren’t. So I re-wrote those stories to make them sound like someone speaking today. I used modern expressions and idioms—much to the horror of some academics, career-wedded to any number of literally hundreds of original (or indeed, theoretically reconstructed) manuscripts.
I also selected which particular stories I’d rewrite. Some of them are weak and don’t have a great deal of meaning—to me, anyway—so I ditched them.
Incidentally, we have no knowledge of which ones are the originals. You have to remember that the early Sanskrit manuscripts were themselves reconstructions of around 463 versions in different Indian languages. If you’re a scholar who backs one version, you often don’t like the other versions (or their reconstructions) because you consider them inaccurate, incomplete, inferior or oversimplified—not to mention beyond the pale, to use an Irish-ism.
There’s one book of these stories which you haven’t versioned. You’ve rewritten four books of the full set of five that exist.
Yes, I’ve re-versioned the first and last double-chapter narratives in the set—a total of four of the original so-called “books”. The middle one which I’ve avoided from the outset is the third whose subject is war.
It’s called ‘The Battle Between the Owls and the Crows.’ I’ve done a rough first draft with a Queen called Tania, the only surviving child of King Dabschelim.
But so far, I’ve steered clear of completing it because that beast-war is about animals fighting in a medieval context to a bitter end of horror. The avian-winner’s main weapon is fire, ordinary forest-destroying flames from an ember or a torch—not today’s definitely more thinkable post-Age-of-Aquarius nuclear option.
In the less technical Middle Ages fire was simply about shooting flaming cannon-balls or dripping liquid fire from rolled-up towers over the high walls of some besieged castle. That story won’t work for a modern audience. So, I’m considering alternative weapons that would also make sense in an updated context for the story.
Working on these tales—and even performing them—has given you some insights into stories and storytelling, particularly the value of oral tales versus those we read in books. Tell me more about that.
The act of reading is today mostly a one-to-one eyeball activity thanks to Edison’s long-ago invention of the lightbulb. It didn’t start that way—if you agree that some of our ancestors were shouting prey-stories in dark, perhaps fire-lit, decorated caves.
Reading originally, as in any early religious or formal teaching setting, was a single literate person reading TO a group. By contrast, mimetic storywatching and listening, group-sharing, and participation doesn’t require you to process narratives only through your eyeballs as done when you read silently alone by the fireside. You process live-storytelling through your eyes and your ears, and even your skin—plus your smell and physical-awareness of your audience neighbours. You see each scene and inhabit it. The scene doesn’t have to be described— you’re a living part of it! Think huge rock concerts or mass sporting events.
If you imagine great mime or dance, you don’t need to hear any words, you just watch the performer. Some dance historians say the very first human language was group dance movement. If you look around the world, this idea makes pretty good sense.
Why are all these traditional dances done to similar types of music played on strange repetitive instruments and involve jumping up and down in a group of, say, 40 people—possibly of one gender? That’s a very different experience to sitting in a room by yourself and reading a book. Or even reading a book out-loud to an audience like writers do, which I think is usually pretty yawnsome. It’s much better to have a good actor read your book for you out-loud to a book talk audience. That’s why audio books work so well. I would rather have an audio book that wanders off-piste in the wake of a talented voice.
Telling and hearing body-rich, paced stories remains a completely different experience from reading them. If I read fiction, I encounter flat-land descriptions of characters. But when I watch, feel and listen to a mesmerizing oral raconteur deliver some tale (imagine Peter Ustinov, Victoria Wood or Mel Brooks), he or she embodies those characteristics—and my smiling or nodding my head is an entirely whole other experience.
Ramsay Wood is the author of Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal (Vol. 1) and Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue (Vol. 2). He lives in London, England.