2014年12月22日 星期一

‘Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’,

The earliest known Arabic short stories in the world have just been translated into English for the first time

The stories are even more fantastic and full of marvels than those in the ‘Arabian Nights’

The Ottoman sultan Selim the Grim – having defeated the Mamluks in two major battles in Syria and Egypt – entered Cairo in 1517.
He celebrated his victory by watching the crucifixion of the last Mamluk sultan at the Zuwayla Gate. Then he presided over the systematic looting of Cairo’s cultural treasures. Among that loot was the content of most of Cairo’s great libraries. Arabic manuscripts were shipped to Istanbul and distributed among the city’s mosques. This is probably how the manuscript of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange ended up in the library of the great mosque of Ayasofya. 
There it lay unread and gathering dust, a ragged manuscript that no one even knew existed, until 1933 when Hellmut Ritter, a German orientalist, stumbled across it and translated it into his mother tongue. An Arabic edition was belatedly printed in 1956.
In the 1990s, when I was working on my book The Arabian Nights: A Companion, I came across references to this story collection and, since it sounded very like The Arabian Nights (or, to give it its correct title, The Thousand and One Nights), I thought I ought to have a look at it. The stories in Tales of the Marvellous were indeed as fantastic and exotic as those in the Nights, and I felt as other scholars might feel if they had come across a missing part of The Canterbury Tales or a lost play by Shakespeare.
The stories are very old, more than 1,000 years old, yet most of them are quite new to us. Some years later, I suggested to Malcolm Lyons, the translator of a recent edition of the Nights, that having completed that mighty task, he might consider translating Tales of the Marvellous. He sounded unenthusiastic and I thought no more about it. Then, last summer, he emailed to let me know that he had completed the translation. Now it has been published, meaning these stories can be read in English for the first time. 
Front cover illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights published 1917 (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)Front cover illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights published 1917 (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)
Although the title page of this medieval Arab story collection has been lost (as have more than half the original stories), the opening sentence of its introduction declares that these are al-hikayat al-‘ajiba wa’l-akhbar al-ghariba, or Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. “Ajiba is an adjective which means ‘marvellous’ or ‘amazing’ and its cognate plural noun, aja’ib, or marvels, is the term used to designate an important genre of medieval Arabic literature that dealt with all things that challenged human understanding, including magic, the realms of the jinn, marvels of the sea, strange fauna and flora, great monuments of the past, automatons, hidden treasures, grotesqueries and uncanny coincidences.
The Qur’an frequently calls on believers to marvel at the wonders of God’s creation, for they are filled with clear signs for “those who will reflect”. And, of course, the Qur’an itself is one of God’s marvels. Extraordinary things were signs of God’s creative power. To marvel at God’s creation was then a pious act. 
Several of the stories in Tales of the Marvellous are explicit about the hunger to see or hear about amazing things. The story of Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili begins with the Umayyad Caliph telling his vizier: “I want you to bring me an Arab seafarer who can tell me about the wonders and perils of the sea and do it now. It may be that it will cure my sleeplessness.”
In the third of the four stories devoted to treasure hunting, the leader of the expedition says to the narrator: “I am a man who searches for marvels as you do.” Later, when a centaur tries to bribe the leader not to demand to see the magical crown, he replies: “We only want to look at marvels and to see what we have never seen before, and if we see the crown we can put it back in its place.” In The Story of the King of the two Rivers one of the things that recommends a maidservant to the princess is the servant’s fondness for the unusual.
Camaralzaman and Badoura Illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights published 1917 (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)Camaralzaman and Badoura Illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights published 1917 (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)
Tales of the Marvellous includes tales of the supernatural, romances, comedy, Bedouin derring-do and one story dealing in apocalyptic prophecy. The contents page indicates that the complete manuscript contained 42 chapters, of which only 18 chapters containing 26 tales have survived. The handwriting of the manuscript suggests that the copy was made in the 14th century, but its contents indicate that the stories were compiled and in some cases composed in the 10th century in either Syria or Egypt.
This means that the text we have is older than the oldest substantially surviving manuscript of The Thousand and One Nights (from the late 15th century), which Antoine Galland took as the basis for his translation of the Nights in the 18th century. The authors and compilers of both Tales of the Marvellous andThe Thousand and One Nights are anonymous. 
Not only do the two-story collections resemble one another in the variety of their contents, but they have a handful of stories in common including the intriguingly titled The Story of Abu Muhammad the Idle and the Marvels He Encountered with the Ape As Well As the Marvels of the Seas and Islands. However, the chronological priority of the versions in Tales of the Marvellous is important, since it will provide future researchers with insights into the ways that the compilers of The Thousand and One Nights worked with older materials and elaborated on or condensed what they had before them.
Tales of the Marvellous differs from The Thousand and One Nights in all sorts of odd ways. The author(s) of Tales of the Marvellous had a special devotion for the Prophet’s cousin, Ali ibn Abi Talib, and at the same time respect for the Umayyad caliphs of the 7th and 8th centuries. Several times in Tales of the Marvellous Allah intervenes directly to rescue a hero or heroine in peril. Christian monks feature frequently in Tales of the Marvellous and a historical figure, Muhammad ibn Suleiman, plays a leading role in three of the stories. Why, I do not yet know.
The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor Illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)The Fifth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor Illustration by Charles Folkard from the book The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)
More generally, the fantastic is even wilder and more prominent in Tales of the Marvellous than it is in the Nights. The sheer mad inventiveness of The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle, with its jumbling of Muslim, Christian and pagan beliefs and rituals would take some beating. Here we have a mechanical vulture, visionary dreams, conversation with a pagan god, magical transformations, thrones of wrath and of mercy, an enchanted gazelle, a herder of giant ostriches, lustful jinn, speaking idols, a queen of the crows, a weeping lion, a fortress guarded by talismans, a crocodile with pearls in its ears, the sacrifice of virgins to the Nile and much else.
The narrative is one long carnival of extravagant fantasy. The Story of ‘Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Seas and Islands features an Arab Medea who uses poison and sorcery to slay the men and jinn she sleeps with (and she sleeps around a lot).  In Said Son of Hatim al-Bahili, a jihadi expedition heads out to India where it encounters not only the armies of the pagan Indians, but also a monk who remembers his times with the Prophet Daniel and with Jesus, but who has since converted to Islam, and he utters many cryptic prophecies. Then the Muslim expeditionary force travels on to lands farther east to discover the Valley of the Ants and the Valley of the Apes.
As I have read and reread these stories, I have slowly become convinced that the person who first wrote them down in the 10th century did not just collect them from other sources, but in some cases he or she actually composed them. Several of the stories show signs of having been driven by inspiration and written down in great haste. For example, in The Story of the Talisman Mountain and Its Marvels, only belatedly does the storyteller remember to bestow a name on the savage mamluk.  
The Thousand and One Nights contains one long story about a quest for treasure, The City of Brass, in which the governor of Egypt sends an expedition out to find the sealed copper vessels which contain the jinn captured centuries ago by Solomon. Otherwise, treasure hunting does not really feature in the Nights. But Tales of the Marvellous contains four short stories devoted to treasure hunting and in three of those stories the leaders of those quests are professionals.
The History of the Fisherman Illustration by Charles Folkard from The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)The History of the Fisherman Illustration by Charles Folkard from The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)
The fictional treatment of treasure hunting evolved in parallel with non-fictional treatises devoted to the same subject. In medieval Egypt, professional treasure hunters had set themselves up as a guild. Many of the “professional” treasure hunters were really con men who preyed upon the gullible. Additionally, many treasure-hunting manuals are so full of wondrous accounts of magical spells, death-dealing automata and stories about ill-fated earlier seekers that they should really be reassigned to the category of entertaining fiction.
In fiction, as in purported fact, one needed more than a good map and a shovel in order to unearth ancient treasures, for the treasure hunter might expect to encounter guardian monsters, killer statues and magical traps, and that is indeed what the participants in the quests included in Tales of the Marvellous do encounter. These perilous adventures can be compared to those of Indiana Jones, though the supernatural features more prominently in the medieval stories.
The treasure hunting stories bear witness to the awe experienced by the medieval Arabs when they contemplated the wonders of antiquity and asked themselves what had happened to the wealth of the ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as of the Pharaohs and Persian emperors.    
As the stories of dangerous automata suggest, medieval storytellers envisaged advanced technology not as something that would be achieved in the future, but rather as something whose secrets were lost in the distant past. In Tales of the Marvellous, death-dealing automata guarded the treasures sought by the protagonists of the quest stories.
The Story of Alladin or The Wonderful Lamp Illustration by Charles Folkard from The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)The Story of Alladin or The Wonderful Lamp Illustration by Charles Folkard from The Arabian Nights (Hilary Morgan / Alamy)
Unusually in The Story of Julnar, the sorceress Queen Lab is mistress of a group of singing automata. Statues were dangerous. In several of the tales in Tales of the Marvellous demons enter the statues and speak through them. Stone monks guard treasure in the first of the four treasure-hunting stories. A statue on the Talisman Mountain has the power to immobilise ships. Such things, neither alive nor dead, are intrinsically uncanny.
Treasure-hunting stories are full of marvels and excitement, but, as with the Nights story The City of Brass, they also carry a lot of moralising about the transience of worldly wealth and the vanity of earthly power. One gets the sense that the treasure hunters are not so much seeking tangible treasures as they are on a quest for adventure and strangeness. The story of a quest for treasure turns out to be the story of the quest for a story.
‘Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’, introduced by Robert Irwin and translated by Malcolm C Lyons (Penguin Classics, £25), is out now


A Book of Strange and Wonderful Tales and its Eminent Translator - See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/a-book-of-strange-and-wonderful-tales-and-its-eminent-translator#sthash.zr3zqNgR.1jWp99tr.dpuf

Detail from 16th century Persian manuscript, 'The marvels of creation and the oddities of existence'

Crocodiles have pearls in their ears; statues move and speak. The first English translation of a collection of Arab fantasy stories opens a window on to the imaginings of the medieval mind. Professor Malcolm Lyons has brought alive for the modern reader the gripping yarns in Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange.

The purpose of stories is to speak to the reader so you need to bring them alive while remaining faithful to the spirit of the story.Malcolm Lyons

There once was a king afflicted by a terrible sadness. His name was Shahriyar. “He had a hundred concubines, but none had given him a son. He had sent agents to buy him slave girls but whether he stayed with them a day, a night or a year, not one of them would conceive. The wide world shrank in his eyes as, whatever greatness he had achieved, he had no son.”

So begins the English version of Julnar of the Sea and the Marvels of the Sea Encountered by Her, the sixth of 18 stories contained in a collection of Arab medieval fantasy called Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange. Translated into English for the first time, and newly available to millions of readers, the tales open a window on to the enduring preoccupations and wild imaginings of the medieval mind.

Translation is an art, a question of stepping lightly between accuracy and context, tuned to the slightest nuances of meaning and association. When Malcolm Lyons, former Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University and a Fellow of Pembroke College, embarked on the task of bringing these age-old stories to life for the modern reader, he had behind him some six decades of scholarship as an academic deeply interested in the interconnections between civilisations and cultures.

The process of taking an Arabic text and transforming it into accessible English did not daunt Lyons. In his retirement from teaching at the Faculty of Classics and later at the Faculty of Oriental Studies, he has continued working. With his wife Ursula Lyons (Emeritus Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College), he produced a translation of The Thousand and One Nights (published by Penguin Classics in 2008). He is currently working on translations of early Arab tribal epics.

The process of translating Tales of the Marvellous took Lyons 18 months of intensive work at his desk at home in a thatched cottage just outside Cambridge. How difficult was it? “As a student, you’re taught to translate each word with precision. But if you set about translating a story word by word, the resulting text would be dull or demented, or both. As I’ve got older, I’ve become more flexible. The purpose of stories is to speak to the reader so you need to bring them alive while remaining faithful to the spirit of the story,” says Lyons.

The backstory of Tales of the Marvellous is suitably exotic: there is just one copy in the original Arabic, a fabulously precious but battered volume of some 600 handwritten pages held by the mosque of Aya Sofya in Istanbul. The book was discovered in 1933 on the shelves of the mosque’s library by Hellmut Ritter, a German Arabist. Ritter brought its existence to the attention of the academic world but he never translated the stories contained within its fragile and worm-eaten pages.

Scholars following the clues contained in the text believe that Tales of the Marvellous were compiled in the 10th century. Many of the stories in the collection have yet earlier origins. The manuscript itself, imperfectly transcribed in 'vulgar style' in Egypt or Syria, is likely to date from the 14th century or later. When the book was discovered 80 years ago, it was incomplete: it has no cover and its contents page suggests that there were originally many more stories.

Tales of the Marvellous is thought to be the work of Muslim authors. But its ebb and flow of stories – and stories within stories – mix themes found in Islam, Christianity and paganism. With no boundaries between fact and fiction, reality is suspended. A virgin sleeps with a prince but, when he encounters her again, she is still a virgin; crocodiles have pearls in their ears; bronze statues move and speak. Many of the themes known to storytellers and modern film-makers are found in these pages: love unrequited, the jealousy of siblings, the search for novelty and lust for luxury, the blindness that comes with greed, whether for sex or power.

These are tales brimming with superlatives - jewels, camels and slaves are measured in hundreds and thousands. Yet just when the reader is dizzy with excess the narrative skids to a halt with words of wisdom that travel down the centuries. In Julnar and the Sea, Shahriyar gets the son he has longed for and realises that he will have to cede this throne. He quotes from the poet: “When something is completed, its decline begins;/Say “it is finished” and it starts to fade.” Life is fragile, nothing is permanent.

The cast of players who feature in Tales of the Marvellous takes in the full gamut of the medieval world, both real and imagined – from kings to slaves, from mermaids to shape-shifting jinn. Craftsmen make frequent appearances: among them tailors, cooks, barbers and greengrocers. Stereotypes abound (women are duplicitous; strangers are ugly and wicked; black men are as big as buffalos) and the text is liberally splattered with blood and gore (heads are lopped off, women are raped).

Many of these characters would have been familiar to early audiences and some of the same stories (including Julnar and the Sea) feature in The Thousand and One Nights, a later and much better known compilation. But there are some surprises too. “My favourite among novel characters is the devil in The Story of Shul and Shumul who, uniquely for the devil as far as I know, offers to do a good deed and restore a kidnapped bride back to her prospective husband. The would-be astrologer, helped at one point by a little bird and a locust, in The Story of Abu Disa is also unknown elsewhere,” says Lyons.

Quests are tried-and-tested narratives that bring with them ample possibility for transformations, strange encounters, extraordinary happenings, and travel to exotic islands and beyond. Lyons says: “The notion of transformation was a familiar one – as shown in stories told by the writers Ovid and Apuleius. The sea is a key to wonderment: you can’t see what might be on the other side of it and you can’t take your camels there to find out. So the imagination can run wild.”

The narrative of Julnar and the Sea unfolds in a roller-coaster of twists and turns. Shahriyar gets his girl and Julnar, a sea princess of stunning beauty, gives him a splendid son named Badr. When Badr grows up, he too needs a bride. Who is good enough for an invincible rider and dangerous fighter, a man destined to succeed as leader? The quest for a bride takes Badr over land and sea, a tumultuous journey in which he is turned into a red-legged stork and a scheming queen becomes a mule. The happy-ever-after ending comes when Badr weds Jauhara, daughter of the supreme king of the sea, after which “they all lived the best, most pleasant, comfortable and untroubled of lives”.

Tales of the Marvellous benefits from an excellent introduction by Robert Irwin, the historian who quietly persuaded Lyons to undertake the translation. In his references to the craft of story-making, Irvin skips nimbly from other Arab stories to Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and a cartoon series in the New York Evening Post called Ripley Believe It or Not. Discussing classic tricks of the story teller’s trade, he alludes to Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit, in which Peter’s mother says: “You may go into the field or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr McGregor’s garden.” The reader wants, and doesn’t want, Peter to disobey his mother.

What should we make of Tales of the Marvellous, now that six centuries have passed since a scribe sat down with a sharpened quill and ink pot to copy them out on to sheets of parchment? Irwin concludes that the collection is not simply one of folklore; the stories do not read as if they come solely from an oral tradition. He argues that Tales of the Marvellous should be regarded as an early example of literature – perhaps the very first case of pulp fiction.

Does the translator agree with this description? “I have to admit that I’m not an expert on pulp fiction as I haven’t read any. As a boy I was brought up on stories of fairy mounds and water horses in the Scottish Highlands as well as the Grey Man who follows climbers on the slopes of Ben Macdhui in the Cairngorms,” says Lyons. “It’s certainly true that Tales of the Marvellous wouldn’t get any prizes for literature but nor were they designed to. They are entertainment for audiences of all ages and transport us to places where anything can happen.”

Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange (translated by Malcolm Lyons) is published by Penguin Classics.

Inset images: detail from the Alhambra (cropped) by Frederik Hilmer Svanholm; Istanbul, Aya Sofya (cropped) by Arian Sweggers (both via Flickr Creative Commons); two images from 16th century Persian manuscript, 'The marvels of creation and the oddities of existence' (Cambridge University Library).

- See more at: http://www.cam.ac.uk/research/features/a-book-of-strange-and-wonderful-tales-and-its-eminent-translator#sthash.zr3zqNgR.1jWp99tr.dpuf