On reading Aesop, then taking a little break.

The connections made in my title are purely coincidental. Reading Aesop has not sent me scuttling to shelter. Although, the story from the 1937 collection, Great Short Stories of The World, I’ve been reading this week is, The Country Mouse and the Town Mouse, and now I think about it, on one level it is a story about taking holidays.

Reading it took me back to childhood, but not in either a positive or a negative way. It was just a story that I remember regularly sighing about because it had popped up in yet another comic or collection.

I’ve been trying to decide whether it really was one of the most repeated stories, or if I just noticed it because it wasn’t a story that I liked. After all, I was happy with the variations on fairytales.

I can imagine that some adults would think these anthropomorphic mice make a child-friendly tale. They must be lovely to illustrate. The plot is time and region-less, and so can be made specific in ways that some of the other fables by Aesop can’t.

I can still remember a very English Tudor-period version that I liked to look at but, even then, the story failed to grab me. I didn’t know why. The story has as much going on as The Hare and The Tortoise, which I did enjoy, so I assumed it was a matter of taste.

Now, returning to it as a translation made by Thomas James, and first published in 1848, I wonder if it was that the set-up seems flawed. I’m wary of blaming Aesop, who was the aural storyteller of these fables. The versions we read weren’t written down until long after his death.

James says the town mouse was condescending. ‘How is it, my good friend, that you can endure the dullness of this unpolished life?’ But, his story begins by stating that these two mice are friends, old acquaintances. So, my question is, how is it that they know so little of each other?

Story worlds, the theory goes, must be consistent, should have a logic that keeps the reader absorbed in them. In the best case, we readers are so involved we suspend our disbelief and are surprised when we remember our world works differently.

The greatest fantasies achieve that, even at their most fantastic. When I read either, Alice in Wonderland, or Through the Looking Glass, no matter how much Alice shrinks, stretches or distorts, or how far she falls, I’m convinced, because each event is shown to fit logically with the next. Even at the end of Wonderland, when Carroll uses the cliche of ‘it was all a dream‘, he does it in such a way that Wonderland and the real world intersect plausibly.

This may well be ‘a particular type of story… known as the Beast Fable, a brief incident related in order to point a simple moral…’ but I’m sorry it was chosen as an example for inclusion in an anthology called Great Short Stories of The World. I would have preferred The Lion and The Mouse, or one of the ones that feature a wolf or a fox.

These are, of course, only my opinions. I’m prepared to be corrected.

I am, however, also allowed to dislike something… even if it is a classic.

In the meantime, please accept my excuses, dear readers and fellow bloggers, I need to drop out of sight for three weeks. My partner, Ray, who is usually standing, unsung, in the background of my writings, has just returned home after a quadruple heart-bypass operation.

While he would happily continue in the role of ideal reader, checking for sense, non-sense and typos before I post, I’m of the opinion that he should follow the recuperation guidance and take things easy. So, I’m putting a few things on hold to supervise his recovery.

Photo by Elly Fairytale on Pexels.com

I’ll be back here on January 4th. Hope to see you then. In the meantime, I wish you all the very best festive wishes. I hope you all find lovely ways to celebrate.

Photo by Polina Tankilevitch on Pexels.com

Thoughts on reading two Ancient Egyptian short stories.

The first stories in the Great Short Stories of The World anthology are THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA), and, SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. According to the editors, both of these date from ‘about 1400 B.C.’, and are by that most prolific of all authors, Anonymous.

They go on to say that these tales ‘have an extraordinary interest in that they are the very earliest examples that we possess.’ Thinking that such a statement may have been challenged by now, I had a quick look through some more recent sources on my bookshelves, and then did an internet search.

The first thing I was reminded of was how slippery the term ‘short story’ is. If we demand that it is something told strictly in prose form, then yes, these two stories from Ancient Egypt are some of the earliest written examples. It would get a lot more complicated, though, if we included stories that employ rhyme, rhythm and repetition, hallmarks of the oral storytelling tradition. Then, questions about when, where and how the dividing line between story and poetry come into play, and I’d need to open up a longer reaching discussion than one small blog-post usually manages.

I’m going to side-step that can of worms, and hand responsibility for starting in Egypt back to the esteemed editors, Messrs Clark and Lieber. However, while I’m happy to concentrate on the content they’ve provided, I am not going to rely on them for historical accuracy.

In presenting SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK, they claim that the original manuscript, ‘came from the workshop of the scribe Anena, who flourished in the reigns of Ramses II, Menephtah, and Seti II.

I don’t know how changes in the archeological science may have affected this theory, in the decades since 1937, but I am convinced by the textual argument David K. Jordan Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, University of California, makes against it. On an internet page published in 2011, and updated in 2020, he suggests that we should be careful of taking too much notice of what may seem authentic detail. Our narrator, says Professor Jordan, makes some significant errors about Egypt in the time of Ramessses II.

…that setting was either mere romanticism or an inaccurately understood historical tradition, for the writer of the existing copy of the story seems to have imagined the capital to have been at Memphis (one of the Ptolemaic capitals) rather than at Thebes, where Ramesses really had his capital, and the author gives far more attention to the god Ptah than would have been appropriate for a story from the time of Ramesses. Some Greek names also point to the Ptolemaic copyist’s (or author’s) lack of attention to historical accuracy in the setting of the tale.

Professor Jordan says that this story was ‘probably copied… somewhere after 305 BC‘.

What’s a century or two, between readers?

Well, it can be the difference between sense and confusion. There was such a moment for me in this translation of THE TWO BROTHERS (ANPU AND BATA). It was made by William Flinders Petrie in 1895.

Anpu’s wife has falsely accused Bata of trying to seduce her. Anpu takes up a knife and tries to kill Bata, and is only prevented when the God, Ra, helps Bata by causing a vast stretch of croccodile infested water to form between the brothers. In order to convince Anpu of his innocence, Bata ‘took a knife, and cut off of his flesh, and cast it into the water, and the fish swallowed it.’

Wow, I thought, that’s extreme, and rather random, but I didn’t take time to think it through. The story was moving fast, and I was still acclimatizing to a culture in which it seemed to be acceptable for Anpu to return home and not only kill his wife, but feed her body to his dogs.

Meanwhile, Bata was busy making a home in the desert, building a tower and meeting nine Gods, who made a wife especially for him. All, I thought would be fine, now.

I should have remembered my Mabinogian*, in which two magicians made a woman from flowers, to give to the hero Lleu.

Funny thing, but this woman didn’t seem grateful about her given position either. Soon I was so intent on her devious machinations I read right over an important piece of contextual information. Well, that and the slightly arcane narration William Flinders Petrie had decided would give the correct atmosphere for the period.

And Bata loved her very exceedingly, and she dwelt in his house; he passed his time in hunting the beasts of the desert, and brought and laid them before her.

[This reminded me of a cat I used to have, called Jester.]

He said: “Go not outside, lest the sea seize thee; for I cannot rescue thee from it, for I am a woman like thee; my soul is placed on the head of the flower of the acacia; and if another find it, I must fight with him.” And he opened unto her his heart in all its nature.

Oh boy, some men just don’t know how to keep their mouths shut. Still, the stage was now set for all kinds of developments. While I was still pondering the significance of the acacia flower, the nameless girl had enticed a Pharaoh into her orbit, established herself as his princess, and was scheming to make sure Bata couldn’t steal her back again.

And when I think about it, why should she want to live in a tower in the desert? Is it me, or does this bit remind you a little of Rapunzel?

Anyway, before I give you any more spoilers, let me say that I loved this, as I did SETNA AND THE MAGIC BOOK. The editors offer a description that might be applied, these days, to magical realism.

Whether or not the Egyptions actually beleived all they were told in a fairy tale is an idle conjecture, but it seems probable that the strange happenings described in this story were accepted by many. Even the present age of science has not entirely banished a belief in magic…’

After finishing both stories, I looked them up. One of the summaries named the portion of sliced off flesh that William Flinders Petrie was too modest to identify, and suddenly Bata’s action made a lot more sense.

I read both stories again, and again, tantalized by glimpses of fairytales and myths I knew from other cultural backgrounds; reminded of Aristotle’s claim that we retell the same seven stories over and over again, and of Carl Jung’s theories of archetypes. How far back does the short story go? What does it include? I’m still working on these questions.

*Footnote on The Mabinogian: these are the earliest prose stories of the literature of Britain. The stories were compiled in Middle Welsh in the 12th–13th centuries from earlier oral traditions. (Wikipedia)

Great Short Stories of the World

This anthology is one of my dusty bargains from a second hand shop. Its old, and looks it. The hardboard covers are bound in a pale cloth, and stained. Perhaps that’s why, having re-homed it several years ago on a high TBR shelf, its been neglected. If I hadn’t decided to do a little rearranging this week who knows how long it would have remained there.

Once opened, it was too tempting to put back. After all, don’t I frequently claim that one of the advantages of short fiction is that it can be dipped into? Admittedly, this volume is hefty. There are, the cover boasts, one thousand and eight pages, containing one hundred and seventy eight stories ‘drawn from all literatures, ancient and modern’ . I don’t have pockets big enough, and if I had, I suspect that after carting this around I’d develop a limp. So this book is now lodged conveniently on the corner of my desk.

The tattered dust jacket is tucked between the pages, too fragile to be other than a bookmark. It’s thick with promises.

‘This miracle, this triumph of bookmaking… has run to no less than ten editions at the original price of eight shillings and sixpence.

I put the figures into a currency convertor. Eight shillings and sixpence would have been the equivalent of a days wages for a skilled tradesman working in Britain in 1926. I’m trying to decide whether I might pay a sixth of my wages for a book, if I was a skilled tradesman. What kind of reader would that make me, what might my aspirations be?

The opening lines of the preface say:

This collection marks the first attempt to bring together in a single volume a characteristic group of the outstanding examples of the Short Story as it has been practiced by writers of almost every race, from the earliest days of civilization down to the present century. Its purpose is not to shew, by a series of texts chosen on academic grounds, how the form developed, but to bring together the best examples of every form by which men have endeavoured [sic] to entertain and instruct their fellows.

How popular has this collection been? My copy, a 1937 reprint, says that, ‘in response to overwhelming public demand it is reissued, complete and unabridged, at 3s 6d.‘ The currency converter tells me that in today’s terms that would be a drop from the 1926 equivalent price of £60 to £24 in 1937. Sounds like a bargain. But, the 1930s were times of turmoil, and although wages had not gone up, and most foodstuffs had dropped in price, there were high levels of unemployment. I’d love to know who did buy this, and why.

After thinking about the history of The Short Story, the preface becomes more practical.

Of recent years there has been a good deal of theorizing about the Short Story as an art form. A whole literature of theory has come into being in order to explain the work of Maupassant and Poe and O. Henry, as well as to guide the would be writer.

Possibly, then, this is useful research for those trying to break into print.

The preface lays much stress on the theory, history and the processes of critical reading. The editors have aspired to gather together ‘little-known or quite forgotten tales.’

There is an academic approach to the division of the book into sections.

The volume… besides being the first to include examples of stories of practically the entire world, introduces several new writers to English and American readers.

At one time non-fiction books were such a popular household item that salesmen hawked encyclopedias and educational literature from door to door. The New Statesman says, ‘This is a most astonishing venture – a library in itself.

I hope Barret H. Clark and Maxim Lieber would be gratified to know that it’s still succeeding on all fronts, so far as I’m concerned. I’ve just finished The Two Brothers, a tale from Egypt, dated by their estimation, at 1400 BC which was entertaining and intriguing.