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Premodern Fables in a Comparative Frame

Panel I-11, sponsored byIlex Foundation, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The prevailing conceptual scaffolding and vocabulary for describing cross-cultural and inter-textual processes often fail to render important characteristics in premodern cultural constellations. Rather than direct sources of influence or explicit trajectories of transmission, we often find that there was no singular “source” text or a singular “host” culture. Beyond origins and transmissions, the papers in this panel explore frames, themes and cross-cultural representations in a variety of premodern narrative and pictorial source material to demonstrate the purchase of a properly constructed comparative framework: a richer, thicker description of themes, motifs and narrative devices. To that end, one paper examines the interplay between form and content by focusing on the “master narrative” rather than individual stories that comprise content in a comparative reading of Ferdowsi’s Shahnama and the Arthurian Vulgate. The same emphasis on the master narrative or the frame story as the principal purveyor of thematic cohesion and significance is the subject of a second paper, this one focused on the cycles of tales in Thousand and One Nights. A third paper asks if there is any discernible moral purpose in premodern fables featuring talking humans rather than talking animals? The lens here is on various retellings of the ancient Greek Sybaritic tales juxtaposed with other beast fables from the Aesopic fables, with clear resonances in fables further afield from Kalila wa Dimna. A fourth and final paper upends the very quest for linear transmission and explicit hybridity by studying the Alhambra ceiling paintings, to suggest that the referent in a straightforward example of “borrowed ware” is not, in fact, testimony to the hybrid culture of Andalusia. Rather than replicating imagery and content from Christian narrative sources in a project patronized by the Nasrid amir, the paintings connect fiction to reality, and reality to fiction by deploying widely-recognized protagonists of various romances as vessels for illustrating the chivalry of members of the order of Banda.
  • Mythological narratives on the quest for the immortality plant - a quest that results in a book instead of immortality pure and simple - is a common motif in a wide variety of folktale traditions. A variation on this theme is found in the Shāhnāma of Ferdowsi, where the poet aetiologizes the reception of Kalīla wa Dimna in Persian traditions by way of a mythologized narrative, a tale. According to the tale, the book was once upon a time acquired by an Iranian wise man named Borzuya (Borzōy), emissary of the Iranian king Khosrow Anūshīrwān (r. 531-579). Borzuya the physician had traveled to India in search of a mythical plant that brought the dead back to life. In the course of his arduous quest, Borzuya eventually learns that such a medium of resurrection is not really a plant but, a precious book, Kalīla wa Dimna, that is stored under lock and key, as it were, in the treasury of the king of India. In this presentation, I compare Ferdowsi’s iteration of the tale with a historically unrelated Western European tale about the quest for the Holy Grail, is attested in countless versions, the most extensive and comprehensive of which is a massive Old French text circulating the early thirteenth century, commonly designated by English-speaking experts as the Vulgate Cycle or the Arthurian Vulgate - and by French-speaking experts as la vulgate arthurienne en prose. The narrative of the Vulgate Cycle is remarkably cohesive in its central purpose, which is, to represent the Grail as essential for life not because of its contents per se but because it contains a wealth of stories about King Arthur and his knights and beyond - without being tied down to any single ideology or political view or religious outlook. The cohesiveness, then, lies with concept of the container itself, the master narrative, not in what the container contains, that is, in the content. Juxtaposing the Holy Grail with the Plant of Immortality will show, it is hoped, the value of comparative folklore studies.
  • The Subaritikoi logoi, a genre of Greek fables that can be translated as ‘discourse from Sybaris’ or even as ‘Sybaritic tales,’ is considered distinct from the better-known ancient Greek genre of Aesopic fables, since “Sybaritic’ tales feature talking humans rather than talking animals as the main characters. In this presentation, I ask: are fables about talking humans really distinct, in moral purpose, from fables about talking animals? I will begin by analyzing a fable that seems Sybaritic on the outside but reveals Aesopic elements in the deep structure of its storytelling. The story is commonly known as The Thief and the Innkeeper, but the first of the two characters, when we examine the subtext, is not just a thief: more than that, he is a would-be werewolf, that is, a man who could turn into a wolf in other versions of the story. Next I examine another fable that appears at first glance to be Sybaritic on the outside. The fable is a tale retold by a character featured in a comedy of Aristophanes, The Wasps. Known as “Aesop and the Bitch,” the fable casts Aesop himself as one of the story’s two characters, actually, the only talking one as the other character does not talk at all but only barks. It is a nasty beast of a dog, a bitch who threatens to attack Aesop, barking at him furiously, as if Aesop were some devious thief. But may we claim that the tale told here is really a “beast fable”—if the beast does not talk? For an answer, the existing evidence needs to be analyzed from a comparative point of view. And a vital aspect of that evidence is what the text can tell us about a primary historical context for the practice of retelling fables. As I will argue, such a context is in this particular instance, an elite gathering of sorts, where aristocrats perform fables as a demonstration of their education in verbal art—in many ways comparable with Kalila wa Dimna.
  • Many attempts have been made to tie specific episodes from the Alhambra’s famous secular figural ceiling paintings to specific literary narratives. Despite the Alhambra’s Nasrid patronage, both the visual and literary connections raised are generally from Christian sources, suggesting the cultural hybridity of the fourteenth-century Iberian Peninsula. This paper argues that attempting to pin particular motifs to particular narratives is not only – in at least some cases – futile, but also, more importantly, misses the point of the paintings. The aim of these sophisticated paintings was to connect fiction to reality, and reality to fiction: in particular, to illustrate the chivalry of members of the Order of the Banda or Scarf by portraying them in the visual forms of widely-recognized protagonists of romance. While the paintings suggest secular narratives, in fact they select and display visual motifs for a non-narrative purpose. The Order of the Banda was founded in Christian Castile around 1330, and it was bestowed upon individuals from various nations whom the Castilian king wished to honor. The arms of the Order of the Banda are explicitly painted in all three bays in the Alhambra. However, despite their prominence, no one has yet suggested that this chivalric order may also be referenced in other ways within these paintings. Focusing on iconography, color, and composition, this paper argues that the painted actions, heraldic colors, and repeated inclusion of the coat of arms of the Banda within the paintings are all intended to reference this chivalric order. I argue that the Alhambra’s figural ceiling paintings depict an intentional collage of scenes drawn from romance, but these paintings were not intended to represent any particular romance. These compositions were assembled instead with another purpose in mind: to refer to a chivalric order, its coat-of-arms, heraldic colors, and prescribed courtly activities. The visual structure of the ceilings, their composition and color, are powerful reminders that other kinds of content can be just as important as narrative.
  • The larger, incrementally accrued corpus of Thousand and One Nights, contains several cycles of tales collected within a frame structure. Most of these cycles consist of a framing story explaining the rationale behind the enframed stories, which in most instances are tales of wisdom, parables or anecdotes. The cycles, drawn from various narrative sources that originate in varied literary/cultural backgrounds and time periods, were incorporated into the corpus at different stages of its development. But the question of thematic unity in the various stories remains unresolved. This presentation will suggest that a comparative framing of the stories yields new insight on the thematic aspects of the narrative. The comparative frame comprises the following stories from Thousand and one nights: the craft and malice of women, King Jali‘ad of Hind and his vizier Shimas, King Azadbakht and his son, and King Shahbakht and his vizier al-Rahwan; and includes material drawn from the story of Tawaddud, Hayqar the sage, al-Malik Rukn al-Din Baybars al-Bunduqdari, Buluqiya, the thirty-nine steps of the throne and the five-and-twenty tales of the genie. These narrative cycles will be discussed focusing on the main structural and conceptual resemblances: first, their structures as framed cycles will be examined with regard to the function and plot of the framing story; second, the device of framing and the motifs in the framing story will be discussed and compared as far as they reflect an effort to represent the act of storytelling and the transmission of wisdom as a ritual process. Although the stories are of different origins (Hindi, Persian, Arabic) most of them have several motifs in common: the relation between a king, his son, and his vizier; the intervention of women in the process of succession; relationships between men and women; and the deferral of judgement or plot by the telling of stories containing some argument or wisdom. It will be argued that this procedure can be perceived as a ritual process aimed at on the one hand initiating the prince, and on the other hand regulating the process of succession. Ultimately, of course, it is the reader who is instructed and elevated. Finally, may it be argued that Thousand and one nights itself is conceptually and generically related to these narrative cycles?