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Premodern Fables and their Audience

Session IX-10, sponsored by Organized under the auspices of the Ilex Foundation and the Middle East Medievalists (MEM), 2022 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, December 3 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
The papers in this panel explore various components of reception theory related to fables, including their audience, translations, narrative devices, and their implicit and explicit political and moral underpinning. Often inserted in a wider canvas, both their initial location and their later wanderings in many lands and languages are crucial to their overall understanding. Several presentations concentrate on the reception of various recensions of Kalīla wa Dimna. A pragmatic strand of reception theory suggests that the meanings of texts and their subsequent interpretations vary over time, and are historically relative. On that basis, as one panelist asks, should Kalīla wa Dimna be recognized as a work of philosophy as Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ himself had envisioned, or with modern students of Middle Eastern intellectual history, as an example of advice literature? A second paper investigates reactions to Kalīla wa Dimna in premodern France. How was it translated and how did it influence French literary history? And a third one focuses on Ferdowsi’s provision of a genealogy of the Iranian reception of the fables collected in Kalīla wa Dimna. What did the poet intend to achieve by highlighting the various Persian recensions of the text, and how did he integrate that discussion into his own Shāhnāma? Ferdowsi’s explicit reference to the way that the fables accrued in fame and found a safe haven in verse implicitly justifies his far more daring venture of preserving memories of long vanished deeds and dynasties. The fables collected in Kalīla wa Dimna were not the only itinerant stories to circulate in the premodern world. Do traveling characters, tropes and allegories shapeshift to reflect their immediate historical context, or do they carry multiple origins and layers of cultural exchange that defy spatial and temporal boundaries? To that question, a fourth paper investigates the genealogy of “The Tale of Solomon and the Ants” as it travels back and forth Islamic, Jewish and Christian contexts. Finally, fables and stories have long been a staple of political discourse. To what effect is the fantastic factualized in premodern retellings? The Indic fable of “The Dancing Peacock,” mediated through Buddhist Pāli texts, provides several parallels to an episode in the Histories of Herodotus. A fifth paper asks if those parallels point to an Indian fable indigenized in classical Greek literature, and what the differing reactions to problems of wealth, power, and prestige reveal about their respective historical contexts.
  • The poetry of Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāma sets up an explicit parallelism between his Shāhnāma and Rōdaki’s Kalīla and Dimna: the uniqueness of both these works of poetry, in the words of Ferdowsi, depends on the turning of prose into poetry (Shāhnāma VIII 655.3460-3464 ed. Bertels). To make his point about the uniqueness of his Shāhnāma, Ferdowsi elevates the importance of poetic translation, since the original Persian reception of the Kalīla and Dimna involved a translation into prose, parallel to the earlier “translation” from Sanskrit into Arabic. Ferdowsi’s wording makes it clear that the Arabic version, as it is recited, he declares, even in his own era, remains in prose. What makes the version composed by Rōdaki so much better, in terms of the poetics advanced by Ferdowsi, is the turning of the original Persian prose, by Abuʾl-Fażl Balʿami (he is called simply Abuʾl-Fazl in the poetry of Ferdowsi) into the Persian poetry of Rōdaki. Similarly, in the case of the Shāhnāma, the poetry of Ferdowsi is presented as superior to earlier prose versions. The paper will delve into related questions, perhaps the most important of which is this: were these prose versions, as portrayed by Ferdowsi, composed in Pahlavi or in Persian?
  • Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ (d. 757/8 CE) was one of the most important thinkers writing in Arabic. Translating and adapting late antique wisdom texts from Middle Persian, he was a foundational author of Arabic prose and Islamic political advice literature. His oeuvre is also of prime importance for the history of religious thought. He was amongst the first authors to integrate the Middle Persian political advice literature of the Sāsānian Empire into the budding Islamic civilisation. This Sasanian political advice literature was permeated by elements of Greek as well as Indian philosophy, and Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ was a pioneer in introducing these materials into Islam and applying them with outstanding originality to the new context. Kalīla wa-Dimna is the book of political advice literature par excellence, and one of the most transculturally celebrated books in history. The book itself narrates the story of its creation in India and of its translation into Middle Persian. The collection includes the fables of the Sanskrit Panchatantra and further chapters and introductions. Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Arabic version is the source of a multitude of variants in Arabic and of translations into over forty literary languages of Europe and the Islamic world, ranging from Spain to Malaysia. However, as modern scholars of philosophy tend to disregard advice literature, its importance as a living carrier of philosophical ideas and practical philosophy has been neglected. Authors of advice literature were as much original thinkers as ‘proper’ philosophers, and they were often considerably more influential. In fact, the distinction between the two fields is more a product of modern academia than a reflection of the intention of the authors, or of the reception of their contemporaries. The aim of this talk is to demonstrate that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s oeuvre is a prime example of the osmosis between philosophy and advice literature and that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ presented Kalīla wa-Dimna as a book of philosophy enveloped into entertaining stories. His pioneering contribution to the introduction of philosophy into Islamic civilisation is even more significant considering that Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ was murdered approximately a century before the death of al-Kindī, labelled ‘the first Arab philosopher’.
  • In the Indic fable of “The Dancing Peacock,” mediated through the Buddhist traditions of texts composed in Pāli (as distinct from Sanskrit) and known as the Jātaka-s, the peacock is chosen as husband-to-be by the daughter of the Golden Goose, king of all birds, but he disqualifies himself by dancing so ostentatiously as to expose himself, to the disgust of the king, who then shames the peacock into withdrawing from eligibility. This fable has been compared many times and in many ways to a story famously attested in Classical Greek literature: it is an episode narrated in the Histories of Herodotus (6.126–130), where Cleisthenes, tyrant of the city-state of Sicyon, arranges for a competition among elite men from other cities to decide who will marry into his dynasty by winning as bride the girl Agariste, daughter of the tyrant. The leading contender, an Athenian named Hippocleides, ‘dances away’ his chance at marrying the girl because he exposes himself in the course of exuberant dancing at a celebration. There have been various attempts at comparing the Indic and the Greek narratives, the most successful of which is an analysis by Leslie Kurke, Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose (Princeton 2010). The paper presented here, while acknowledging the merits of the book cited, is different in its approach to explaining the existing Greek-Indic parallelisms, modifying the idea that we are dealing here with “the migration to Greece of an Indian fable” (Kurke p. 14n42). Further, there will be disagreement about questions of “high” and “low” cultural reactions to problems of wealth, power, and prestige. Even further, the paper will explore in more depth the symbolism of the loss of the bride in terms of a loss of a singing voice, which is a punishment inflicted on the peacock. Such a loss is relevant, it will be argued, to various Greek as well as Indic traditions involving modes of differentiating poetry and prose.
  • The figure of King Solomon (Shelomo, Sulaymān) captivated the imagination of Muslims, Christians, and Jews in an unparalleled manner. Legends about him were shared across religious communities in the pre-modern Islamic world and beyond. In folk tradition, Solomon is portrayed as a just and wise judge; a mighty and somewhat arrogant ruler; and a magician, whose signet ring has binding power over demons. In 1873, Jewish scholar Adolph (Aharon) Jellinek published an edition of a Hebrew tale concerning King Solomon. The tale consists of three parts, in each of which the king encounters a coequal who puts him to shame: in the first part, he is humiliated by the wind; in the second, by the queen of the ants; and in the third, he wanders the corridors of an ancient desolate castle, whose original owner, Solomon comes to realize, was a king far greater than himself. Jellinek suggested that the tale may have originated in the Arabic legendary traditions on Solomon and noted that the king’s encounter with the ant was based on the Qurʾānic mention of Solomon’s arrival to the “Valley of the Ants” (wādi ‘l-naml, Q. 27: 18). Unbeknownst to Jellinek, different versions of the same tale are extant in several Arabic manuscripts: among others, it appears in a Christian-Arabic manuscript written in Garshūnī; in another manuscript, the tale is incorporated into a comprehensive collection of Islamic Qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ. Traces of the tale are found also in Judeo-Arabic manuscripts in the Genizah. What can be gained by examining parallel tellings of the same legend? How is the same tale presented and interpreted in different religious communities? How does it conform with each community’s canonical tradition and exegetical practices? In this paper, I discuss the tale of “Solomon and the Ant” as part of a shared narrative culture. By tracing the dissemination of the tale and examining its retellings and interpretations among copyists, translators, and readers from different communities, I study the fluidity of narrative tradition across religious and linguistic boundaries.
  • Anvar-e Sohayli is the late fifteenth-century Persian Timurid rewriting of the Kalila and Dimna fables by Va'ez Kashefi. It is one of the most memorable versions of this collection of fables that are meant to function as a grim and very effective mirror for princes. The Timurid author engaged with an older, twelfth-century, Persian translation of the fables, by the Ghaznavid writer Nasrollah Monshi, that presents itself as a translation of the famous Arabic Abbasid mother version written by Ibn al-Moqaffa’. The Monshi version can be described as a bilingual prosimetrum: its prose text contains numerous inclusions of Arabic and Persian verses. This prosimetric form is kept by Kashefi, but though he often reproduces verbatim the Monshi’s prose passages, he drastically scraps his predecessor’s verses which he replaces with his own “persianised” inclusions. Kashefi’s Anvar-e Sohayli was at the origin of several rewritings and translations. I will briefly present and discuss the following avatars of Kashefi’s text: the 1588 ‘Eyar-e Danesh is an abbreviated version written in Persian by Abu’l-Fazl for Akbar; the 1644 Le Livre des Lumieres ou la conduite des Roys compose par le Sage Pilpay is a translation in French by Gilbert Gaulmin (with the help of David Sahid of Ispahan) presented at the court of the young Louis XIV; the 1678 second volume of Fables by Jean de la Fontaine contains rewritings of several of the stories published in French by Gaulmin; the 1724 Contes et Fables Indiennes by Antoine Galland (completed by Cardonne) is a translation of Chelebi’s Ottoman Turkish Homayun Name proposed to the court of Louis XV. The questions I will ask are: What do we know of the literary ambiance for which each of these five works were composed? Who were the patrons and what sort of “payback” would they have expected? How are these two elements reflected in the style and contents of the proposed rewritings/translations? What does this tell us about the audience targeted by each of these authors?