Wednesday, 25 January 2017
Wondrous Bullshit - A Review of "Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange".
I mean bullshit in a specific sense, that fudgy fairyland between genuine folklore, attempts at real history and self-confessed fiction. The place in which Geoffery of Monmouth and Erich von Danekin both make their home.
"Tales" is a collection of Arabic stories discovered by Europeans in 1933 in a manuscript created somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries based on an original collection which probably came from some time in the mid 10th century with the whole thing translated into English for the first time in 2014.
The title page is missing, half the manuscript has been torn off and lost, the name of the person it was inscribed for is smudged and illegible and the scribe didn't seem to really know what they were doing so they get basic details wrong and occasionally drop us in and out of the stories at odd points.
We are talking here, of something like The 1001 Nights dirtbag tabloid cousin in which the fine qualities of relations between stuff have perhaps been sacrificed in the interests of having just more stuff.
This translation is half-way between "official" academia and popular taste. If you are used to the slightly bowdlerised, abridged and already somewhat-posher 1001 Nights then this may strike you are being janky, common, hectic, oddly written, uneven and really really rapey. There are some complaints about it being a bad translation on Goodreads, it’s possible those people are translation experts but to me it looks more like an accurate translation of a very weird original with all of the strange qualities of medieval text and the sketchy writing left intact. If you are an academic reader, well, if it’s your subject you probably already know about it and have the academic version. If you are an educated nobody (most of my readers) then it should be good enough for you. There is a half-decent index, that excellent intro and a list of potential extra reading.
There is a very good introduction by Robert Irwin, one complete enough that it’s hard not just to summarise it when talking about the text.
Boring Liberal Prophylactic First
There's lots of actual-rape where the writer calls it that, rape which writer didn't think was real rape but anyone reading it now certainly would, creepy stuff with slaves, lots of rather worrying stuff with slavery generally, lots of misogyny and some anti-black racism.
Christians, bizarrely to me, come out pretty well. Christian monks get rolled out as figures of wisdom, one of the final tales has a romance between two Christian rulers in Egypt I think? The storyteller does have the Christians having a chat with an idol of Baal, but this is represented as being just the kind of things Christians do sometimes? Who knows with those guys.
The literary quality of the tales varies, but if you are an omnireader then the interest in the tales is continuous since even the bad ones give us a glimpse into a really alien and strange world. The morality in the tales, and of the tales, is a little disturbing to modern senses.
Well that's your lot. I put that stuff in for honesty and so anyone sensitive to that stuff isn't tricked into buying it.
Cool Stuff For D&D Types.
Put simply, if they ever re-do the Al-Quadim for 5e then whoever does it will have to read this first. It has All New Ancient Stuff in it, and how often do you get to say that there is New Ancient Stuff?
And there are a lot of Things. Especially the kinds of Things relevant to TRPG's.
Several of the stories in the middle are concerned only and entirely with treasure hunting in ancient tombs. These are so much like a game of D&D that it's fucking ridiculous and also, when you think about it, kind of interesting that they are that much like a D&D game, not only in incident but in the character of the seekers.
The adventures tend to be a bit railroady, usually an Ancient Text is discovered or translated by a handy monk and then out heroes are off on a journey to a forgotten mountain or something. Usually the POV character is following someone who reads from a specific book or text and uses this to find the dungeon and predict its dangers, so, a wierd statue or iron door is discovered and the leader figure checks it out in their book, tells our hero what to do, usually some redshirts doubt their wise guidance and are tempted by gems and die to prove how dangerous the dungeon is and how cunning its creators were. Then they do things the right way and the poison gas or whatever stops and they can move on.
Rather than describing I will display;
"When he got there he halted at its foot and asked the monk where they should go. The monk told him that what they were looking for was in a cave in one of the gullies, and the emir told his men to scatter and look for it. They spent the day investigating the mountain but when they came back they said: "We saw nothing but a lot of gullies, all of which looked alike." "Is there a sign that marks this gully out from all the others?" the emir asked the monk. "Yes," he said, " for opposite it is a huge stone snake with a frog in its mouth and a scorpion on its head." "That's what you must look for," the emir told his men, and after three days of searching they found it in a large wadi, with the gully lying opposite the statue. When they looked they could see a great stone. There was writing over the door of the cave, and on the summit of the mountain was a huge statue on which birds were perching. There were rings with iron chains attached to the place on the mountain.
'The emir marvelled at the statue and told the monk to pull on the chains. When he did the secret place opened up, and a flight of steps could be seen leading to it. "Go up," the emir said, "for through the help of God we have got to where we wanted." We went on up to the stairs and after climbing some two hundred steps we came out at a fine square room with three open doors, near each of which was a closed door. In the middle stood a giant statue of gilded brass with what looked like a covered bowl on its head, which it was holding with its hands.
'When we got to the middle of the room and approached the statue, the monk took one of the emir's servants to go up to the closed door and strike it with a pick. He obeyed and struck a great blow, using all his strength, but at that the statue threw the bowl down from its head, revealing a pipe from which water flowed. We were in great danger, and the monk began to go round the room until he caught sight of a barred window. When he opened it the statue fell to its knees with its mouth open, and the water started flowing into this until it had all gone from the room.
We gave thanks to Almighty God for this, and the monk told us there was nothing else that the statue could do. he ordered the servants to break the locks on the doors, and when they did we opened them and went into the rooms behind them. In them was more wealth than had ever been seen and in indescribable quantity of jewels. We almost died of joy but the monk told us: "Take care that no one takes the cover from the bowl and looks in or he will die." Some of the servants rushed up to it, each thinking greedily that none but he would remove the lid. The one who did looked inside and dropped down dead, after which the cover went back on the bowl as it had been before. The monk implored us if we valued our lives to leave it undisturbed or we would all die."
- and there we are. Listen to your Monk, fools.
One story has an actual NPC turn up, a horned magic man of an unknown species who lives around the dungeon mouth and whom the hero befriends to mixed effect.
Several tales finish with skeletons holding jade tablets describing the majesty of their former domains and giving exact circumstances in which one dead king thinks it reasonable to loot from his tomb. (All his family were losers and if you managed to break in and survive then you have already proved yourself better than them so feel free, but remember that treasure will only make you miserable in the eeeeennnnd).
It’s a medieval standby but, thanks to their low latitude, the mystical islands from Arabic stories sound like much nicer places to stay than those in European Saints tales.
Get ready for castaways, more goddammn magic statues (I think *all* of the statues in this are magic), Jinn, freaky animals, odd currents, lost tribes etc. etc.
Speaking of which, there are lots of
One of my favourite parts is from the last story, (this is from a story *in* a story *in* a story, which is pretty much expected for "Tales"), the Princess Haifa has lost her Jinn lover who used to disguise himself as a white-footed deer in daytime and then get suggestive with her at night. She is wandering the world looking for him and encounters Hirmas, king of the ostriches (who is not an Ostrich);
"He wrote a letter, which he passed to me before summoning an enormous ostrich, which had lost all its feathers, leaving its skin smooth. He told it: "Take this human to the land of the old queen of the crows. See that she has an easy ride and come back quickly." I sat on its back holding on to its neck as it flew between sky and earth, keeping my eyes shut. When dawn broke it told me to open them and get down, for this was the country of the old queen. I dismounted and found myself in a red land with interlacing trees, some of which were red with red leaves and green citrus-like fruit. There were flowing streams with fish to be seen in the clear water feeding on the green weeds, while on every tree there were as many as a thousand crows, both black and piebald.
While I was in the shade of the trees, admiring their leaves and their fruit, I suddenly came upon a great red dome set over an ebony couch on which sat a grim-faced and frowning old woman wearing dyed clothes with ten jewelled bracelets on each arm, ten anklets on each foot and ten rings on each finger. She had a crown of red gold studded with jewels of all kinds. She held a sceptre of green emerald and flanking her on each side were two black 'ifrits with hooked iron clubs in their hands.
When she saw me she gave orders to these two who took hold of me and brought me before her. She addressed me harshly, asking who I was, where I lived, where I had come from and who had brought me to a land in which she had never seen a human before. I was so frightened by her and her appearance that I could find nothing to say in reply. She laughed more and she repeated: "Where do you come from and how did you get to my country?" This unlocked my tongue and I said: "I am al-Hafia, the daughter of King Muhallab of Persia. I fell in love with a jinni known as 'the white-footed gazelle', and I went on to tell her everything that had happened from beginning to end until tears overcame me and I could no longer control myself. I then handed her the letter from the king of the ostriches. She took it and after reading it, she exclaimed: "Welcome to the letter and the one who wrote it!"
She went on: "I am the old queen of the jinn crows who part lovers and companions. My nature is rude and rough, and I have never shown pity to anyone. It is through me that husbands are parted from their wives, companions from companions, and lovers from their beloveds, and in every land I am represented by an emir of the crows."
That's the coolest one but they do appear in a variety of roles, sometimes as transformed animals with mysterious agendas, sometimes summoned with the use of a magic pearl inscribed with one of the hidden names of god, sometimes as lovers and sometimes simply as super-toughs for those villainous types for whom having 1000 Malmuks with iron clubs just wasn't enough.
Superviallan Hot Girls
We have quite a few horny, evil, magic-using women who use their wiles to bang hot guys but one stands out for joyous, brilliant sociopathy. A girl so evil she gets her name in the title "The Story of 'Arus al-'Ara'is and her Deceit".
'Arus al-'Ara'is so dark that inside the nesting element that borders her story (I forget how many stories deep we go in this one, but it might be the most extreme of all the tales, a story in a story in a story in a story, and possibly that one in another story) a caliphs daughter dies and he is so bereaved that someone promises to tell him the tale of 'Arus al-'Ara' as her deeds are so evil that hearing about them will teach him hatred for all women and girls. So, then he won't feel as bad about his dead kid.
The short of it is a child born under a bad sign and prophesied by 100 soothsayers to bring evil to her kingdom, compulsively fucks, betrays, outwits and murders a long long string of men. Along the way she also arranges the deaths of the 100 soothsayers as well as mass slaughter when she persuades a Jinn to burn her own city to the ground with magic sand because she was bored of it.
She ends up trapped on an island with her djinn lover until our hero gets washed up there. She hides him and sleeps with them both for a while, then gets bored of that and finds a way to kill the Djinn. Then she outright confesses her whole tale (this is about four or five stories down the stack).
She tells him outright that she obsessively sleeps with men and then, as soon as they irritate, oppose or bore her in any way, she arranges their destruction, and she's not promising to reform.
But she's hot so the guy takes her with him when he escapes anyway. You can probably guess the end of the story.
It's an interesting one as its written from a somewhat Lucifer-in-paradise-lost-esque perspective. Everything about the formal construction of the story tells us about how terrible she is but it’s pretty clear that the sympathies of the writer, and the audience, are with 'Arus al-'Ara', and not any of the string of boring men she destroys, and also because she seems broadly aware of her sociopathy, and almost a little sad, neither denying, declaiming or explaining it but simply describing what she is and has to be.
Treasure And Luuuuuxxxxurrrryyyy
The last thing of immediate interest to TRPG-types is the stupendous love of treasure, wealth, luxury, money and sweet high-status living. I seem to remember Rebecca West saying she respected the Islamic passion for luxury, (though she probably said it in a more flinty and condescending way) and that is seriously born out in “Tales”.
There is little here, of Christian worries about wealth and decadence. Having money is good. Having jewels and 'Robes of Honour' is good (people keep handing these out and I have no idea what they are), having more slaves is good, plus dancing girls, plus how about a private garden with imported wild animals, plus multiple thrones, one for when you are feeling merciful, and a death throne with an animatronic vulture that spits lead balls and two tigers (I couldn’t work out if they were automata or not) that tear to death those who have displeased you. (I did not make that one up, I think this one is from the story where a Prince goes to war with several ships full of Lions as his Vizier is a talking Lion, but the lions are beaten in combat because, to paraphrase his advisors; “Animals are dumb”.)
Five seconds of random flicking through got me this;
"When we reached the royal palace we went in and, after passing through a series of halls, we halted. Taking me by the hand, she lead me into a house the like of which I had never seen. It was like paradise, with walls plated with gold, and around it and them were statues of women each holding a musical instrument. It was furnished with all sorts of silk brocade, and at its upper end was a dais on which was a throne of red gold inlaid with various types of gems, sapphires, balkash rubies and emeralds.
The queen mounted the dais and took her seat on the throne, taking me up with her and seating me by her side, with her thigh over mine. For a time she issued commands and prohibitions, but then she called up a golden table encrusted with pearls and other gems, to which forty bowls of gold and silver were brought, containing various types of foods. As we ate she put spoonful’s in my mouth, and I kissed her hand until we had had enough. The table was removed, and we washed our hands after which golden trays were bought with scents, and then came girls carrying musical instruments, each of whom went up to one of the statues, with the girl carrying a lute sitting beneath the statue of a lute girl, the girl with a flute sitting beneath a flautist and the one with cymbals sitting under a cymbal player, each one underneath the appropriate statue. They all began to sing in unison until I thought the place was rocking with me as I looked at the splendour of this luxury."
In addition to this we find various magic crowns whose gems cast light that can stun all who look upon them, a variety of Jinn-summoning and controlling gems.
Interesting Structural Choices
From a writing perspective there are a lot of interesting things going on here.
The most obvious and dominant distinctive element of the text is how willing the writer(s?) are to nest one story within another to an extent where the fracturing and interrelationships sometimes seem to take on a life of their own.
So, for instance, a sad Caliph will be unable to sleep and demand a story. His guys go and grab someone interesting-looking from outside, lets say a glass merchant. So ok, now the glass merchant has to tell the Caliph a story.
So they tell the caliph who they are and how they came to be here, and when he asks a question, well, it turns out that in important element of the Glass-Merchants life and adventures turns on meeting this unusual owl, that could talk. Well how did that happen? Asks the Glass Merchant of the Owl.
So now the owl tells you its story. We get that for a while, but it turns out that at one point the owl was trapped in a tower with a beggar, and the owl asks the beggar (in the owl’s story, which the Glass-Merchant is telling to the Caliph) for his story, so now we get the beggar talking.
But the beggar is actually a ruined prince, and to find out why he’s being transformed we have to have a bit about the family drama with the sorcerer who hates his dad, so the prince (before he became a beggar) says, “Hey dad, how about that sorcerer who hates you? What’s up with that?”
And the dad says, “Well son, that’s quite an interesting story….”
And on we go. I think the deepest down we ever get is about five stories in but I’m not sure.
You could do quite a lot with this I think. You have multiple layers of story and continuity going on at the same time. The effect is weirdly intense and strangifying and quite baroque, especially when combined with;
Well you can’t just talk about romance in normal language can you?
So several of the stories have big, BIG, chunks that are given in poetry. Either two lovers talk to each other in poetry, they send each other letters in poetry or, in one particular story, each and every element that either lover wears has poetry embroidered on it and every time they take a pice of clothing on or off, or use a high-status object (which also has poetry on it) the story breaks out into poetry again.
(The translator makes no attempt to rhyme or use any similar structure in the translated verse, but they don’t think it was very good in the original anyway.)
The effect of this is really really odd and interesting. It reminds me a bit of watching Gaszes 6-hour silent film about Napoloean. Something about silent cinema really slows down your cognition to a different rhythm and adds a certain kind of voiceless intensity you wouldn’t get any other way. Like it has its own cognitive pulse.
Person Shifting and The Lacunae
Either because the scribe didn’t really know what they were doing or because that’s part of how it was written, the person of description changes fluidly between described second person, described third person and first person.
So we could have the Glass-Seller above describing how he met the Owl, then him describing the owls adventure like a typical second-person narrator, then suddenly it shifts and we get the Owls voice.
Is the Glass-Seller mimicking the voice of the owl in front of the Caliph? Fuck knows.
We also get some charming lacunae in the text marked (lac) which makes the whole thing even more like a jumpy black and white film where some scenes have been accidently dropped.
All of this combined with the nesting above produces this byzantine structure and feel which meshes really well with the mad, luxurious, violent, precarious, magical culture of the stories. Strange and luxurious in description and luxurious and strange in form as well. If I was going to rip off the genre I would start with those structural elements and see what I could come up with.
Well that’s three hours and its midnight, so farewell.