By Idries Shah
In his introduction to this collection, author/editor/collector Idries Shah explains the difference between this book and other collections of worldwide folktales. Says Shah, "It is quite usual to find collections of tales arranged according to language or country". One need only scan their local library to prove that this is indeed the case. Books like this abound. Far less common, however, are books that acknowledge the similarities between different stories around the world. We are all familiar, on one level or another, of the different types of Cinderella stories found in every culture from Vietnam to Scotland. Less well known are stories like "The Bird Maiden" found in "The Arabian Nights" and told amongst some Southern American Indians. Collector Idries Shah marvels at the extraordinary connections between different cultures held together by similar stories. How did these stories get around as widely as they did? Is there some innate connection between all human beings that allows them to make up similar tales? As if in answer, Shah has used his thirty-five years of experience working with written and oral sources to present sixty-five tales. Each tale can be found in several different cultures with slight variations. Yet in spite of their subtle differences, each story is undoubtedly related to another, a fact that may give you reason enough to pause.
Originally published in 1979, the book is not without some factors that date it. I am referring, of course, to its accompanying illustrations. For the most part, these are lush lavish affairs. Having read portions of this book as a child, certain images presented here have effectively embedded themselves in my tiny brain for years and years. I could recall perfectly the vision of Death rising from its fig bottle prison, the Gollum-like Ghoul that crouches in a tree, or even the image of Psyche on the rocks approached by Cupid. Looking at it now, however, I was a little shocked by some extremely dated illustrations here and there. In a tale called "The Traveling Companion" a picture that looks like nothing so much as a poorly airbrushed rock n' roll cover (complete with a hot winged babe) accompanies the story. In "Catherine's Fate" (a tale I love because it involved the conceit of deciding whether the first half or second half of your life should be the happiest) we see an odd MTV-like scene that looks like it's part Poltergeist part Exorcist. You get the picture. Fortunately, even the most ludicrous illustrations in this tale are still gorgeous and worth at least a glance. Utilizing the talents of some 37 illustrators, these tales get the attention they so greatly deserve.
Each tale in this book is preceded by a small explanation of its history, its meaning, and where you can find it throughout the world. Shah is good about citing his sources, for the most part. After reading his version of "The Algonquin Cinderella" I was amazed at its similarities to Rafe Martin's picture book, "The Rough-Face Girl", down to almost every word. Both obviously drew upon the same sources, but since neither has gone so far as to say EXACTLY what that source was, we the readers are left somewhat in the dark. Just the same, this isn't a scholarly work that requires footnotes, endnotes, and a fifty-page long bibliography. In many ways, this is a book written merely for the enjoyment and wonder of child and adult readers alike.
There is nothing in this collection that will displease you. Though a collection of tales and fables, children may be a little bored at the longer stories that are not accompanied by constant pictures and illustrations. Certain tales in this book have been already translated into picture book form anyway. "The Rough-Face Girl" is one version, and "Seven Blind Mice" is a take on this book's, "The Blind Ones and the Matter of the Elephant". In short, the book is really meant to be read by discerning adults. If you're able to seek out and purchase a copy of this collection, I highly recommend it. Well worth the price, this is an excellent compendium of the best stories the world knows well. Multi-cultural, multi-racial, and brilliant.
‘... an enchanting volume equally interesting on the levels of entertainment, information and art.’
‘... an engrossing collection of tales ... that will appeal to the eye, mind and especially the heart.’
‘I have yet to meet anyone who is not fascinated by this book …’
Age Group: 10 and up