Storytellers are hungry beasts. We devour stories, munch through anthologies of myths, chomp down whole libraries of legends, given the chance we would ingest a forest of folk tales and still come back for more. When the local fable supply runs low we, like any voracious hunter, will look further afield, maybe go for an Indian or a Chinese. It’s always nice when a new eatery opens round the corner but by the very nature of folktale and myth they are all rather on the old side, it’s part of why they work, so new dishes are few and far between let alone a whole new restaurant.
I expect you can Imagine the feeding frenzy that has been caused by two recently unearthed collections of tales that have just opened up on the high street. “Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange” is the first ever English translation of a Medieval Arabic collection. Those who have dined at the table of Scheherazade and licked clean the plates of The Thousand And One Nights will find this new mezze a richly detailed and exotic delight. Slightly closer to home, 500 German folk tales collected by a chap called Franz Xavier Von Schonwerth 200 years ago were discovered in a cupboard last year. A selection of 70 were rendered in to the Queen’s English under the title “The Turnip Princess”. I can hear the Grimms fans salivating from here.
Despite the long history of story trade between these cultures and modern insistence that there are a limited number of plots to start with, the two books stand in stark contrast to each other.The Arabian tales are finely crafted works with fully developed characters, long intricate plots and stories nested in stories. They were written for telling rather than silent reading though: the Arabic storytelling culture was one in which the professional tellers would gather a crowd in the marketplace and impress them with the mystical technology of literature. They added emotion, action and topical or humorous asides to their performance as they saw fit but it was the book that held the magic of the story. The adventures contained in “Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange” show their development through being written down, each tale a full dish of succulent plotting drenched in a sauce of lavish descriptions that leaves you sated but desirous of more.
Von Schonwerth collected folk tales from ordinary workaday folk who could neither read nor write. Whilst the Grimms and HC Anderson tidied up and rationalised their anthologies, Von Schonwerth’s rustic smorgesbord is true to the originals. Here the constant communal editing of oral transmission has kept each story stripped back to it’s essentials. The detail is minimal. The language is plain. The action is fast. The tales are short. Sometimes they read as if the story has been told by a child as the action hops past all but the most exciting bits, cutting from exposition to denouement in the swing of a previously unmentioned enchanted sword. This is story dining at the farm shop cafe. It’s good healthy fare but you may only get some carrots, bread and an onion. Without butter. There’s no fat on any of these platters. Nevertheless, when all the right ingredients come together the raw, organic nature of these tales is a delight for the senses that you can feel energising you like a well selected salad or a perfectly picked ploughman’s.
Like any chef, while I am stuffing my face I will be wondering how to cook up a version to serve to my own customers. Probably giving the eastern delicacies a simpler “Von Schonwerth’s country kitchen” approach whilst adding a touch of the sophisticated seasoning from che “Tales of the Marvellous” to the German fare will suit me best. Either way I shall be raiding the menus from both with great glee!
…here’s to living happily ever after, until the next adventure.
Both books are published by Penguin Classics.
The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales, Franz Xavier Von Schonwerth, ISBN: http://www.penguinclassics.co.uk/books/the-turnip-princess/9780143107422/
Tales Of The Marvelous and News Of The Strange,