Penguin has just published the first English translation of Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange, a collection of brief fantastical tales from tenth century Egypt. The collection is introduced by Robert Irwin, and in The Independent he describes the book’s contents as “tales of the supernatural, romances, comedy, Bedouin derring-do and one story dealing in apocalyptic prophecy … complete with a mechanical vulture, visionary dreams, conversation with a pagan god, magical transformations, thrones of wrath and of mercy, an enchanted gazelle, a herder of giant ostriches, lustful jinn, speaking idols, a queen of the crows, a weeping lion, a fortress guarded by talismans, a crocodile with pearls in its ears, the sacrifice of virgins to the Nile and much else.”
The obvious comparison is to the Thousand and One Nights, on which Irwin is an expert, but that far more famous story collection is only one of several medieval Islamic story collections. On my shelf, I have a slim, red paperback with the bland-sounding title The Scholar’s Guide. As the book’s translators explain, that tile (Disciplina Clericalis in the original Latin) conceals a selection of witty, entertaining tales, interspersed with moralizing proverbs. It features a passel of talking animals (fox, snake, wolf, bird, and mule), silly rich men and wise peasants, a thief who tries to climb a moonbeam (and breaks his leg), and enough solemn lessons to make up for all the silliness involved. Translated from Arabic originals by Pedro Alfonso, a twelfth-century Spanish convert to Christianity, the stories in the Scholar’s Guide ended up in manuscripts all over medieval Europe.
Still, compared to the Tales of the Marvellous The Scholar’s Guide lacks the wide range of fantasy features that Irwin mentions in his introduction. I’m really looking forward to reading the collection.