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Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange: The First English Translation of a Medieval Arab Fantasy Collection (A Penguin Classics Hardcover) Hardcover – February 18, 2015
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“It's hard to imagine shaking off the dust of this thousand-year-old volume of stories (recently discovered in an Istanbul library) and seeing them for the first time. As thoughtful as they are wondrous, these tales run the gamut: epic and domestic, charming and chilling, realistic and magical, with prose like a jewel box. If it looks scholarly at first glance, take heart; by the time God folds up the desert to help a lost heroine find her way across a strange land, this collection will have made itself at home in your imagination.”
—NPR, "Guide To 2015’s Great Reads"
"A revelation—a real classic of popular literature, so fluent that it is not just addictive reading but a genuine pleasure to sit down and lose yourself."
"Offers a gateway to a different world of language and ideas, florid, wildly descriptive and are a powerful reminder of the human need for story . . . irresistible."
"This book is an astonishment . . . a profound oddity, but an absolutely intriguing one."
—Scotland on Sunday
"Instantly appealing [with] headlong narrative drive . . . above all, fun."
"Lyons’s translation is fluent and entertaining...Coupled with an informative introduction by Robert Irwin, author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, this book is a welcome and recommended addition to those who enjoy the Arabian Nights.
About the Author
The names of the original authors of the tales are long lost. Malcolm C. Lyons is also the translator of the Penguin Classics edition of the complete Arabian Nights. He was Sir Thomas Adams Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University and is a life fellow of Pembroke College, Cambridge. He is one of the world's leading experts on classical Arabic literature. Robert Irwin's books include For Lust of Knowing: The Orientalists and Their Enemies, The Middle East in the Middle Ages, The Arabian Nights: A Companion and (as editor) The Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabian Literature. He also introduced and edited the Penguin Classics Arabian Nights.
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(I bought it on Amazon in February when it was announced, but Amazon didn't deliver it until March... so, *that* was annoying. I have waited 'til June to post this review. Also the capsule here is giving top billing to the cover graphic-designer Coralie Bickford-Smith. Her artwork is indeed good - as you can see - but the work of translation was Malcolm Lyons. Lyons deserves credit as primary author, with CBS and Robert Irwin in second place. My bad experience with Amazon itself will, in sha llah, not impinge upon this review of the text.)
The prose is breathless ("this happened and they saw that and then that happened and ..."); somewhat like that Gospel kata Markon. There is little character-development, and plots are almost always resolved by dei ex machina. The story of "Julnar of the Sea" has the problem that the narrative goes through several main characters - so I start thinking that I'm going to read about Shahriyar and Julnar, and next I'm reading about their son Badr. Have y'all read Aristotle's "Poetics"? Well... few of the authors *here* have read it. So I suspect that what we have here are capsule-summaries of the *real* text, which real text the storytellers would deliver in the souk.
Also the manuscript, it seems, has suffered on its way to the translator. I am told that the first story, ""The King of the Two Rivers", is pretty well cut up and broken; so it doesn't now make much sense. Elsewhere every now and again we run across "Lac." for "Lacuna".
As to the translator Lyons, he seems to have done okay (I don't have the manuscript so I don't know) but there are some odd decisions here: like Qadi is left alone (it's a judge); and we see "Fustat" where some readers might expect Cairo.
The stories are all of different genres and styles. Some stories are amusing: "The One Eyed Man" just cannot get a break, "The Glass-Seller" counts chickens before they hatch, and "the Man Whose Lips Were Cut Off" - despite the title - is hilarious. "Talha, the Son of the Qadi of Fustat" is a romance. Probably the best stories are the adventure-stories, where heroes enter remote locations and fight off robots and monsters. If you're writing Pathfinder / D&D campaigns, "Four Hidden Treasures" is where you want to mine for material.
For our distaff readers: Sometimes women are treated well as in "Talha". Sometimes they're deceitful villains. Mostly they seem to be here to please Arab mens' fantasies. "The Forty Girls", for instance... this one goes to forty. (Don't read these to your kids.) Christians - for some reason - come out better. It seems that at the time, Arabic-speakers in Syria and lower Egypt were still mostly Christian, and so the storytellers couldn't be complete bigots about it.
To sum up: this book is not for casual readers, and likely was never intended for such. It is a collection of outlines for storytellers. If you want to run a roleplaying-game campaign based on ideas here, then this one is *definitely* for you (you are the qussas of your generation). If you are looking for inspiration to write Arabian-Nights style books of your own: then, you, too, need this book. I'll also suggest it for students of Arab popular culture. But you must understand this as the raw material for such stories; you might not enjoy it so much if you are seeking pure storytelling in the way of a modern novel.
Cover is beautiful, the stories are amusing and some quite fun to read, but the book overall needs concentration to get through. Be prepared to flip back pages to see where you think you are supposed to be.
The author/ translator notes that women are portrayed in a rather cunning trickster like manner . The Jews and Christians while having their religion as praised as decent are themselves written about in both positive and negative characteristics. Several of the stories feature Harun Hrashid , looking for a tale in Baghdad. He does drink and go about on his river boat in the Tigris and Euphrates River. Some of the tales feature beggars both as victims nd con men. Jinn feature larges in this set of tales as do travels by ship to islands on the Indian Ocean. Some of the tales take their travelers all the way to far out places like China and India.
The first story talks about two kingdoms owned by the same king . His son travels to th second kingdom and finds himself imprisoned wrongly by the vizier. The vizier gets his just deserts when the prince is free. The second tale is about the son o a quadi who parties away his inheritance and has to sell his beloved slave girl to survive . Later he wants her back and goes through all manner of adventure to retrieve her. The third tale tell the plight of six unfortunate beggars and how the sultan redeems them for telling a tale. The strange stories go on and on.
Several titles were missing and so they just use the first line of the story as a title. Almost all the stories strt with a prayer to Allah the most compassionate. While most of the stories had value and were entertaining some were really hard to follow sometimes switching scenarios with out warning and all of the sudden you are dealing with different characters and different scenes. The dampened my enjoyment of the tales. As all of you know giving a summary of a collection is rather tedious and difficult so if reading about the Jin and their world of the desert sand you may well find that this book is written for you.