“A man once heard that he would attain to wisdom if he could meet the Happiest Man in the World, and obtain his shirt. It took him nearly all his life to find him. And then he noticed that the Happiest Man did not own a shirt.”
This may be my favorite story — it’s definitely the shortest one — in Idries Shah’s World Tales, a 400-page collection of traditional stories that have each emerged in various different cultures.
No one knows exactly why or how this happens. At the end of the 1900s, for example, one collector counted 345 different versions of the Cinderella tale: Chinese, Vietnamese, Norse, English, Scottish and many more. The version given in Shah’s book is from the Algonquin tribal people of the U.S. Northeast.
Maybe these stories were carried along the ancient overland (and oversea) trade routes, and shared around campfires at night? To some extent, they surely were — but that probably doesn't explain how a Vietnamese story would have reached the Algonquins, or vice versa. Maybe tales of the same shape and character somehow, in the centuries before instant global communication, surged upward, all over the world, from some mysterious inner human reservoir. If that’s possible, it would have the same sense of potent mystery that emerges, one way or another, in most of the stories in World Tales.
For my own summer of story, I figured I’d finally read this book to the end. I’ve had it around for a while, along with a number of Shah’s other books. Shah, who was Afghan, mainly collected the teaching stories of the Sufis, transmitters of Islamic traditions of inner wisdom; but Tales ranges as widely as an anthology could. And, he notes in the Introduction, “the deeper you go into things, the more mysterious, exciting, baffling they become. ... Was the story of Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp really taken from Wales (where it has been found) to the ancient East; and, if so, by whom and when?”
Don’t know, of course. And I have to say: trying to read 400 pages of these short narratives in a single stretch is not the best way to appreciate them. Traditional folktales tend not to have the character development and narrative tension that so well engages us in the fiction of the last couple of centuries. You’re not likely to find — anyway, I didn’t — a Scrooge, an Atticus Finch or a Kipling’s Kim in World Tales.
What I did find is a really striking openness, or connectedness, between the mundane and the magical — between the struggles of ordinary life and the potential within what we can’t understand. In the Algonquin Cinderella, for example, an Indian lodge houses a young man who is invisible to everyone except his sister — and it’s widely known that any girl who does see him can marry him. But all those who try, and claim to have seen him, are tripped up when they give fake answers to the sister’s questions. “Of what is his shoulder strap made?” "What is his sled-string?"
Two older sisters, who've been so physically abusive to their youngest sibling that the third sister’s face is covered with scars, get their turn, and try, and lie. They mock and laugh when the Rough-Faced Girl puts on her father’s oversized old moccasions and a dress she’s made of birch bark, trying to look pretty for the Invisible One. But when the young man’s sister, who herself can see what most of us can’t, asks: “Do you see him?” the girl answers: “I do, indeed — and he is wonderful!”
The sister asked: “And what is his sled-string?”
The little girl said: “It is the Rainbow.”
“And, my sister, what is his bow-string?”
“It is The Spirit’s Road — the Milky Way.”
Then, when the sister takes the girl home with her, “all the scars disappeared from her body. Her hair grew again, as it was combed, like a blackbird’s wing. Her eyes were now like stars: in all the world there was no other such beauty.”
“Many traditional tales have a surface meaning (perhaps just a socially uplifting one) and a secondary, inner significance, which is rarely glimpsed consciously,” Shah writes, “but which nevertheless acts powerfully upon our minds.”
I wonder if what I admire most in these is the courage, or maybe the naturalness, with which traditional tellers do their best to give us a story that works on both the inner and outer planes. I think we tend to be scared, today, of the withering irony we might provoke if we tried.
“Perhaps above all,” Shah goes on, “the tale fulfills the function not of escape but of hope. The suspending of ordinary constraints helps people to reclaim optimism and to fuel the imagination with energy for the attainment of goals: whether moral or material.”
Maybe so. But in the end, as Shah himself concludes, the story is just about the story.
“... The story in some elusive way is the basic form and inspiration. Thought or style, characterization and belief, didactic and nationality, all recede to give place to the tale which feels almost as if it is demanding to be reborn through one’s efforts ... It is the tale itself, when it emerges, which is king.”
You know what? I like that.