Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables

Volume Seventeen of the Harvard Classics covered the biggest names in Western storytelling. Beginning with Aesop and continuing through The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. Pretty much every fairy tale you’ve heard of comes from one of these three sources. After reading these, its pretty easy to see why these are such important parts of the Western Canon, and why they are good for people of all ages to engage with.

Aesop’s Fables is a collection of short parables which were added to over the course of two millennia from a variety of sources. In Crito, Socrates makes reference to Aesop and his animal-based parables, but some of the parables are of biblical origin, like “The Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing”, and some come from Indian stories as well. Together, these form a collection of stories that not only communicate the moral conclusions of western people over the course of its development and history, but have been etched into the minds of European & American children to this day. “The Tortoise and the Hare” is easily the most famous, but “The Ant and the Grasshopper”, “The Country Mouse and the City Mouse”, “The Boy Who Cried Wolf”, and plenty of others are instantly familiar parables that have been recycled, repackaged and reused in a variety of formats over the years. Aesop’s Fables represent the collective decision making of dozens of generations on what it means to be a moral and productive individual and is worth the read.

Continue reading “Harvard Classics, Volume 17: Fables”

Harvard Classics, Volume 16: Stories from One-Thousand and One Nights

One of the nice things about a long, relaxing vacation is the chance to read books quickly. This helps the intricacies of the story stay organized in my mind and makes it easier to see the major themes of the work in question.

Arabian Nights or The One-Thousand and One Nights is the most important work of literature to come out of the Islamic world. Drawing on Arab and Persian sources, this collection of stories is an important source for understanding the culture and world of the Islamic Golden Age.

This particular collection included in the Harvard Classics is both abridged and taken from an early English translation. Each volume of the Harvard Classics is limited to 450 pages, so oftentimes, longer works are abridged, as I always try to mention.

In the case of the One Thousand and One Nights, we are treated to the introduction to the overarching narrative along with 6 distinct stories plus Aladdin and Ali Baba as later additions. The stories escalate in their strangeness and wonder as the nights progress.

For those who are unaware, the overarching plotline is the story of a King, who, along with his brother, discover their households are full of sin and their wives and harems are totally unfaithful the moment the Kings leave their respective castles. As a result, one of the brothers decides to start marrying brides and killing them in the morning, so that they can never commit adultery against him. Needless to say, the pool of available brides in the Kingdom quickly disappears until finally the only eligible maids left in the kingdom are the daughters of the Grand Vizir. The elder daughter marries the King and proceeds to tell him stories at night, and each of the successive thousand nights, in order to keep herself alive.

The bulk of the text is twisting interlaced narrative as we receive stories within stories within stories to ensure that the King finishes stories infrequently. We’re treated to instances where a barber tells the stories of all six of his brothers and the increasingly odd ways they became dependent on him. As time goes on, the stories become more adventurous, wonderous and heroic.

An example of these later stories are the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, in which an elderly Sindbad recounts his seven voyages, which each time lead to successively worse disasters. Sinbad luckily recovers from these and is able to retire as a rich man in luxury. Sinbad journeys out the Persian Gulf and down the coasts of India and Africa encountering strange kingdoms, strange animals and strange people.

These later stories, which are much less convoluted but much more interesting become highly entertaining and start to become reminiscent of sword and sorcery stories, “The City of Brass” in particular reminding me of the Conan adventures, where Emir Musa is sent on a mission by Caliph Abd Al-Malik to find the genies imprisoned by King Solomon.

The best story in the collection, although not a part of the original nights, is “Aladdin and his Magical Lamp”. The story covers Aladdin’s ascent from a lazy ne’er-do-well into a heroic figure. The story is pretty close to the Disney movie, but ultimately different enough to still be something new to a contemporary reader.

The next volume continues the trend of fables and stories with three collections of European tales: Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. I am looking forward to these stories with particular interest. Looking farther forward, English theater and Goethe comprise the volumes following folklore.

Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert

This volume of the Harvard Classics was dedicated to 17th century English religious writing. This is a period of great importance for British religious life, as a major axis in the conflicts that broke out in the English Civil War and Glorious Revolution were the religious friction between the Puritans, Anglicans, Catholics and Presbyterians.

Starting with the second author in this volume, Izaak Walton wrote short biographies of spiritual leaders and poets John Donne and George Herbert. These two men crossed paths in their own lives and were influential on the development of the Anglican Church coming in the century following the beginning of the English Reformation. Their life stories as presented by Walton are somewhat like Plutarch’s Lives in terms of length and pace. The main difference is the actual events of their lives were somewhat less exciting than the grand brushstrokes of history. Their lives are interesting as a window into the times, but overall I found myself wondering why they were included in the Harvard Classics. My main thought is they were progenitors of the theological movement that was still playing out in New England seminaries, like Harvard, at the time the Classics were assembled.

Continue reading “Harvard Classics, Volume 15: Pilgrim’s Progress, Lives of Donne & Herbert”