Shelf Control

Resuming this feature after a two week “break”. This feature, all about celebrating the books already on your TBR, is one I’ve borrowed  from Lisa at Bookshelf Fantasies. To participate, one simply picks one of the books on one’s TBR every Wednesday, and writes a post about it (usually what it’s all about, what makes you want to read it, where you got it, and such).


Today’s pick, Listen O King! Five-and-Twenty Tales of Vikram and the Vetal.

Vikram Vetal.jpg

The Baital Pachisi or (twenty-five stories of the Vetal) is a collection of Indian legends/stories, many versions and translations of which were written, the earliest dating back to the Eleventh Century (though based on material which is even older). The two major versions available are by Sivadasa and Jambhaladatta (the eleventh century version by Somadeva is now lost). The basic story of a legendary king, Vikramaditya, who has promised a sorcerer that he will capture a celestial spirit, a Baital or Vetal who hangs upside down on a tree. On each attempt he makes at capturing Baital, the latter tells him a story ending with a riddle. If Vikramaditya cannot answer, Baital will remain his captive but if he knows the answer and keeps it quiet, his head will explode. And so each attempt continues on cyclically with Baital telling a story and posing a riddle and Vikram having to answer it since he always knows. This happens twenty-three times but the twenty fourth….


This edition: The edition I picked up (ordered online a few weeks ago) is a 2016 Puffin edition which though written as a version for children has a cover that I simply couldn’t resist. This version is based on both Sivadasa’s and Jambhaladatta’s works and has twenty-eight stories as a result.

The author: This version is adapted  by Deepa Agarwal, author, poet, and translator, who has written over fifty books, both children and adult (from the blurb).

Why I want to read this one: I am familiar with many of the Vikram and Baital stories having seen TV adaptations, animated and with ‘people’, and having read versions in the children’s magazine Chandamama, but I have never read a full version of these stories, so all I knew was the cyclical/loop in which the stories went. In fact, I don’t even know why Vikram had to capture a Baital in the first place. I will read a full version at some point, but I thought this a good place to start, and the cover…


[From an 1870 translation of Baital Pachisi]

Source: Illustrations by Ernest Griset [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you enjoy reading old folk stories and legends? Do you prefer translations of original works or re-tellings? What are your favourites? Looking forward to hearing about them!

6 thoughts on “Shelf Control #11

  1. Folktales and traditional fairytales are a difficult area, I think, for the moment they’re committed to print they cease to be a ‘living’ narrative. Though of course that doesn’t stop them being endlessly recast, retold, re-focused.

    As for translations, they have the same problem. Victorian translations of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’ (the frame story of course resembling the frame you describe above, but with riddles) are painful for us to read now with their mock archaicisms — “thou” and “verily” and so on — but equally painful are attempts to put Grimm tales into Scots dialect or what’s contemptuously called Mummerset (imitation yokel-ese like Somerset dialect).

    Simple direct language is best, to my mind, whether tales of Nasruddin or Native American lore or Maori legends, but carefully crafted to reflect poetic traits or traces of the oral tradition; anything that doesn’t distract from the primary focus which is the narrative itself.

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  2. True- as you also say, I don’t think committing it to paper necessarily destroys the oral tradition–that goes on alongside. Even with these Vikram/Baital stories, there were several versions committed to paper, so in a sense they capture different oral traditions. Plus this does have the advantage to being able to show us (through translations) what ways these stories were told and interpreted at different points in time. There are books on the Ramayana discussing its many versions in different traditions, regions, and I think each performative tradition (this is acted out each year locally during the Dusshera festival) would have something to contribute in terms of version or taking the tale in a certain direction even if the broad contours remain the same.

    Agree about the simple language though some versions (a Ramayana retelling or rather part of one that I read some years ago, for instance, and another mythological retelling of Lord Shiva’s story) introduced modernisms (ways of speech) that were simply jarring though in the latter I did enjoy the author’s interpretation of events–bring the story from pure myth to reality.

    The Nasruddin stories are such fun. I was introduced to these again through a TV adaptation and really enjoy them. There are also the Hatim Tai stories where Prince Hatim Tai agrees to solve seven riddles (again there are so many versions of this one-different sidekicks, reasons why he undertook the task in the first place) which lead him in to sub-quests and such. I also have this Children’s Treasury of Stories which my mother bought me as a child which has Irish and Welsh legends-Lazy Molly I think was one where she forgets to put water out for the fairies to drink and turns lame as a result…

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  3. I’m thinking of all those Disney animations based on folk- and fairytales that have set like jelly in moulds in the minds of millions of film goers — mostly young females — where Cinderella, Snow White, Belle, even Pocahontas are concerned. Yes, there are many, often overtly feminist, retellings of these classic tales before, during and since (I enjoyed Angela Carter’s versions very much) but for countless girls it’s the Disney versions that have gelled in their consciousness. Isn’t that why it’s important that, mostly via books and storytellers who visit libraries and schools, youngster are introduced to alternative retellings of these archetypal tales? I think so anyway!

    I still have a Soviet-era collection of the Nasruddin tales which my father brought back from Shanghai in the 50s and which I dipped into as a kid. My later knowledge of Nasruddin’s exploits came from versions retold by Idries Shah and Robert Graves in the 60s in their explorations of the Sufi traditions. I really want to return to these soon. Your mention of Hatim Tai intrigues me too!

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  4. That’s actually true-they even look the same, come to think of it. At least newer versions (even Disney) are trying to change things a little. But I’m glad you pointed that out because I wasn’t even thinking of those. I wish more people read more and were aware that there were stories beyond the Disneyfied versions. It is only when one reads older translations of fairytales and such that one realises how dark some can get too.

    Hatim Tai is fun, though the cycle of riddles (the sub-quests, particularly) to tend to get a touch repetitive. The version I read was a translation by Duncan Forbes (I think this is in public domain). We have a couple of film versions (one which runs incessantly on TV but which I watch quite often all the same, despite it not being all that great) and tons of TV adaptations, each giving somewhat of a different take on the stories–the riddles vary a little between stories, and the more modern versions tend to go off track.

    I found some children’s versions (large print and illustrations) of the Nasruddin stories in our neighbourhood market but am still debating on whether to pick these up or look up something more “solid”.

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