Ancient Animal Antics

Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood

The animal tales re-told in this volume originated in antiquity. Written in Sanskrit and known as the Panchatantra, they came out of India over 2000 years ago and were later absorbed into Persian and Arabic traditions. Told in five parts, this volume contains the first two sets of tales both of which are about friendship – its loss and gain. The larger part is Kalila and Dimna named after two of the main characters, followed by Zoric and Friends, (Zoric being a rat).

The stories use a framing device.  A young and inexperienced King, Dabschelim, who is not liked by his subjects, is led to an ancient scroll written by King Houshenk which contains thirteen rules of how to be a great king and tells him that the rules are illustrated in a series of stories of which a certain Dr Bidpai is the storehouse. Dabschelim summons the aged Bidpai, a professor who is not a fan of the king, and Bidpai promptly ends up in the dungeon. However Dabschelim’s curiosity gets the better of him and he decides he will listen to Bidpai’s stories.

Thus are we introduced to the world of two jackal brothers, Kalila and Dimna.  Chalk and cheese, Kalila is the sensible one, Dimna is sly and cunning, and a toady to Lion, the King of the Animals.

‘May it please Your Majesty,’ Dimna said, ‘I have come to offer my slender capacities to Your Majesty’s service. Please condescend to use me in whatever way Your Majesty sees fit, for even a little toothpick proves a comfort to the greatest king when food sticks between his teeth.’
The lion was as astonished as he was pleased at these unexpected words, and immediately formed a good impression of Dimna.
‘Well spoken, jackal,’ he said. ‘You have stepped boldly yet respectfully forward, and deserve the trial which you request. You are welcome to this court and to our presence.’
And from that time onward Dimna increasingly enjoyed the lion’s company.

When a giant bull ox gets abandoned by its owner in the Lion’s range, Dimna seeks to convince Lion that the bull Schanzabeh, whose bellowing has perturbed the plains, is a rival – whereas the bull has no intentions of the sort. Later, things will come to a head at the Lion’s mother’s birthday party, when the King leads the hunt…

All along, the conniving Dimna then tells Lion further animal tales to illustrate his scenarios, and in some of these tales, the animals tell yet further tales – so at times there are four levels of nesting!  That may seem complex, but it’s not so, they flow quite naturally into and out of each other.  I gather that some of the stories within the Panchatantra also appear in the slightly earlier Aesop’s fables.

Wood is a natural storyteller, and really these stories deserve to be read out loud – I narrated them to myself in my head.  Working from older translations, in his retelling he has ordered and formatted the tales into one long narrative of modern but respectful language.  On the page they seem simple like Aesop, but in their framing device of a storyteller who may be in peril, they have more in common with the Arabian Nights.  There is life, death, humour and plenty of politics to entertain us in these pages.

A note on the edition – this 2008 paperback from SAQI is a lovely thing.  Squarer than your usual book with French flaps there is plenty of space around the text.  Little illustrations of the animals add to that, and the addition of apposite quotations from authors, thinkers, statesmen etc. in the margins add to the pleasure of reading.  A fascinating introduction by Doris Lessing, and learned postscript and family tree of the Bidpai literature, gives some background to the stories.

Wood, a Texan based in London, is a founder member of the London College of Storytelling and I found his re-telling of these tales to be charming.  Funnily enough, the author contacted me to offer a copy of the second volume of these tales, just as I was contemplating reading the first which I had bought some time previously – serendipity at work! I’m looking forward to the next book which has his re-tellings of the other three parts of the Panchatantra – Fables of Conflict and Intrigue.

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal by Ramsay Wood, Saqi paperback pub 2008.
Kalila and Dimna, Vol. 2: Fables of Conflict and Intrigue from the Panchatantra, Jatakas, Bidpai, Kalila and Dimnah and Lights of Canopus by Ramsay Wood, 2011.

3 thoughts on “Ancient Animal Antics

  1. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    These sound wonderful – I’ve read a lot of fables, and while I’m generally more interested in accurate translation, these re-tellings sound like a fun way of communicating the tales. I shall definitely track this down (and especially as it sounds like a physically beautiful book as well).

    • gaskella says:

      Volume two is equally lovely. He has concentrated on storytelling rather than translation to achieve a flow that is totally respectful of the originals, so a differently valid approach.

  2. Edmund Chavez says:

    Ramsay Wood has spent 30 years reviving Kalila and Dimna, an all but forgotten treasure of world literature. His second installment is as edgy, playful, and thought-provoking as the first. This Eastern classic is the most translated book in the world after the Bible. And yet these marvelous tales have been too often dismissed as trivial and childish. Wood has produced the first modern retelling in over 400 years.Quirky, violent, deceitful, all too human animals populate this second collection of familiar and unfamiliar fables. Ostensibly intended to educate princes and commoners in ways of world, it uncovers the harsh realities that lurk beneath our comfortable everyday subjectivity. It even includes stories about how to learn from the tales themselves.Its tales within tales structure reflects the constant flow of events and thoughts in our lives. It’s easy to get lost and a shock to return to the frame tale, suddenly realizing what we’ve forgotten. It’s like imagining we’re awake when we’ve really been dreaming. Efforts to keep track of where we are and to hold these multilayered tales in our mental grip provide unparalleled opportunities to exercise our brains and allow meanings to reveal themselves in their own good time.Wood concludes the book with two masterful essays. The first outlines the history of the tale and how this treasure trove of sophisticated teaching-stories posing as humble fables has so easily slipped over borders and been embraced by so many cultures.The final essay was prompted by a challenge from a NASA Director to prove that story is a more effective medium for science outreach than technical writing. It details our limited conceptions of story together with an extended concept of its nature and value.Highly recommended.

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