In The Long Path to Wisdom, Than Htlun, a book dealer in Yangon, says, “Every country changes … What matters is deeper than that. And the soul of a people, as it is described in folk tales, does not change so quickly”. Quoted in the epilogue, the writer Jan-Philipp Sendker is explaining why he is sharing ancient legends in an age when even Burma has succumbed to the short-span concentration of the mobile phone.
Initially told around the fireside by a Burmese grandmother or shared by monks, these narratives range from pithy cautionary ones – namely “The Crocodile and The Monkey” where the canny latter outwits the obliging former and escapes with his heart intact – to the longer and more involved like “The Best Storyteller”, a devious saga containing five mini fables and a humorous outcome where the greedy are trounced by an innocent stranger. There are yarns featuring cruel nuns in “The Grateful Serpent”, a chamberlain who gets his comeuppance in “The Fisherman’s Reward”, and the Burmese equivalent of Grimms’ “Hansel and Gretel” is found in the sad and piteous “The Starving Orphans”.
Sendker collected these 53 funny, informative, and easy-to-read stories with Lorie Karnath and Jonathan Sendker. Smoothly and effectively translated from the German by Lisa Liesener and Kevin Wiliarty, the language is a mix of traditional fairytale speke in phrases like “her mind turned to wicked thoughts” (“The Pious Queen”) or “they worked hard with nary a rest” (“A Mother’s Warning”) alongside more modern idioms like “He was … not known for being the sharpest tool in the shed” (“The Night the Moon Fell into the Well”).
Although there is a familiar essence of the spoken folk tradition from around the world, the stories are given an authentic air by frequent references to Buddhism, local customs, flora, and fauna. Princesses and dragons also feature, recognisable from the Scottish (“Rashiecoats“) and the English traditions (see “St George and the Dragon“).
“The Omen” contains some of the cruelty found in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid”, and there are many transformations from human to beast as in the Irish fable, “The Children of Li”. Curses are cast in “The Flood”, conundrums are solved in “Three Women and One Man”, and the succinct “How to Spell Buffalo” resembles a Japanese Zen koan where the reader is left hanging when the monk sent by the King to test the people’s devotion is stumped by that very question.
Why not bring back storytelling on long winter evenings with these often amusing and always fascinating stories that merge folktale traditions from around the world and delight both children and adults?