Travelling Tales Kalīlah wa-Dimnah and the Animal Fable
Influencing numerous later animal tales told around the world, the 8th-century Arabic fables of Ibn al-Muqaffaʿ’s Kalīlah wa-Dimnah also inspired a rich visual tradition of illustration: jackals on trial, airborne turtles, and unlikely alliances between species. Marina Warner follows these stories as they wander and change across time and place, celebrating their sharp political observation and stimulating mix of humour, earnesty, and melancholy.
July 25, 2023
Kalīlah and Dimnah are two jackals, wily and ambitious, one virtuous and the other rather less so, who give their names to the eponymous cycle of animal fables in Arabic that is framed by the stories of their friendship, adventures, and mishaps.1 The collection bears a family likeness to Aesop’s Fables and to other classics of moral exempla, but the volumes vary one from one another and even when the stories coincide, they aren’t identical. They share certain generic features: animal protagonists above all (lions, wolves, monkeys, asses, mice, magpies); a narrative of braided tales passing between speakers, often imbricating one story inside the other; and a prevailing tone of tragi-comic moralising coupled with world-weary wisdom about the folly and the treachery of humans.
Most of all, the story of the two jackals Kalīlah and Dimnah, and the tales told in the course of their adventures, are travelling tales, which have been travelling for a long while, migrating from language to language, culture to culture, religion to religion. The Arabic stories’ rich history ranges from Benares to Baghdad and Basra and Rome and beyond, appearing in numerous iterations over centuries, moving across borders, carrying the sparkling hope and mordant cynicism, the canniness and the wit of a form of wisdom literature that originated in the Sanskrit Panchatantra (The Five Books, or Five Discourses) and the Mahabharata, sometime in the second century BCE. Two significant branches grew from this trunk: first, a collection often attributed to a legendary Indian sage, known as Bidpay or Pilpay, and second, the Arabic branch, beginning in the eighth century with the work of the scholar Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ (d. 139/757), who translated and compiled Kalīlah wa-Dimnah. Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ worked from a lost Pehlevi (Middle Persian) composition by a writer called Barzahwayh, which he treated freely, mixing into the Panchatantra’s original fables four more tales, and a highly circumstantial and persuasive explanation of how the manuscript was obtained; he also added a crucial dramatic chapter about Dimnah’s trial, self-defence, and ultimate punishment.
Kalīlah wa-Dimnah opens with Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s account of the making of the book. According to this putative history, Barzawayh was a doctor sent by the Sasanian king Anusharwan to India to gain the country’s knowledge, enshrined in its famous tales; the book in which they were preserved was secret, however, its contents forbidden to outsiders because the wisdom it contained was extremely valuable, a treasure to be guarded closely. Guile was therefore needed, guile — and friendship. Through exploiting the loyalty of one of his new Indian friends, Barzawayh manages to be given the book, copy and translate its contents, and transmit them to the volume that would become Kalīlah wa-Dimnah.
As in One Thousand and One Nights, the complex and exciting frame story sets up the themes in many of the tales that follow, which are dominated by alliances and treachery, selflessness and malice, cunning, deceit, and double-dealing. Imagine a stepped pyramid inverted: Kalīlah wa-Dimnah proceeds down from tier to tier in five main sections. The building blocks aren’t however dressed stone but stories, scores of stories laid end to end along each tier. The same structure recurs on every level, as the themes both progress and intersect. Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ tells a story about his role as author that echoes Barzawayh’s story of conniving to obtain the original tales; then, on the next tier down, in the inset narrative, we find the manuscript Barzawayh managed to purloin, which follows a king and a philosopher in dialogue about the proper way to conduct oneself. Sixty pages in, the protagonists appear, the jackals Kalīlah and Dimnah, scheming and disputing, as they unfold “The Tale of the Ox and the Lion”. Here they are plotting their next move:
“A strong person is equal to a heavy burden [answers Dimnah]: if he can pick it up, he can carry it. No burden is too difficult for the strong, no work too arduous for the bold. An unfamiliar place poses no challenge for a person of intelligence, and no one can resist the blandishments of a person who pretends to be humble.”2
You can hear in this exchange the way the author is gleefully exposing the machinations of courtiers and, at the same time, parodying the sententiousness of the moral fable as a genre. Dimnah’s ambitions are fulfilled: he befriends his master the Lion and drips poison into his ear against the Ox, the favourite in the Lion’s court, and ultimately succeeds in tricking the Lion into killing the Ox. But foul play is suspected and the jackal goes on trial, where he offers a dazzling pyrotechnical self-defence. Animal fables are woven into his rhetoric, as parables, exempla, jokes, proverbs, homilies, and curious anecdotes. In spite of his brilliant rhetorical display, he does not convince his judges and is sentenced to death.
This cycle about the eponymous heroes is followed by a consolatory tale of mutual generosity, “The Ring Dove”, then by mordant debates about warfare, espionage, and infiltration in “The Crows and the Owl”, and by witty exempla, such as “The Lady Mouse and Her Choice of Husbands”, in which many other characters are outwitted and outmanoeuvred and the puny defeat the mighty (the mouse heroine-turned-maiden rejects the courtship of the sun, clouds, wind, and mountain, and is finally happily married to a rat who is the “more powerful because he bores into me”, says the mountain, “and I can do nothing to stop him”).3 Tricksiness is the chief defence of the oppressed; allies are important, but craftiness is stronger, though not dependable. The final fable, “The Raven Who Tried to Learn to Walk like a Partridge”, relates how, in the attempt, the Raven forgets how to walk like himself: one of many comic and cautionary tales against overreaching.
The animal tales found in Kalīlah wa-Dimnah retain features of their prototypes, but it is a characteristic of travelling tales to change as they wander. The story of Dimnah’s comeuppance does not appear in the Panchatantra, while in Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s Persian source Dimnah succeeds in gaining the Lion’s favour and supplanting his dead rival — it seems to have been Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s decision that Dimnah’s scheming should ultimately fail.4 Shedding elements and gaining others, the animal fables descended from the Panchatantra kept shapeshifting into various media. Vignettes embroidered in the border of the Bayeux tapestry illustrate the lessons of these stories, for example. In Greek, Aesop’s Fables, in Latin, Phaedrus’ versions, and in translation, the Persian, Indian, and Arabic collections eventually ignited the sparkling ironies of La Fontaine’s celebrated Fables in the seventeenth century (twenty-two of them from Kalīlah wa-Dimnah), and they, in turn, inspired the fairy tale writer Charles Perrault to contribute verses to a design for a formal garden, Le Labyrinthe de Versailles, complete with statues and arbours illustrating the tales. The fables strike further echoes with texts that are perhaps more familiar to European and American ears — with the many animal tales included in full recensions of One Thousand and One Nights and with the deceptions and calamities in medieval fabliaux and the tales of Boccaccio and Chaucer right up to the tricks of Anansi and Brer Rabbit.
The many extant illuminated manuscripts of Kalīlah wa-Dimnah, which span more than five hundred years, testify to the popularity of the stories they collect. While it may come as a surprise that the Islamic prohibition on human portraiture isn’t strictly observed in these illustrations, the aniconistic spirit varied in strength from one locale to another in different periods across Mughal India, Persia, and the Ottoman empire. From the thirteenth to the nineteenth century, dramatis personae — princes to carpenters, dervishes to slaves — appear in human form without blasphemous intent or consequences. The man who hides in a well and then can’t climb out appears as his hapless self in several different manuscripts: he finds his feet aren’t resting on two branches as he thought, but on two snakes, while at the bottom “a man-eating dragon” lies in wait. He figures the predicament of humankind, beset by perils and enemies.
However, it is animal personae who dominate the stories, transparently standing in for rulers and their subjects, human beings in all their diversity. Animal characters, both in word and image, are ciphers in a code, a way of saying or depicting what can’t be said or shown openly; they embody a form of sotto voce, and in this they display, you might say, a certain jackal-like cunning.
The iconography of the tales, which is often echoed from one manuscript to another, catches the pungently mixed tone of the fables: solemn yet poignant, humorous yet earnest, at times bawdy, at others, melancholy. A brief cautionary anecdote, “The Monkey and the Carpenter”, about a monkey who tries to copy a carpenter splitting logs and catches his testicles “deep in the split” inspires a richly coloured and lively image from the mid-sixteenth century.
A crafty monkey, riding on a turtle and rolling his eye as if in wild surmise, recurs in several manuscripts illustrating “The Turtle and the Monkey” fable. The turtle’s wife, jealous of her husband’s friendship with the monkey, claims she is ill and that the only cure will be the monkey’s heart. Her husband gives in (shades of fairy tale misogyny), though it grieves him to betray his friend. When ferrying the monkey across the river to his home, the turtle feels remorse and confesses the plan to the monkey, who has to think fast: “I would have brought my heart along if you’d mentioned this to me”. His hopes raised by the monkey’s words, the turtle asks, “Friend, where is your heart?” The monkey replies, “I left it at home”. He explains that such is the custom among monkeys, but adds: please, will the turtle take him back so he can fetch it? Later, when the turtle asks him why he’s taking such a long time to return for his ride, the monkey laughs — and then tells him a few more enlightening tales.5
These ancient stories are supremely aware of the dangers of treachery and slander, especially in public life, whether the participants are speaking up honestly or setting out to deceive in their own interests. It is sobering, at a time when many journalists, dissidents, and political commentators are currently in danger, to learn that Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ himself incurred the fatal wrath of the new Abbasid caliph al-Mansur. Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was asked to draft a powerful letter interceding on behalf of al-Mansur’s uncle, who had rebelled against his nephew on his accession and refused to acknowledge him. The writer’s rhetorical gifts were called upon in the first place because the uncle in question was the brother of his patron and Ibn al-Muqaffa‘, a courtier and a dependent, could hardly refuse. But the letter made its points too well and the caliph felt under attack. He was “enraged: he secretly ordered the newly appointed governor of Basra to do away with the writer who had caused him so much offense”, writes Michael Fishbein, “Ibn al Muqaffa‘ was invited into the new governor’s palace. He never emerged. According to one account, his limbs were severed one by one and thrown into an oven, and what remained of his body was incinerated”.6
Ibn al-Muqaffa‘ was a polymathic scholar and a fascinating figure. His name means “son of the man with a shrivelled limb” — his father, “a tax collector under the late Umayyads”, had been tortured and left maimed for “misappropriation”.7 This detail resonates with the second-century Romance of Aesop, in which the legendary Greek storyteller is also described as “misshapen”, an aspect that was reprised in the later, widely read biography by the Byzantine historian Planudes and in subsequent illustrations of Aesop. Fables have long been an instrument of the disadvantaged and powerless speaking truth to power, and according to Aesop’s legend and parts of Ibn al-Muqaffa‘’s history, these fabulists themselves were no strangers to marginalisation. This marker of outsider difference mirrors the condition of the stories’ dramatis personae, who mostly take the shape of overlooked and often reviled creatures — scavengers, vermin, and beasts of burden: jackals, crows, wolves, asses, mongooses, rats, and mice. They are the heroes of the tales, and often portrayed as shrewd and valiant, cooperative, and quick-witted. Rare are the appearances of fabulous beasts like the Phoenix or Simurgh, and in Kalīlah wa-Dimnah we hardly ever meet jinn or fairies. Instead, by choosing ordinary creatures, the fabulist naturalises the stories in a world that is close to hand, which helps the writer communicate opinions that are often subversive.
The book belongs to the large category of manuals intended to serve as a mirror for princes, a mirror held up by a subject or other inferior, and it contains still-relevant insight into the brokerage of influence and power. There is hope, alongside cynicism. The mighty are overcome by the small and weak, largely by playing on their sense of importance: the rabbit outwits a lion by showing him his image in a well, stoking his rivalry with this unknown lookalike, until he falls in and drowns.
As a moral handbook, though, Kalīlah wa-Dimnah is too slippery and double-tongued: the book is not a work for the pulpit, but is secular and hard-nosed and entertaining, more for private, conspiratorial delectation. It follows a central literary stratagem, which shakes the reader’s moral compass, and splits our sympathies between the protagonists, whether virtuous or vicious. Dimnah is a villain but as a story book character, he steals the show.
The animal protagonists don’t share many characteristics with their real-life counterparts. For one thing they talk, but their imaginary qualities far exceed this aspect; they make powerful alliances across the dividing lines of species, such as between lion and ox, monkey and turtle (friends to begin with), mice and doves, a cat and a rat. The protagonists are mischievous and amusing figments, human characters wittily metamorphosed into a sage and kindly ox, a savvy old monkey, a scheming crow. They are types, cartoon characters from antiquity, yet they still convey vivid lessons about humanity and power for our times.
Animal fables have survived in sayings, proverbs, and commonplaces in different languages without many of us remembering their provenance (in English: for example, sour grapes, dog in a manger, the biter bit, borrowed plumage, crying wolf, once bitten twice shy, in the skin of a lion, let sleeping dogs lie, and blowing hot and cold all originate in Aesop or other collections).8 The genre has thrived in European fiction: Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, Mikhail Bulgakov in The Master and Margarita, Franz Kafka in several of his stories (“Metamorphosis”, “Red Peter”, “Address to the Academy”, “A Little Fable”, and, most explicitly, “Jackals and Arabs”), and George Orwell in Animal Farm all undertook transformations of the tradition, to startle readers into paying attention to the writers’ views, their disaffection, their intense dissidence. More recently, the French novelist Marie Darrieussecq produced a searing indictment of consumer dreams with Truismes (1996, from truie, French for sow, translated as Pig Tales), a dazzling satire in which the covetous heroine grows gradually and contentedly into a pig. The conventions of the animal fable as a genre — above all the worldly-wise animals and the atmosphere of oral tales told in a circle of listeners — have become markers of children’s literature and entertainment.9 Far more light-heartedly than the satirists Swift and Orwell, Rudyard Kipling — who not incidentally was brought up in India, the fountainhead of these stories — returned to the form with The Jungle Books; as Kenneth Grahame did in The Wind in the Willows, and A. A. Milne in the lovable series of Winnie the Pooh stories. And then came Walt Disney, who turned the animal fable into a defining topos of modern American and thence much of global culture. Conscious of precedents, he began mining the tradition with his creations of Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, and Pluto (his early self-drawn cartoons dramatised Aesop’s Fables). His animations mark a defining shift in categorisation, the point when ancient, fantastic literary conceits came to be deemed appropriate only for children.10
In the Arabic literary world, animal tales have continued to inspire re-fashioning and variations; and the stories and characters in Kalīlah wa-Dimnah have shaped folklore that still circulates. One Thousand and One Nights, considered popular, even trashy literature for a long period, is now exciting renewed attention.11 The recent appearance of Kalīlah wa-Dimnah in the Library of Arabic Literature in both Arabic and English, edited and translated with verve by Michael Fishbein and James E. Montgomery, also bears out the reinvigoration of interest in vernacular and secular narrative, previously subject to some disdain in scholarly circles. In a rather more contemporary vein, Ibrahim al-Koni, a Tuareg writer from Libya whose mother tongue is Tamashek and who translates his own work into Arabic, has written an extraordinary, mystical fable about a camel herder’s intense identification with his prize beast. The novel, called Gold Dust, conveys the devastating plunder of the Sahara, the traditional pasturelands of the nomadic Tuareg, by the extractive politics of water and oil and other resources (including the capture of rare reptiles).12 Al-Koni expands the scope of the fabulist genre and reclaims the profound cynicism of the traditional animal fable to confront current circumstances.
In a less sombre key, the Egyptian novelist Radwa Ashour, in her memoir Spectres (published in translation in 2010) recalls how when she was a child in Cairo, a beloved relative called Zakkiya Umm Duqduq would come to visit and tell her fables — wisdom stories featuring clever monkeys and talking date palms, playful and witty but carrying an undertow of melancholy. One of her tales about a whole menagerie coming to grief ends with the Nile crying out, “And I, water, will flow no more!”13
The conventional relegation of animal fables to the nursery or playroom, along with fairy tales and One Thousand and One Nights, largely results from changing concepts of what makes for cultural value. But one other reason might be the use of the genre for encrypting messages in order to keep the writer safe from censure or worse. In many ways the fabulists were too successful: the power of their hidden lessons was eclipsed by the surface high jinks.
Kalīlah wa-Dimnah is full of very sharp political observation, insider knowledge about human folly, false friendship, faithless wives (it is not untinged by misogyny, which was ingrained and unremarked in culture everywhere for centuries). Its rude common sense is summed up in a pithy proverbial saying (“a strong wind doesn’t uproot grass; it uproots mighty trees”).14 Although the tales show their subcontinental provenance (elephants, snakes, and mongooses), their roots lie in a practical working community that’s far broader. The topsy-turvy dynamic of comedy, of comeuppance, or the biter bit, the beffatore beffato (as Boccaccio would put it), governs the action. The rat asks the crow, “How can there be friendship between us when I’m the dinner and you’re the diner?”15 The setting is feudal, the justice arbitrary, the poor downtrodden and kings exalted for their wisdom (perhaps out of wariness on the part of the writers!), yet the tales’ lessons and warnings have not dated: the conflict between the crows and the owls recalls current wars while the crows’ debate over strategy permutates enduring lines of resistance. The many instances of power hunger and jealousy leading to destruction ring true, especially in the present political situation in England, where I am writing this, and in several other democracies today.
Is there something we can learn from these ancient wisdom tales at a time when public discourse is often vituperative and political rhetoric blunt, brutal, and ugly? Could the oblique approach of the fabulist help us find ways of negotiating the current conflicts? Could the public sphere be enriched by more engagement with the traditions of fable and parable? In an epoch when citizens are pounded with statistics and blizzarded with empty promises, I would welcome a return to these vivid ways of passing on knowledge. At the very least the actions of the two jackals and their companions open our eyes to the duplicity and lies that thrive in the courts of power.
Marina Warner writes fiction and cultural history. Her award-winning books explore myths and fairy tales; they include From the Beast to the Blonde (1994) and Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (2011). She has published five novels, including The Lost Father (1988), Indigo (1992), and The Leto Bundle (2001), three collections of short stories and essays on literature and art. Inventory of a Life Mislaid: An Unreliable Memoir (2021) evokes her childhood in Egypt. She was awarded the Holberg Prize in 2015 and since 2016, has been working with the project www.storiesintransit.org in Sicily. She is Distinguished Fellow of All Souls Oxford and Professor of English and Creative Writing at Birkbeck College. Her current book explores the concept of Sanctuary.
This essay has been expanded and adapted from Marina Warner’s foreword to the English edition of Kalīlah and Dimnah: Fables of Virtue and Vice, translated by Michael Fishbein and James E. Montgomery (New York: NYU Press, Library of Arabic Literature), 2023. © 2023 Marina Warner