Research for doctoral thesis at University of Edinburgh
by Nafisa Abdelsadek:
reproduced with permission of author
A number of historical factors have played
their part in the development of modern Iranian children’s literature. Historical epics and traditional stories have had a
strong influence, as observed by a number of writers. Tooran Mirhadi of the Children’s Book Council of Iran comments ‘The
publication of children’s books in Iran has a tendency towards fables which are separated from the field of literature.’
Not everyone would go quite so far as to
remove these ‘fables’ from the domain of literature, in fact some of them come from the greatest classics of Iranian history.
What is interesting is the way that some stories seem to find a resonance in the imagination of children, and having gained
recognition as ‘children’s stories,’ continue to be popular for hundreds of years. An examination of the situation will show
that such classics have furnished children’s literature with many topics and themes over the years and continue to do so.
reports that until a few years ago the experts in the field of children’s literature were of the opinion that the history of
this type of literature in Iran dated back only to the Qajar period in the nineteenth century, and that the only previous
surviving writings in this field were the books of advice belonging to the Islamic period. However, research done in recent years
has shown that children’s literature in Iran has a very long history.
Earlier archeological surveys had shown that in ancient Iran, special attention was paid to children’s education and certain
recovered tablets indicated that children practiced their lessons on them.
Researchers have found that some old
religious texts and books of advice were addressed to children, and as a result of their investigations, these experts have
concluded that the ‘Asurik Tree,’ which dates back to about three thousand years ago, is the oldest literary text for children
so far known. This study gives other examples of ancient children’s texts.
famous fable of the ‘Asurik Tree’ has undergone a lot of changes through the ages, especially with relation to the
geographical and cultural conditions of each region. Despite these regional variations, Abadi notes, the main theme of the story
has been preserved. It symbolically refers to two types of means of production and the confrontation that ensues between them.
He describes the story as being about the
fight between a palm tree, symbolizing agriculture, and a goat, symbol of animal rearing, which ends in the victory of the goat.
Besides enumerating the benefits of both the palm tree and the goat, the story also pinpoints the incompatibility between the two
thoughts and beliefs.
This written fable demonstrates the long
tradition in Iran of recorded stories for children.
Other written stories, not all of them originating in Iran, have formed the basis for a substantial amount of the children’s
literature available to children today.
In this chapter some of the origins of
modern children’s stories in Iran, will be examined; stories from the famous classics Kalilah & Dimnah, Elf Leila
wa Leila, Goha/Mulla Nasreddin and the Shahnameh, and the circumstances surrounding their writing and
collection. By tracing the inclusion of themes and topics from these sources, the great influence they continue to exert upon
modern culture in general, and in children’s literature in particular, can be shown.
The influence of these stories, furthermore,
is not confined to Persian speaking areas as will be shown by examples of their translation and production in other languages. A
discussion will be included on the purposes and intended audiences of these works in order to investigate different aspects of
this literary legacy. Changing relationships between written stories and oral tales will be examined, and between stories and
adult or youth audiences.
The collection of stories known as The Thousand and One Nights is maybe the most well known in the West of all the ancient classics which originated in the East. One Thousand Nights and One Night (الف ليلة و ليلة) is the Arabic title of this world famous collection of tales, known in English as The Arabian Nights. A huge amount has been written about the history of this collection and its various versions. Therefore, we do not seek to repeat this body of knowledge on the subject, but rather, to examine some of its background and to look at the heritage provided by this collection in relation to modern children’s stories generally. Two specific examples of this will be examined in more detail; a 1950s collection of the tales presented for children and a 1998 version of the frame story aimed at 9-12 year olds. One was produced in the UK and the other in the USA; both of them are written in English.
The nucleus of the collection in One Thousand and One Nights was translated from Persian into Arabic in the 10th century AD in Baghdad. The stories were set in Persia, India and China and are connected by the fact that they were said to have been related night after night by Shahrazad, who, as everyone remembers was under sentence of death from her husband, the Sultan Shahryar. Betrayed by his first wife, heart-broken and paranoid about all women as a result, he had since been in the habit of marrying and murdering a new wife every single day until Shahrazad offered herself as his wife.
Every night Shahrazad told stories, stopping at such an exciting point at daybreak that Sultan Shahryar’s curiosity compelled him to let her live another day in order to hear the end of her tale. This went on for a considerable length of time, portrayed as a thousand nights in the collection, until eventually Shahrazad was pardoned by a Shahryar cured of his grief and paranoia, and her life saved by her own intelligence, knowledge and imagination. This frame story is possibly the most famous part of the whole collection.
No story can be truly original in that its author is a product of the society s/he lives in and a recipient of the historical influences that have affected it. Recycling and reinventing stories from an original idea is as old as history. For example, the pattern of framed stories in The Thousand and One Nights which was later popularized in Iran and Iraq, is said to have originated in India. Turvey, in his introduction to a simplified reader of stories from the collection, mentions other famous framed stories:
‘Collecting stories in a frame in this way is something that is found all over the world. In Europe, the best-known example is probably the Decameron (1348-1353 AD). In it, Bocaccio tells us how ten young men and women leave the city of Florence because of the very dangerous illness, bubonic plague. To pass the time in the country, they agree to tell one story a day each for ten days.
The oldest English example is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The frame for this collection of stories, told in poetry from 1386, was a journey of pilgrims to the great church of Canterbury. Chaucer planned to have stories told by thirty pilgrims, but he wasn’t able to finish the collection.’
Shadow Spinner, a 1998 version of the frame story of The Thousand and One Nights aimed at 9-12 year olds, is an example of the continued popularity given to old stories through their recycling and re-inventing. The issues surrounding this rewriting will be discussed below, and reviews by its youthful readers will be presented to give an idea of the story’s impact on its audience.
Susan Fletcher, who lives in Lake Oswego, Oregon, near Portland, is the author of Shadow Spinner, based on the Iranian version of One Thousand and One Nights. In an interview with Achuka she described the events of the November 1999 Second International Conference on Children’s Books and the Contemporary World: The World of the Sacred, the World of Children, in Tehran which featured Shadow Spinner in Farsi translation. ‘Copies earmarked for the conference sold out and sent conference participants scouring Tehran bookstores to find more.’
Fletcher, unable to attend due to not receiving a visa in time, had written a speech which was read for her at the conference by Hossein Ebrahimi, the translator of her book. Many Iranian children had read Shadow Spinner, as it was already available in Tehran before the beginning of the conference. What is remarkable about this occurrence is that versions of the very same story had been available to Iranian children since the 10th century AD! One reviewer feels that the English version of Shadow Spinner may lead readers back to English translations of the original collection:
‘Despite the licenses Fletcher takes with the story of Shahrazad, the novel may entice readers into the pages of Richard Burton’s far richer work; they will appreciate the power of storytelling that it may expand the soul of even the most hardened listener.’ 
In this case, the supposed readership would appear to be adults rather than children, as Burton’s hefty volumes are hardly suitable reading for youth, but the reading level for Shadow Spinner is given as age 9-12. Thus, it can be seen that there is still a hazy area, an overlapping between what is seen as adult’s literature and what is seen as children’s literature, with the boundaries not clearly demarcated.
In Shadow Spinner the frame story or prologue of The Thousand and One Nights is rewritten with the addition of a new 13-year-old heroine who helps Shahrazad to find more stories in order to survive:
‘Dispatched by Shahrazad to find more stories, Marjan sneaks out into the marketplace, where she eventually finds an old storyteller who tells her the end of a story of which the sultan has become fond. Beaten and imprisoned by the Khatun, Marjan escapes the palace, only to return and tell the sultan an allegory that enables him to realize his love for Shahrazad, and to spare her life.’
In this way, Fletcher offers a plausible explanation of the question of how Shahrazad acquired such a vast repertoire of stories, and highlights the role of language and literature as a powerful tool for bringing about miraculous changes as noted in a review by Hornbook:
‘Notable are the boxed ‘Lessons for Life and Storytelling’ that precede each chapter. Not only do they serve as links between plot elements, they are also shrewd observations on the potential of language and literature to effect change. As Marjan comments in one of these, ‘Words are how the powerless can have power.’’ 
Some of Fletcher’s reviewers show that
this book has been taken to heart by a youthful audience, as well as being designated by the US education system as part of the
students’ required reading. On February 22 2002, reviewer Susie from ‘somewhere over the rainbow’
‘I loved this book sooooooo much! It was really fun to read. Sometimes I stayed up until midnight reading it!!!! I was reading this book for school, and I read the whole thing the first night!!! I really REALLY recommend reading this book! ! ! There are parts that make you want to just jump in the book, and reassure the characters, or punch one of them etc. I hope that you choose to read this book.’
Another reviewer, Kristen, from Hoffman
Estates, IL, USA wrote a longer review on November 19, 2001. It is reproduced here in full, as it gives many insights into reader
reaction to the story:
‘This book is about a girl named Marjan. She loves to tell stories and is forced to live in a harem helping Shahrazad tell stories to the Sultan, but if he doesn’t like the story, or if she doesn’t have a story to tell, she will die. Marjan tells a story to Shahrazad for her to tell the Sultan, but the story didn't end where they thought it did, so Marjan has to go out and find the storyteller who told her the story to find out the ending. The problem is, no one is allowed out of the harem. So, the question is how is she supposed to get out? After that was answered, the next question was how do we get Marjan out of the harem for good because it wasn’t safe anymore?
This book was a great adventure and I couldn’t wait to read more. The best characterization in the book was the description of Shahrazad. “She was beautiful her long hair hung down her back. Her skin was clear and glowing, her lips full, her eyebrows pleasingly arched, her lashes a thick, dark fringe, but her eyes seemed haunted. They had a look in them that dwelt somewhere between hunger and terror.” Unfortunately, not every description was that good. The worst characterization was of the Sultan. “A man sat on a throne in the midst of a standing people. His black silk robes were edged in sable; he wore an enormous ruby in his turban and diamond-studded dagger at his waist.” The reason I did not like this is because the author only described what he was wearing, so in my head all I could see were clothes and a body but no face because the author never described it.
The setting was good but in my opinion it could have been better. The best setting was of the harem. “It seemed like a labyrinth, the staircases twisted and turned. There always seemed to be a hidden corner. Every area had a different smell but they all seemed to look the same so you could never tell where you were.” The worst example of the setting is of Marjan’s house. “A small house, with not a lot of riches or jewels a simple and plain house just like any other.” I did not like this because I didn’t know what any other house looked like. It was not as descriptive as I would have liked.
The best plot was when Marjan was escaping the harem for the fourth time and this time she was going to stay out of the harem and she wasn’t coming back. I liked this part because it was exciting when the eunuchs almost caught her and killed her. It was one of the best parts of the book, and I couldn’t put the book down. The worst part of the plot was when Soraya was following Marjan around and reporting every move she made to the Khatun. I didn’t like this part because it really had no point to it. It was a part of the book that could have been left out.
The theme was also impressive. The main theme was to never give up. This was expressed when Shahrazad never gave up on getting the rest of the story. She kept trying until she got the whole thing. The worst theme was breaking the rules to get something you need. This happens when Shahrazad sneaks Marjan out of the harem to get the rest of the story.
Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a good adventure.’
Fletcher credits her reliance on Richard Burton’s translation as the basis for her work, while she has given the ancient story a new spin from the perspective of a modern Northern hemisphere female writer.
The second (relatively) modern rendering to be examined in this paper is Dixon’s 1951 collection, Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights. The text of this selection is taken from a later edition (1821) of Galland. It contains 8 color plates and 33 line drawings by Joan Kiddell-Monroe and is an A5 size hardback with a plastic-covered dust jacket. This book shows clearly how children’s literature has changed in a mere half century. Fifty years on it is highly unlikely that any child would be tempted to pick up this book. It does not look like a children’s book, despite containing illustrations and despite being part of the Children’s Illustrated Classics Series, which consists of over 50 titles including Aesop’s Fables, Alice in Wonderland, The Water-Babies, Pinocchio, Heidi, Robin Hood, Black Beauty, and Swiss Family Robinson, among others.
The language is not particularly simplified for youngsters; the typeface consists of a small dense serif font, and this range is definitely not meant for older age groups as there is a separate series for them called ‘Illustrated Classics for Older Readers’ which contains 17 titles including The Wizard of Oz, The Pilgrim’s Progress, Lorna Doone, Don Quixote, Robinson Crusoe, Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, Gulliver’s Travels and others. An excerpt taken from the 4th Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor will demonstrate the unsuitability of the language, by present day standards, for young children.
‘The pleasures I took after my third voyage had not charms enough to divert me from another. I was again prevailed upon by my passion for traffic and curiosity to see new things. I therefore settled my affairs, and having provided a stock of goods fit for the places where I designed to trade, I set out on my journey.’
Dixon states that the text of his selection is from ‘the Arabian Nights of Galland 1821, slightly abridged and altered.’ Thus, it is not clear if the source is one of the many English translations of Galland or a later French edition of Galland’s original work. In his forward Dixon introduces his choice of stories as a few favorite tales out of the many told in the 1001 Nights, which he considers to be the best of all ‘those tales from Arabia, India, or China, if we measure them by the fame they have gained beyond their fellow-stories in our Western world.’ He mentions some of them:
‘They include “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” “Sinbad the Sailor,” and others just as engrossing, which have been told more often to English youngsters than any stories in all the world’s ken, save those like ‘Jack the Giant Killer’ and ‘Tom Tit-Tot,’ that are British or English and home-made.’
He then tries to set a scene for the reader by likening the stories to a cup of the best Arabian coffee that is enjoyed in its full Arabian flavor, recalling how the taletellers commonly tell tales of this kind in the tents or in the narrow streets of the ‘East.’ He says it is on the evenings of feast-days and holidays when the taletellers in Arab towns and villages usually recite their tales. The reader is invited to picture them sitting on a stool, either on the floor of a tent or on the raised seat built in some ‘Eastern’ streets before the coffee shops, sometimes with a one stringed musical instrument, called the ‘Poet’s Viol,’ on which they play a few notes when sometimes verse comes into the story.
Dixon continues: ‘The audience sit where they can, on the bench or on the ground, smoking their long pipes and sipping their coffee. The performer or taleteller usually narrates from memory the various alarming or amusing events of the story with lively gestures and an expressive voice. A few taletellers in larger cities, such as Cairo, however, also read stories from books.’
The setting of this historical scene of at least a hundred years ago adds to the mysterious quality of the stories. One cannot imagine a storyteller finding an audience or indeed being heard over the traffic in modern day Cairo, although children could be misled into imagining that such societies still exist from the use of the present tense and the purposeful fuelling of the child’s sense of fantasy.
Indeed, the editor of this book does not seem to have a very strong sense of timing as he says that it is probable that the stories were invented five hundred years ago which would place them in the fifteenth century, some five hundred years later than their first mention in the 10th century.
The original Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night is said to have contained two hundred and sixty-four stories of varying lengths. Sixteen stories are presented in Dixon’s Fairy Tales. With the exception of ‘Sinbad’ and ‘Zobeide’ they are not set in Arabic-speaking countries. The stories include:
1-7) Sinbad the Sailor’s voyages 1-7, which started from Baghdad.
8) Aladdin: or, the Wonderful Lamp. It introduces the father of Aladdin, saying: ‘In the capital of one of the large and rich provinces of the kingdom of China there lived a tailor….’
9) The King of Persia and the Princess of the Sea; which took place mainly in Persia and partly under the sea.
10) Prince Beder and the Princess Gauhara, a continuation of 9), is also set in Persia.
11) The Story of Zobeide who set sail from Baghdad.
12) Prince Camaralzaman & the Princess of China. His father’s kingdom was twenty days’ sail from the coast of Persia.
13) The Enchanted Horse. The story of a flying horse which starts on No Ruz at the court of the king in Shiraz, Persia.
14) The Speaking Bird. A story about the three children of Sultan Khosro Shah, Bahman, Parviz and Parizade, who lived in Persia.
15) Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which starts: ‘In a town in Persia, there lived two brothers, one named Cassim, the other Ali Baba.’
16) The Fisherman and the Genie. Part of this story is set in a kingdom called the Black Isles which had Muslims, Persians, Christians and Jews living in it.
Although the prologue or frame story is hardly mentioned in this particular collection it is also notable
that the names of the three characters who played a principal part in it are Iranian, and a fourth is an Iranian compound.
The tales found in the full collection can be sorted by principal subject: wonderful tales (Ala-al-din and the magic lamp, Ali Baba and the forty thieves), romances (Omar b. al-No’man; Ajib and Gharib), love stories, tales of thieves and robberies, seamen (Sendbad), Arab legends (Hatem Ta’i), parables, didactic stories (Jale’ad and Semas, Tawaddod), and humorous stories (Abul-Hasan or the wide awake sleeper, the cobbler Ma’ruf). It can be seen that some of these topics are more conducive to being rewritten for young readers than others.
examined the contents of a collection of the stories for children as well as the impact of a modern adaptation of Shahrazad’s
story, let us turn to the history of this famous collection.
It is interesting to note that due to translations of the collection by writers such as Galland and
Burton including ‘Arabian’ in the title, its actual history has been somewhat discarded or skimmed over, often only starting
from the point of its translation into Arabic.
The first reference to the existence of a collection of tales carrying this title is given by Mas’udi 
who died in the mid tenth century AD. Mas’udi tells of a collection of untrue stories which had been translated from
Persian, Sanskrit, and Greek, including:
‘the book entitled Hezar afsane, or the thousand tales, because a tale in Persian is called in
Persian afsane. This volume is known to the public under the title ‘One Thousand and one nights;’ it is the story of a
king, his vizier, his daughter Shirazad and her slave Dinazad.’
This passage is corroborated by Ebn al-Nadim in his Fehrest, written in 377/987-88,
who said ‘I have seen it in its complete form a number of times and it is truly a
coarse book, without warmth in the telling.’ This seems to have been the general opinion of this collection until it reached
Europe and found a new audience, when it became a highly valued work.
Researchers have found evidence that the original collection came from India. A number of works show that the Indians originated the book of tales and the Persians translated it. J. Przyluski discovered a parallel story-frame in India, while J. von Hammer, on Mas’udi’s evidence,
considered the original collection to have originated in Persia and perhaps India.
The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam
says of its origins that:
‘Most of the stories originated in India, either in the Jataka tales of the Buddhists or in the
collection of Hindu moral tales called the Hitopadesa. They passed into Persian where they were known as the “Thousand
Tales”, and it was around the 3rd/9th century that they were translated into Arabic, at the height of the
Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad, the city with which they became associated.’
The collection was first translated into French 750 years later by Antoine Galland and as a result of this translation, it became widely known in Europe. The stories also received their ‘Arab’ identity at the hands of the European translators, who, working from Arabic manuscripts, were insufficiently aware of its origin to honor its true cultural roots. This has been seen again and again with both works and scholars from Iran accorded Arabic origins, due to the cultural dominance of the language at the time. An example of this is Ibn Sina being described as an ‘Arab.’ Even the French Bibliothèque Nationale is guilty of this tendency:
‘Mentioned for the first time in the 10th century, the anonymous collection, written in Arabic, was built on an Indo-Persian substrata, enriched by two successive layers, the cycle of Baghdad and the Egyptian accounts. In the first tales, with the names of origin Persian or Indian, the supernatural occupies a significant place.’ (present author’s italics).
Galland’s version was greeted as a work of literature, and during the 18th century English, German, Italian, Dutch, Danish, Flemish, and even Yiddish translations of it appeared. The Encyclopaedia Iranica mentions a number of editions, stating that:
‘the oldest extant manuscript appeared in Calcutta in 1814-18 under the title, The Arabian Nights Entertainments in the Original Arabic. Published under the Patronage of the College of Fort William by Sheykh Uhmud bin Moohummud Sheerwanee ool Yumunee. The subsequent ones; Bulaq, 1835; Calcutta, 1839-42, by W.H. Macnaughten; Cairo, 1910 have served as the basis for later editions and for the principal translations of the 19th and the 20th centuries.’
Again note the assumption that Arabic was the ‘original’ language of the collection. None of these editions contains the tale of ‘Aladdin (Ala-al-din) and the Magic Lamp’ or that of ‘Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,’ as noted by Elisseef, but these were added later. Expurgated editions were written for children by E.W. Lane in 1839 and 1841 and by Andrew Lang in 1898; the first American edition was published in Philadelphia by Rice in 1794.
Bingham in Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Literature
also mentions ‘Scheherezade’s ‘The Arabian Nights Entertainments’;
consisting of 1001 stories told by the Sultaness of the Indies…’ However she is of the opinion that ‘these Persian,
Egyptian, Turkish, Arabian Tales were intended for adults, but stories such as Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sindbad the Sailor
were appropriated by children.’
Galland’s translation aroused considerable interest in the West and was the
‘a narrative literature of allegorical novels, philosophical or satirical stories, stories for the
education or entertainment of children, imitations and parodies; it even inspired musicians.’
The prologue or frame story of the Thousand and One Nights has proved to be the most famous and
influential of all the stories. The Encyclopaedia Iranica states that apart from the few tales used by novelists, poets, musicians, or scenario writers,
the prologue has:
‘exercised the greatest influence on occidental culture and through it on contemporary Arabic
literature, which has sought in it a source of inspiration truly Arabic, even though the protagonists bear Persian names. Such
exploitation is an indirect tribute to the Indo-Persian storytellers who provided the foundation for a monument long disdained by
the Arabs, and then revealed to the world by a West that has not yet finished taking delight in it.’
Again, an insistence on the ‘Arabic’ nature of the Thousand and One Nights is to be found.
More recent exploitation of the material has included the Disney movie ‘Aladdin’ which has found worldwide fame, again
stressing the ‘mysterious Arabic or Oriental’ quality of the story. A huge number of web sites aimed at children also deals
with the film and other stories, notably ‘Sinbad’ and ‘Ali Baba and the forty thieves,’ and in this way, readers are led
to delve into other stories from the collection. Tales of these same three characters were also made famous in Japan as cartoon
films, with elements such as flying carpets capturing the imagination. In Iran, stories from the collection have continued to be
popular with children of all ages over the years. Their origin is considered to be Iran, with some coming from the East: China,
and some from the West: Iraq. These have been produced both separately and in compilations, in series and in rewritings.
Thus, it has been seen how a collection of stories from long ago, not necessarily written for children,
has had a huge impact on the children’s literature of the world. In the next section another, less well known, collection of
stories will be examined which has had even more influence on the children’s writers of the world.
Of all the ancient classics originating in the East, maybe the Thousand and One Nights, as we have seen above, is the most famous worldwide. The Book of Kalilah & Dimnah or The Fables of Pilpay or Bidpai, however, is another collection of Eastern stories which has had an immense influence on writers of stories all over the world from the 6thcentury AD until present times.
This collection of tales originated in India where story telling was a very ancient and widespread art.
Talking animals figure in texts going back to the early first millennium BC. An episode in an early Upanisad,
for example, opens with a man overhearing a pair of geese talking to each other as they fly overhead.
Indians long ago appreciated the appeal of animal fables to both children and adults and used them in a variety of ways. The Jātakas,
one of the largest collections of ancient animal fables, contained stories about the previous lives of the Buddha in which he was
born as an animal. These stories were not invented by the Buddhists but selected and possibly modified from available fables which
would illustrate the virtues observed by the Buddha in each of his lives on the road to enlightenment. Thus, fables were used for
a didactic and religious purpose, a practice seen also in the great Indian epic the Mahābhārata. The collection
of stories of most importance in relation to Kalilah & Dimnah is the Panchatantra, as this formed the basis of a large part of the material found in
the later translations known as Kalilah & Dimnah.
The following diagram shows some of Kalilah & Dimnah’s main translations from the 13th to the 19th century AD.
As can be seen, numerous translations were made from the work of Ibn al-Muqaffa. As the Old Syriac version was incomplete and the Pahlavi version was lost, apart from the Sanskrit and other Indian versions, only the Tibetan, Mongolian and Chinese versions originated from the original Sanskrit. The later versions all derived from Ibn al-Muqaffa’s translation of the lost Pahlavi. Even Rudaki’s version was translated from Arabic:
‘Rudaki was the first poet of note to compose poems in the ‘New Persian,’ written in Arabic alphabet. His wonderful works gave him the title of the father of Persian poetry...In addition to parts of his divan (collection of poems), one of his most important contributions to literature is his translation from Arabic to New Persian of Kalilah va Dimnah, a collection of fables of Indian origin. Later retellings of these fables owe much to this lost translation of Rudaki, which further ensured his fame in Perso-Islamic literature.’
It has been seen that stories from earlier times have been handed down and adapted, forming a base from which children’s stories have been told, sung, translated, written and rewritten. In the case of One Thousand and One Nights the stories are generally held to have not been originally designed for children, although several of them have proved particularly suitable for children and have become famous as children’s stories. Likewise, traditional tales, fables, animal stories and the like have been quoted as sources from which Iranian children’s literature has drawn heavily. Kalilah & Dimnah, which has had a great influence on children’s stories, not only in Iran, but throughout the world, however is considered to have been written as a book of wisdom and instructions for royal princes.
Tooran Mirhadi makes a further distinction between fables and literature, as has been mentioned previously, asserting that ‘the publication of children’s books in Iran has a tendency towards fables which are separated from the field of literature.’ Milani & Abu-Nasr both contend that Iranian children’s stories rely heavily for their source on the traditional fables and epics of old.
With regard to Kalilah & Dimnah, many sources confirm that it was a work originally written for children and young people. Mohammadi mentions the intended audience of Kalilah & Dimnah in the following terms: ‘Kalilah & Dimnah was written for the instruction of young Hindi princes. Therefore, the original audience of this book was children and young people.’ The entry in the Encyclopedia of Islam on Kalila & Dimna says: ‘The book was intended to instruct princes in the laws of polity by means of animal-fables composed in perfect Sanskrit.’ This points to the fact that Kalilah & Dimnah was originally designed with a young audience in mind. Mahjub supports this by saying: ‘The purpose of writing Kalilah & Dimnah was to teach rules of conduct and statesmanship to princes in a memorable way using animal stories.’ As many of these collections were produced in illustrated editions, they attracted the attention of children. Ibn al-Muqaffa mentions this when he says in his introduction that the author composed the book with four objectives in mind:
‘To render it attractive to the young reader by employing birds and animals in the stories.
To capture the attention of rulers by the conduct of the animals who are faced with similar dilemmas and circumstances.
To provide entertainment to all peoples and to arouse their curiosity, thereby enabling the book to be preserved through the ages.
And to provide the philosophers of the future a forum for discussion and speculation.’
Kalilah & Dimnah, totaling 14 chapters, is made up of three elements; Indian, Persian and Arabic. Twelve chapters are of Indian and Buddhist origin, with the chapter of ‘The Lion and the Ox’ plus the 4th, 5th, 6th, and 7th chapters corresponding to the five chapters of the Panchatantra. A story of the Panchatantra, ‘The Traveler and the Goldsmith’, became a chapter in Kalilah & Dimnah. ‘The Prince and his Companions’ comes from an unknown Indian legend. Chapters 8, 9 & 10 are stories found in the Mahabharata and two, Chapters 11 & 12, appear to have disappeared from Indian literature altogether. Thus, the overwhelming influence and major contribution to the collection can be seen to be Indian.
The Lion and the Ox, the first chapter of the original Kalilah & Dimnah is the longest section of the book. The story, taken from the Panchatantra, is about friendship, mistrust, and treachery; it is meant to counsel rulers to work out their own problems and not rely on the advice of ministers. The events revolve around the court of the lion, which includes two jackals, Kalilah and Dimnah. Dimnah, who aspires to higher rank in the court, helps the lion overcome his fear of the ox, who eventually becomes the boon companion of the lion. Dimnah is jealous of this friendship and finds his influence with the lion being replaced by that of the ox. He resorts to treachery, telling each that the other is about to kill him. They believe these lies and engage in a long fight, at the end of which the lion kills the ox.
This parable contains numerous tales within tales told by the characters, including the story of the fox and the drum, which illustrates that not everyone who makes noise is dangerous. The stories of the rams and the ascetic and of the owner of the brothel who tries to poison the lover of her favorite courtesan but is herself killed in the process, prove that greed does not always pay. The complicated affairs of the shoemaker, the barber, and their wives are resolved by truth. The tale of the crab and the heron and that of the lion and the hare teach that one should not trust the enemy. The fable of the three fish and the fisherman illustrates the detrimental results of procrastination. The parable of the lion, the crow, the wolf, the jackal, and the camel cautions against foolishness and conspiracy among friends. The story of the geese and the tortoise teaches the importance of listening to wise counsel. Dimnah told it to the ox when trying to persuade him that the lion intended to kill him, saying that if the ox didn’t listen to advice, his fate would be like that of the tortoise who ignored his friends. The story is related below:
The tortoise lived in a marsh together with two geese. They were good friends and enjoyed one another’s company. But when the marsh began to dry up, the geese decided to seek another lake to build their nest. The tortoise asked them to devise a plan so that he, too, could go with them and not be left behind to die. The geese told him that if he took hold of the middle of a stick with his mouth and they held its ends in their beaks, they could transport him. But, they warned, he would have to observe absolute silence during the flight.
The tortoise promised to keep quiet and took the stick in his mouth. The geese began to fly, carrying the tortoise with them. They passed over a group of villagers who were amazed by this strange sight; they began to laugh and make fun of the tortoise. The tortoise forgot his promise and opened his mouth to answer them. He let go of the stick and fell to his death.’ This story is featured in AZFA, the Farsi language course books used by Tehran University’s Farsi Department.
To give two more examples from the first chapter of Kalilah & Dimnah, the tale of the monkeys and the glowworm shows that only the wise and prudent can be taught. The story of the simpleton and the rogue illustrates that the crafty person often falls into his own snare. In these tales, human nature is put under the microscope in an entertaining way for everyone to learn and benefit from.
Thus, it can be seen that inspiration for Iranian children’s literature, often dismissed as being based on mere ‘fables,’ has been found in written texts with a long and illustrious past. Stories from Kalilah & Dimnah have been used as source material for children’s books since early times. A pioneer author of illustrated works for children in Iran was Mohammad-Ali Tehrani Katuzian, who published Akhlaq-e asasi (2 vols., Tehran, 1331-33/1912-15), including simplified stories from the Persian translations of Kalilah & Dimnah (6th/12th century), Marzban-nameh by Varavini (fl. 7th/13th century), and Anwar-e Suhaili by Hosayn Wa‘ez Kashefi (d.ca.910/1504).
This trend has continued with the publication of collections or separate stories from Kalilah & Dimnah such as Seh Mahi, and a series of Kalilah & Dimnah stories produced in 2000, which shows that these stories continue to enjoy popularity with their youthful audiences.
Having looked at some of the stories of Kalilah & Dimnah, we next turn to a very different but similarly enduring collection, which again brings up the recurring topic of the original intended audience of many of our popular stories.
A famous collection of stories, which were not necessarily written for children but became firm children’s favorites, are the stories of Mulla Nasrudin. These short stories or anecdotes feature a human hero with frequent appearances made by his trusty donkey. A well-known image from these tales is the one of the Mulla riding his donkey while facing backwards. The stories deal with issues such as social injustice, class privilege, narrow-mindedness, laziness, incompetence, cowardliness, selfishness, fraud and ignorance.
Despite being set in the marketplaces and teahouses of the 13th century these stories still entertain their reader with their acute observations about human nature. The stories feature all kinds of characters; from beggar to king, politician to clergy, and scholar to merchant. Often the stories highlight an obvious truth which is usually taken for granted, and then show an unexpected angle which ridicules our assumptions and makes us examine them afresh.
Mulla Nasrudin has a tendency of appearing foolish, but in doing so exposes other people’s foolishness with his own sharp wit. He is portrayed as either very stupid or miraculously clever, a resistance figure who thumbs his nose in the face of authority and capitalist rulers, or as an example to illustrate Sufi teachings. Thus, a wide spectrum is covered by these tales; from children’s jokes to religious meditation to revolutionary rebellion.
Jo Sanders comments: ‘Mulla means master, and Hodja, in pre-republican Turkey, was a Muslim priest and teacher, a scholar of the Qu’ran and religious law.’ Mulla Nasrudin’s name varies according to which country he is in. Many call him ‘Nasrudin’ or ‘Mulla Nasrudin’ or simply ‘the Mulla’ or maybe even ‘Mulla Nasrudin the Hodja.’ Azerbaijanis and Iranians know him as ‘Molla Nasreddin’ (ملا نصر الدين) , Turks and Greeks call him ‘Hoja Nasreddin,’ Kazakhs say ‘Koja Nasreddin’ and Tajiks, ‘Mushfiqi.’ In Arabic tales, he is ‘Djuha’ or ‘Goha.’ There are different spellings; sometimes Nasreddin is written as Nasrudin, Nasr ed-din or Nasr al-din; Molla is also written as Mulla; and Hoja as Khoja or Hoca; Joha as Djoha, Djuha or Juha, or in Egypt, Goha.
Lorne Brown finds his name less important than his attributes as a trickster and a fool, and his ubiquitous qualities:
‘No matter what he is called, he is a wise fool, wise in his foolishness, and foolish in his wisdom. As such, he inherits the wide tradition of the fool and the trickster. We see his cousins everywhere: Boots in Norway, Jack in Appalachia, Anansi in Africa, the Chelmites in Poland, Coyote in North America. Fools have always had the ability to instruct, but perhaps none more so than the Hodja.’
The Azerbaijan International gives his geographic area as a vast one extending from the west of China and East Turkmenistan to the Balkans, Eastern Europe and up to Hungary, from Southern Siberia and the Caucasus to North Africa and Arabia. In other words, Mulla Nasrudin is seen as a common denominator between folk groups of these regions no matter what their religion, language or ethnic background. Jo Sanders expresses it this way:
‘Nasreddin Hodja has no enemy but many friends. He is a human being of the world. He is the folk himself. Somewhere on this planet, he is still causing laughter.
‘Hundreds and thousands of stories about
Molla Nasreddin are enjoyed throughout the world, not just among Turkish speakers where the anecdotes originated.
Some say Nasreddin is a legendary figure.
Others insist that he was a real person though the exact details of his actual life have not been proven. It is generally accepted
that he was born in a Turkish village in 1208 and died around 1284. Every year, an ‘International Nasreddin Hoja Festival’ is
held between July 5-10 in the town where he was buried in Turkey, giving writers and artists a chance to present their works of
drama, music, paintings, films and animation and keep the memory of Nasreddin alive.’
Chris Liss favors an Iranian origin for the Mulla when describing ‘… the Sufi tales of Mulla Nasrudin (Iranian, but known as Nasrettin Hoca in Turkey and Khaji Nasridden throughout West Asia).’ Susan Sachs goes even further and calls them Iranian children’s stories in her article on Ebrahim Nabavi, who was jailed in Iran for his book on the Mulla and other political satire:
‘In the classic Iranian children’s tale, the fictional Mullah Nasreddin rode his donkey facing backwards but arrived at his destination all the same. He delighted in taking advantage of the villagers who, in their turn, poked fun at him. He ate a lot. He paid for nothing. The world, through his myopic and literal eyes, was a puzzlement…
Mr. Nabavi was recently honored by his peers as the country’s best political satirist, but he had another credit to his name. Four months ago, he published a new edition of the stories of Mullah Nasreddin, the first time anyone dared to revive the old jokes in print since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The book was a hit, in Iranian terms, selling more than 10,000 copies.’
Sachs further says that Nabavi was accused by his critics of ridiculing and tarnishing the image of Islamic clerics in his newspaper columns. He would appear to be only following in the footsteps of generations of Iranians who have enjoyed Mulla jokes in the satirical figure of Mulla Nasrudin, who Nabavi considers as the ‘rational reaction of people against tyranny.’ He also regards him as a noble figure, arising from countries occupied by foreign powers, and as a kind of folk hero who confronted an oppressive system by being ridiculous.
Nabavi and his publishers removed the title ‘Mulla’ from the stories as a precaution to avoid causing the clerical establishment offense and to receive government permission to publish the book. He also gave the stories his own twist as in the story where the Mulla complained that his neighbor never invited him for a meal. The neighbor told him it was because he never stopped eating when he went to someone’s house. The Mulla promised to tell him a story between each bite. In Nabavi’s version, however, the Mulla promised to pray for him between each bite.
Everyone has a favorite Mulla story, and the resilience and influence of this popular character has continued over the years, striking a chord in the popular consciousness of the people. The Azerbaijan International describes the place of the Mulla in Azerbaijani society:
‘Azerbaijanis are extremely fond of Molla Nasreddin anecdotes and entertain one another by telling them at parties and family gatherings, injecting Molla’s humor and wit into the natural flow of conversation just as they do with proverbs and jokes. Many people have a large repertoire of Molla stories to draw upon and can introduce them into real life situations at the appropriate moment.’
In the children’s section of the biographies
website of Top Telemedia Ltd. of India
a page is dedicated to Mulla Nasrudin stories under the
subtitle ‘The Capsules of Common Sense.’ Forty-eight stories are included with an introduction which begins as follows:
‘The character portrayal of Mulla Nasruddin is that of a simpleton. He is someone as common as our next door neighbour and as witty as your favourite screen comedian. His daily routine was itself a source of fun for those around him. His deeds always had a certain depth.’
This introduction goes on to say that although the Mulla appears to be a down-to-earth person who is always getting entangled in various improbable situations, his stories can actually be seen as parables which ‘delve deeply into the human psyche.’ It likens the thoughts and principles of the Mulla with the Baghavad Gita, the teachings of Lao Tzu and the scientifically humanistic approach of Einstein which have in common the tenet of holding human thought and actions to be of major importance, saying: ‘The very simplicity of the stories makes them profound. They show how each one of us realizes our potential under out-of-the-ordinary circumstances and how our curiosity gets the better of us and leads to our fame or infamy.’ The introduction ends with words of wisdom for the youthful reader: ‘Logic, Ego, Pride, undervalue the true essence of man. We tend to look for the Almighty in all places possible, never ever stopping to look within us.’
Idries Shah in his introduction says that these stories are used by the Sufis as a kind of exercise, where one chooses a number of one’s favorites and meditates upon them as way of making a breakthrough into higher wisdom. He also comments that despite the banning of the dervish orders in Turkey forty years ago, modern Turkey uses the Mulla to sell itself in publications aimed at tourists. The annual Nasrudin Festival held in Eskishehir, his reputed birthplace, where people dress up and reenact his jokes, is also supported as a tourist activity. His gravesite in Eskishehir is decorated with an immense marble turban. The gate to his tomb is secured by a colossal padlock but the tomb is freely accessible from all other sides, a reflection of one of his stories. Marzolph further comments on his enduring influence in Turkey: ‘The maintenance of his gravesite is significant as his steady presence in literature and in the shape of monuments and memorabilia has almost turned Nasreddin into a Turkish national hero/saint.’
There are many variations of the Mulla stories as they have been handed down orally over the generations. Differences have naturally sprung up due to the vast geographical regions where his stories form part of the oral culture. Despite these differences, Mulla Nasrudin is one of the most popular satirical characters to be found in the folk literature of the East.
The following widely known Mulla Nasrudin story has been retold numerous times and in numerous ways. It can be seen that the story changes in its details and title, while keeping its moral, in each of the versions below. It is also found as a Goha story.
To Make The People Stop Talking
One day, Hodja
and his son went on a journey. Hodja let his son ride the donkey while he walked. Along the way, they passed some
people who said, ‘Look at that healthy young boy on the donkey!’
The boy then let
his father ride while he walked. Hodja rode and the boy walked by his side. Soon they met another group.
‘Look at that! Poor little boy has
to walk while his father rides the donkey.’ This time, Hodja climbed onto the donkey behind his son. Soon they met
another group, who said, ‘Look at that poor donkey! He has to carry the weight of two people.’
Hodja then told
his son. ‘The best thing is for us to walk and lead the donkey. Then no one can complain.’ So, they continued their
journey on foot. Again, they met some others who said: ‘Just take a look at those fools. Both of them are walking under
this hot sun and neither of them is riding the donkey.’
Hodja lifted the donkey onto his shoulders and said, ‘Come on, if we don't do this, it will be impossible to make people stop
The same story has Joha/Goha as its hero. A Lebanese version is called ‘Joha, his Son and his Donkey’ (جحا و ابنه و حماره). In this version, Joha starts by riding the donkey while his son walks. Then his son rides and he walks. They both ride the donkey. They both walk and carry the donkey. Finally, they give up hope of ever pleasing all of the people!
The next story is a translation from the German language collection of Marzolph, which has almost the same details:
The Father, Son & the Donkey
One day Nasreddin Hodscha and his son were traveling. Hodscha preferred to walk while his son rode on the donkey. While they were on their journey, they encountered a group of people. These people made comments such as: ‘Look at this strong boy. Is this the youth of today? No respect for the elderly! He is riding the donkey while his poor old father has to walk!’
When these people had passed them, the young boy felt ashamed and insisted that Hodscha ride the donkey while he walked instead. A short time later, they passed more people who said: ‘Now look at this! The poor young boy has to walk while his father is riding the donkey!’
When these people had passed them, Hodscha said to his son: ‘I think the best solution is if we both walk. That way we can avoid any criticism.’ And so they did.
After a short distance, they again encountered other people. Upon seeing Hodscha and his son walking, they said: ‘Now look at these fools. Both of them walk in the hot sun and none rides the donkey!’
Now Hodscha turned to his son and said: ‘This shows us how difficult it is to adjust to other people’s opinion.’
The last example of this story was found in a home reader for children designed for overseas Chinese children worldwide under the name Man of no Principle. The bilingual English/Chinese reader ‘explains China’s traditions, introduces modern knowledge and helps the children adjust themselves to their daily life.’ It is intended as supplementary reading material for children to use at home.
The Chinese used matches the standards of texts for students in China from primary school through middle school. The subjects covered, according to the forward, include ‘the home life and habits of the Chinese people in order to help the children understand better China’s traditional moral and ethical concepts, the presentation of Chinese history, geography and cultural records by way of introducing the Chinese culture, deeds of Chinese sages and great overseas Chinese leaders that may serve to inspire the children, and modern knowledge and the New Life Movement that may help the children meet their daily needs.’
Lesson 11: Man of no principle (1)
‘Once upon a time, an old man and his son were on their way to market, leading a donkey. A passerby, seeing them, said: ‘You have a donkey and yet don’t ride it, then what is the use of this donkey?’
The old man, being without principle, thought the passerby had a point. So he let his son ride the donkey, and walked behind himself.
Soon, another passerby saw them, and exclaimed: ‘The small boy is on the donkey, while the old man walks on foot – isn’t it outrageous?’
Upon hearing this, the old man mounted the donkey himself, and let his son follow him.’
The second part of the story continues as shown in the illustration below:
Roberts in his introduction to Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies shows the influence on the one hand of Confucian philosophers and on the other, Taoist philosophers, on the formation of Chinese folktales. Chinese social order was characterized by the structured relationships that defined it: emperor and subject, father and son, husband and wife (or wives), official and peasant, human and beast.’
The Confucians, who were the representatives of the dominant authorities of emperor, father and husband, conceived social relationships as a harmonious balance of obligations. The Taoist philosophers and social critics who represented the powerless segments of the population, however, found expression for their opposition views in popular literature; a genre typically scorned and even banned by Confucian authorities, as it publicized the crimes of the high and mighty and the injustices suffered by the subordinate order, including children, women, and animals. Thus, many folktales arising from popular and oral literature were seen to serve opposition, Taoist philosophy. Roberts summarizes the situation as follows: ‘As the conflict between those above and those below gave shape to Chinese history, the rivalry of these two great philosophies gave shape to Chinese culture.’
He further notes that the relationship between the Chinese and their neighbors was not always a happy one:
‘Confucian historians were often outraged by the marriage and burial customs of the innumerable Asian peoples, some non-Chinese, some partly Chinese, who lived around China’s borders. Concerned with preserving the purity of Chinese ethnic and cultural identity, the Confucians often referred to these peoples with unflattering animals names like ‘hound’ and ‘reptile.’ The Taoists and the Buddhists, on the other hand had a far more tolerant view.’
Despite this concern with preserving the purity of Confucian cultural identity, it appears that many of the traditional stories and fables found in China reflected quite different views. It has been seen that there was considerable Buddhist influence from India and this was mirrored in popular stories. It cannot be stated with complete certainty that the stories corresponding with those of the Mulla or others with similar story frames to the ones found in the Panchatantra, originated outside China, but the evidence seems to indicate that this is the case. The opposite is also possible: that some stories known as ‘Middle Eastern’ could have had their origin not only in India, but also in China.
Although only one example has so far been given of the same story existing in different places, and being attributed to a Chinese protagonist, to Mulla Nasrudin and to Goha, it is certainly not the only one. To finish this section two more examples are given of a tale found in different regions and attributed both to the Mulla and to Goha. The first is mentioned in a book review by Chris Liss who notes that ‘Young children are delighted by the trickster tale ‘Djuha Borrows a Pot’ (from Syria).’ Idries Shah has retold this story as one of the Mulla’s, called ‘If a pot can multiply’:
‘One day Nasrudin lent his cooking pots to a neighbor, who was giving a feast. The neighbor returned them, together with one extra one – a very tiny pot.
‘What is this?’ asked Nasrudin.
‘According to law, I have given you the offspring of your property which was born in my care,’ said the joker.
Shortly afterwards Nasrudin borrowed his neighbor’s pots, but did not return them.
The man came round to get them back.
‘Alas!’ said Nasrudin, ‘they are dead. We have established, have we not, that pots are mortal?’ 
From the same collection by Shah called ‘Problems of Loneliness’ is another story that has been assigned to both Goha and the Mulla under various titles.
‘Something frightened Mulla Nasrudin as he was walking down a road. He threw himself into a ditch and then began to think that he had been frightened to death.
After a time he became very cold and hungry. He walked home and told his wife the sad news, and went back to his ditch.
His wife, sobbing bitterly, went to the neighbors for comfort. ‘My husband is dead, lying in a ditch.’
‘How do you know?’
‘There was nobody to see him, so he had to come and tell me himself, poor dear.’
The same story can be found in the Arabic version of Goha,
under the title ‘Goha Died’ (مات جحا).
Thus, it can be seen that the Mulla of Iran, the Hoja of Turkey, Goha or Joha of the Arabic-speaking countries, and the ‘Man of no principle’ of China all appear in similar tales as the same character, and in all the areas where they appear they are regarded as children’s stories as well as adults’.
In this section on the historical
influences and background of children’s literature in Iran, it is impossible to omit one of the most important sources of
material for children’s stories. The Shahnameh, one of the greatest classics on earth, was the result of the dedication
and work of thirty years. Its author, Hakim Abu’l Qassem Ferdosi, was a wealthy landowner with a considerable estate when he
began composing the Shahnameh. He was a well-educated, intellectual member of the wealthy social class called dehgan.
Shahbazi notes that ‘He lived comfortably for sixty years.
At that point, his occupation with the Shahnameh and, as a result, lack of attention to his land, forced him to sell most
of his property. All that remained was an orchard wherein he was later buried.’
Ferdosi was born on Friday January 3rd,
940A.D (329 A.H., lunar calendar) in a village called Bazh, in the neighborhood of Tabaran, the main district of the old city of
Tus, in the province of Khorasan, Iran. He was, according to Kianush, a ‘poet of the post-Islamic era who had learned the
art of New Persian poetry like all his other contemporaries. He versified the Shahnameh as a pure literary work to be read
and appreciated by educated people. As a consequence of this, reading and understanding his book has never been easy for ordinary
people...’ The underlying purpose of the Shahnameh has been described as
‘The singular message that the Shahnameh of Ferdosi strives to convey is the idea that the history of Iranshahr was a complete and immutable whole: it started with Gayumarth, the first man, and ended with his fiftieth scion and successor, Yazdegerd III, six thousand years of history. The task of Ferdosi was to prevent this history from losing its connection with future Iranian generations.’
Although they were either appointed by the Arab caliphs, or ruled with their consent, many of the Iranian regional governors of the early 9th century AD founded their own regional dynasties, and showed nationalistic zeal by reviving and promoting Iranian culture and traditions in order to back their right to rule and to win the loyalty of the people.
One such governor was Abu Mansour Abd-al-Razzaq of Tus in Khorasan, who ordered his vizier to commission a group of historians and scholars to compile a book of authentic as well as legendary history of Iran from prehistoric times to the fall of the Sassanid dynasty and the coming of Islam. The sources of this group were Pahlavi texts, especially Khudaynameh (Book of Kings) as well as oral epic stories and myths.
This Book of Kings, which was written in prose, was later used by Ferdowsi as the main source for the poetic version of the Shahnameh, (Book of Kings). It can seen that Ferdosi himself, as a dehgan had an oral tradition to draw from: ‘His other sources, like the compilers of the prose version of the Shahnameh, were the narrative traditions, mostly memorized by the dehgans, or the noble landowners, who were the real preservers of the culture and the Persian language.’
While it is accepted that oral traditions formed a large part of the source material for the Shahnameh, there is a differentiation between the types of oral tradition, one seen as ‘high’ culture, the other as ‘low’, as Kianush points out: ‘Although Ferdowsi owes most of the materials of the Shahnameh to the oral poetic traditions, he himself was not something of a gosan, a minstrel, an oral poet, a performer of legends and myths…’
In addition to material gathered and rewritten from popular oral and written sources, Ferdosi added passages of his own composition to the Shahnameh, making it a work unlike any that went before it. Jalal Khaleqi Motlaq, a well-known Shahnameh scholar describes one of its sources, the Khudaynameh, as being compiled or written by historians and Zoroastrian priests (mobads) in the time of the Sassanian dynasty, and consisting mainly of historical records about kings and of dry reports of wars.
Keyumars (Gayumarth) was described by the Zoroastrian priests as the first man, Adam, and by the court historians as the first king, showing some divergence of detail in their stories. The Khodaynameh did not include many of the epic stories, made famous by the Shahnameh. These stories, especially the Sistan (Saka) narratives about Rostam and his family, were told and translated from Pahlavi by the Iranian dehgans, and later added to the Shahnameh. These epic narratives were popular with the ordinary people who listened to the gosans (minstrels), and with the dehgans, who had been untouched by urban life and the influences of the Sassanian court. After the fall of the Parthians, who were major promoters of Persian epic literature, the dehgans preserved these narratives with faithfulness to the past and its traditions.
The Zoroastrian priests or mobads however, were more interested in religious literature, and did not value non-religious or secular literature to the same degree. After the arrival of Islam in Iran, they remained loyal to their own religion, language and alphabet, preserving many Pahlavi texts, but saving very little secular literature. By Ferdosi’s time, almost four centuries later, along with the dehgans, these mobads were the only people with knowledge of the Zoroastrian scriptures who could also read the Pahlavi texts still in existence.
Thus, Ferdosi had various rich sources for
his epic. In the first part he ‘describes various scenes and phenomena, expresses his reflection on life, his religious and
ethical beliefs and his admiration of virtue, his praise for his patrons, and his references to the sources he used.’
The remainder is comprised of three
successive parts: the mythical, heroic, and historical ages. The section on the mythical age gives an account of the creation of
the world and of man as believed by Sassanians, followed by the story of the first man and king, Gayumarth, who accidentally
discovered fire and established the Sadeh Feast in its honor. This part, which contains stories of Tahmureth, Jamshid,
Zahhak, Kaveh, Fereidun and his three sons: Salm, Tur, and Iraj, and Manuchehr, is relatively short. It has around 2000
verses forming some four percent of the entire book, and swiftly covers the events in a historical manner. This period is
depicted in Ferdosi’s poetry in a lively and interesting way, and has been the source of many of the stories which became
popular with children.
The second section, dealing with the heroic
age, accounts for almost two-thirds of the Shahnameh and is devoted to the age of heroes, covering the era from
Manuchehr’s reign until the conquest of Alexander. Ferdosi’s vivid descriptions bring to life the feudal society in
which they lived, with extremely rich and varied language. Stories in this section include the romance of Zal & Rudabe, the
Seven Stages (or Labors) of Rostam, Rostam and Sohrab, Siavash and Sudabe, Rostam and Akvan Div, the romance of Bijan and Manije,
the wars with Afrasiab, Daqiqi’s account of the story of Goshtasp and Arjasp, and Rostam and Esfandyar. The legend of Rostam and Sohrab appears first in the Shahnameh, its
thousand or so verses comprising one of the most moving tales of world literature.
The final section is the historical age, dealing with the history of Alexander, followed by a brief mention
of the Ashkanians (Arsacids), then Ardeshir, and finally the fall of the Sassanians and the Arab conquest are described in moving
Ferdosi’s epic language is so rich, moving
and lavish that it mesmerizes and enchants the reader.
During a period when Arabic was the main language of literature, Ferdosi used only Farsi in his masterpiece. He
himself said that the Farsi language would be revived by his work.
It has been claimed that the Shahnameh of Ferdosi has been read and treasured more than any other history in Iran, and has
influenced its readers where many Iranian military and religious leaders failed.
Also, it is considered by many that the
revival and immortality of a nation became possible because of the Shahnameh. Its stories were retold and rewritten and
generations of children were brought up on them. This naturally entailed simplification of the language and after the age of print
led to many new illustrated versions of the stories being produced especially for children. At first the Shahnameh was
literally a book of kings as only the very rich could afford to own a copy. Thus, its place was in the libraries of rulers and
high society. It was impossible for the average person, let alone the average child to own a copy.
An example of the richness of the Shahnameh is an edition available at Mazda Publishers reprinted from the lavish sixteenth century manuscript of Shah Tahmasb, described as follows: ‘No surviving Shahnameh is grander in scale than that created in the early sixteenth century for Shah Tahmasb at Tabriz and purchased in the mid-twentieth century by Arthur A. Houghton, Jr. Its 258 unusually large paintings and countless splendid illuminations make it the most sumptuous of all.’
A limited edition of the above was published in two volumes in 1981 by the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University and Harvard University Press. Only 750 copies were published, 600 of which were made available to the public at a publisher’s suggested retail price of $2500. Of the original 258 paintings, all have been reproduced in actual size, but in sepia not color, in the 269 plates of Volume II. Furthermore, Volume I contains only twenty-two of the original paintings in full color, although the description assures us that: ‘A spectrum of colors, including burnished gold, faithfully reproduces the intricate beauty and detail of an incomparable manuscript.’ In addition, Volume II contains one eight-color plate. Thus, less than one tenth of the paintings have been reproduced in color, despite the availability of cheap modern printing methods.
Thus, it can be seen that the modern edition does not nearly measure up to the original, while still being well beyond the pocket of 99% of the population. This gives some idea of how absolutely inconceivable it would have been hundreds of years ago for the average person to own such a book, even if they had been able to read it, and further points to the importance of oral literature and its memorization.
The situation changed in the twentieth century and affordable storybooks for children began to be made. Many of these had their foundations in the stories of the Shahnameh. One early example is Abd-al Hosayn Sanatizadeh Kermani’s 1331/1932, Rostam dar qarn-e bistom, combining legendary and contemporary elements in which Rostam, the legendary hero of the Shahnameh, and his horse Rakhsh, race the modern protagonist, Jankas, on his motorcycle.
Encyclopaedia Iranica lists the following stories adapted from the Shahnameh during the 1960s and 70s: Bargozideha-ye dastanha-ye Shahnameh by Yar-e Shater; Afsane-ye Simorg by Zahra Kanlari, with illustrations by Noureddin Zarrinkelk; Jamshid Shah and Bastur by Mehrdad Bahar, with illustrations by Mesghali and Nojumi; Zal o Simorg, Haft Khan-e Rostam, and Zal o Rudabe by Mahmud-Moshref Azad Tehrani (M.Azad), with illustrations by Noureddin Zarrinkelk and Nafise Riahi; and the stories Siahi, Shabgir, and Aftab, drawn from the Shahnameh by Mahmud Kianush.
Another recent example showing the continuing popularity of such stories are publications by Hamkelasi Publications Institute, established in 1988 under the management of Mr. Abulghasem Ghanbari, in order to produce, publish and distribute children’s books for ages 4 to 15. Publications of this institute number 200 titles in the different fields of ‘story, color painting and children training,’ and include 9 volumes of Shahnameh stories taken from Ferdosi’s Shahnameh, and also 9 volumes of stories from the Holy Quran, for ages 8 to 14.
Hamkelasi describe their Shahnameh stories as ‘quoting case histories of Persian heroes of this ancient land and their brave deeds in bygone times,’ naming Rostam as the most eminent of all heroes. The ‘wonderful and instructive’ adventures which occur in these stories are offered with ‘simple expositive and beautiful pictures.’ The titles of the nine stories are as follows:
1. The seven adventures of Rostam
2. Rostam and Sohrab
4. The death of Siavash
5. The challenge of Rostam and Esfandiar
6. The seven adventures of Esfandiar
7. Rostam and Borzo
8. The challenge of Rostam and Kamoos
9. The challenge of Rostam and Khagan
A search of the internet will quickly turn up children’s stories based on the Shahnameh.
Mazda Publishing Company,
for example describes the following story on its website:
‘Bastoor is a stirring tale for children
inspired by a passage in the ancient epic of Iran (Persia), the Shahnameh, or The Epic of the Kings, written by the poet Ferdowsi
in the tenth-century. This is the story of a young boy who takes the place of his fallen father in the battlefield. His bravery
results in the saving of Iranian independence from foreign invaders.’
Another example, by Anthony Shay, an American scholar of Iranian folkloric tales, dances, and music, is The Tale of Mehregan, published by Payvand Cultural School, in Cupertino, California as well as another publication covering the story of Nowruz.
Mr. Nasser Pol of the Ferdosi Society confirms that many children’s books have been written, primarily in Iran, based on the stories of the Shahnameh. He mentions one such book; Haft Khan or the Seven Labors of Rostam, by Babak Gharagozlu, and comments that the many colorful illustrations used in this book make the story more interesting for children.
In this section, four different major sources of stories for children have been examined; One Thousand and One Nights, Kalilah & Dimnah, Mulla Nasrudin/Goha, and the Shahnameh. Only one of these sources, Kalilah & Dimnah, can be said to have been originally written for a youthful audience, and it is the only one to contain animal stories used to teach morals. The other three also differ widely, despite having human heroes. The Shahnameh is an epic with mythical and historical dimensions, while the Mulla Nasrudin/Goha stories have been variously described as jokes, philosophy, religious mysticism etc. Neither of the latter was written specially for children, but children took their favorite stories and adopted them as part of their own special literature. Likewise, One Thousand and One Nights, while being a collection of entertaining stories for adults, contained some miraculous stories especially suited to the imagination of children and these became firm favorites, which were rewritten especially for children, and formed the basis of cartoons, movies and musicals.
Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak notes that the Encyclopaedia Iranica states that children read stories from Persian classics, and mentions Obayd Zakani’s Mush o Gorbeh (The Mouse and the Cat) and Shaikh Baha’ al-Din ‘Ameli’s Nan o Halva (Bread and Halva) and Shir o Shekar (Milk and Sugar) and popular adult stories such as Chehel Tuti (Forty Parrots) and Hezar o yek Shab (A Thousand and One Nights), a category that was generally considered unsuitable for young people.
Karimi-Hakkak further comments that the fact that these stories have been widely read over a long period up to the present seems to include them in the category of children’s literature. Furthermore, he observes that many books have been considered by adults to be unsuitable reading material for children but this has not diminished their popularity among their young readers.
While adult literature as well as children’s literature of earlier times can be seen to have played a large part in influencing writers of children’s stories throughout history until the present day, there are other factors which have stimulated the imagination of writers of children’s books, such as political, didactic and religious issues. The next chapter will look at some of these issues in the framework of the organizations involved in the production of children’s books in Iran.
 Interview with Tooran Mirhadi, ‘Getting Acquainted with the Children’s Book Committee of Iran’ Zanan, January- February 1994, Vol. 3, No. 22, p.31.
 Seyd Abadi, ‘A Glance at the Children’s Literature in Iran: From the Olden Times until Today,’ Iranian Book: Special Issue on Children and Young Adults’ Literature (1999-2000), ed. Mohammad Ali Shoaee, Tehran: Bureau for International Development of Iranian Publishing, 2002, p.3-4.
 Esp. The History of Children’s Literature in Iran (HCLI), a research project undertaken by the Foundation for Research on the History of Children’s Literature in Iran, started in 1997, further details on the project in Chapter 2.
 Mohammad H. Mohammadi, & Zohre Ghaeni, Tarikh-e Adabiyat-e Kudakan-e Iran, (The History of Children’s Literature in Iran), Vol.1, Oral Tradition & Ancient Times, Tehran: Nashr Chista, 1380/2001.
 Seyd Abadi, Iranian Book, p.3.
 For comments on a recent rewriting of the ‘Asurik Tree’ see Mohammad H. Mohammadi in Hossein Ebrahimi & Assadollah Amrai, More than 100 Persian Children’s Books, translator Liza Namvar, Tehran: House of Translation for Children and Young Adults, 2002, p.108.
 Longman Classics, Stage 2: 900 words, Tales from the Arabian Nights simplified by John Turvey, Harlow: Longman Group, UK Ltd. 1989.
 Susan Fletcher, Shadow Spinner, UK: Bloomsbury, 1998.
 Susan Fletcher interviewed by Cheryl Bowlan for Achuka Children's Books, UK, January 2000, <http://www.achuka.com/newsjan2000.htm >.
 Kirkus Reviews, Kirkus Associates, LP, 1998. Editorial Reviews at <http://www.amazon.com> .
 Kirkus Reviews, Kirkus Associates, LP, 1998. Editorial Reviews at <http://www.amazon.com>.
 The Horn Book, 1998. Editorial Reviews at <http://www.amazon.com>.
 Reader Reviews at <http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/cm/member-reviews/>
 E . Dixon, (ed), Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights, London: J.M. Dent, 1951.
 C.I.C. Series (Children’s Illustrated Classics) produced by J.M. Dent of London and E.P. Dutton & Co. Inc. of New York.
 E . Dixon, (ed), Fairy Tales from the Arabian Nights, London: J.M. Dent, 1951, p.22.
 N. Elisseef , Thèmes et
motifs des Mille et une Nuits, Beirut: 1949, pp 90-92, 97-98.
 Ibid., pp 130-31, 152.
 Masudi, Abd al-Hasan Ali ibn al-Husayn, d.345/956, Arab historian, geographer, and philosopher, b. Baghdad. He traveled in Spain, Russia, India, Sri Lanka, and China and spent his last years in Syria and Egypt. His Muruj adh-Dhahab [Meadows of Gold], an epitome of a longer history of the world from creation to A.D. 947, is a compilation of his travel observations and studies. It embraces social and literary history, discussions of religions, and geographic descriptions. A French version of this work was published between 1861 and 1878. The first volume has been translated into English. Taken from the Columbia Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition, 2001at <http://www.bartleby.com/65/ma/Masudi-A.html>.
 Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Vol.1, 1985, p.832.
 Ebn al-Nadim, Fehrest, 987-88AD, ed.Flügel, p.304; tr. Dodge, pp. 713-14.
 J. Przyluski, Le prologue-cadre des Mille et une Nuits et le thème du Svayamvara, JA: 1924, pp.101-37. (source Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Vol.1, 1985, p.833).
 J. von Hammer, Sur l’Origine des Mille et une Nuits, JA:, 1827, pp. 253-56. (source Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Vol.1, 1985, p.833)
 Cyril Glassé, The Concise Encyclopaedia of Islam, London: Stacy International, 1989, p. 402.
 Antoine Galland, Les mille
et une Nuits, contes arabes traduits en francais, Paris,
 Bibliothèque Nationale,
Paris: l’art du Livre arabe exhibition:
 Author’s translation from page 1 at the
virtual Mille et Une Nuits exhibition site of the Bibliothèque
Nationale of Paris:
 Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Vol.1, 1985, p.831.
 N. Elisseef , Thèmes et
motifs des Mille et une Nuits, Beirut: 1949, pp 185-205.
 Jane Bingham and Grayce Scholt , Fifteen Centuries of Children’s Literature: An Annotated Chronology of British and American Works in Historical Context, London, Greenwood Press, 1980.
 Encyclopaedia Iranica, New York & London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, Vol.1, 1985, p.834.
 Ibid., p.835.
 (Chāndogya Upanisad, 4.1.2-5.)
 Original name Abu Abdollah Jafar Ebn Mohammad (b. c. 859, Rudaki, Khorasan (Tajikistan) --d. 940/941, Rudaki), widely regarded as the father of Persian poetry.
 Encyclopaedia Britannica 1996, quoted by sources <http://weecheng.com/silk/tajik/tajik2.htm> and <http://www.irangasht.co.uk/art-Rudaki.htm>, while he is called ‘the father of Dari poetry’ at: <http://members.tripod.com/~khorasan/TajikPersonalities/Rudaki.htm>; the description continues: ‘His most important contribution to Dari literature is his translation of Kalilah wa Dimnah from Arabic to Dari…. The later retelling of these stories owe much to the lost translation of Rudaki which also ensured his fame in Dari literature.’ It must be noted that Rudaki was born in an area where Tajiki, not Dari, is spoken.
 i.e. children.
 Tooran Mirhadi, ‘Getting Acquainted with the Children's Book Committee of Iran,’ Zanan, (Monthly) January-February1994, Vol.3, No.22,p.31.
 Milani, Farzaneh, Veils and Words, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1992, p.178.
 Julinda Abu-Nasr in International Companion Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, editor Peter Hunt (Routledge, 1996) p. 792.
 Mohammadi, H. Mohammad & Zohre Ghaeni, Tarikh-e Adabiyat-e Kudakan-e Iran, (The History of Children’s Literature in Iran), Vol.1, Oral Tradition & Ancient Times, Tehran: Nashr Chista, 1380/2001, p.140.
 Brockelmann, C. ‘Kalilah wa Dimnah,’ Encyclopedia of Islam Leiden: E.J.Brill; London: Luzac & Co., 1978, 2nd Ed., Vol. 4, pp.503-6.
 Mohammad Jaafari Mahjub, About Kalilah & Dimnah, Tehran: Kharzami 1349AH, p.17.16.
 For further details of these and examples of stories, see Appendix 1.
 From Panchatantra, Bk.1, On Causing Dissension among Allies, Sub-story 8.2., p.52. This story is catalogued as a modern Persian language children’s book in one of the public libraries in Edinburgh.
 From Panchatantra, Bk.1, On Causing Dissension among Allies, Sub-story 8.1., p.51.
 Se Mahi from the series ‘Stories in Farsi from Kalileh & Dimnah’, London: Al-Hoda, copy undated.
 Kalilah & Dimnah stories, Tehran: Taher Publishing 2000; titles in series:
The Fox and the Drum, The Cat and the Mouse, Moon in Spring , The Wise Crow, The Slave of Balkh, The Dangerous Well, The Selfish Queen, The Dreams of the King.
 Jo Sanders, Storyteller, <http://jostory.com/id18.htm>.
 Lorne Brown, ‘A look at the History and Humor of the Hodja,’ NSA Storytelling Magazine, September 1998.
 ‘Molla Nasreddin, Comic Sage of the Ages,’ from Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996, at:
 ‘Molla Nasreddin, Comic Sage of the Ages,’ from Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996, at:
 Chris Liss, ‘Book Review Relating to Islamic Metalwork’ <http://www.asia.si.edu/edu/essaid/book.htm>.
 Susan Sachs, ‘The Funny, but Fictional, Mullah,’ The New York Times, August 21, 2000.
 Top Telemedia, India, <http://www.top-biography.com/navigation%20menu/>.
 Idries Shah, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, Two Volumes in One), London: Octagon, 1983.
 Or ‘Akschehir’ in Ulrich Marzolph, Nasreddin Hodscha 666 wahre Gesichten, Munchen: C.H.Beck, 1996.
 Ibid., p.11, translation by Philipp Seel, Edinburgh, April 18, 2002.
 Jo Sanders, Storyteller, <http://jostory.com/id18.htm>.
 Joha, Ahla Tara’if wa Nawadar Series, Lebanon,Trablus: Jarus Bors, 1992, p.36.
 Story 470, ‘The Father, Son and the Donkey,’ Ulrich Marzolph, Nasreddin Hodscha 666 wahre Gesichten, Munchen: C.H.Beck, 1996.
 Home Reader for Children, Taiwan: Universal Brotherhood Publishing Service, 1968.
 Or ‘People without their own opinions,’ as translated by Zhouyan, Edinburgh, April 19, 2002, who confirmed that this was a very old traditional tale which she heard as a child in China, and saw as a cartoon on TV.
 Moss Roberts, editor and translator, Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, New York: Pantheon Books & Toronto: Random House Inc., 1979, Introduction p.xv.
 Moss Roberts, editor and translator, Chinese Fairy Tales and Fantasies, New York: Pantheon Books & Toronto: Random House Inc., 1979, Introduction, p.xviii.
 Idries Shah, The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin (and The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, Two Volumes in One), London: Octagon, 1983, p.5.
 Idries Shah, (The Exploits of the Incomparable Mulla Nasrudin and) The Subtleties of the Inimitable Mulla Nasrudin, (Two Volumes in One), London: Octagon, 1983, p.13.
 Example of this story in Joha, Ahla Tara’if wa Nawadar Series, Lebanon,Trablus: Jarus Bors, 1992, p.23.
A. Shapur Shahbazi, Ferdowsi, A Critical Biography, Costa
Mesa, California: Mazda
Publishers, 1991, Dr. Jalil Doostkhah's critique on above
book, Iranshenasi, Vol. VIII, No. 4, Winter 1997, at:
 Mahmud Kianush, review on ‘Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings,’
by Olga M. Davidson, Asian Affairs, Vol. XXVII Oct. 1996.
 Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, ed., The Shahnameh, Abu'lQassem Ferdowsi, Vol. I, 1988 at: <http://ferdosi.org/Shahnameh.htm>.
 Mahmud Kianush, review on ‘Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings,’
by Olga M. Davidson, Asian Affairs, Vol. XXVII Oct. 1996.
 Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, ed., The Shahnameh, Abu'lQassem Ferdowsi, Vol. I, 1988 at: <http://ferdosi.org/Shahnameh.htm>.
 Mahmud Kianush, review on ‘Poet and Hero in the Persian Book of Kings,’
by Olga M. Davidson, Asian Affairs, Vol. XXVII Oct. 1996.
 Djalal Khaleghi-Motlagh, ed., The Shahnameh, Abu'lQassem Ferdowsi, Vol. I, 1988 at:
 Authors: Martin Bernard Dickson is Professor of Near Eastern Studies,
Stuart Cary Welch, Curator of Muslim and Hindu Painting, and Senior Lecturer in Fine Arts, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University & Special Consultant to the Department of Islamic Art of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard: the Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University and Harvard University Press, 1981.
 Mahnaz Afkhami & Erika Friedl, In the Eye of the Storm, Syracuse University Press, 1994, p.24, gives the literacy rates in Iran as late as 1966 for the over-65 age group as only 13.9% for males and 1.8% for females.
 ‘Rostam in the 20th Century.’
 Encyclopaedia Iranica,Vol.5, Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992, p.417.
 A selection of stories from the Shahnameh; Tehran 1344/1965.
 Tehran: Kia, 1348/1969.
 Tehran, 1346/1967 & 1347/1968.
 Tehran, 1351/1972.
 Tehran, 1357/1978.
 Tehran, 1352/1973.
 Tehran 1354/1975.
 Encyclopaedia Iranica, 1992, p.421.
 Website at: <http://www.payvand.org>.
 In an email to the present author from <email@example.com> Sun 21 Apr 2002.
 Ahmad Karimi-Hakkak, ‘Iranica Heirloom’ Iranian Studies, Vol.31, no.3+4, Summer/Fall 98, pp.527-542.
 Encyclopaedia Iranica,Vol.5, Costa Mesa, California: Mazda Publishers, 1992, p.421.