World Tales



How Evil

Produces Evil


In the form of The Pardoner’s Tale, this allegory is firmly rooted at the very base of English literature, through Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales of nearly six centuries ago.  In the records of its transmission through several cultures, however, it enables us to study the preoccupations of each people employing it.  In the ancient Indian form, it is presented to inculcate a moral; in its Arabian garb, (and the Italian) the chief figure is Jesus, where the religious aspect is stressed.  The old German version is anti-Jewish, and the Florentine recension favours the wisdom of a hermit.  The Central Asian writing was by the 13th-century major Sufi mystic— of Chaucerean rank in Persian—Fariduddin Attar; and here the application is that of the gnostic, to the effect that there is an unperceived world beyond normal perceptions.  The following version is from the 16th-century Italian; the story is famous, too, as the plot of Hans Sachs’ 1547 Meisterleid.



A certain hermit was walking one day in a deserted place, when he came across an enormous cave, the entrance to which was not easily visible. He decided to rest inside, and entered. Soon, however, he noticed the bright reflection of the light upon a large quantity of gold within.

The hermit, as soon as he became aware of what he had seen, took to his heels and fled as fast as he could.

Now in this desert area were three robbers, who spent much time there so that they could steal from travellers. Before long the pious man blundered into them. The thieves were surprised, and even alarmed, at the sight of a man running, with nothing in pursuit; but they came out of their ambush and stopped him, asking him what was the matter.

“I am fleeing, brothers,” he said, “from the Devil, who is racing after me.”

Now the bandits could not see anything following the devout old man, and they said; “Show us what is after you.”

“I will” he said, (for he was afraid of them) and led them to the cave, at the same time begging them not to go near it. By this time, of course, the thieves were greatly interested, and insisted that they should be shown whatever it was that had caused such alarm.

“Here,” he said, “is death, which was running after me.”

The villains were, of course, delighted. They naturally regarded the recluse as somewhat touched, and sent him on his way, while they revelled in their good fortune.

Now the thieves began to discuss what they should do with the booty; for they were afraid of leaving it alone again. Finally they decided that one of their number should take a little gold to the city and with it buy food and other necessities, and then they would proceed to the division of the spoils.

One of the ruffians volunteered to run the errand. He thought to himself: “When I am in town I can eat all I wish. Then I can poison the rest of the food, so that it kills the other two, and all the treasure will be mine.”

While the rogue was away, however, his companions were also thinking. They decided that as soon as he returned, they would kill him, eat the food, and divide the spoils so as to gain the additional third share that would otherwise be his.

The moment the first thief arrived back at the cave with the provisions, the two others fell upon him and stabbed him to death. Then they ate all the food, and expired of the poison which their friend had bought and put into it. So the gold, after all, did indeed spell death, as the hermit predicted, for whoever was influenced by it. And the treasure remained where it had been, in the cave, for a very long time. ♦


Evil begets Evil

    Illustrated by David O’Connor 





A famous Scottish ballad, “The Barring of the Door” is essentially the same tale as that of the Silent Couple, which is one of the world’s most widely distributed folktales. It is found in Turkey and Sri Lanka, in Venice and Kashmir, in Arabia and Sicily, and quite possibly in many other places as well. If it came from the East; its route to Scotland is mysterious. If it originates in the West, how it found itself in several distinct Asian cultures is no less intriguing. This is the Arabian version.



The Silent Couple


Illustrated by Linda Gray     


Once upon a time there was a newly-married couple; still dressed in their wedding finery, they relaxed in their new home when the last of the guests at their feast had left.

“Dear husband,” said the young lady, “do go and close the door to the street, which has been left open.”

“Me shut it?” said the groom, “a bridegroom in this splendid costume, with a priceless robe and a dagger studded with jewels?  How could I be expected to do such a thing?  You must be out of your mind. Go and shut it yourself.”

“So!” shouted the bride, “you expect me to be your slave: a gentle, beautiful creature like me, wearing a dress of finest silk – that I should get up on my wedding day and close a door which looks onto the public street?  Impossible.”

They were both silent for a moment or two, and the lady suggested that they should make the problem the subject of a forfeit.  Whoever spoke first, they agreed, should be the one to shut the door.

There were two sofas in the room, and the pair settled themselves, face to face, one on each, sitting mutely looking at one another.

They had been in this posture for two or three hours when a party of thieves came by and noticed that the door was open.  The robbers crept into the silent house, which seemed so deserted, and began to load themselves with every portable object of any value which they could find.

The bridal couple heard them come in, but each thought that the other should attend to the matter.

Neither of them spoke or moved as the burglars went from room to room, until at length they entered the sitting room and at first failed to notice the utterly motionless couple.

Still the pair sat there, while the thieves collected all the valuables, and even rolled up the carpets under them.  Mistaking the idiot and his stubborn wife for wax dummies, they stripped them of their personal jewels­ and still the couple said nothing at all.

The thieves made off, and the bride and her groom sat on their sofas throughout the night.  Neither would give up.

When daylight came, a policeman on his beat saw the open street door and walked into the house.  Going from room to room he finally came upon the pair and asked them what was happening.  Neither man nor wife deigned to reply.

The policeman called massive reinforcements and the swarming custodians of the law became more and more enraged at the total silence, which to them seemed obviously a calculated affront.

The officer in charge at last lost his temper and called out to one of his men: “Give that man a blow or two, and get some sense out of him!”

At this the wife could not restrain herself: “Please, kind officers” she cried, “do not strike him – he is my husband!”

“I won!” shouted the fool immediately, “so you have to shut the door!”  ♦








What does a folk-tale really mean? Scholars and others take them to pieces; ideologues look for those which will support their beliefs about tales; literary people often use them as the basis for their own works.  Folk-tales are recited, in many cultures, by professional or at any rate highly expert specialists: and these are sometimes only superannuated and toothless grandmothers.  In spite of the enormous amount of work done on the collection, analysis and study of tales, how many collectors have troubled themselves to ask the reciters themselves, the experts, what the tale is supposed to mean, or what effect it is intended to have?  I asked a Central Asian bard this question, for he had contributed several hundred tales to an ‘ethnographic mission’.  He said: “This is one thing I was never asked by the learned men and women.”

His explanation of the function of this tale, “The Food of Paradise”, is that it will confirm the bias of those who, for example, believe that humility is really living off the by-products of a total system.  It will also, he continued, encourage those who think that even those things which seem wonderful (the sweetmeat) are as nothing, seen from a wider perspective.  “But,” he continued, “for those who are ready to understand the truth: they will find this tale valuable to take them beyond such simple confirmations.”


The Food of Paradise


On the close of my visit to the Holy City Mecca, I joined the caravan of Sheikh Amru, who apart from being a great theological teacher, was a famous narrator of ancient tales.  The occasion was when he asked me as to what calling I was going to choose after my wanderings.  Somewhat humorously I said that I was going to do nothing for my living since Allah has promised to feed the Faithful.

“Listen my son,” said the Sheikh, as he reclined against his camel’s saddle; and then I knew that an ancient tale was to be retailed out to us.  This is what he said:

In the school founded by the Caliph for the study of divine things sat the devout Mullah Ibrahim, his hands folded in his lap, in an attitude of meditation.  Ibrahim taught students from all the countries of Islam, but the work was thankless and ill-paid.  And as he sat there he thought on his state for the first time in many years.

“Why is it,” he said to himself, “that a man so holy as I am must toil so hard to instruct a pack of blockheads, when others who have merited nothing through piety or attention to the Commands of Allah fare sumptuously every day and neither toil nor spin?  O, Compassionate One, is not this thing unjust?  Whereof should Thy servant be burdened, like an ass in the market-place, which carries two panniers, both filled to the top, and stumbles at every blow of the driver’s stick?”

And as he considered, Ibrahim the Wise, as men called him, brought to mind that verse in the Holy Literature in which it says: “Allah will not let anyone starve.”  And taking deeper counsel with himself, he said: “May it not be that those whom I have blamed for their sloth and inactivity are, after all, the better Moslems, that they have greater faith than I?  For, perusing this passage, they may have said to themselves:

“‘I will cast myself upon the mercy of Allah, which in this text is surely extended to all men.  Allah in his bounty will surely feed and maintain me. Why then toil and strive as the faithless do?  It is those who have faith that are the elect.'”

At that moment a great pasha halted before the gates of the seminary, in his piety alighting from his palanquin to give alms to a beggar, as all good Moslems do.  And as Ibrahim watched him through the lattice, he thought: “Does not the condition of the beggar as well as that of this pasha prove the justice of the text upon which I have been meditating?  Neither starves, but the wealthier man is assuredly the more devout, for he is the giver and not the receiver, and for this very purpose has been blest with the goods of this world.  Why do I hesitate, wretched man that I am?  Shall I not, as the Book ordains, cast myself on the bounty of Allah and free myself forever from the intolerable burden of instructing fools in a wisdom they can never understand?”

So saying, Ibrahim the Sage arose from his place in the College of the Caliph, and walked out of the City of Baghdad where he had dwelt for many years.  It was evening, and betaking himself to the banks of the river, he selected a dry and shady spot beneath a spreading cypress tree, and awaiting the bounty of Allah, fell fast asleep in the certainty that the Lord of all Compassion would not fail him. 

When he awoke, it was early morning, and a divine hush lay upon everything.  Ibrahim lazily speculated as to the manner in which he would be sustained.  Would the birds of the air bring him sustenance, would the fishes from the stream leap ashore, offering themselves for the assuagement of his growing hunger?  In what way did those who merited the help of Allah first receive it, if not in some miraculous manner?  True, the wealthy were bequeathed riches by their parents.  But there must be a beginning.  A pasha might sail down the river in his barge and supply his wants out of golden dishes and silver cups. 

But morning blossomed into day, and day into night, and still the miracle remained unaccomplished.  More than one pasha glided past him in his gilded barge, but these made only the customary salutations and gave no other sign.  On the road above, pilgrims and travelers passed, but without taking the least notice of him.  Hunger gnawed at his vitals, and he thought with envy of the millet porridge with goats’ milk which the mullahs would now be enjoying at the seminary.  Still was he trustful, and, as he made the customary ablutions in the river, his faith had abated not one jot. 

Again he slept, and once more day dawned in scarlet and silver beauty.  By this time he felt so faint as scarcely to be able to stand.  The hours crept slowly onward, yet no sign came that his hunger was to be satisfied. 

At last, as midday approached with its stifling heat, something floating on the surface of the water caught his eye.  It seemed like a mass of leaves wrapped up with fibre; and, wading into the river, he succeeded in catching it.  Back he splashed with his prize to the bank, and sitting down on the sward, he opened the packet.  It contained a quantity of the most delicious ­looking halwa, that famous marzipan, of whose making only Baghdad knows the secret, a sweetmeat composed of sugar mingled with paste of almonds and attar of roses and other delicate and savoury essences. 

After gorging himself with the delightful fare, Ibrahim the Wise drank deeply from the river, and lolled on the grass, sure that his prayer had been answered, and that he would never have to toil more.  There was sufficient of the ambrosial food to serve for three meals a day; and on each day, after the hour of midday prayer, a similar packet of halwa came floating down the stream as though placed there by the hands of angels. 

“Surely,” said the Mullah, “the promises of Allah are true, and the man who trusts in Him will not be deceived.  Truly I did well to leave the seminary, where, day-in, day-out, I had perforce to cram divine knowledge into the heads of idiots incapable of repeating a verse correctly even at the fifteenth attempt.”

Months passed, and Ibrahim continued to receive the food that Allah had promised with unfailing regularity.  Then, quite naturally, he began to speculate whence it came.  If he could find the spot where it was deposited on the surface of the stream, surely he must witness a miracle, and as he had never done so, he felt greatly desirous of attaining the merit such a consummation would undoubtedly add to his repute as a holy man. 

So one morning, after eating the last of the halwa received the preceding day, he girded up his loins, and taking his staff, began slowly to walk upstream. 



Illustrated by Carolyn Scrace  



“Now,” said he, “if what I suppose be true, I will today receive my luscious food at an earlier hour than usual, as I shall be nearer the place where it is placed on the water, and indeed on each day I shall receive at an even earlier hour, until at last I come to the spot where some divine seraph, sent by Allah from Paradise, drops the savoury food of heaven upon the stream in justification of my trust in the most Merciful.”

For some days Ibrahim walked up-stream, keeping carefully to the bank of the river and fixing his eyes on its surface in case he should fail to discern the packet of halwa.  Every day, at an even earlier hour, it floated regularly past him, carried by the current so near to the shore that he could easily wade out and secure it.  At nights he slept beneath a convenient tree, and as men perceived him to be a Mullah and a holy man, no one thought of molesting him. 

It was on the fourth day of his journey that he observed the river had widened.  In a large island in the midst of the stream rose a fair castle.  The island comprised a princely domain of noble meadow-land and rich gardens, crossed and interlaced by the silver of narrow streams, and was backed by the blue and jagged peaks of great mountains.  The castle itself was built of marble white as sculptured ice, and its green and shady lawns sloped down to a silent and extensive shore of golden sand. 

And when night descended, this wondrous region was illuminated by the romance of moonlight into an almost unearthly radiance; so that Ibrahim, in all his piety, was forced to compare it with Paradise itself.  The white castle on its dark rocks seemed like day pedestalled upon night, and from the sea-green of the shadow of myrtles rose the peaks of pavilions, whence came the sound of guitars and lutes and voices more ravishingly sweet than Ibrahim, the son of the seminary, had ever believed earth could hold. 

And as Ibrahim gazed spellbound at the wondrous spectacle and drank in the sounds of ecstasy which arose from the garden, wondering whether he were not already dead and in the purlieus of Heaven, a harsh voice hailed him at his very elbow, asking him what he was doing there.  He turned swiftly to see, standing beside him, an ancient man in the garb of a hermit with long matted hair and tangled beard. 

“Salaam, good father,” he said, much relieved, for like all men of peace, he feared violence. “The peace of Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate, be upon you.”

“And upon you, my son,” replied the anchorite. “But what do you do here at this hour of the night, when all such as you should be asleep?”

“Like yourself, I am a holy man,” replied Ibrahim, with unction, “but I travel on a quest the nature of which I may not divulge to any.  Passing this spot, I was attracted by the unusual appearance of yonder castle and its surroundings, and would learn its history, if that is known to you.”

“It is, though in part only,” rejoined the hermit, “for I have dwelt many years in this neighbourhood, but have little converse with men.  Know, then, that the place you behold is called the Silver Castle.  It was built by a Pasha now dead, who was greatly enamored of a certain Princess, whose father refused him her hand in marriage.  But, not to be gainsaid, so fierce and unruly a thing is love in some men, he built this strength in the midst of the river as you see, and placed upon it so many dark and terrible spells of magic that none could cross to or from it without his sanction.  Then, abducting the Princess, he espoused her and placed her in yonder tower.  The King, her father, came with an army to besiege the place, but so potent were the necromancies the Pasha had surrounded it with, that he was compelled to raise the siege and leave his daughter in the hands of his enemy.”

“You amaze me,” cried Ibrahim.  “And does this Princess remain here still?”

“No, brother,” replied the Hermit, “like her lord she has passed away, but they have left behind them a daughter who governs the castle, a lady of surpassing beauty, who spends her days in pleasure and in spending the wealth her father bequeathed her.  But she has but one sorrow, and that is that none can dissolve the spells woven by her father the Pasha, so that no one may either gain admittance to the castle or leave it. Her companions are therefore either the very aged or those born on the island and no other, which, for a young and beautiful woman, must be wearisome.  But you will pardon me, brother, I am going on a pilgrimage to a certain shrine in Baghdad, where I betake myself once a year to acquire merit.  Meanwhile, if you choose to rest, you may dwell in my humble cell yonder until I return in seven days’ time.”

Ibrahim gladly accepted the Hermit’s offer, and when he had gone, sat down to ponder over the tale he had told him.  Now, among other wisdoms he had acquired during his years of study, a deep knowledge of the magical art, and he bethought that it might be given to him to rid the castle and the inhabitants of the spells which held them prisoner on the island.

But in the midst of his thoughts, he fell asleep and did not waken until the sun was high in the heavens. Then he made his ablutions and betook himself to the bank of the river, where he sat and watched the surface of the water for a sign of the appearance of the delicious food he received daily.

And as he watched, he beheld a curious thing.

Some three hours before midday, a very beautiful woman appeared on the marble battlements which overhung the river. So fair was she that the Mullah gasped with surprise at the radiance of her beauty, which was that of the houris of Paradise. For her hair was as golden wire which is drawn thin by the cunning of the goldsmith, her eyes were yellow, and bright as topazes found on Mount Ararat, and the colour of her cheeks was as that of the roses of Isfahan. And as for the flesh of her body, it shone with the luster of silver, so brightly polished it was.

“Can this be the Princess?” thought Ibrahim, “or an angel from heaven?  Nay, surely it is she, for this woman, though surpassingly beautiful, is still a mortal.”

And as Ibrahim stood beholding her, she raised her arm and cast something into the river. And when she had done so, she withdrew from the battlements and disappeared like a star behind clouds.

The Mullah kept his eyes fixed on what she had cast into the stream, and in a little perceived that it was the very packet of leaves which he was wont to receive daily. Wading into the stream, he secured it, unwrapped it and found it full of the delicious halwa, as usual.

“Ha,” said he, as he devoured the savoury sweetmeat. “So now I know at last that radiant being by whose hands Allah, the Just, the Merciful, has ordained I shall be fed daily. Truly, the Compassionate must have put it into the heart of this divine princess to cast this luscious food on the breast of the stream at the ­same hour each day. And shall I not seek to repay her the distinguished kindness she has done me by freeing her from the spells by which she is encompassed, and which keep her a prisoner, she who should be wed to a Sultan at least and should reign in Baghdad itself?”

And with these grateful thoughts, he sat down to consider by what means the spells which surrounded the castle might be broken. Casting himself into a deep trance, he walked in spirit in the Land of the Jinn, where as a holy man, he could come to no harm. And coming to the house of one of the Jinn, whom he knew and whose name was Adhem, he summoned him and had speech with him.

“Hail, holy man,” said Adhem, making low obeisance. “I am your servant. In what way can I serve you?”

Ibrahim acquainted him with the reason for his presence there, at which the Jinn assumed an air of the greatest concern.

“What you ask is indeed hard, most wise Ibrahim,” he said doubtfully.  But I will take counsel of my brethren on the matter without delay, and shall let you know the result of our deliberations by a speedy and trusty messenger. No more can I say or do at present.”

With this Ibrahim departed and soon after awoke from his trance. He seemed only to have been an hour in the Land of the Jinn, but it must have been five hours or more, for the sun was high in the heavens when he fell asleep, and now the moonlight was sparkling on the waters of the river. And the same exquisite music he had heard before arose from the gardens of the castle, as though from the lips of peris.

And as Ibrahim listened, entranced, a shape scarcely more solid than the moonlight rose slowly out of the river and stood before him in the shadowy likeness of a Jinn. Three times it made obeisance before him, then it spoke.

“Most wise and holy Ibrahim” it said, “my master Adhem, a prince among the people of the Jinn, has sent me to acquaint you with the decision of his counselors. They proffer you this ring set with the diamond which men call adamant, and in whose shining surface if you will gaze, you shall behold the nature of those spells which keep the Princess and her people prisoners in yonder castle. And, having discovered the nature of those spells, if you summon our people to your aid in such shapes as will dissolve or break them, they will come in such guise as will set the Princess free.”

With those words the Jinn vanished into the river whence he had come. And, without delay, Ibrahim took the ring which the spirit had cast on the grass at his feet, and peered into the shining stone it held.

And straightaway he beheld the first spell. Close to the shore of the river arose a mighty bastion as of stone, invisible to mortal eyes, which surrounded the castle from shore to shore. And Ibrahim summoned to him the hosts of the Jinns in the guise of sappers, with picks and hammers, and on this wall they fell mightily in their myriads, so that without sound or clamour of any sort, they reduced it to dust ere a man could count a hundred.

Then Ibrahim looked once more in the surface of the diamond and saw a great web, like that of a spider hanging in the air round the castle. And he summoned the hosts of the Jinn in the shape of eagles, which so rent the invisible web with their strong beaks that in almost less time than it takes to tell of it, it fell in fragments into the stream.

Once more Ibrahim gazed into the stone, and this time he saw an army of sightless giants, with spear and scimitar in hand, drawn up in array of war on the shores of the island. And he called the Jinn people to him in the likeness of greater and more powerful giants, who did battle with those on the island. Terrible was the strife, and Ibrahim trembled mightily as he watched it. But soon the Jinn prevailed over the giants of the island, and put them to flight.

The spells which had surrounded the castle were now removed, and as day had dawned, Ibrahim cast about for some means of reaching the castle. No sooner had he wished this than, by the power of the Jinn, a bridge rose out of the stream by which he was enabled to cross to the island. And when he had done so, he was accosted by an old man who held a bared scimitar in his hand, and who asked him by what means he had been enabled to reach the island, which had so long been under enchantment.

“That, I may tell only to your lady, the Princess,” said Ibrahim.  “Admit me to her presence without delay.”

The guard, marveling, ushered him through the great gate of the castle, and across a spacious court where fountains sang mellifluously. Entering a magnificent hall, whose floor was inlaid with squares of blue and white marble and the walls with lapis lazuli and other rare stones, he gave the Mullah into the keeping of a black eunuch, who requested the holy man to follow him.

Upon a dais sat the incomparable Princess whom Ibrahim had beheld on the battlements, and who daily cast the packet of halwa on the waters of the river. To her the Mullah made obeisance, and, kneeling before her, told his tale.

“And what most wise Ibrahim, do you ask in recompense for your so notable offices on my behalf?” asked the Princess.  “Speak, and it shall be granted to you, even to the half of my inheritance.”

“Nay, noble lady,” exclaimed Ibrahim. “For have I not reason enough to be grateful to your Highness for the delicious food with which you have fed me daily?  That halwa which you cast every morning from the battlements, and which has floated down stream, I have eaten with thankfulness. Surely only an angel from Paradise could have put it into your heart to dispatch it.”

The Princess blushed so deeply that her heightened colour could be seen even beneath her veil. “Alas, good Mullah!” she cried, wringing her hands.

“What is this you tell me?  Curses on the day on which I first cast that halwa as you call it, on the waters of the river. Know, that each morning it is my custom to take a bath of milk, after which I anoint and rub my limbs with essence of almonds, sugar and sweet-scented cosmetics. These, then, I remove from my nakedness and, wrapping them in leaves, cast them into the stream.”

“Ah, now Princess, I see who has been blind,” cried Ibrahim, with a wry countenance.  “Allah surely gives food to everyone; but its quality and kind are dictated by what man deserves!” ♦


Illustrated by Carolyn Scrace