Ages Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection

Ages Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection

Ages Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection

Ages Ago: Thirty-Seven Tales from the Konjaku Monogatari Collection

Excerpt

So far as can be discovered, this is the first translation into a Western language of any tale from Konjaku monogatari, possibly the greatest of all medieval story collections. Great in size, its thousand items outnumbering even Gesta Romanorum; great in territory and time span covered: India, China, Japan, a march of a millennium and a half. Great also as a typical product of Japan's eleventh century, era of Lady Murasaki Tale of Genji and Sei Shōnagon Pillow Book.

Completed in 1075, Konjaku holds something the place in Japanese letters that Chaucer Canterbury Tales came to hold three centuries later in English letters. It assembled plot materials long reused in Japanese literature and set a pattern followed in the next age even by continuous works. It sponsored a language hybrid of Chinese and Japanese comparable to Chaucer's hybrid of Norman-French and Anglo-Saxon and launched it under the same favorable auspices, namely, gifted use on a large scale. Of Japan's own story (monogatari) collections, Konjaku is not only the earliest, largest, most distinguished, and best arranged, but the liveliest -- vigorous in tempo, not a word wasted, slyly humorous.

As to title, "Konjaku" is a Chinese pronunciation of the two characters with which each tale begins, Japanese "Ima mukashi," i.e., "Ages ago." Traditionally this was how Buddha had begun his birth-stories (the Jataka-tales). It is also how Japanese fairy-tales begin. Not to mention the "mukashi" openings of Ise monogatari, a collection of short-lengths centering in poems by Japan's most distinguished lover, Ariwara Narihira. Each Konjaku tale but one likewise has a stylized ending, after the manner of an Aesop " moral " except that the point made is not necessarily edifying.

In one way or another, the tales still manage to speak to the reader across nine centuries. The India stories weigh . . .

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