The Long Path to Wisdom

Collection of Burmese Folk Tales by Jan-Philipp Sendker

In The Long Path to Wisdom (published by Birlinn) Than Htlun, a book dealer in Yangon, says, ‘Every country changes…What matters is deeper than that. And the soul of a people, as it is described in folk tales, does not change so quickly.’ Quoting this in the epilogue, Jan-Philipp Sendker is explaining why he is sharing ancient fables in an age when even Burma has succumbed to the short-span concentration of the mobile phone.

Initially told around the fireside by the Burmese grandmother or shared by monks, these fables range from pithy cautionary ones, namely The Crocodile and The Monkey where the canny latter outwits the obliging former and escapes with his heart intact; to the longer and more involved, like The Best Storyteller, a devious story containing 5 mini fables and a humorous outcome where the greedy are trounced by an innocent stranger. There are yarns featuring cruel nuns (The Grateful Serpent); a chamberlain who gets his come-uppance (The Fisherman’s Reward); and the Burmese equivalents of Grimms’ Hansel and Gretel in the sad and piteous The Starving Orphans or the brutal Nan Ying and Her Little Brother.

Sendker is the author of the best-selling novels The Art of Hearing Heartbeats (2012) and  A Well-Tempered Heart (the sequel published in 2014) which are also set in Burma. He has travelled extensively, visiting both city and village, and together with Lorie Karnath and Jonathan Sendker has brought these 53 funny, informative and easy-to-read stories together in one volume. In the introduction, the passages about the taxi driver briefly taking his hands off the wheel while passing the Shwedagon Pagoda to pay homage, and the image of Yangon alight with candles in a power cut, are beautifully written and translated. Here and in the stories which follow, the scenes are vividly depicted, and the reader is enticed to visit such a rich and fascinating sounding country.

Smoothly and effectively translated from the German by Lisa Liesener and Kevin Wiliarty, there is a mix of the traditional fairytale narrative alongside a modern vernacular. In The Pious Queen for example, we read that ‘her mind turned to wicked thoughts’, or in A Mother’s Warning, that ‘they worked hard with nary a rest’; whereas in The Night the Moon Fell into the Well the ‘simple farmer’ is described as ‘not … being the sharpest tool in the shed’. Text such as ’embroiled in a boisterous debate’ from A Battle Between Two Sculptors is a pleasure, and sometimes I even had the sense that I was being read to as I was reading to myself.

Although there is a familiar essence of spoken folk tradition from all around the world, the stories have an authentic air of Burma – full of Buddhism (On Gratitude), karma and elephants! Its landscape and geography are evocative to the Western ear – poor merchants sit under Banyan trees taunted by monkeys, villages are located in Mandalay (famous from the controversial Kipling poem), and treks to find new lands are made along the Irrawaddy River (The Magic Comb). 

Burmese naga
Burmese naga

All manner of sorcery and the supernatural abound: Magic eggs in The White Crow and Love); nagas, snake spirits (clearly the origin of Rowling’s snake nagini); and nats, tree spirits which The Blacksmith’s Children turn into. Talking animals are the norm (On Gratitude), and astrologers (On the Rationality of Astrology) and fortune tellers are consulted by monks, kings and villagers alike to help with the establishment of right and wrong (How the Hare Became a Judge).

Then there are also the princesses, ogres and dragons that we know from the Scottish and English traditions (see Rashiecoats or St George and the Dragon which was in fact initially from Cappadocia (now Turkey) and came to the UK with the Crusades). In Nan Ying and Her Little Brother, the little girl was frozen with terror on seeing a noble dragon rise out of the water but luckily he turns out to be a good listener and is able to make everything right in the end. There is plenty of the Hans Christian Andersen type of cruelty we are used to (The Omen, The Grateful Serpent, and Mu Yeh Peh and the Wages of Love), and much transformation of human to beast and vice versa as in the Irish fable, The Children of Li.  

Curses are cast (The Flood), conundrums are solved (Three Women and One Man), and in the succinct How to Spell Buffalo there is no conclusion. Reminding me of a Japanese Zen koan, a monk is sent by the King to test the people’s devotion, and is pitted against the encumbent abbot. Lacking humility, he is taught a lesson when he finds himself completely stumped by being asked the title question, and we, too, are left pondering.

banyan tree
Banyan Tree

Like the Greek myths, some are concerned with the origin of animals or birds (The White Crow and Love), or how their appearance came to be, such as How the Thrush Lost Her Colourful Plumage. In others there are young men going on quests – The Long Journey is reminiscent of Homer’s Odyssey. Moral and ethical parables of kindness, revenge, jealousy and greed are to be found in The Long Path to Wisdom.

On these long winter evernings, why not cosy down with a loved one and bring back reading aloud? These often laugh-out-loud, always fascinating stories from a far-away land are sure to delight both children and adults.

Further reading:

The gruesome origins of fairy tales

Examples of Japanese Zen koans