THE HEART OF THE TURKISH TALE
A long, long time ago, when the sieve was inside the straw, when the donkey was the town crier and the camel was the barber. . . Once there was; once there wasn't. God's creatures were as plentiful as grains and talking too much was a sin. . . A great many traditional Turkish tales were, and still are, introduced with this tekerleme (a formulaic jingle with numerous variants). In these lilting overtures, one finds the spirit and some of the essential features of the story: The vivid imagination, irreconcilable paradoxes, rhythmic structure (with built-in syllabic meters and internal rhymes), a comic sense bordering on the absurd, a sense of the mutability of the world, the aesthetic urge to avoid loquaciousness, the continuing presence of the past, and the predilection of the narrative to maintain freedom from time and place.
Turkish tales are nothing if they are not fanciful. Most of them include leaps of the imagination into the realm of phantasmagoria. Even in realistic and moralistic stories, there is usually an element of whimsy. Bizarre transformations abound. There are abrupt turns of events, inexplicable changes of identity. Even the anecdotes of Nasreddin Hoca, the thirteenth-century wit who came to embody much of popular Turkish humor, have a way of forcing the boundaries of logic. It would not be incorrect to say, "The heart of the Turkish tale is fantasy."
The tales so ably collected in this volume by Dr. Barbara K. Walker come from the time-honored typology of Turkish oral narratives - wisdom stories, fables, heroic and historical narratives, love stories, legends, accounts of miraculous occurrences, humorous and satirical anecdotes.
The tradition goes back to the dawn of Turkish history in Central Asia more than fifteen centuries ago. In the early epochs of sedentary as well as nomadic culture, the "weightless genres" became paramount - poetry, music, dance, and the oral narrative. In later centuries, with the Turks migrating into Asia Minor and then holding sway in far-flung territories, a great synthesis of oral literature evolved (much of it was to be transcribed later). The synthesis comprised the autochthonous legacy of the Turks and the rich material they amassed from the Asian (mainly Chinese and Indian) tradition, from the Islamic lore, from the Middle East, Byzantium, the Balkans, and the rest of Europe.
That is why the Turkish repertoire is so vast and the diversity of tales so encompassing. Their shamans had, from the outset, relied on mesmerizing verses and instructive tales in shaping the spiritual life of the tribes. Tales were then talismans and thaumaturgical potions. During the process of conversion to Islam, missionaries and proselytizers used the legends and the historical accounts of the new faith to their advantage. Tales became tantalizing evangelical tools. Seljuk Anatolia and the Ottoman Empire nurtured storytelling as a prevalent form of entertainment and enlightenment: Professional storytellers, preachers, teachers and comedians kept the tradition alive, developed new versions, and contributed fresh material. Mothers not only sang lullabies, but they also recounted familiar and unfamiliar bedtime stories. Everyday conversation was peppered with anecdotes, funny or instructive, religious or profane.
In a society where the rate of literacy remained below ten percent until the mid-1920s, oral narratives played a major role in cultural transmission. Hence the vast corpus of narrative material and the preponderance and success of the short story genre in recent decades. The study of traditional Turkish culture will have to rely heavily on an analysis of oral literature to determine communal values and aspirations, to deal with aesthetic preferences, and to establish sui generis characteristics. It is, of course, only one of the major components that will figure in a comprehensive survey. Oral literature, however, offers some significant prospects in the richness of its imaginative resources, its metaphorical systems, and its ethical precepts. It has also contributed in an important way to keeping folk culture alive and to preserving many aspects of pre-Islamic Turkic values during the the more Islamic and Arabo-Persian influenced Ottoman centuries.
It is regrettable that, until now, very little work has been done on the substance and functions of Turkish tales in their cultural context. Aside from some pioneering work, mainly in the form of short articles, we have no meaningful study of their aesthetic strategies, narrative structures and devices, poetic elements, linguistic features, mythmaking processes, moral concepts, class relations, socioeconomic interactions, and so forth. Just as there has been no systematic analysis of the Turkish epics, the immense body of tales remains uncharted. Scholarship has not given us even a basic understanding of the themes and functions. We have yet to learn about the philosophical context, the cultural determinants, the mythological origins, the sense of good and evil, the aspirations and dream-fulfillment, the spirit of opposition and rebellion, and other features. We have no appreciation of how folktales are shaped and how they reflect aspects of Turkish culture.
Impressive work has been done in the past few decades in collecting, recording, transcribing, and classifying a large number of tales. In a thirty-year period, Dr. Barbara K. Walker and her husband, Professor Warren Walker, have recorded some three thousand tales that are preserved at the Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative (Lubbock, Texas), of which they are the Curator and Director, respectively. In Turkey, too, many well-trained specialists have been quite energetic in collecting material from the oral tradition, and publication activity has gained momentum. It is conceivable that we now have the transcriptions of no fewer than five thousand tales and stories and that more than half of these have been published.
English translations, including both volumes of Barbara K. Walker's The Art of the Turkish Tale, have made several hundred of the best specimens accessible to the English-speaking world. The material in the present volume is remarkable for its enchantments; the originals display a vivid imagination and the translations are equal to the varieties of storytelling style. Dr. Walker's fidelity to authenticity is admirable. She does not adapt, recast, or anglicize the tales; she renders them into readable, enjoyable English without tampering with the original versions as recorded by experienced Turkish storytellers. The diversity of the tales in this vo1ume (as in the previous one) is quite impressive. Some have elaborate storylines and many layers of meaning; some are so streamlined as to seem puristic. A goodly number possess outright or subtle political criticism, whereas a few are straight love stories. The action varies from galloping to tame. Fatalism alternates with a defiant, almost revolutionary, spirit. Many belong to the pure "masal" (tale) genre told for pleasure while some are "mesel" (parables with a moral). They include dragons, giants, witches, villains - but also innocent children, lovable characters, romantic lovers, and guardian angels. Many tales strike the reader as complete in themselves, commanding quintessential power, but some might well be fragments of an epic or parts of a cycle. The demands on the reader's mind may be like the suspense of an Agatha Christie thriller. The vision can change from perfect clarity to trompe l'oeil. Frequently one gets the impression that these are stories generated by a static society, but then one finds a dizzyingly dynamic tale of quest that reflects a nomadic culture and its disquietude. The collection oscillates between realism and surrealism. It is a panoply of the collective imagination that strives for both survival and sublimation - or perhaps survival through sublimation.
Brought together in a coherent fashion, these tales have started giving us new perceptions and perspectives for a better understanding of Turkish culture. In them, we find both a Realpolitik, with depictions of cynical oppression and the need to make compromises, and an idealpolitik, with virtually utopian dreams of justice, equality, and prosperity. The tales constitute a vivid psychodrama. Being both mnemosyne and numinosum, they unfurl a lively panorama of cultural history. It would be fascinating, for example, to do a volume entitled "Ottoman Society and Culture as Revealed through Tales" or a major article entitled "Metamorphoses of the Hero in Turkish Tales" or "Paganism and Islam in Turkish Legends and Stories.'
It is my sincere hope that the Walkers might undertake such studies. If not, other scholars, I hope, will produce substantive studies on the interaction between the lore of tales and Turkish culture. We now stand midway in the collection and classification of the tales; we have established most of the texts. The next stage should be a systematic analysis within the broad cultural context. This should include critical scrutiny and comparison with the oral narratives of other nations.
This collection should be read, first and foremost, for its inherent pleasure. Like all literary arts, the art of the tale is primarily a genre of joy. Traditional stories, modern storytelling, and the Walker versions cohere in giving us the pleasures of real-life and imaginary events. These stories are full of delight. Although many of them go back several centuries, some perhaps more than a millennium, they sound fresh, almost contemporary. They should be savored for their optimism, because virtually every tale resolves a dilemma or saves the good person from a terrible plight. No wonder most of the tales culminate in the celebratory couplet:
"They have had their wish fulfilled;
Let's go up to their bedstead."
Reference: Talat Sait Halman / Ministry of Culture / Republic of Turkey