Posts Tagged wisdom


Just read the amazing Rabbits written by John Marsden and illustrated by Shaun Tan. The pictures taken from the book here are from Shaun Tan’s website.
In the story the rabbits come, they take over, they build, they remove, they subjugate. Shaun Tan documents the tragedy of their conquest in beautiful detail:

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une folle journée

I’ve just sat outside on this warm autumn evening and read La Folle Journée de Nasreddin Hodja, a picture-book  by Laurence Fugier, wonderfully illustrated by Véronique Joffre.

Some stories I didn’t know too! Here’s Nasreddin when he learns that small song birds are sold for three pieces of silver, selling his turkey – which after all is much bigger – for ten pieces of gold:


Here he is pouring hot water from the baths into the stream, because his donkey likes his herbs in tea form:


And here he is – this one’s familiar – “keeping an eye on the door” in case of burglars – by carrying it around with him:


Véronique Joffre’s simple collage-style illustrations in cool colours suit the spareness of the tales perfectly!

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Voices of the Heart

When Ed Young was taking Tai Chi Chuan classes with Professor M. C. Cheng, master of the five excellences (art, calligraphy, poetry, medicine, Tai Chi Chuan) the professor opened his eyes to the meanings hidden within Chinese characters. In the picture book Voices of the Heart Ed Young explores the meanings in 26 character, each of which includes the heart-symbol.

The seal style of calligraphy is about 2,500 years old. It is, says Young, a bridge between the most ancient Chinese pictures and symbols and traditional Chinese characters.

I find it fascinating that, like the Ashanti adinkra symbols, wisdom and understanding seem to have been locked into these characters right from the start.

Ed Young invites us to look at them, like he does, as an adventure into a different time and place.

The first character he portrays is De, Virtue, 德 –

The next one is Shame, Chi:

Realisation, Wu, 悟:

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the water buffalo – by Shaun Tan

when I was a kid, there was a big water buffalo living in the vacant lot  at the end of our street, the one with the grass no one ever mowed. He slept most of the time, and ignored everybody who walked past, unless we happened to stop and ask him for advice. Then he would come up to us slowly, raise his left hoof and literally point us in the right direction. But he never said what he was pointing at, or how far we had to go, or what we were supposed to do once we got there. In fact, he never said anything because water buffalos are like that; they hate talking.

This was too frustrating for most of us. By the time anyone thought to ‘consult the buffalo’, our problem was usually urgent and required a straightforward and immediate solution. Eventually we stopped visiting him altogether, and I think he went away some time after that: all we could see was long grass.

It’s a shame, really, because whenever we had followed his pointy hoof we’d always been surprised, relieved and delighted at what we found. And every time we’d said exactly the same thing – ‘How did he know?’

One of the stories in Tales From Outer Suburbia by Shaun Tan.

I’m reluctant to unpeel this story at all, to interpret, but I should say a little about what I see in it. One thing I like about these tales, like most of the stories Shaun Tan has created, along with his amazing art work, is the presence of the alien, the other, the unnoticed, almost-invisible other. There is a wisdom in that water buffalo, but we don’t want it. In a sense it connects with The Three Princes of Serendip – all around there is information, insight, but we don’t see it.

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Accidents and Sagacity

“In ancient times there existed in the country of Serendip, in the Far East, a great and powerful king. He had three sons who were very dear to him. And being a good father and very concerned about their education, he decided that he had to leave them endowed not only with great power, but also with all kinds of virtues of which princes are particularly in need.”


The father searches out the best possible tutors. “And to them he entrusted the training of his sons, with the understanding that the best they could do for him was to teach them in such a way that they could be immediately recognized as his very own.”

When the tutors are pleased with the excellent progress that the three princes make in the arts and sciences they report it to the king. He however still doubts their training and summoning each in turn, declares that he will retire to the contemplative life leaving them as king. Each politely declines, affirming the father’s superior wisdom and fitness to rule.

The king is pleased, but fearing that his sons’ education may have been too sheltered and privileged, feigns anger at them for refusing the throne and sends them away from the land.

No sooner do the three princes arrive abroad than they trace clues to identify a camel they have never seen. They conclude that the camel is lame, blind in one eye, missing a tooth, carrying a pregnant woman, and bearing honey on one side and butter on the other. When they later encounter the merchant who has lost the camel, they report their observations to him. He accuses them of stealing the camel and takes them to the king and demands punishment.

The king asks how they are able to give such an accurate description of the camel if they have never seen it. It is clear from the princes’ replies that they have used small clues to infer cleverly the nature of the camel.

Grass had been eaten from the side of the road where it was less green, so the princes had inferred that the camel was blind on the other side. Because there were lumps of chewed grass on the road the size of a camel’s tooth, they inferred they had fallen through the gap left by a missing tooth. The tracks showed the prints of only three feet, the fourth being dragged, indicating that the animal was lame. That butter was carried on one side of the camel and honey on the other was evident because ants had been attracted to melted butter on one side of the road and flies to spilled honey on the other.

As for the woman, one of the princes said: “I guessed that the camel must have carried a woman, because I had noticed that near the tracks where the animal had knelt down the imprint of a foot was visible. It was the imprint was of a woman’s foot.”

“I guessed that the same woman must have been pregnant,” said another prince, “because I had noticed nearby handprints which were indicative that the woman, being pregnant, had helped herself up with her hands.”

At this moment a traveller enters the scene to say that he has just found a missing camel wandering in the desert. The king spares the lives of the three princes, lavishes rich rewards on them and appoints them to be his advisors.


The Three Princes of Serendip. It comes originally from the Hasht-Bihist (Eight Paradises) of Amir Khosraw written in 1301. In this poem, in Persian, king Bahram Gur, restless on his return from the hunt, has seven pavilions (“paradises”) built for him. Each pavilion is a different colour and in each is a princess from a different part of the world. Bahram visits each princess on a different day of the week. It’s the first princess, from India, and in the black pavilion, on Saturday, that tells Bahram the story of the Three Princes of Serendip.

It’s really the mother of all stories of improbable detection. And yet, this skill would have been commonplace once upon a time – when we lived by following the tracks of animals, when we crossed sees by the stars and the currents and winds.

The story has a European history too.  It has become known in the English speaking world as the source of the word serendipity, coined by the letter writer Horace Walpole because of his recollection of the part of the “silly fairy tale” – a translation of Khusraw’s – where the three princes by “accidents and sagacity” discern the nature of a lost camel.

There’s a French connection too. Voltaire”s has Zadig do the same thing as the three princes. This story too became emblematic, this time of detective work. There is the “Method of Zadig” as it was called. The story could has worked its way into the world of detective fiction and into the laboratory.

There is a wonderful scholarly book – and if such a thing is possible, this is it – called The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science by Robert Merton. He traces the route of the word serendipity, and the idea, and its influence on science.

But all that is another story. This one, The Three Princes of Serendip, is crying out to be an illustrated children’s book. And as it’s written by an Indian and set in India, wouldn’t it be great if the amazingly creative people at Tara books could be the ones to make it?

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Wabi Sabi

Another Ed Young book – and I am bowled over by it straight away.

It illustrates, and explains, something in Japanese culture that I kind of understood, but didn’t know had a name: wabi sabi. It was there in the Japanese illustrations of La Fontaine’s fables that I mentioned before. It’s there in haikus, in their quiet minimal holding of a moment in time, in nature. It’s there in the zen garden and the rough, chunky and irregular bowls of the tea ceremony.

Thumbnail for version as of 14:37, 24 January 2005

And this book illustrates wabi sabi through a story. A story about a cat called Wabi Sabi who wants to understand his name.

So, what is wabi sabi? Here is the author of the book, Mark Reibstein, and the illustrator, Ed Young, talking about the book:

Ed Young used collage for his illustrations. As he says in an interview here on How To Be A Children’s Book Illustrator:

“It’s easier to change around, nothing is permanently pasted down,” Young said. “It’s flexible and alive. With other mediums you often get tight too quickly, then you get attached to it and it’s hard to change. Collage was something I used for sketching in the past. Now I use it to finish my work.”

“It’s really play. You don’t get down to make something firm until the [pieces] start to talk to you.  Then you listen.”

wabi sabi 1

wabi sabi 2

The cat’s tail twitching,

she watches her master, still

waiting in silence.

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fables of conflict and intrigue

At last, I’ve got my hands on Ramsay Wood’s second volume of Kalila and Dimna. (I have mentioned his first volume before) This one is subtitled fables of conflict and intrigue. I had sent a copy to M, and had accidentally sent my copy to him as well.

Once again, Wood’s modern retelling of the Panchatantra stories is a rich, spicy broth, thought-provoking and constantly surprising.

The first story is the one about the monkey and the crocodile. It’s a tale I’ve come across before: crocodile gives monkey a ride on his back over the water. Then he tells monkey he’s going to eat his heart. Monkey says he’s left his heart back in his tree, so croc takes him back. Once there, of course, monkey reveals that his heart is in the normal place.

I knew the story from Paul Galdone’s picture book, where it is told very simply. Galdone’s illustrations are famously wonderful:

I see there’s also a version by Gerald McDermott who’s published lots of great trickster tales from around the world:

But Ramsay Wood’s is a much richer and multi-layered telling:

Crocodile doesn’t really want to do the dirty on his friend monkey, but his wife is jealous of the friendship and asks for monkey’s fig-sweetened heart. Monkey tricks his way out with the heart-in-the-tree ploy.

And when monkey escapes he reluctantly tells crocodile some other stories, which lead onto others, 1001-night-style. The first tale is about the donkey “without heart or ears”, a fable that is ancient in both east and west.

There’s lots more of Ramsay Wood’s book to go;  it’s a book to be savoured slowly…

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