Perusing The World’s Thousand Best Stories (Hammerton c1933) I dipped into the far reaches of volumes 17 & 18.
It often strikes me that there are lines that stand out, in poems and fiction, and, for that matter, in essays. They stand out when we first encounter them, and linger on in our memories long after other details of the piece of writing have faded, become garbled, and are ultimately forgotten. The explanation for this, it seems to me, is likely to be not so much in the nature of the lines themselves, but in their particular relationships to the details of our individual lives, and to our individual personalities.
In the introductory essay to volume 18 (The Spanish Story-Tellers), by Hammerton himself, he makes a remark in relation to a very short tale called The Biter Bit. An anonymous anecdote, it was ‘here included,’ he says, ‘to show how common to all European literature was this brief anecdote form.’
And suddenly all that woffle about the newness and originality of flash fiction is shattered into a thousand pieces, and it comes to me that somewhere else, reading about the short story form, I previously had come across a reference to the ‘anecdote form.’ This, in some other book, had been a dismissive remark, suggesting that the short story had been born out of an evolution from the earlier, and implicitly inferior earlier and shorter form. Rather than seeing the ‘anecdote’ as a type of short story, and a venerable one at that, it saw it as a rather shameful background from which the genre needed to disconnect itself in order to become respectable.
There are parallels to that sort of thinking: to make more complex, to make merely bigger, is often assumed to be to make more worthwhile. The baroque and the rococo, the pretentious and the overblown will follow in its train. The five thousand word short story, must of necessity, it might be argued, be a better one than the five hundred word anecdote. But, not, of course, if four and a half thousand of the words are superfluous!
The Biter Bit, attributed to a fifteenth century anonymee, takes up a mere thirty three lines on the printed page, and I estimate it to run to no more than 350 words, is a delicious tale of three travellers. They are ‘two townsmen and a countryman, on a pilgrimage to Mecca.’ The Moorish origin of the tale is thus revealed. Their ‘victuals ran short, so that they had nothing left but a little flour-enough to make a loaf.’
The two townsmen plot to cheat the countryman out of his share, and across the centuries the anecdote stretches out its fingers to touch stories such as ‘Local Hero’ and ‘The Maggie’ (seen elsewhere on the blog!). Their plan involves the trio sleeping while the loaf bakes, and the meal going to the one who has the most interesting dream. No elaboration is necessary – the implication is that the simple rustic will not be able to win!
But the rustic, as rustics will, cuts across this sophistication. He simply wakes early and eats the half baked loaf, and then goes back to sleep. The townsmen, a little later, wake also, and go through the motions of describing their dreams, which the countryman overhears. One of them says he has dreamt of being taken to heaven by two angels, the other that he has been similarly taken to hell. Then the rustic speaks, and ends the story (in traditional short story style, with the emphasis in the last word).
He begins by asking who it is he can hear talking. His companions tell him, it is they whom he hears. ‘Have ye returned?’ he asks. Where from? they ask him, and he delivers that final blow.
‘But now methought I saw two angels take the one of you to heaven, and then two other angels take the other to hell; and seeing this, and thinking you would neither return, I got up and ate the loaf.’
What I rather like about this ending is that it manages to pack a punch despite repeating a piece of information that we, the readers, already know. Could this be another one of those anecdotes that we might re-write for our own times? It must surely have been re-written many times before it reached its fifteenth century form, and no doubt has been many times since. Could it also be an example, and a clear one at that, of the content being what is ‘immortal’ in it, with the form serving to present that content for each contemporary audience or readership?