TalkingtoOwlsFor me one of the pleasures of the short story form is the way it can trace its lineage back from story to story through the ages, and through the cultures, not merely of my home continent (Europe!), but to the middle east and the orient.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron is one of the pools of stories on that river through time and place, a gathering of tales that spill over into [or ‘which spills over into’ – which do you think?] my own island sub-culture, in, among others, the stories of ‘Westward for Smelts.

My fount of all wisdom with regard to the short story, Hammerton’s wonderful 20 volume treasure trove –The World’s Thousand Best Short Stories of circa 1933gave me the clue to this one, in its introduction to The Tale Told By The Fishwife of Strand-on-the-Green. While we’re on titles, I might as well reproduce the whole title of the chap-book from which it came, in 1620: Westward for Smelts: The Waterman’s-Fare of Mad Merry Western Wenches whose Tongues, albeit like Bell-clappers they never leave Ringing, yet their Tales are Sweet and will much Content you. Written by Kind Kit of Kingston.

Now that’s what I call a title! (and me writing my way through a collection of flash fictions with one word titles at the moment!).

The Fishwife of Strand-on-the-Green’s tale is based on the Ninth Tale, of day two in Boccaccio’s collection: Bernabo da Genova is tricked by Ambrogiuolo, loses his money and orders his innocent wife to be murdered, She escapes and, dressed as a man, enters the Sultan’s service. She meets the trickster; brings Bernabo to Alexandria; the trickster is punished; she returns to woman’s clothes; and they go home wealthy to Genoa. (from The Folio Society, 1954 edition, vol I)

The oriental origin is implied in the description, but in the English chap-book version, the action has moved to England, and to the period of the Battle of Barnet, and the struggle for power between Kings Edward and Henry! The sequence of events though is similar, and the issues raised, of trust between men, and between husbands and their wives, are the same. The authority of overlords is not questioned in either, and nor is the ‘proper’ relation of the spouses.

It’s not the content that interests me here though, so much as that lineage, and what it tells us about the free movement of stories, and the free access we have to them, which neither diminishes nor undermines, but rather enriches and enlarges our own storytelling culture.

I’m for writing another version of the tale, by the way, and would invite you to join me…..I’ll happily put any attempts on the Samizdat page of the blog, if anyone would care to join me! (It could be that stories are like children – they don’t have to be good, but only to be loved. Though, it must be said, if they’re not good, they might not do so well in the world!)

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