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Fables and Fairy Tales. 0001: H. G. Keene, Persian Fables

Author: Keene, Rev. H. G., M.A.
Title: Persian Fables, for Young and Old
Cat. Number: 0001
Date: 1833
1st Edition: 1833
Pub. Place: London
Publisher: John W. Parker, West Strand
Price: Unknown
Pages: 1 vol., vi + 88pp.
Size: 13.5 x 9 cm
Illustrations: Frontispiece plus 18 further plates
Note: 'Published under the direction of the Committee of General Literature and Education, Appointed for the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge.'

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Page 003 of item 0001

Introductory essay

Henry George Keene (30 September 1781-29 January 1864) was a noted scholar of Oriental and especially Persian literature, law and history. In 1798, he had gone to India as a cadet. After active service under Colonel Arthur Wellesley he left the army and became a civil servant in Madras. Before permanently returning to England in 1811, Keene had published a signifcant text on law in Arabic and had become fluent in several Oriental languages. In Britain, Keene became a fellow of Sydney Sussex College in Cambridge and then a professor of Arabic and Persian at the East India College at Haileybury, a position half way between a school-teacher and a university don. By the time of his retirement from Haileybury in 1824 he had become well-known as an expert on Persian culture, but he did not publish until the Persian Fables which appeared first in 1833. (D.N.B.)

Persian Fables was popular enough to receive an immediate American imprint and to be translated into Tamil in 1840. It was re-published in a new edition in 1880, under the supervision of the daughter for whom the work had ostensibly originally been written, as The Modest Raindrop, and other fables, for old and young. Other works followed: Persian Stories: illustrative of Eastern Manners and Customs in 1835, also published by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge and also published in a Madras edition with a Tamil translation alongside the English (1840); and several translations from the Persian such as Akhalak-i Muhsini;, or the morals of the beneficent. Literally translated from the Persian of Husain Vaiz Kashifi; (Hertford, 1850) and Anwar-i Suhaili. The first book of the Anvar-i Suheli. The Persian Text (1867).

Though Keene claimed that his fables were all taken from Persian sources, they exhibit few obviously Oriental traits. One or two camels and monkeys are to be found, but by and large the fables are filled with the usual stand-bys of European fables - foxes, wolves, partridges and peacocks. For that matter, some of the illustrations depict what are clearly European scenes (p.23 and p.51). Keene acknowledged that he had taken 'great liberties' in adapting the fables to European 'notions and usages', and he defended himself on the grounds that Persian authors themselves had already much embellished these stories (preface). But the fact remains that a reader taking up this book in the expectation of taking a journey to the East would have been sorely disappointed. Just as the protagonists and paraphernalia of the tale might have come straight out of Aesop, so might the morals. The fables retail a decidedly conservative line. Resignation and contentment are the principal values taught. A crane trying to be a hawk, for instance, elicits the moral 'The wisest thing we can do, is to follow the pursuits that belong to our station, and be content with the proper exercise of our particular talent' ('The Ambitious Crane', p.68) whilst a camel and an ass who attempt to escape from their bondage to man soon drown, prompting the conclusion that 'When we attempt to run away from the troubles of that state of life to which we are adapted by Providence, we fall into others that we are not prepared for.' ('The Camel and the Ass', p.72.) Taking a similar stance against any ambition were Keene's more mundane lessons, such as that one should not expose oneself to contempt by seeking to entertain at one's home persons of rank and consideration ('The Camel and the Rat', p.52) or that it is preferable to be poor than to be rich if the price is the likelihood of receiving a beating ('The Greedy Cat', p.86). All this befitted a publication written by a clergyman and endorsed by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge. It is certainly possible that Persian Tales was intended as a 'reward book' for the Society, to be given to Sunday school children, a practice which the SPCK and Religious Tract Society were developing from the 1810s and '20s. Yet Persian Tales is not all anodyne, sub-Aesop fables of social quiescence. The illustrations are sometimes engaging and lively, and Keene could also on occasion be excitingly brutal, as when a covetous huntsman gets mauled to death by the tiger he has inadvertently trapped ('The Abstemious Fox and the Covetous Huntsman', p.32), or could produce a fable totally out of keeping with the others which, under a thin veil of allegory, launched what was surely a caustic attack on lawyers ('The Partridge and the Quail', p.18).

Lee, Stephen (ed.), Dictionary of National Biography, London: Smith, Elder, and Co., 1892 and after