Category: Narrative/Verbal Art

African Tales

By Harold Scheub. 2005. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. 286 pages. ISBN: 029920944X (soft cover).

Reviewed by Robert Cancel, University of California, San Diego

[Review length: 977 words • Review posted on April 13, 2006]

African Tales is a welcome collection of narratives from around the continent that can be profitably assigned for coursework as well as read for personal enjoyment. It consists of forty-six stories, drawn from nearly as many collections of African folkore, and from forty some indigenous societies. The tales are arranged alphabetically by ethnic group, running, logically enough, from Asante (Ghana) to Zulu (South Africa). The volume is prefaced with a brief introduction by the compiler, Harold Scheub: “Story and Storyteller: The Collection of Stories from the Oral Tradition.”

This preface to the narratives is most helpful for novices, scholars working in other fields, or students. Scheub eloquently evokes the intricate levels of the experience of story-performance and participation as well as the difficulty in trying to render, and almost inevitably reduce, such complex art forms onto the printed page. The brief essay leaves the reader hanging, however, when it concludes by saying:

“The unique tensions of the live, oral, public performance and the many nonverbal aspects of the work of art cannot be rendered in any precise way on paper. One must seek a solution by devising something of a hybrid form, neither the original narrative performance nor a literary story, yet borrowing from both. The translator must accept the fact that the oral nature of the narrative is gone the minute sound is gone, and the shift is from the ear to the eye. But there is an inner ear, and it is the challenge of the translator to work on that.” (xviii)

Few can argue with these observations, but it would have been helpful to know if Scheub had used these perceptions in selecting and editing the narratives in this volume, possibly clarifying how such a diverse group of tales from so many different collections came to be placed between one set of covers. This, however, raises a scholarly question of how so many older collections—most of them range in their dates of publication from 1864 to 1930—and various styles of translation were handled by the compiler. There is always the thorny question of how we re-present material that is already a translation. In many cases we do not really know the quality of the original translations. Many scholars who’ve read a number of these volumes have found the English to be somewhat uneven, with some collectors choosing to preserve rhythms and structures from the original African languages and others intensifying their stylistic adaptations to create more readerly, and readable, texts. The narratives are presented, by the way, in a fine literary style that is both engaging and evocative.

Scheub mostly succeeds, in the few stories I was able to check against the original collections, in keeping the words of the originals intact. Where there were editorial changes, the choices seemed logical and allowed the stories to flow better in contemporary though not necessarily colloquial English. Losing the “thees” and “thines” of a more mannered and biblical-centered era is, for most purposes, not a bad thing. Most of these changes were minimal. For example, when it came to the Mbundu tale from Angola, collected by Heli Chatelain, and a South African San tale, from the ground-breaking work by W.H.I. Bleek and L.C. Lloyd, the translations smooth over what was often rather awkward English, but they do not stray too far from the initial texts. On the other hand, I rather preferred C.M. Doke’s version of the Lamba story to the choices made for the current compilation—possibly due to my greater familiarity with the original language.

Mostly, the stories are terrific, filled with familiar tale-types, motifs and stock characters that are commonly found in various regions of Africa. The tales from the north, east coast, and parts of the west are interwoven with Islamic phrases and sentiments that link them to stories as far back as Burton’s translation of the Thousand and One Nights. Tales from the central and southern regions are also united by similar motifs and characters. For those familiar with African narratives, there is the twin enjoyment of the expected and the unexpected, suggesting the quality of inventiveness of the selected tales. Scheub tends to favor longer, intricate narratives over the very brief compact story. Both types are probably equally prevalent in African societies, depending on the storyteller and situation of performance. I’d have liked to see a little better documentation when the compiler used two Xhosa narratives from his own collection. Though they were adequately annotated as far as specific performer, place, time, and cultural information, it would simply have been informative to identify the collector and source of the texts. Most of the tales included bibliographic notes on the collections as well as a bit of background on the societies of the storytellers. The age of some of the tales might have demanded a bit more commentary on what great changes may have come to these peoples since the time of collection, but this would probably have entailed a different kind of book than was intended.

African Tales is a text I would strongly recommend for use in classes on African oral traditions and broader offerings in folklore and mythology. Harold Scheub’s earlier collection, The African Storyteller: Stories from African Oral Traditions (Dubuque, Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company, 1999), has a similar number of stories, but it also provides extensive critical remarks and is organized in categories that scholars may or may not find helpful. The current volume is a better teaching text if you want students to apply their own, or other, methods of analysis or categorization to the tales. The paperback version of this 2005 volume is also more affordable than the 1999 collection. Finally, given the opportunity, the main change I’d make in African Tales is to group the narratives by geographical area rather than alphabetically. This alternative organization would make it easier to identify intra-regional/cultural relationships among the narratives.

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