This week I’m recommending – with some reservations – a collection of  fantastical stories from the Near East which may be even older than the famous `Arabian Nights’. `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’ more than lives up to its title. The collection survives in a single damaged manuscript found in Istanbul, which sounds like something out of a story in itself. The first translation from Arabic into English, by Malcolm C.Lyons, was only published last year. You can get it as an ebook but I splashed out on the sumptuous turquoise and gold hardback. A Penguin Classics paperback edition is due out in July.

In one of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ – `The Story of the Four Hidden Treasures and the Strange Things That Occurred’ – groups of treasure-hunters have to overcome a series of alarming obstacles, such as rock-throwing and sword-wielding statues, a steel-toothed serpent and a brazen lion, before they can get at the treasure. Before you reach the good bits of  `Tales of the Marvellous’ you will have to to get past the introduction and a first story with vital sections missing. The introduction by Robert Irwin is very erudite but seems designed to baffle and irritate readers in search of basic information. So, let me summarize. This collection was put together around the 10th century and may originally have contained 42 tales. Only 18 now survive in a manuscript which was produced in Egypt or Syria sometime between the 14th and 16th centuries. A few of the stories also occur in the much larger collection known as `The Thousand and One Nights’ or the `Arabian Nights’.

The`Tales of the Marvellous’ are more elaborate in style and structure than most folktales. During the introduction, Irwin sniffily refers to the language of these stories as `vulgar’ but all I can say is that it doesn’t show in this translation. Some of the stories include lengthy passages of poetry which don’t add much to the plot. I rather enjoyed the lush love poems but feel free to skip them. Ditto, the extremely dull prophecies of the Monk Simeon in `The Story of Sa’id Son of Hatim al-Bahili and the Marvels He Encountered at Sea’. Framing devices are a particular feature of Arab storytelling. The best known example involves Sheherazade saving her own life by telling her homicidal husband a story every night. In this collection, many of the stories are told to entertain a bored, depressed or grieving ruler. Within this framework, a number of characters may each tell their own  story – the complex tale of `Arus al-‘Ara’is and Her Deceit, As Well As the Wonders of the Sea and Islands’ has six narrators. These intricate sets of stories within stories mean that a mere 18 tales  can add up to quite a long book.

The collection features a variety of tale-types. There are love and adventure stories, tales about clever tricksters and people who suffer from bizarre misfortunes, and stories that belong to a tear-drenched sub-genre defined in the introduction as `Relief after Grief’. As you would expect from the title, there is a strong supernatural element in many of the tales. In these pages you will meet magicians and sorceresses, men and women transformed into animals and birds, good and evil jinn, mermaids and sea-monsters, killer statues and lethal enchantments. If you are wondering whether these stories are suitable for children, bear in mind that Arab folktales tend to contain more sex scenes than their European equivalents.  For example, in a story whose basic plot is similar to `Goldilocks and the Three Bears’, a prince hiding in a strange house eats a bite of food from each of 40 plates and sleeps with a different virgin in each of 40 beds. There are high levels of violence and cruelty too (the good get married, the bad get crucified) yet the stories often celebrate compassion and forgiveness. This book is an uncensored window onto a very different time and place. Be warned that some of the `Tales of the Marvellous’ contain passages which you may find offensive – hence the `with reservations’ recommendation.

Irwin suggests that the original compiler of the tales was probably a woman-hater, but in my view it is the male characters who come out badly. Few of the kings and caliphs are portrayed very favourably, not even the famous Harun al-Rashid who is shown as a jealous drunkard. The handsome heroes of many of the tales are passive figures who burst into tears when faced with misfortune and have to be rescued by their more intrepid mothers or girl-friends or by kindly older men. `Tales of the Marvellous’ is full of strong woman. Among them are  a `high-minded and open-hearted’ slave girl who risks a long journey to find her lost master, a clever princess who has been turned into a horse, Julnar of the Sea `the most skilful sorceress on the face of the earth’, and a weaver’s wife who comes up with a cunning plan to make her timid husband a rich man. One story begins with a rape but the victim is supported by her brother and goes on to become a warrior queen. The tale of `Arus al-`Ara’is (the Bride of Brides) is told in order to demonstrate how wicked and deceitful women can be, but its magnificent villainess behaves like the heroine of a Margaret Atwood novel – inventively punishing every man or jinni who treats her as sex object rather than a person.

The treasure-hunt tales, such as `The Quest for the Crown’ will have particular appeal for Fantasy buffs. Reading about a hero who endures ordeals of fire and water and battles magical enemies with the aid of a wise centaur in order to recover the crown that contains the `Stone of Victory’ is like finding the lost source of one of the great rivers of Fantasy. My favourite tale though is `The Story of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle’  – a splendidly loopy double romance (or triple if you count a pair of star-crossed lions who are important characters). The subtitle truthfully claims that `It Contains Strange and Marvellous Things’. The plot keeps veering off in unexpected directions and is full of exotic characters, such as an evil ruler who has a special death-dealing throne `for when he was angry’, a prince who has been suckled by a lioness, a queen who dresses up as her own vizier to woo the hero, and the surprisingly helpful King of the Ostriches. If you want to find out the true identity of the white-footed gazelle, what role is played by the malicious Queen of the Crows, or who turns our hero into a Nile crocodile – well you will just have to read `Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange’. Until next time….