First-time fables

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
At a time when nearly all collections of folk-tales are retellings of stories collected long ago, it is marvellous to have a new volume which proclaims its contents are "written down here for the first time".

Elizabeth Laird has travelled thousands of miles, discovering the various faiths and cultures represented in Ethiopia, as well as collecting and recording village storytellers' tales from the oral tradition. Some of these have been published in English language readers and used in Ethiopian schools, while others are available in the UK under the title: When The World Began: Stories Collected in Ethiopia (Oxford University Press pound;14.99).

While Laird's enterprise had the backing of the British Council and her publisher, her acknowledgements give proper pride of place to the storytellers and translators. She has also kept to the simple fable style, resisting the temptation to be clever with language in any way that would distract from the essential narrative.

OUP's habit of using several illustrators in one book is not always successful, but it works here, as the different styles of four artists are deployed to reflect the different atmospheres of the tales.

The majority are moral fables, but their tone varies. Stories on the "how-the-animal-became", theme, rub shoulders wth stories that bear strong similarities with New Testament parables. "The Shield of Kindness", in which characters display great compassion towards their family's bitter enemy, is certainly one of these. As Laird writes in her commentary at the back of the book; in the cool central highlands of Ethiopia "people have been Christian since the earliest times".

This is a book for all ages, and for reading aloud.

As with fables, there is a conciseness about the best biblical stories that invites amplification and imaginative dramatisation. In The Flood Tales by Richard Monte, illustrated by Izhar Cohen (Pavilion pound;12.99), Monte writes about Noah and the flood from the point of view of practical necessity. While collecting two of each species, Noah listens to his wife's advice: "Cubs! Stick to cubs!" But cubs soon grow into adults with large appetites. How much extra food should be brought on board the Ark? Other problems arise after the storm when the waters become contaminated with the vessel's effluent, prompting Noah to shriek: "We have flooded these local tides with excrement!" This version is not for younger primary pupils, but it will entertain mature minds in Years 5 and 6 and present them with a model for retelling other famous stories from a naturalistic point of view.

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