Week 2: Jataka Tales (Birth Stories of the Buddha)

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Background Reading (1): Introduction to Frametales

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Frametales: Let's review the basics!
  2. Introduction to Buddhist Jataka Tales
  3. Terms and Definitions

Welcome to Modern Language 2003 Online. This is a course in World Literature... which, as you can imagine, is a huge topic. In order to narrow that topic down to something more reasonable, the specific focus of the class is Frametales in World Literature. Since the term "frametales" may be new to you, I've written this brief introduction to the course, so that you will know something about what you are getting into!

Stories and Literature

First, a word about stories and literature. Human beings have probably been telling stories since the very beginning of our species. One of the most significant traits of the human species is that we use language to communicate. Although there are many other living species that engage in communication, it appears that human beings are the only creatures who use "language" in order to do this.

Human language is primarily an oral phenomenon. From the moment that babies are born - and even while they are in the womb - they are listening to language, and learning as they listen. Babies respond instinctively to language and learn both how to understand what others say, while soon learning how to speak for themselves. And as soon as they start to speak, they are able to tell stories. Human children have always grown up listening to stories and learning to tell stories of their own. Nobody needed to go to school to learn how to do this. Stories and storytelling are a natural part of all of human history.

Literature is something quite different. The word itself is derived from the word "letter" - as is the word "literacy." Literature is a written phenomenon, and someone who is "literate" is someone who knows how to read the alphabet and how to write it. This is not something that children learn naturally. Speaking comes naturally, but to learn to write, you go to school. Literature, as a written phenomenon, is something very recent in human history.

So one important idea to keep in mind is that literature, from the very beginning, has depended on the oral tradition. The earliest writers of literature were writing down stories that had been in existence for hundreds or thousands of years. Writing was just a technology that allowed them to take the oral words and commit them to written form. There were stories long before there was written literature, and written literature often consists of stories from the oral tradition that are reworked in written form.

Stories and Storytellers

Pause for a moment here and imagine a storytelling scene: someone is telling a story... to someone. An oral story always has a teller and it always has an audience, and the storyteller and the audience are located in a specific place and time. Stories are part of a human environment. An oral story cannot exist without a storyteller... and the storyteller does not tell a story without an audience. And if you have a storyteller and an audience, you also have a place and a time where the storytelling event happens that brings them together.

Yet while the oral story always involves a storyteller and an audience, this is not true of written stories. Once stories are written down, they can become "anonymous" and the audience - the future readers of the book - is not known. Writing is disembodied in space and time. It is more permanent... but it is also less personal.

As you will see in the readings for this class, however, literature often chooses to reproduce the storytelling scene. The written story can imitate the oral story - complete with a storyteller, an audience, and a setting, all represented in the written work. Instead of an "impersonal third person narrator," there are works of literature which put the story into the mouth of an actual storyteller.

One book you may have read like this is Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain. Mark Twain is the author of that book - but he is not the teller of the story. Instead, Huckleberry Finn is the storyteller, with a distinctive voice and perspective of his own (even though he is just a figment of Mark Twain's imagination). Here is how the novel Huckleberry Finn opens:

YOU don't know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain't no matter. That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly.

In the novel, Huck narrates his adventures, which take the form of a journey. Along the way, he meets people and hears their stories in turn. Huck's journey becomes a way to tell many different stories: as he travels around and meets different people, they become storytellers inside the story that Huck himself is telling. That is the basic idea of a frametale: one story (the story of Huck's journey) becomes an excuse for other people to tell their stories, so that the book becomes filled with many voices - not just the voice of Huck, but of many other characters telling their own stories.

The Frametale: Stories about stories.

The term "frametale" simply means the story about the storyteller. It is the outside story that wraps around the inside story, the way that a picture frame wraps around a picture. The frametale tells us about who is telling the inside story, and gives a reason why that story is being told - is the storyteller trying to entertain the audience? teach them a lesson? prove a point? save his life? There many, many different ways that stories can be wrapped around other stories. Another way that you can think about frametales is that they are stories about stories or stories about storytellers. So imagine a story which has, for one of its characters, a storyteller. And that storyteller tells a story... inside the larger story.

Famous frametale: Canterbury Tales. Probably the most famous example of a frametale in European literature is Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (we will be reading selections from Chaucer later this semester). In The Canterbury Tales, the frametale is about a group of people who are going on a pilgrimage to Canterbury England. That's where the title of the book comes from. While the pilgrims are on their pilgrimage, they decide to tell stories along the way, so inside the frametale there are stories that get inserted. These stories are usually referred to by the storyteller's name. So, for example, one of the famous pilgrims going to Canterbury is "The Wife of Bath" (the woman who comes from the town of Bath, England) - and the story that she tells is usually referred to as "The Wife of Bath's Tale" - it is, in fact, one of the stories we will be reading for this class. We will also read selections from some other medieval European frametale collections, such as Boccaccio's Decameron.

Famous frametale: 1001 Nights. Another famous frametale comes from the Arabic literary tradition, which became very famous in Europe: 1001 Nights (also known as The Arabian Nights). The frametale for 1001 Nights is more complicated than the simple plot of the pilgrimage to Canterbury in Chaucer. The 1001 Nights opens with a story about a sultan who is convinced that his wife is having an extramarital affair. As a result, he starts to hate all women. Every day he marries another woman, and the next day he orders her execution. In order to put a stop to his madness, a woman named Scheherazade comes up with an ingenious plan. She marries the sultan, and that night she begins telling him a story. She breaks off the story and does not finish it, so the next morning the sultan faces a dilemma: if he kills Scheherazade, he will not get to hear the end of the story! So he agrees to let her live one more day, so that she can finish the story that night - but once again, Scheherazade breaks off without finishing the story. This goes on for a long time, hence the title 1001 Nights. Things end happily ever after: over time, Scheherazade gives birth to several children and the sultan realizes that he loves this woman and does not want to kill her after all. You will get a chance to read portions of 1001 Nights later this semester, including the famous stories of Aladdin and Sindbad, which are both stories that Scheherazade tells the sultan.

The Function of Frametales

Frametales can serve a very practical purpose, giving us information that helps us to interpret and understand the meaning of the story inside the frame. For example, the frametale can give us information about the person who is telling the story: is this person wise, somebody we can put our trust in? or is this person dangerous, somebody we cannot really trust? Sometimes it is very important to know who is telling a story and why they are telling that story. The frametale is where you can find out more about the person who is telling the story and what their intentions might be.

The frametale can also give us important information by showing us how the audience (in the frame) reacts to the story. Does the audience in the frametale laugh at the story? Does it make them sad? Does it frighten them? Does it teach them a lesson? Dante's Inferno is a great frametale which makes good use of this technique (and we will be reading selections from Dante later this semester). As Dante travels through the regions of Hell, the sinners that he meets tell him their stories. Like us, Dante is the "audience" for the stories that the dead people are telling. Sometimes Dante reacts to the stories of the dead with fear, or disgust, or pity, or anger. From watching Dante's reactions to the stories in the frametale, we can learn a lot about what different meanings that the stories contain - perhaps some meanings that we would not have realized on our own, without the frametale to guide us.

Frametales are often used for teaching purposes, exactly because the frametale can include an explanation or interpretation of the story, in the same way that teachers might interpret stories for their students. This is why frametales are sometimes called "didactic literature." The term "didactic" refers to "teaching" (the Greek word for a teacher was didaskalos). The stories that you will be reading this week - the "jatakas," or "birth stories" of the Buddha - are an example of didactic literature. The frametales for these stories show the Buddha teaching his disciples by telling the stories of his past lives, and then interpreting those stories, showing the connection between each story and the problems that his disciples face in their own lives.

  1. Frametales: What is a frametale?
  2. Introduction to Buddhist Jataka Tales
  3. Terms and Definitions

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: August 12, 2006 5:45 PM