Rumi's Mathnawi (selections)

Week 6: Middle East - Assignments - Reading - Resources - Images

The Man and the Bear

Reading time: 3 minutes. Word count: 400 words.

The story of the man and the bear is another fable in Rumi that has a great deal in common with the pattern of Aesop's fables: in this case it is not a foolish animal who gets taught a lesson, but a foolish man - who has made friends with a bear.

The Man and the Bear (trans. E.H. Whinfield)

A kind man, seeing a serpent overcoming a bear, went to the bear's assistance, and delivered him from the serpent. The bear was so sensible of the kindness the man had done him that he followed him about wherever he went, and became his faithful slave, guarding him from everything that might annoy him.

One day the man was lying asleep, and the bear, according to his custom, was sitting by him and driving off the flies. The flies became so persistent in their annoyances that the bear lost patience, and seizing the largest stone he could find, dashed it at them in order to crush them utterly; but unfortunately the flies escaped, and the stone lighted upon the sleeper's face and crushed it.

The moral is, "Do not make friends with fools."

"The Man with a Bear" (trans. Coleman Barks)

For the man who saved the bear
from the dragon's mouth, the bear
became a sort of pet.
When he would lie down to rest,
the bear would stand guard.
A certain friend passed by,
"Brother how did this bear
get connected to you?"
He told the adventure with the dragon,
and the friend responded,
"Don't forget
what your companion is. This friend
is not human! It would be better
to choose one of your own kind."
"You're just jealous of my unusual helper.
Look at his sweet devotion. Ignore
the bearishness!"
But the friend was not convinced,
"Don't go into the forest
with a comrade like this!
Let me go with you."
"I'm tired.
Leave me alone."
The man began imagining
motives other than kindness for his friend's concern.
"He has made a bet with someone
that he can separate me from my bear." Or,
"He will attack me when my bear is gone."
He had begun to think like a bear!
So the human friends went different ways,
the one with his bear into a forest,
where he fell asleep again.
The bear stood over him
waving the flies away.
But the flies kept coming back,
which irritated the bear.
He dislodged a stone from the mountainside
and raised it over the sleeping man.
When he saw that the flies had returned
and settled comfortably on the man's face,
He slammed the stone down, crushing
to powder the man's face and skull.
Which proves the old saying:

Questions. Make sure you can answer these questions about what you just read:

  • how did the bear become friends with the man?
  • how did the bear treat his friend?
  • how did the man die?

Source: E. H. Whinfield, The Masnavi (1898). Weblink.
Source: Coleman Barks, One-Handed Basket Weaving. Maypop Books, 1991.

Modern Languages / Anthropology 3043: Folklore & Mythology. 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: October 9, 2004 12:52 PM