Sayf Ben (or ibn) Dhi Yazan: the maverick motif

from Wael Shawky’s ‘The Gulf Project Camp’ at Lisson Gallery, New York.

Lena Jayyusi knows how readers unfamiliar with Arabic medieval romance are likely to approach her translation of The Adventures of Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan, namely, as a repository of narrative motifs. She provides one herself. We will be tempted to index the work still further against the Thompson motif index, for example, or perhaps, more relevantly, against those found in E. H. Ruck’s An Index of Themes and Motifs in Twelfth-Century French Arthurian Poetry, Anita Guerreau-Jalabert’s Index des motifs narratifs dans les romans arthuriens français en vers (published the same year as Ruck’s volume!), or even those in the Thesaurus Exemplorum Medii Aevi (ThEMA).

We will do this because so much is so familiar, even to those of us, like me, whose medieval education concentrates only on Middle English, Old French, and Latin works. Readers of medieval romance, from whatever place in whatever language, will know not to look for forms of characterization particular to the modern novel. Characters vary, slightly, but only in a very narrow band: the men are all brave, some wicked, some good, and pagan men never win, though the best fighters among them convert; wizards can be good or wicked, but they are mostly wicked; women might connive, and they are, for the most part, extraordinarily beautiful; and, in the first half of the work, they might creep along beside their beloved — as Shama does with Sayf Ben Dhi Yazan — in full armor, rescuing him from danger. All of this is (mostly) expected, and so too are the elements of the plot (mostly), distinguished from the romance of Latin Christendom (mostly) only by the “local flavor” of the divine and spiritual assistance: no eucharistic miracles, no talk of hell, but instead the great, gigantic, and airy force of the jinn. So we turn to the motifs to organize this episodic, yet (mostly) familiar work into some further, perhaps meaningful pattern.

For example: Sayf is abandoned as an infant by a wicked ruler who fears he will supplant them. He’s left to the elements, though not before being bedecked with jewels that will identify him, much later, as a man of quality, and as the offspring of his bad parent. A gazelle finds him in the wilderness, and feeds him from her teat. The earliest such story dates to the Akkadian account of the childhood of Sargon; and then next earliest, quite similar, that of Cyrus of Persia, abandoned, rescued by dogs (or a human named “dog”), who then reveals his quality as an adult. A later one, a few centuries prior to this Arabic romance (15th or 16th century?) is Marie de France’s lai of “le Fresne.” Such stories at once attest to the innate rather than merely inherited quality of the hero, letting him (and it’s mostly a him) claim his power through his own might, while also speaking, contrarily, of the ineradicable presence of his natural, aristocratic inheritance. Nothing much distinguishes Sayf’s childhood from this pattern, except, perhaps, the acquisition of a new, jinn foster-mother, superior in power and loyalty to the wicked, supplanting concubine, Qamariyya, his mother.

So much weight in that except! For normally the mother in the “feral foundling” story is erased, her child stolen, her mothering shoved aside in favor of the new parent. Romulus and Remus’s mother, or Moses’s, or any number of other, more obscure mothers: they generally don’t matter much. As I write in my forthcoming book:

Typically, as with Cyrus, Romulus and Remus, or Wolfdietrich, the foster mother drops from the narrative altogether, as does the birthmother, whose typical narrative function is only to be impregnated, to flee, to give birth, and to lose her child. The standard feral child story thus erases both mothering and its labor twice, first by cutting off the child from its birth mother and what he owes her for her labor, and then by cutting off the child from the mother who raised him.

Provided with knowledge like this, knowing what normally happens, and knowing how Sayf differs, we have to wonder at the limited use of the motif index. Tracking similar narrative elements across texts has its uses, not least of all that of undoing the supposed distances — linguistic, religious, geographic, and so on — that supposedly separate one region from another. The boundaries later formed by colonialism and European worldwide dominance prevented no transmission of good stories, or similar encoded anxieties and hopes, in the centuries prior. But we might also want an index of modified motifs, records not just of the similarities, but of the key variations, surprises. And, in response to such an index, we would ask whether a variation actually marks more narrative agency on the part of the work, which thus serves as a mark of significance in the otherwise unchosen, even unthinking flow of narrative motifs; or we might ask whether the variation, and with it, that element of “singularity,” really merits that kind of admiration: because isn’t the belief in the particular significance of singularity a kind of cultural mystification too, like our supposed love of individuals, rebels, and mavericks? What’s more important culturally, the standard model, or the one-off? The Prick of Conscience or Pearl?

Further discussion in class!