IKE popular tales in general, the original sources of stories of simpletons are for the most part not traceable. The old Greek jests of this class had doubtless been floating about among different peoples long before they were reduced to writing. The only tales and apologues of noodles or stupid folk to which an approximate date can be assigned are those found in the early Buddhist books, especially in the "Játakas" or Birth-stories, which are said to have been related to his disciples by Gautama, the illustrious founder of Buddhism, as incidents which occurred to himself and others in former births, and were afterwards put into a literary form by his followers. Many
of the "Játakas" relate to silly men and women, and also to stupid animals, the latter being, of course, men re-born as beasts, birds, or reptiles. But it is not to be supposed that all are of Buddhist invention; some had doubtless been current for ages among the Hindus before Gautama promulgated his mild doctrines. Scholars are, however, agreed that these fictions date at latest from a century prior to the Christian era.
Of European noodle-stories, as of other folk-tales, it may be said that, while they are numerous, yet the elements of which they are composed are comparatively very few. The versions domiciled in different countries exhibit little originality, farther than occasional modifications in accordance with local manners and customs. Thus for the stupid Brahman of Indian stories the blundering, silly son is often substituted in European variants; for the brose in Norse and Highland tales we find polenta or macaroni in Italian and Sicilian versions. The identity of
incidents in the noodle-stories of Europe with those in what are for us their oldest forms, the Buddhist and Indian books, is very remarkable, particularly so in the case of Norse popular fictions, which, there is every reason to believe, were largely introduced through the Mongolians; and the similarity of Italian and West Highland stories to those of Iceland and Norway would seem to indicate the influence of the Norsemen in the Western Islands of Scotland and in the south of Europe.
It were utterly futile to attempt to trace the literary history of most of the noodle-stories which appear to have been current throughout European countries for many generations, since they have practically none. Soon after the invention of printing collections of facetiæ were rapidly multiplied, the compilers taking their material from oral as well as written sources, amongst others, from mediæval collections of "exempla" designed for the use of preachers and the writings
of the classical authors of antiquity. With the exception of those in Buddhist works, it is more than probable that the noodle-stories which are found among all peoples never had any other purpose than that of mere amusement. Who, indeed, could possibly convert the "witless devices" of the men of Gotham into vehicles of moral instruction? Only the monkish writers of the Middle Ages, who even "spiritualised" tales which, if reproduced in these days, must be "printed for private circulation"!
Yet may the typical noodle of popular tales "point a moral," after a fashion. Poor fellow! he follows his instructions only too literally, and with a firm conviction that he is thus doing a very clever thing. But the consequence is almost always ridiculous. He practically shows the fallacy of the old saw that "fools learn by experience," for his next folly is sure to be greater than the last, in spite of every caution to the contrary. He is generally very honest, and does
everything, like the man in the play, "with the best intentions." His mind is incapable of entertaining more than one idea at a time; but to that he holds fast, with the tenacity of the lobster's claw: he cannot be diverted from it until, by some accident, a fresh idea displaces it; and so on he goes from one blunder to another. His blunders, however, which in the case of an ordinary man would infallibly result in disaster to himself or to others, sometimes lead him to unexpected good fortune. He it is, in fact, to whom the great Persian poet Sádí alludes when he says, in his charming "Gulistán," or Rose Garden, "The alchemist died of grief and distress, while the blockhead found a treasure under a ruin." Men of intelligence toil painfully to acquire a mere "livelihood"; the noodle stumbles upon great wealth in the midst of his wildest vagaries. In brief, he is--in stories, at least--a standing illustration of the "vanity of human life"!
And now a few words as to the history and design of the following work. When the Folk-lore Society was formed, some nine years since, the late Mr. W.J. Thorns, who was one of the leading men in its formation, promised to edit for the Society the "Merry Tales of the Mad Men of Gotham" furnishing notes of analogous stories, a task which he was peculiarly qualified to perform. As time passed on, however, the infirmities of old age doubtless rendered the purposed work less and less attractive to him, and his death, after a long, useful, and honourable career, left it still undone. What particular plan he had sketched out for himself I do not know; but there can be no doubt that had he carried it out the results would have been most valuable. And, since he did not perform his self-allotted task, his death is surely a great loss, perhaps an irreparable loss, to English students of comparative folk-lore.
More than five years ago, with a view of urging Mr. Thorns to set about the
work, I offered to furnish him with some material in the shape of Oriental noodle-stories; but from a remark in his reply I feared there would be no need for such services as I could render him. That fear has been since realised, and the present little book is now offered as a humble substitute for the intended work of Mr. Thorns, until it is displaced by a more worthy one.
Since the "Tales of the Men of Gotham" ceased to be reproduced in chap-book form, the first reprint of the collection was made in 1840, with an introduction by Mr. J. O. Halliwell (now Halliwell-Phillipps); and that brochure is become almost as scarce as the chap-book copies themselves: the only copy I have seen is in the Euing collection in the Glasgow University Library. The tales were next reprinted in the "Shakespeare Jest-books" so ably edited and annotated by Mr. W. Carcw Hazlitt, in three volumes (1864). They were again reproduced in Mr. John
Ashtoris "Chap-books of the Eighteenth Century" (1882).
It did not enter into the plan of any of these editors to cite analogues or variants of the Gothamite Tales; nor, on the other hand, was it any part of my design in the present little work to reproduce the Tales in the same order as they appear in the printed collection. Yet all that are worth reproducing in a work of this description will be found in the chapters entitled "Gothamite Drolleries" of which they form, indeed, but a small portion.
My design has been to bring together, from widely scattered sources, many of which are probably unknown or inaccessible to ordinary readers, the best of this class of humorous narratives, in their oldest existing Buddhist and Greek forms as well as in the forms in which they are current among the people in the present day. It will, perhaps, be thought by some that a portion of what is here presented might have been omitted with-
out great loss; but my aim has been not only to compile an amusing story-book, but to illustrate to some extent the migrations of popular fictions from country to country. In this design I was assisted by Captain R. C. Temple, one of the editors of the "Indian Antiquary" and one of the authors of "Wide-awake Stories," from the Punjáb and Kashmír, who kindly directed me to sources whence I have drawn some curious Oriental parallels to European stories of simpletons.
*** While my "Popular Tales and Fictions' was passing through the press, in 1886, I made reference (in vol. i., p. 65) to the present work, as it was purposed to be published that year, but Mr. Stock has had unavoidably to defer Us publication till now.
W. A. C.
GLASGOW, March, 1888.