The Best Fiction Books » Fairy Tales & Mythology

The best books on Fairy Tale Tellers

recommended by Nicholas Jubber

The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber


The Fairy Tellers
by Nicholas Jubber


Once upon a time, someone told a story that would be told for hundreds of years, making its way into books and, eventually, into movies, where the tale would again be told afresh multiple times. Who was that someone? Nonfiction writer Nicholas Jubber introduces some of the original tellers of fairy tales, as well as some of his favourite 20th-century interpreters.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

The Fairy Tellers by Nicholas Jubber


The Fairy Tellers
by Nicholas Jubber

Buy all books

You’ve done a lot of research on the original tellers of fairy tales, many of whom aren’t often given their due by Disney or in other retellings. As an example, could you maybe start by telling me who wrote one of my favourites, “Beauty and the Beast”?

“Beauty and the Beast” is a classic example of a storyteller who did not get her due, either in her life or after, even though the story has become ever more popular year by year. Her name was Gabrielle-Suzanne Barbot de Villeneuve and she was a member of the French aristocracy who had rather a troubled life. She married a dissolute rake, she was sued by her own mother (who was trying to get hold of her late father’s wealth), she lost a child very young, and her husband died, leaving her with all kinds of debts. She ended up working as a housekeeper for one of the most cantankerous people in 18th century Paris, a playwright called Prosper Jolyot de Crébillon. He was a man whose looks Casanova compared to a lion and who was also known as ‘Le Fumeur’ because he smoked his pipe so incessantly. He surrounded himself by stray cats and dogs, and the house was full of the smell of animals. When people asked him, ‘Why do you surround yourself with so many animals?’ he would reply, ‘because I know men.’

So it was quite a strange life that she led, and it’s difficult not to see overlaps with the story she wrote of “Beauty and the Beast”—while recognizing that she put her own imagination into the story too. It’s an archetypal story in many ways, but she was the person who solidified it. She gave it those elements that we recognize: the idea of the merchant fleeing from a storm, having the meal in the enchanted house, taking a rose from the bush, suddenly being accosted by a beast, his daughter having to take his place and then the slow development of a relationship between her and the Beast.

In Madame de Villeneuve’s version, when Belle comes back from meeting her family and finds the Beast wasting away, almost dying out of lovesickness, she says that she will be his wife and they go to bed together—while he’s still a beast. It isn’t until the next morning that he becomes the handsome prince. There’s that sense of real physical peril she’s putting herself into. So, there are differences in her version, but it’s very much the recognizable story that we have, and it’s to this particular writer that we owe it.

Other than the obscurity of some of the original tellers, the other aspect of fairy tales that comes out of your book is how international they are. The story of Aladdin was first told by Hanna Diyab, a man from Syria, but the story is set in China, and Aladdin’s palace is based on Versailles.

It’s one of the reasons I wanted to write the book, because one of the things that makes fairy tales so exciting for me is the fact that it is a genuinely global genre. That’s where you could distinguish it from, say, the children’s literature we get in the UK, where, once you get to the 20th century, it’s mostly British and American writers. Fairy tales come from everywhere. They’ve also been told everywhere: Cinderella, famously, has been told in nearly every single country in the world and there are many different versions of it. The Tales of 1,001 Nights are from the Middle East, especially Syria and Egypt, but also many other places. We can track down stories from India from even earlier. There are well-known stories from Germany with the Brothers Grimm, from France, and from Denmark with Hans Christian Andersen. I was also fascinated to discover all these stories from Russia. Some of them are very macabre, very grisly, but they’re also just magical and becoming quite popular now, in the English-speaking world, with the stories of Baba Yaga and her hut on chicken legs. So yes, these stories come from all over. In my book, because I was trying to look at particular tellers, I focused on fairytellers from Italy, Syria, Germany, France, India, Russia, and Denmark but, obviously, there are many more. That’s what’s so exciting, how international they are.

That is also reflected in the whole idea of what a fairy tale is. In English, we have the word ‘fairy tale’, which we got from the French ‘conte de fées’. But if you go into different languages, they have different ways of calling them. In German, it’s märchen which means ‘little tale’, in Danish it’s eventyr which means ‘adventure’. In Arabic, one of the phrases they use is hikayat khayaliyeh, which is ‘tales of imagination’. So there are slightly different ways of interpreting what a fairy tale is, which slightly adjusts how you decide what is included in fairy tales, depending on which country or which language you’re talking about.

Don’t you say in the book that in your view some of these foreign names are better than ‘fairy tales’?

Yes, they’re more specific and more accurate in some other languages. The problem with our term fairy tale is that, obviously, a lot of our fairy tales do not have fairies in them. Also, our idea of a fairy is slightly different from the French version of what a fairy is.

I came up with my own three criteria for what makes a fairy tale: it has to have an element of magic and be tellable to children so they can get it. There is also the oral aspect. There are these stock phrases—‘once upon a time’ and ‘happily ever after’—that come from oral culture, that are part of what makes it a fairy tale.

“It is a genuinely global genre”

That said, when we say that they have to have an element of magic, in a lot of fairy tales that element is very small. Take “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” which we think of as a classic fairy tale. It’s mostly about a girl who has to leave home because she’s being attacked by her stepmother and is in danger of being murdered. She ends up living with the mining community and gets poisoned by an apple, which is perfectly plausible. It’s only at the very end, with the prince coming and kissing her back to life, that things get a little bit unrealistic. I wouldn’t say it’s documented social realism, but there’s not actually that much magic going on in that story.

Can you say a bit more about the oral aspect?

It has to be a story you can tell, not just written down. A lot of these stories did start off being written down: for example, “Beauty and the Beast” is a written story in the version by Madame de Villeneuve. But it’s told in the context of being narrated on a journey at sea. It’s part of a collection of stories that are told to a woman on a sea voyage. Hans Christian Andersen said that he wrote his stories as if he was telling them to children. You get that in his stories very strongly, the sense that he’s addressing the listener saying, ‘Come, listen to my tale, I’m going to tell you something that you’ve never heard before.’ Though, often in fairy tales, there’s also that feeling that it’s something you have heard before. Part of the coziness of fairy tales is that you feel those familiar structures. That’s the orality, the coziness, that old-fashioned sense that you’re sitting around the fireplace and everybody is listening to this story that feels a little bit familiar. That’s part of what gives fairy tales their charm and makes us feel comfortable.

So why did you decide to write about fairy tales?

Like a lot of people, I’ve always loved fairy tales. I loved them as a child and some of my first memories of reading were of fairy tales under the duvet with a torch. I remember “The Snow Queen” and this feeling that the whole bed was turning into the wastes of Lapland. As a student, I wrote a fairy tale play, and the stories were still bubbling in my head. Then, when I had children, I told them a lot of fairy tales, and had a lot of fun chasing them around the house pretending to be the giant from “Jack and the Beanstalk”.

As a writer of nonfiction and travel, I’m always really interested in finding out what’s going on behind the scenes. I wanted to find out, ‘Who is behind these stories? Where do these stories come from? Who told them and what were their lives like?’ It’s like doing the DVD extras, ‘How do they make these things? Who did them and what was it in their lives that led them to those particular stories?’ Because I do think that even though these stories have been told and retold in many archetypal forms across centuries—and in some cases across millennia—there is something that connects people to a particular story, that enables them to tell that story in a way that it then becomes a sort of definitive version. They must be doing something very special with it. If you take somebody like Dortchen Wild, the German storyteller who told stories to the Brothers Grimm, she was retelling stories that other people told, I don’t think any of her stories were her own invention. But she brought something of her own life into those stories that crystallized them and meant that those became the versions that we know and love.

Let’s turn to the books you’ve chosen, which look at various tellers of fairy tales.

Yes, they’re a mixture of fairy tales, and then books about the fairy tellers.

The first one you’ve chosen is The Tale of Tales by Giambattista Basile (1566-1632), which you’ve described as Europe’s earliest fairytale collection and contains the earliest European versions of tales such as “Cinderella” and “Rapunzel.” Basile is very much neglected then, because I don’t think I’d heard of him before I read your book.

I know, it’s a travesty. It’s partly because his collection is so brilliant: his writing is too charismatic, too convoluted, too referential to be accessible. It’s been translated several times, by Richard Burton in the 19th century, by Norman Penzer in the 1930s. Most recently, it’s been really well translated by Professor Nancy Canepa, who is an American scholar. It’s an incredibly entertaining collection full of really magical stories. There are the famous stories, like an early version of “Rapunzel” and “Cenerentola,” which is the original “Cinderella.” In his version, Cinderella kills her stepmother: she slams the lid of a trunk on her head to snap her neck.

I was a bit shocked by that.

Yes, you can see why maybe that version hasn’t become the standard, conventional one—but I think it’s actually the best version of the story I’ve read. Cinderella is much more self-determining than in other versions and that, again, is one of the issues, I think. Basile’s heroines shout, they say what they want. One of my favourite stories is called “The Flea” which is about a stupid king who gets bitten by a flea. He then grows this flea to the size of a sheep, has its hide put on display and says whoever can identify where the hide comes from, can marry his daughter. It ends up that the only person who can identify it is an ogre. The daughter says, ‘I don’t want to marry this guy. He’s repulsive. I’m not marrying him!’ and there’s a big shouting match between her and her dad. It’s a wonderful scene, but not the sort of thing you find in the Brothers Grimm.

There’s also a story called “The Old Woman Who Was Skinned” which I saw a theatrical version of and talked to the actors who staged it. It’s about two old women who live in a hovel under a castle and the king makes a lot of noise. The women complain about the noise and the king decides that whoever lives in this hovel must be the flower of refinement. He pays court to them and ends up inviting one of them to his bed-chamber. Then, as soon as he finds out that she is an old lady, he has her thrown out of the window. She’s hanging from a tree in the morning when some fairies come by, and they turn her into a beautiful teenage girl and the king decides that he does want to marry her after all. Then her sister finds out that she’s become this beautiful teenage girl and asks how she did it. She says, ‘I had myself skinned’. So the sister goes to a barber and has herself skinned and dies. So this is not a happy ever after. It’s a grisly, strange, enigmatic story, whose final meaning is difficult to decide on. Again, it explains why this book is not a conventional bestseller—although it did have a lot of success in its time. Some of the stories were retold by an 18th-century playwright in Venice, Carlo Gozzi, who was very big in theatre at the time. They had an impact, but not the same impact that would later come to storytellers like the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault and Hans Christian Andersen. They’re too mad and radical.

Get the weekly Five Books newsletter

And they are intentionally radical because Basile was writing in Naples when it was under Spanish occupation. He was writing in Neapolitan, fighting against the occupation. So he has figures of authority constantly being lampooned: they’re either stupid, or corrupt, or under some kind of sorcery. He’s always pointing out how difficult it is to live at court, how every hope goes to the wind, and you’re constantly being trampled upon. There’s a sense of the craziness of the world and the difficulty of dealing with people in authority. There’s a great moment where two ogres are in a wood, talking about what’s going on in the world. One of them says, ‘Oh, it’s a disaster. There are lazybones being honoured, assassins protected, counterfeiters defended.’ It’s the realization that the ogres—who are supposed to be the villains—are the only ones who seem to know what’s really happening. It’s this sense of the topsy turvy-ness of the world that Basile captures. That is part of his revolutionary project: he’s trying to show how mad the world is.

He dismissed the stories in his letters, saying they were old wives’ tales, but you can see when you read them how much he put in, there’s so much poetry and art and skill in them. One critic said reading them made you feel like you want to vomit. They’re just too much. I think that’s part of what makes them so exciting and entertaining, but it does explain why they haven’t landed as a staple of the libraries and bookshops.

Was he making up stories like “Cinderella,” or was he picking up on stories he had heard?

He was collecting stories that he heard. For most of them, you can track down an earlier version, but he is an important staging post on the journey to the stories that we know today. For example, there’s a much earlier version of “Cinderella” that was told in 9th century China called “Ye Xian.” She lives in a cave with her family and it’s rooted in Chinese culture: it’s more to do with the ghost of her dead mother than a fairy godmother and the whole idea of the slipper is connected with the foot binding culture that became common during the Tang dynasty.

What Basile did with that story was gave her the name Cenerentola, which became Cinderella in English. He solidified certain key elements to do with the stepsisters and stepmother, the ball and the search for the girl with the slipper. The story that we know is told by Charles Perrault, a French writer of the late 17th century, but with Basile we see the story really coming into the form that we recognize.

Let’s go on to The Wild Girl by Kate Forsyth, which is a historical novel. Tell me what it’s about.

This is a novel that was published in 2013 by an Australian novelist, Kate Forsyth. She did a lot of research and tells the life story of Dortchen Wild, who was one of the key contributors to the Brothers Grimm. She tracked down and dated the stories that Dortchen Wild told more accurately than any scholar had before. In the book, you really get the sense of the world that they lived in and the colour of that period, the bonnets and cravats and laudanum and candlelight, the Napoleonic invasions that made life very difficult for people living in Germany at the time.

At the same time, Kate Forsyth has taken a lot of license in the storytelling. It’s very much a novel that addresses one of the core questions we have about Dortchen Wild. As far as we can tell from the letters and diaries and so on that she left behind, she was a very gentle person. She was in love with Wilhelm Grimm, one of the Brothers Grimm, and ended up marrying him. But she told these stories that are often incredibly dark. There are stories like “The Singing Bone”, where a murder victim’s bones tell the details of how they were murdered. There’s “Sweetheart Roland” where a girl is murdered in her bed by her mother, who is a witch and meant to kill her stepsister. You’ve got “The Six Swans” where a mother of newborn babies has blood smeared across her lips and she’s accused of eating them.

“I’ve always loved fairy tales”

How could this seemingly meek and mild person tell these very grisly tales? Kate Forsyth’s interpretation is that she was sexually abused by her father. He was certainly a very grumpy man. It’s a very harrowing part of the book, really hard to read, but powerful. Dortchen Wild and Wilhelm Grimm loved each other, they knew each other for a long time, but it took many, many years before they got married. Why was that? It’s a plausible explanation.

What was even more powerful for me was seeing this character who struggles to accept that somebody loves her, the difficulty of receiving love when you feel that you’re unlovable. It’s incredibly moving. The book really left me in tears.

You mention in your book that the Brothers Grimm said they collected these folk stories from a dying breed of storytellers in the region they grew up. In fact, they relied heavily on a group of girls, is that right?

Most of the stories came from a group of neighbouring young women. One of the things to remember is that the Grimms themselves were very young, in their early 20s, when they were collecting these stories. These women were in their late teens to early 20s. The stories that have survived and endured and have become the most popular are the stories that those young women told. Dortchen Wild was a key contributor and probably the most important. She told stories like “Hansel and Gretel” and “The Elves and the Shoemaker.” It’s a shame that she hasn’t been given much credit until very recently.

There is another woman called Marie Hassenpflug who was also important. She told “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs”, for example.

Let’s go on to the next book you’ve chosen, Vetaal and Vikram: Riddles of the Undead by Gayathri Prabhu, which is also a historical novel but revolves around Indian fairy tales. How do Indian fairy tales fit into the broader picture?

Indian fairy tales are essential because they’re some of the earliest stories that we can track down. There’s a collection from the 11th century called Ocean of the Streams of Story, which includes some amazing, magical stories. One of them is about a king who has to carry a vetala, a corpse-occupying zombie, which tells riddles that he has to solve after each story. This book, Vetaal and Vikram, takes that segment as its center point.

There are some really strange stories. There’s one about a princess who can have any husband she wants, but who rejects all possible lovers until she sees a thief who’s being taken to be executed. She decides he’s going to be her husband, and she throws herself onto the execution pyre and they burn together. Then they are brought back to life by the gods because of the power of their love. There’s a story of a man who saves a princess from a rampaging elephant and falls in love with her but can’t reach her because she’s in the palace. So he takes a special magical pill that turns him into a girl and he manages to get into the female quarters of the palace to find her.

Like Basile’s stories, these tales capture a sense of the madness of the world, the strange choices that people make. Also, the idea that in order to get your happy ending you’re going to have to rely on an enormous amount of luck—and have a lot of help from the gods and other mythological beings who, in Indian culture, play the role of the fairies and other magical creatures of European fairy tales. Different ranks of deities play their role in helping people to get their wishes (or not, in some cases).

“Indian fairy tales are essential because they’re some of the earliest stories that we can track down”

In this novel, the Indian writer Gayathri Prabhu has taken these stories and framed them inside a story about Richard Burton, the 19th-century Victorian explorer, and his wife, Isabel. Burton translated some of these stories in the 19th century, but she focuses on Isabel. You see what it was like to be Burton’s wife travelling with him to India, Brazil, Trieste, parts of Africa and meeting different personalities of the period (like Jane Digby, who was a wonderful explorer). You get a sense of the 19th century and the protocols of a travelling life at the time, of Isabel eavesdropping on her own life or on Burton’s experiences, and then also the tales coming through. It’s an interwoven tapestry.

The book is at its best when it’s capturing the tales. That’s because when you read these 900-year-old stories in the original as a Westerner, it takes a few readings. There is a lot to unpack to get them. Prabhu has captured the strangeness of the stories and the poetry of them, but they’re much more accessible. What I found so enjoyable about reading this book is that you could really get through to the heart of these stories and see how they connect up with us today. They feel very, very modern in many ways because a lot of them are just stories about people falling in love and the different ways that they find to meet up with their lovers or find that happy ending or get over the different obstacles of life. There are so many barriers that these characters have to overcome. You feel their determination to do anything they have to to get to their goals.

Somadeva Bhaṭṭa was the original teller of Ocean of the Streams of Story, but you’re saying this novel by Gayathri Prabhu is a better way into them?

It’s a more accessible way. Somadeva was a brilliant courtier poet of the 11th century. He was writing for the queen in Kashmir. He told these magical stories to soothe and entertain her because there was a lot of upheaval going on in Kashmir at the time. That’s the frame around which the Ocean of the Streams of Story unfolds. It’s a real celebration of storytelling, there are hundreds of stories in the collection. There’s a lovely line in this novel, Vetaal and Vikram, where Prabhu writes, “If stories are infectious, this is a pandemic that can mow down the entire human race.” That line has a particular resonance these days, but it’s a wonderful way of capturing that sense of a collection where stories just keep unfolding. One of the lovely things about the Ocean of the Streams of Story is that anybody can tell a story. You get stories told by kings and queens and government ministers and army generals, but you also get stories told by the guy selling the bedstead or even by the demons that are stuck in a pit under the ground. Everybody has a story; they’re constantly telling stories to each other. Then, in the middle of somebody telling a story, somebody else will tell a story and another story will unfold. That’s part of the charm of the medieval collection—and part of what makes it quite difficult to read. You can get a bit lost. Prabhu’s version condenses that and makes it that much more accessible.

Let’s go on to your fourth book. This is Beauty and the Beast: Journal of a Film by Jean Cocteau. Why have you included this one?

The film La Belle et la Bête by Jean Cocteau, which came out in 1946, is one of the most beautiful adaptations of a fairy tale that has ever been filmed. It appears on many critics’ lists of the great French movies. Cocteau was a great poet, writer and polymath. He was also a film director and made some beautiful films. This is the diary of how he put together his film of “Beauty and the Beast.” It’s a very honest diary about his experiences; he tells you about the difficulties. They started filming just a few weeks after World War Two ended. You hear about power cuts, the theft of props—because they were filming in the countryside and people were so impoverished. You hear about the lack of funds and about sickness, with people falling ill while they were filming. He’s very specific and very vivid about the technical challenges. You hear about smoke machines and magnesium torches and red powder, and a thousand mechanical bits and pieces.

“Part of the coziness of fairy tales is that you feel those familiar structures”

Most of all, what you get is the sense of Cocteau suffering terribly physically and psychologically whilst he was directing this film. Amongst other things, he was suffering from impetigo, lymphadenitis, bronchitis, jaundice and toothache. He had to be treated with penicillin, injections of copper sulfate and many other pills. He was so disfigured by the rashes on his face that he went around in a veiled hat so the crew couldn’t see his face. There’s a weird sense of the story that he was telling and his own experiences bleeding together. He articulates this in the diary. He says at one point that he felt “he was being bitten into as if by a beast.” At another point, he says a “ferocious beast has got its paws in the nape of my neck.” At the same time, his lover, Jean Marais, was playing the Beast and was suffering so much from the makeup and glue that they had to use to stick the costume on him that he was struggling with his circulation and fell ill as well. It’s a disaster. It reads almost like a moral fable of why nobody should ever try and make a movie.

But there’s also a sense of fairy tale about it all because the film itself is absolutely beautiful. It’s one of the most decorous films you could imagine. Cocteau is whispering his secret into the well. He says himself that it would be criminal to make the film suffer and reflect the drudgery of his suffering and ugliness. He kept his suffering in the diary, whilst he tried to put all the beauty into the film. He said he was doing it not only for himself but for France. He felt that he needed to make something beautiful to help France emerge from the squalor of the war.

You really feel for Cocteau as you’re reading it. It’s wonderful knowing that he produced this masterpiece. It’s sad to think of how much he suffered in the making of it. It’s a wonderful insight into the creation of art, I think.

Does he grapple at all with the story, given the various versions there are out there?

He sees it very much as a fable and he wants to make it into this very beautiful thing. I think the discussion about what the story means will probably have been done at the screenplay stage: at this stage, he’s thinking about the technical difficulties of putting that story on the screen. It’s about the props and the costumes and the blocking and the movement of the cameras, and his own struggles.

In some ways, you have to watch the film alongside it, but probably one of the key aspects of the way that he interprets the story is that his sympathy is very much with the Beast. There’s a sense at the end when the Beast turns into the prince—and I think it’s often a problem with versions of “Beauty and the Beast”—that you, as the audience, aren’t sure if he wasn’t better as the Beast. He is this rather insipid, non-entity as a prince, whereas as the Beast, he’s got character. Perhaps Cocteau’s experiences of feeling ugly and broken and damaged meant that his version of the story identifies more closely than others might with the Beast. It does feel like Belle doesn’t get the personality that some other versions have given her. It’s also a film of its time, of the 1940s.

We’re now at the last book you’ve chosen, Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian Nobel Prize winner.

Mahfouz is one of the great writers, he’s just brilliant. The Cairo Trilogy is one of my favourite novels. I was actually lucky enough to meet him once in Egypt. I was in touch with his biographer, who told me about a hotel where he met up with literary friends. He was still a target for Islamists because of one of his novels, and he’d been stabbed in the neck a few years earlier. So you couldn’t tell anybody where you were going, the location had to be kept secret and I wasn’t allowed to go with anybody else. But it was lovely, meeting him. He was very old; it was only a year or two before he died. He didn’t have the energy that he no doubt would have had before. Also, my Arabic was dreadful. But one thing I did ask him about was his interest in oral culture—the storytelling traditions of Egypt and the hakawatis, who were the traditional storytellers. He talked about how when he was younger, he used to love listening to them in the cafes. They’d tell these wonderful, old, magical, mythical stories. He said he was a little sad that that had mostly died out because of radio and television.

So, many years later, when I came to read this book, Arabian Nights and Days, I was reminded of that meeting, because the book is very much a celebration of oral culture. It comes back to what I was saying earlier about the orality of fairytales, which is very much there in the Tales of 1,001 Nights, which this is based on. It’s a sequel. Scheherazade has told all these stories and the king, Shahryar, who used to kill a wife every night, has said his troubled mind is finally at peace. He’s “magnanimously” granted her freedom and she no longer has to keep telling stories.

Support Five Books

Five Books interviews are expensive to produce. If you're enjoying this interview, please support us by .

Arabian Nights and Days goes out into the streets outside. It’s a sort of multiverse of 1001 Nights where you have various characters from the stories who happen to be living around the place where the stories are being narrated. You have Sinbad telling the stories of his sea journeys. You have Kamar al-Zaman, who’s a very beautiful figure in one of the stories. One story that Naguib Mahfouz tells is about two djinnis who have a debate about who’s the most beautiful person in the world. There’s a boy and a girl and they can’t decide. So they bring them together to find out who’s more desperate to love the other, as a way of judging their beauty. Various stories are retold from The 1001 Nights, often the more mischievous ones. There’s a story of a woman who is harassed by four men in powerful positions. She invites them back to her house when her husband is away and gets them to strip off their clothes. Then she suddenly says, ‘My husband is coming, you’d better hide in the cupboard.’ So she has four of them in a cupboard, and she’s going to sell them in a marketplace and expose them all. They’re wonderful stories.

They’re also gritty. Mahfouz brings his sense of social injustice and of community to the book. So you have a man who is told by a djinn that he must assassinate the local governor. He does this but, on the way, he also kills a young girl and goes completely mad. When he’s killed the governor, he asks the djinn to rescue him before the guards come. Then there’s a debate between him and the djinn about what communal responsibility means, and that he must make a sacrifice for the sake of the community. That’s very Mahfouz: he was really interested in how communities are made and how lives intersect around a neighbourhood. People have their different occupations—they might be the barber or the water carrier or the perfume seller. You see how they all join up and their lives are entangled with each others’. That comes out in this book.

It’s full of talk of government spies, policemen and various apparatchiks. Mahfouz is very slightly referencing the troubles of modern Egypt and contemporary problems, as he always does, and brings those, very subtly, into the story. But it’s also very surreal and very magical. Towards the end, Shahryar, the king, finds himself in what is his ultimate nightmare: a city populated entirely by women. He ends up being very befuddled and confused and being thrown by a giant out into the desert. It’s a very enigmatic ending, where he has a discussion with another outcast about what the meaning of truth is, whether you can ever find truth, or when you think you’ve found it, that’s the very moment when you lose it. That’s very Mahfouz as well, that sense of the enigma of everything and the difficulty of pinning things down.

Nicholas Jubber is the author of The Fairy Tellers: A Journey into the Secret History of Fairy Tales, published on 20 January 2022 by John Murray Press, priced at £20 and available online and from all good bookshops.

Interview by Sophie Roell, Editor

January 20, 2022

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at [email protected]

Nicholas Jubber

Nicholas Jubber

Nicholas Jubber has travelled in the Middle East, Central Asia, North and East Africa and across Europe. Along the way, he has worked as a teacher, carpet-washer and even had a stint as a tannery assistant. He has written three previous books, The Timbuktu School for NomadsThe Prester Quest (winner of the Dolman Travel Book Award) and Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard (shortlisted for the Dolman Award). He has written for numerous publications, including the GuardianObserverGlobe and MailIrish Times and BBC History.

Nicholas Jubber

Nicholas Jubber

Nicholas Jubber has travelled in the Middle East, Central Asia, North and East Africa and across Europe. Along the way, he has worked as a teacher, carpet-washer and even had a stint as a tannery assistant. He has written three previous books, The Timbuktu School for NomadsThe Prester Quest (winner of the Dolman Travel Book Award) and Drinking Arak off an Ayatollah's Beard (shortlisted for the Dolman Award). He has written for numerous publications, including the GuardianObserverGlobe and MailIrish Times and BBC History.