Ramsay Wood

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Template:EngvarB Ramsay Wood is an author best known for two novels which embed ancient animal fables derived from The Jatakas Tales and The Panchatantra into modern frame-story narratives. His Kalila and Dimna – Selected Fables of Bidpai (Vol 1) was published by Knopf in 1980.[1] Wood believes that these fables provide one of the earliest secular examples of what Lawrence Lessig calls Remix Culture.

Early fable compilations as examples of remix culture

Wood claims[2] that in hundreds of literary reconfigurations, various arrangements of The Panchatantra fables are known by separate titles in different languages at different times in different places. Yet each unique cultural remix always harkens back to an oral, even pre-literate, storytelling society in ancient India. No original Sanskrit Panchatantra text survives, only theoretically reconstructed scholarly compilations from several diverse Indian sources.

We thus only can enjoy and study the many recompiled derivative works and variants of the missing original Panchatantra, of which the few surviving medieval Arabic Kalila wa Dimna manuscripts by Ibn al-Muqaffa (750 CE) remain as the keynote pivots between ancient India and modern Europe.

Ibn al-Muqaffa is also personally responsible for the profuse flowering of Islamic manuscript illustration that uniquely stems from Kalila wa Dimna, for his Preface to it clearly states that two of the book's four intentions (specifically, the second and the third) are


Modern Panchatantra remixes by Wood since 1980

Wood's Kalila and Dimna (Vol 1) – Fables of Friendship and Betrayal has an Introduction by the novelist and 2007 Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing supporting his remix contention (and she also does so in a subsequent monograph, Problems, Myths and Stories).[3] Lessing's Introduction to Wood's Kalila and Dimna (Vol 1) cites several literary variants of The Panchatantra. Her Introduction was reprinted in her 2005 collection of essays, Time Bites: Views and Reviews.[4]

At the London 2009 Institute for Cultural Research's Seminar entitled The Power of Stories[5] Wood delivered his lecture The Kalila and Dimna Story – How an ancient 'book' left home. This lecture featured illustrations from a wide range of Arabic and Persian manuscripts, all exemplifying Ibn al-Muqaffa's original 750 CE injunction that his work "be repeatedly copied and recreated in the course of time thus giving work to the painter and the copyist".

In October 2011 the Institute for Cultural Research published its Monograph Series No 59 wherein he follows up his theme in greater detail: Extraordinary Voyages of the Panchatantra — and how we limit our understanding of the word •story•.[6] An extended version of this monograph, including an Appendix, appears as an Afterword in the December 2011 Medina (UK) and Al Kotob Khan (Egypt) co-edition of Wood's second Kalila and Dimna volume, Fables of Conflict and Intrigue.

First English remix by Sir Thomas North in 1570

The Panchatantra fables first appeared in English as The Morall Philosophie of Doni in 1570,[7] translated from the Italian by Sir Thomas North, who also translated Plutarch's Lives.[8] Wood’s two Kalila and Dimna volumes are the first modern English, multiple-sourced, remix of these ancient fables since North's version. Wood’s Kalila and Dimna Fables of Friendship and Betrayal (Vol 1) is reconstituted from the North text and also seven other works translated from Sanskrit, Arabic, Syriac and Persian.

In his 'Afterwords' to Fables of Friendship and Betrayal (Vol 1) and to Fables of Conflict and Intrigue (Vol 2) Wood suggests that these strikingly distinct literary compilations of ancient fables,[9] although highly revered classics in each target language, are among the world's most durable examples of cross-cultural migration, adaptive morphology and secular survival – as they have been widely and continuously shared and modified for over two thousand years, downstream from a legendary, long-lost, Sanskrit original manuscript known as the Ur-Panchantantra.

Edinburgh Festival 1984

In 1983, Wood's book was turned into a play entitled A Word in the Stargazer's Eye by Stuart Cox of Theatr Taliesin Wales. The show premiered at the 1984 Edinburgh Festival, starring the actor Nigel Watson. The Scotsman reviewed it thus:


Theater Taliesin Wales subsequently toured the production in many countries for several years, from Iceland to India.

French edition 2006

In 2006 Éditions Albin Michel published a French translation of his 1980 first volume. A review by Roger-Pol Droit in Le Monde on 15 September 2006 said:

Crossing linguistic and cultural frontiers, these fables also transcend conventional time-frames. They abound with temporal paradoxes. Ancient letters, locked in a series of smaller and smaller treasure chests by King Houschenk in the past, are addressed to kings of the future. They contain words of advice whose meaning only becomes gradually clear, sometimes after a very big delay.


Other activities

Wood was a freelance photographer and journalist who covered feature stories in Europe, Africa and the Far East until 1986. His first major publication, when he was 25, was an interview and photographs with the poet Robert Graves in Life magazine.[10] He was chairman of the original charity called Afghan Relief, from 1992 until its dissolution in 2000. He was a co-founder and acting Secretary of the College of Storytellers from 1980 until 1991. In 2005 he qualified as a literacy teacher and now teaches part-time in London at Emerson House[11] helping dyslexic children learn keyboard and reading skills. He was born in San Antonio, Texas, in 1943.[12]

German editions, book covers from other authors, and a spiritual interpretation

A German translation by Edgar Otten of Wood's Vol 1 entitled "Kalila und Dimna oder die Kunst, Freunde zu gewinnen" was published by Verlag Herder in 1996 and digitised in 2012 for Kindle users [1] by Zirac Press in 2012. This and many other existing Panchtantra & Kalila and Dimna covers verify with a clarity unavailable to words and datelines alone that the visual Remix Culture of the original 3rd century BCE Panchatantra, historically re-inspired in 750 CE by Abdullah Ibn al-Muqaffa (as quoted above under "Early fable compilations as examples of Remix Culture") lives on. The "images (khayalat) of the animals in varieties of paints and colours (asbagh, alwan)" continue to "delight" and are "repeatedly copied and recreated in the course of time". Ultimately the question is (ignoring copyright and linguistics) can Mr Wood logically claim to be the only author in a repeating Sui generis stream of work that derives from a cultural multiplicity of oral and literary traditions? Who is the single author, for example, of the One Thousand and One Nights?

Furthermore in World Tales the author Idries Shah hints at a frequently ignored functionality when he notes (p162) that the Panchtantra "is a very worldly primer, preaching mainly that one should look out for oneself. This may not have been so true of the original work which seems to have foreshadowed it. The translations, starting from the 6th century A.D. Pahlavi Iranian version, are from a lost Sanskrit original. There is a persistent belief in the Middle East and West Asia that the versions which we have are superficial in having been adapted from spiritual into political teaching. One interpretation of the following tale, for instance, along these lines, states that the skin covering the ass stands for hypocrisy or the assumption of mystical knowledge, which are thrown off when the real nature of the human being (the braying) breaks through under stress."


  1. See page 100, The Oxford Companion to English Literature, fifth edition, 1985 ISBN 0-19-866130-4
  2. See page 262 of Kalila and Dimna, Selected fables of Bidpai [Vol 1], retold by Ramsay Wood, Knopf, New York, 1980; and the Afterword of Medina's 2011 Fables of Conflict and Intrigue (Vol 2)
  3. Doris Lessing, Problems, Myths and Stories, London: Institute for Cultural Research Monograph Series No. 36, 1999, p 13
  4. Publisher's site: http://www.harperperennial.co.uk/books.aspx?id=30228
  5. The power of stories, Institute For Cultural Research
  6. http://www.i-c-r.org.uk/publications/newpublications.php%20 Monograph Series No 59: "Extraordinary Voyages of the Panchatantra"
  7. Full digital text: https://archive.org/details/earliestenglishv00doniuoft
  8. This is the book by Sir Thomas North that made his more celebrated impact upon English literature: https://archive.org/details/shakespearesplut01plutuoft
  9. See page 262 of Kalila and Dimna, Selected Fables of Bidpai, retold by Ramsay Wood, Knopf, New York, 1980
  10. Life Atlantic, 4 March 1968, pages 24 – 27
  11. Emerson House
  12. 25th Anniversary Report, Harvard and Radcliffe Class of 1965, Cambridge, USA 1990, pages 969 – 971

External links


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