The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East. Edited by Richard STONEMAN, Kyle Erickson, and Ian Netton. Ancient Narrative, vol. 15. Groningen: Barkhuis Publishing and Groningen University Library, 2012. Pp. xv + 416, illus. 95.40 [euro].
Few texts have known such a wide and divergent tradition as the Alexander romance, the legendary tales about Alexander the Great, which underwent a variety of transformations as it spread from Iceland to China and southeast Asia. Editions and translations of multiple versions, as well as vast numbers of studies, have appeared over the years and there is no end in sight. Interdisciplinary conferences on the Alexander tradition are regularly held, usually resulting in conference volumes. The Alexander Romance in Persia and the East is just such a volume--it contains the papers presented at a conference held in Exeter in 2010. Although many of the speakers had a long track record in Alexander studies and had penned important books on the subject, to their credit the conference organizers also included scholars who entered the field more recently.
In his introduction Richard Stoneman briefly sketches the nature of each contribution and asks some basic questions about how to analyze texts that diverge so much. He brings up source criticism, considered valuable for "disciplines that are less developed than classical philology," as for texts such as al-Mubashshir ibn Fatik's Mukhtar al-hikam, the subject of Emily Cottrell's contribution. He wonders whether this can be done through an examination of proper names, or whether this would be just "a new version of the traditional documentation known as the isnad" (p. xiii). I am not sure what is meant by this and cannot quite reconcile it with my own views of isnad.
As is to be expected, philological issues receive ample attention. Relationships between texts are analyzed by comparing linguistic peculiarities and vocabulary, and matters such as reception and the context in which Alexander texts were used are occasionally introduced, with interesting results. Many of the contributions presume familiarity with the intricacies of the extremely complicated Alexander transmission in East and West, which will complicate understanding for the less initiated. But of interest to a wider audience are contributions that discuss the Alexander romance in connection with the politics of a certain period and time (Warwick Ball), analyze the particular form in which Alexander material appears in various cultural and linguistic contexts (Yuriko Yamanaka examines Chinese geographies and encyclopedias, Aleksandra Kleczar the Jewish Alexander), or bring into focus the iconographic tradition (Olga Palagia on Central Asia, Agnieszka Fulinska on Oriental imagery, Firuza Melville on the "flying king"). I was somewhat amused to see that the tendency to separate the Greeks firmly from "the Oriental world" (still prominent among some classicists) regularly crops up.
While most contributions focus primarily on text, others--however briefly--pay attention to their Sitz im Leben, such as Leslie McCoull, who discusses questions of reception, such as what the context was in which Alexander texts were used (papyrus fragments point to its use in schools), who made up the audience of the Alexander romance, and how and where the text reached the audience (she points to the central role played by Coptic monasteries).
The provenance of stories and motifs in various versions of the romance is a central focus as well, such as in the contribution of Faustina Doufikar-Aerts ("King Midas' Ears on Alexander's Head"), which continues the line of her earlier research on the Arabic Alexander tradition. Stoneman's own contribution, "Persian Aspects of the Romance Tradition," shows that motifs known from Alexander stories circulated in Persian...