The Man of Wiles in Popular Arabic Literature: A Study of a Medieval Arab Hero. By MALCOLM C. LYONS. Edinburgh: EDINBURGH UNIVERSITY PRESS, 2012. Pp. x + 254. $105.
Scholarly studies of Arabic literature have mostly concentrated on its heritage of "pure" Arabic, usually associated with the dominant class of rulers who rewarded its verse and prose writers. Parallel to it is a popular literary heritage that is as important and that, originally oral perhaps, has been appreciated by the Arab masses over the centuries, eventually to be preserved in writing, though not without accretions and textual variations. Modern scholarship has increasingly turned its attention to studying this other heritage, and the book under review is a good contribution to such studies.
Authored by Malcolm C. Lyons, translator of The Arabian Nights, Fellow of Pembroke College (Cambridge), and sometime Sir Thomas Adams's Professor of Arabic at Cambridge University, the book aims at studying a character it designates as the Man of Wiles in medieval Arabic popular story-cycles. Additionally, the book aims at investigating Arabic avatars of this character and their possible relationship, if any, to similar ones in other literatures.
The field of study is dauntingly large for it includes, on the Arabic side alone, well-known story-cycles such as those of 'Ali al-Zaybaq, Sirat 'Antar, Qissat al-Zir Salim, Sirat Barn Hilal, Hamza al-Bahlawan, Qissat Firuz Shah, Sayf ibn Dhl Yazan, Dhat al-Himma, and Sirat Baybars. In print form, these Arabic story-cycles mostly comprise several volumes each; in addition to these, Lyons consulted relevant volumes in world literature in various other languages for comparative and critical purposes, and the vast scholarship on them all.
Following an introduction, Lyons devotes the first five chapters to tracing the acts and adventures of the Man of Wiles throughout the enormous literature of the Arabic story-cycles; the sixth and final chapter is devoted to "Analysis and Conclusion." Known by a different name in each story, the Man of Wiles is a constantly appearing character who, though not the major hero of the story, is a popular figure embodying the views of an otherwise inarticulate part of the population.
As Lyons shows, cunning is not the only quality of the Man of Wiles, although he had an ample amount of it used variously in the different stories in the service of his master. He employed his skills, if not always according to...