The Sacred Tree: Being the Second Part of The Tale of Genji The Sacred Tree: Being the Second Part of The Tale of Genji

The Sacred Tree: Being the Second Part of The Tale of Genji

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Beschreibung des Verlags

THE Tale of Genji was probably written about 1001–1015 a.d. We know the titles of a good many earlier stories and romances. About a dozen are mentioned in the Tale itself. But only three actual works of fiction survive, The Bamboo-cutter, The Hollow Tree (‘Utsubo’), and the Room Below Stairs (‘Ochikubo’). Besides these there are a few works which, though belonging to a rather different category, throw some light on the development of fiction and will be mentioned in due course.

The Bamboo-cutter dates from about 860–870. It is a harmless little fairy-story. An old peasant finds a minute child in a bamboo-stem. She grows up into a woman of surpassing beauty, is courted by numerous lovers to whom she sets a series of grotesque tasks which they entirely fail to perform. Finally celestial messengers arrive and carry her away to the sky.

The Hollow Tree cannot be much earlier than 980. No doubt in this interval of more than a hundred years much was written that is now lost. But it cannot be said that The Hollow Tree shows much sign of progress. As it exists to-day it is a very long book—more than half as long as Genji. But it is not quite certain whether, of the fourteen chapters which we now possess, any but the first (called Toshikage) is really earlier than Genji. Toshikage is the story of a man who on the way from Japan to China, regardless of geographical probabilities, gets wrecked ‘on the coast of Persia.’ In this country he falls in with supernatural beings from whom he obtains thirty miraculous zitherns and the knowledge of enchanted tunes. After a distinguished career on the Continent he returns to Japan with ten zitherns which he distributes among the grandees of the Court, keeping one for his small daughter, to whom alone he teaches the marvellous Persian tunes. He and his wife die, the daughter marries unhappily and is finally left with no possessions save the marvellous zithern and a little son of twelve. They take refuge in a hollow tree, but soon discover to their consternation that their new home is the den of a bear who, returning from his day’s hunting, is about to devour them, when the little boy makes a speech of several pages. The bear is so much moved that, far from molesting the intruders, it puts the hollow tree at their disposition and trots off to look for another home. Finally the wicked husband repents, takes back the wife and child whom he had deserted and all ends happily. The child embarks upon its career as an infant prodigy and at the age of eighteen takes part victoriously in a musical competition at Court.

The remaining chapters deal chiefly with the rivalry of this young musician and other courtiers for the hand of the Prime Minister’s daughter. They possess a certain historical interest as pictures of Court life, but are long-winded and boring to an almost unbelievable degree. Even Toshikage (the first chapter), which, when summarized, may sound mildly entertaining, is for the most part unendurably silly.

A little later, but not very far removed in date, is the Room Below Stairs. It is a feebly sentimental story about an ill-used step-child, somewhat in the manner of the edifying stories told in the Fairchild Family, but wholly lacking in the occasional felicities which spring unexpectedly from Mrs. Sherwood’s pen. It is, however, a short book (only about 200 pages) and that is the best that can be said for it.

In none of these works is there any ability or desire to portray character. That is not in itself fatal to a work of fiction. The Arabian Nights are without it, and it exists only in the most rudimentary form in Defoe. But if this resource be neglected, something must take its place. There must be a fertility of narrative invention (as in Near Eastern fiction) or the building up of effect by sequences of actual word-texture (as in Virginia Woolf). Otherwise not literature but mere perfunctory anecdote will result, as has indeed happened in the case of Genji’s predecessors.

Now Murasaki herself has every quality which these earlier writers lack. She exploits character, in a very restrained way, it is true, but with an unerring instinct how to produce the greatest effect with the least possible display. And to this she adds not only an astonishing capacity for invention, but also a beauty of actual diction unsurpassed by any long novel in the world. For none of these qualities was she indebted in any way to such of her predecessors as survive. Concerning lost works it is useless to speculate.

Belletristik und Literatur
7. Januar
Library of Alexandria

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