The Ocean of the Rivers of Story (Clay Sanskrit Library)

By Somadeva. Translated by James Mallinson. 2007. New York: New York University Press. 556 pages. ISBN: 0814788165 (hard cover).


Reviewed by David Elton Gay, Indiana University

[Review length: 408 words • Review posted on March 5, 2008]


James Mallinson’s introductory words about Somadeva’s The Ocean of the Rivers of Story explain nicely just what this work is for those unfamiliar with it: “‘The Ocean of the Rivers of Story’ (Kathasaritsagara) was composed by Somadeva in Kashmir in the second half of the eleventh century CE in order to amuse Queen Suryávati. Its name is no boast: in more than twenty thousand verses it tells more than three hundred and fifty tales” (15). Somadeva structured his work as a frame tale in which the embedded narratives “are told to illustrate events in the main narrative; they are sallied back and forth as argument and counter-argument; they are told for the amusement of the characters in the main story; they are told for no reason at all. They usually have a moral, but not always” (15). The Ocean of the Rivers of Story has long been important in South Asian and comparative folk-narrative studies, but no new translation has been made of the complete text since Tawney’s 1880 translation, which perhaps is best known through Penzer’s annotated edition from 1924.

The Ocean of the Rivers of Story is divided into “attainments,” of which the first three are edited and translated in this first volume of a projected nine. Mallinson’s translation reads well, and, like all of the volumes in the Clay Sanskrit Library, has a facing page with the Sanskrit text in Latin transcription. The Clay Sanskrit Library was modeled after the Loeb Classical Library, and thus introductions to the editions tend to be brief and there is little annotation. Mallinson’s introduction is, however, helpful in orienting the reader to Somadeva’s work. As Mallinson notes (16), the “frame narrative [of The Ocean of the Rivers of Story] was perhaps so well known to the audience that its somewhat cursory treatment would not have mattered.” But, because it is easy for the reader new to Somadeva to get lost in his work, Mallinson includes on pages 17-23 a very useful summary of the three attainments translated in this volume. Though the annotation is light, it is nonetheless helpful. The book also contains a good index, which is especially important given the lack of type and motif indices.

As with the many other volumes of the Clay Sanskrit Library that have relevance to folklorists, James Mallinson’s new translation of The Ocean of the Rivers of Story is highly recommended to anyone interested in South Asian or comparative folk-narrative studies.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.