Once upon a time, in the land of Persia, there lived a very wise old King called Anushirvan who had heard of an ancient book of tales told by animals and reptiles and the birds of the air. The King he decided he would very much like to read this book as he had read all of the other books in his library and he desperately wanted something new to read at bedtime so he could completely relax after his wearisome day ruling and begetting stuff and doing kingly things. The King asked his doctor, Burzuyah, who was the smartest man he knew, to go off in search of this book and bring it back to him. One bright early morning before the birds started singing, Burzuyah left the King’s palace and went off in search of this fantastic book of tales.
The book is called Anvār-i Suhaylī or Lights of Canopus and that is how our story begins. It sets the frame within which we are told a series of inter-related fables mostly involving animals that are intended to offer good counsel to the reader.
For example, one story (which sounds a bit like The Gruffalo) tells of a big, greedy, ferocious lion and a smart, little hare. When the lion meets the hare, he asks him why he is so late as he was due to be the lion’s dinner hours ago. The hare is most apologetic and tells the lion he is ever so sorry for being late but an even bigger, greedier, far more ferocious lion had stopped him on his way and tried to eat him. Thankfully, the hare escaped otherwise he would never have been in time for his dinner appointment. The lion thinks he’s got a rival so asks the hare to lead him to this other lion. The hare does so, taking the lion to the still of a pond where he points to the lion’s reflection on the surface of the water. The lion is so enraged by the look of this other ferocious beast that he jumps straight into the water and drowns.
Another tale recounts how a cat is caught in the net of a hunter’s trap. The rat the cat had been chasing is happy to see his old adversary caught. But then the rat realizes that without the cat’s protection, he is vulnerable to attack from some of the cat’s other prey like the owl and the weasel. Knowing the cat is trapped, the owl circles the sky looking for the rat to feast on. While the weasel sneaks behind a tree waiting for the rat to return home, so he can have him for his dinner. The rat decides it would be best to free the cat and begins to gnaw through the ropes that hold him. All the while, the rat implores the cat not to eat when he is free. The cat agrees but somehow his words never quite reassure the rat. So the rat decides to set the cat free at the very last moment when the hunter returns. The hunter returns. The owl flies away. The weasel runs home. The rat bites through the last rope. The cat flees from the trap and hides up a tree. And the rat goes back to his home knowing he is safe once again.
You get the drift.
And so the stories go with one tale setting up the next and so on. The idea is that the reader will learn something from these stories about human nature and perhaps about themselves.
According to the Encyclopedia Iranica, the Lights of Canopus is split into different sections each with its own theme:
The work consists of fourteen chapters:
(1) on avoiding calumniators, slanderers, and people with ulterior motives;
(2) on the punishment of evildoers and their disgraceful end;
(3) on the benefits of agreement between friends and the advantages of mutual aid;
(4) on observing the doings of enemies and not being complacent about their machinations;
(5) on the dangers of carelessness and failing of one’s purpose;
(6) on the dangers of haste in affairs;
(7) on vigilance and prudent dispensation, and how, by stratagems, to escape harm from foes;
(8) on guarding against the malevolent and not trusting in their hypocritical pretenses;
(9) on the virtue of forgiveness, the finest quality in rulers and holders of power;
(10) on rewarding actions by just requital;
(11) on the danger of seeking too much and failing in one’s purpose;
(12) on the virtue in rulers of clemency, gravity, calm, and composure;
(13) on how kings should avoid discourse with perfidious and treacherous people;
(14) on not paying attention to the vicissitudes of time but rather basing one’s actions on God’s disposition.
Distributed rather unevenly throughout the chapters are just over one hundred major stories, the exact number varying slightly from version to version.
The Lights of Canopus is a Persian retelling of an ancient Indian collection of animal fables called the Panchatantra and is sometimes known as as the Fables of Bidpai in the west. Some of the stories in the Panchatantra were also used in Arabian Nights.
Originally written in the 15th century, the book was first published in English as The Morall Philosophie of Doni in 1570. The best known edition, from which these illutstrations come, is from 1847—a selection of which are shown below.
Via Public Domain Review.