What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story?

by Naomi

In this project we are mostly looking at shared narrative elements, such as characters and genres, rather than shared narratives themselves. However, the latter do feature as well, and in recent weeks I have been pondering what exactly makes a story a ‘version’ of another story, rather than a completely separate story in its own right.

Two things have prompted this musing. Firstly, I read the new Penguin Classics translation of Barlaam and Josaphat, which its subtitle declares to be ‘A Christian Tale of the Buddha’. I got a bit cross about this, as you can see in my posting on my personal blog, as it seems to me that while the Buddha’s lifestory and the hagiography of Saint Josaphat share a few narrative motifs, they are not at all versions of the same story. The Christians did not accidentally sanctify the Buddha, they simply made use of some interesting story elements found in his biography.

Why is the story of Josaphat not a ‘version’ of the Buddha’s lifestory? In my view, the main reason is that the narrative divergence is too high – there is far more original material than shared material, and the original material sends the story in a totally different direction to the Buddha’s lifestory. However, counter arguments might be formed using evidence that the composers were trying to create a version of an existing story, evidence including a shared name (Josaphat is traced back to Bodhisattva) as well as shared narrative elements.

The second prompt for this musing was the task of proof-reading some jātaka stories, for a translation, with Sarah Shaw, of the final ten jātakas of the Jātakatthavaṇṇanā, that will be published by Silkworm Press later in the year. When reading through the Vidhura-jātaka I was reminded again of a recent article that compares this story with Vidura’s role in the Mahābhārata (Klara Gönc Moačanin, ‘Epic vs. Buddhist Literature: The case of Vidhurapaṇḍitajātaka’, in Petteri Koskikallio (ed.) Parallels and Comparisons: Proceedings of the Fourth Dubrovnoik International Conference on the Sanskrit Epics and Purāṇas: 373- 98. Zagreb: Croation Academy of Sciences and Arts, 2009.). Moačanin suggests that the Vidhura-jātaka and the Mahābhārata dicing episode have a common source, since they share several features but also have their own variations. I find this argument unconvincing, in part because it assumes that poets and storytellers did not feel free to innovate, and thus that any original content must be drawn from some prior source that includes it. It is more likely, in my view, that the composers of the Vidhura-jātaka made free use of existing motifs and characters that they were aware of from the Mahābhārata (including a gambling king and his loyal honest steward), and added to this whatever innovations they wished (including mixing around with names and statuses, and adding a magical jewel that reflects the whole universe, a horse that can walk on water, and a demon who abducts the steward as a way of gaining his nāga bride).

If we accept my analysis, that the Vidhura-jātaka draws on existing motifs but is not limited by them, then does the Vidhura-jātaka contain a ‘version’ of the Mahābhārata dicing episode? Again, the narrative divergence suggests not, but the existence of common motifs and names suggests yes.

Perhaps, in the end, all we have here is an issue of terminology. We need a clear idea of what a ‘version’ of an existing story is, and how it differs from the creative use of common motifs and characters, and other forms of intertextuality. The oft-quoted words of the great A. K. Ramanujan are worth mentioning here, for although he wrote them of the Rāmāyaṇa we might usefully apply them more widely. He speaks of ‘a common pool of signifiers’:

‘These various texts not only relate to prior texts directly, to borrow or refute, but they relate to each other through this common code or common pool. Every author, if one may hazard a metaphor, dips into it and brings out a unique crystallization, a new text with a unique texture and a fresh context.’ (A.K. Ramanujan, ‘Three Hundred Rāmāyaṇas’, in Paula Richman, ed., Many Rāmāyaṇas (University of California Press 1991), p.46)

However, while Ramanujan’s explanation of how ‘versions’ of a story emerge is very pertinent, we must not lose sight of the innovation possible in telling stories more generally. Not all stories with common elements are versions of one another. Some may dip into several pools and combine the results; others may borrow from one text and invent new embellishments; yet others are completely new. The gambling king and his loyal steward Vidhura come from another text, but we need not seek a similar explanation for the origins of other aspects of the Vidhura-jātaka. Likewise, while the childhood experiences of an Indian prince who becomes a religious teacher may have their origins in a pool of Buddha-biography signifiers, the Barlaam and Josaphat story is an innovation far more than it is a ‘version’ of anything else.

My musings seem to have concluded that it is usually far more fruitful to talk about shared narrative elements than it is to talk about versions. And such shared elements, as this project is demonstrating, come in many different forms, with different explanations and contexts and lessons for the scholar.


4 thoughts on “What makes a story a ‘version’ of another story?

  1. Sheel

    Hi, I’m Sheel from India, a research scholar looking at representations of women in Jain literature. This comment of yours caught my attention: “Not all stories with common elements are versions of one another. Some may dip into several pools and combine the results; others may borrow from one text and invent new embellishments; yet others are completely new.” Exploring the morphology of folktales and tale travel across cultures, folklorists point out the sharing of narrative motifs, along with divergences in the narratives themselves. The AT motif-index lists a huge corpus of motifs. My question is: might not combining a variety of motifs imply that narrative divergence is a strategy used by storytellers to adopt/adapt a story (in)to their own cultures? I wonder, what other strategies might narrators and authors use to make a story their own? Thinking in a different direction, can one view reiteration of formulaic expressions and stock phrases as a strategy to instil belief in and loyalty to specific ideas and values?

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thank you for your interesting comment. I suppose in talking about the strategy of the narrative compiler we are always on tricky grounds, as it is difficult to infer a strategy from the evidence at hand. I was aware of this when reading Barlaam and Josaphat, for example: if the author of that hagiography wanted – intentionally and strategically – to appropriate the Buddha as a Christian saint, then I would be happy to call it a version of the Buddha’s life story. But did they? I suspect not, not least because the story had already travelled out of its original context. But you are right, I think, to point out that other strategies are at play, and that common motifs can be used for a variety of reasons. Thank you for engaging with this blog. All the best, Naomi

  2. Stephen Berkwitz

    Interesting reflections! I do think that the idea of a “version” is imprecise and privileges the “original” form while disregarding the innovations of a latter work. Perhaps we lack a clear and concise way to refer to the selective borrowing and adapting of narrative elements found in other stories. I wonder, however, to what degree these elements could even be described as being “shared” if they are used in different ways and for different purposes. In other words, how can we neatly describe the strategic alteration of common narrative elements or themes?

    1. naomiappleton Post author

      Thank you for your comment! Yes, I think we have a problem with terminology really! Perhaps we need to use more wordy but more precise descriptions of what is going on, such as your ‘selective borrowing and adapting of narrative elements’. My impression is that talking about shared narrative elements is more helpful than versions, if by narrative elements we mean named characters (eg. Vidhura) or motifs (eg. a dicing match). Simply calling them ‘shared’ does not imply an original or a direction of travel, though often it is an interesting exercise to try and trace such influences. It is interesting that, like the previous commenter, you use the term ‘strategic’ – I think this is a key term but also a problematic concept, for how can we really understand the strategies of these narrative recyclers or innovators? Much of what we say on that matter is inference, but I nonetheless think it does a disservice to the interconnected pools of Indian religious narrative to assume that there is a straightforward explanation for all the commonalities! Storytellers past and present draw on tradition and innovate simultaneously. I have seen them at work in that! All the best, Naomi


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s