World Tales

World Tales
Author Idries Shah
Country United Kingdom
Language English
Publisher Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Octagon Press
Publication date
December 25, 1979
Media type Print
Pages 410
ISBN 0-86304-036-5 (paperback)
OCLC 24743413

World Tales, subtitled "The Extraordinary Coincidence of Stories Told in All Times, in All Places" is a book of 65 folk tales collected by Idries Shah from around the world, mostly from literary sources. Some of the tales are very current, others are less well known.


Each story is preceded by a short introduction by the author, giving a brief history of the tale's literary mutations, or remarking on the strange similarities that versions exhibit across great geographical or historical distances.[1] The collection has had a broad appeal. For instance Canadian poet P. K. Page cited it as the book she would give to a child,[2] and author and storyteller Norah Dooley:[3][4] "This is the book that turned my interest as an adult to folklore and inspired me to take up storytelling." and has become a widely used sourcebook of tales.[5]

Whilst Shah mentions many of the ancient and modern interpretations that have been placed on the tales, along with some of the theories of cross-cultural transmission, he himself interprets them little, writing in the introduction:

Working for thirty-five years among the written and oral sources of our world heritage in tales, one feels a truly living element in them which is startlingly evident when one isolates the 'basic' stories: the ones which tend to have travelled furthest, to have featured in the largest number of classical collections, to have inspired great writers of the past and present.

The value that Shah put on folklore of this kind is clear, not only from the many volumes of tales that he published but also from books published by his children. The title alone of one of his daughter Saira Shah's books, The Storyteller's Daughter,[6] gives some indication, while his son Tahir Shah's book In Arabian Nights, itself an exploration of the power of the folktale, recalls:[7]

When my father died a decade ago, I inherited his library. There were five reinforced boxes of books labeled "STORIES: VALUABLE, HANDLE WITH CARE". Among them were Aesop's Fables, Hans Christian Andersen, and the Brothers Grimm. There were many others too, the Arab collections and volumes of tales from every corner of the world...

Original illustrated edition

The book was first published in large format by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich[8] with each tale illustrated. Originally Shah asked Ivan Tyrrell to find illustrations for the tales by the likes of Arthur Rackham, Kay Nielsen and Edmund Dulac. Tyrrell instead suggested commissioning new work, Shah agreed to this and the idea was put to, and approved by, the publisher, William Jovanovich.[9] Thirty seven artists[10] contributed. This edition is no longer in print; the Octagon Press edition is text only.

Agnes Perkins, writing in the Children's Literature Association Quarterly cited this "lavish" edition of World Tales as an example of books that bridge the gap between illustrated books of folktales published for the juvenile market which pay little attention to sources or to authenticity of tone and language and which supply none of the working tools developed for folklore scholarship which might lead readers to further study of tales from the oral tradition, and collections by folklorists concerned primarily with local variants and the unusual persistence of motifs which ignore questions of the value of the stories from a literary standpoint.[11]

Examples of stories

Title Origin The tale Illustrator in large format edition
Tales of a Parrot India From Parrot Tales (the Persian Tutinama by Nakhshabi), split into three linked tales. Shah's version is taken from an oral narrative collected by the great Italian folklorist Giuseppe Pitrè,[12] though the telling seems to link to a Sanskrit source, the Śukasaptati.[13] Sue Porter
Dick Whittington England The familiar pantomime story of Richard Whittington Ken Laidlaw[14]
Don’t Count Your Chickens Spain The fable behind the proverb, one of many variants of the fable The milkmaid and her pail[15] James Marsh[16]
The Hawk and the Nightingale Greece Recorded by Hesiod in his Works and Days. Regarded by many as the earliest fable attributable to a literary work;[17] number 4 in the Perry Index. Ray Winder
Cecino the Tiny Tuscany A variant of Tom Thumb[18] Chris McEwen
Her Lover's Heart India The ancient story of Raja Rasalu.[19] David O'Connor
The New Hand USA Similar to the Brothers Grimm's The Old Man Made Young Again[20] and to unofficial legends of Jesus current in Palestine,[21] this one takes place in Alabama.[22] Mai Watts
The Mastermaid Norway From Norwegian Folktales collected by Peter Christen Asbjørnsen and Jørgen Moe, translated by George Webbe Dasent. Peter Richardson

List of Stories


  1. For example, asking, with reference to the story of Childe Rowland: "How can it be that the same story is found in Scotland and also in pre-Columbian America?"
  2. "Home - Writers & Company with Eleanor Wachtel - CBC Radio". 12 January 2016.
  5. O'Keefe, Ellen M.; Stewart, Mary Catherine; Senge, Peter M. (2004). Tools for Conflict Resolution. Rowman & Littlefield. p. 44. ISBN 1-57886-110-1., Sherman, Josepha (1994). Once Upon a Galaxy: Folktales, Fantasy, and Science Fiction. august house. p. 230. ISBN 0-87483-387-6. and Aldridge, David (2005). Case Study Designs in Music Therapy. Jessica Kingsley Publishers. p. 29. ISBN 1-84310-140-8.
  6. Shah, Saira (2004). The Storyteller's Daughter. Penguin Books Ltd. ISBN 0-14-101026-6.
  7. Shah, Tahir (2008). In Arabian Nights. Random House Inc. p. 13. ISBN 978-0-553-80523-9.
  8. Shah, Idries (1979). World Tales. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. p. 259. ISBN 0-15-199434-X.
  9. Tyrrell, Ivan (2016). Listening to Idries Shah. Human Givens Publishing. p. 106. ISBN 978-1899398089.
  10. David Aicken, Wayne Anderson, Philip Argent, Peter Brookes, Fred Carver, Doranna, Roy Ellsworth, Brian Froud, Tim Gill, Peter Goodfellow, Melvyn Grant, Lynda Gray, Colin Hadley, Ivan Hissey, Ken Laidlaw, Roger Langton, Carol Lawson, Janina Lech, Alan Lee, James Marsh, Chris McEwan, Tony Meeuwissen, Martin Newton, David O'Connor, Joe Petagno, Sue Porter, Peter Richardson, Carolyn Scrace, Caroline Smith, Mike Terry, Alan Tunbridge, Ivan Tyrrell, George Underwood, Malcolm Walker, Mai Watts, Juan Wijngaard and Ray Winder
  11. Agnes Perkins (1981). "Folklore and Children's Books: Bridging the Gap". Children's Literature Association Quarterly. 6 (2): 1–37. doi:10.1353/chq.0.1667.
  12. Pitrè, Giuseppe (2008). The Collected Sicilian Folk and Fairy Tales of Giuseppe Pitrè. Routledge. p. 16. ISBN 978-0-415-98032-6.
  13. The story can be accessed at "look inside" on the Octagon Press website
  14. Ken Laidlaw's illustration of Dick Whittington's cat may be seen on his website
  15. The version presented is from the Tales of Count Lucanor, chapter 28 "Of what happened to a woman called Truhana" Aesop also has a version The Milk Woman and Her Pail
  16. The image can be seen on the artist's site
  17. Britanica. 1910. p. 410.: "The poem also contains the earliest known fable in Greek literature"
  18. A number of variants are given on the site, including an almost identical telling, The Little Chick Pea
  19. Given in less readable form in Clouston, W. A. (1887). Popular tales and fictions : their migrations and transformations. W. Blackwood. pp. 186–195., along with mention of some of the variants, including the account of a certain Madam Butler of Hackney Boarding School, and the ninth story of the fourth day of Boccaccio's Dacameron which concerns the troubadour Guillaume de Cabestang.
  20. The Old Man Made Young Again, Tale 147.
  21. Shah gives a similar tale, Isa and the Doubters, in his Tales of the Dervishes.
  22. Francis Hindes Groome (2005). Gypsy Folk Tales. Adamant Media Corporation. p. 291. ISBN 978-1-4021-8627-1.
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