Tales of the Golden Corpse

Sandra Benson, Tales of the Golden Corpse (Interlink Books, 2007)

Tales of the Golden Corpse, a collection of Tibetan folk tales, as retold by Sandra Benson, is a brilliant introduction to a realm of folk tales little explored in the West. Useful for scholars wishing to begin their enquiry into Tibetan secular literature, the collection is also a gem for the layman’s library. The stories in this collection are both familiar and new, instructional and absorbing: they use common fairy tale tropes, often tweaked in ways new to the Western understanding of such stories, while also teaching Tibetan values that are applicable across many cultures. People of all ages would do well to take heed of these stories, with their honoring of humility and cleverness and compassion: the wicked are punished and the good are rewarded, though not always in the ways one would normally wish.

This collection opens with an introduction that is succinctly informational, yet not tedious or exhaustive. Sandra Benson gives us the background upon which to project these tales and explains the framework within which the tales are told: the stories interweave, sub-stories in a great framework. Indeed, the stories are told just this way even today over most of Tibet. Children living on remote plains as well as children living in the villages are instructed in these tales by their families. Benson shares some of the basic cultural conventions of Tibet as well, and shortly introduces us to some of the character types in the stories. She concludes with a brief history of this particular collection of tales.

As we leap into the tales themselves, the format of the stories explained in the introduction is quickly proven: these stories are truly stories within a story. The language is clear and rhythmic and we are drawn in: a boy, being punished for killing seven wicked men (for although they were wicked, it’s still a sin to kill them), is trying to fetch a corpse made of turquoise and gold and return it to a wise Buddhist practitioner. This corpse, it is said, has the power to bring many good things into the world. However, not one word must be spoken to the corpse on the return journey or it will instantly return to its home. The corpse is very tricky and uses stories to distract the boy into speaking. So we have the stories told by a corpse traveling on the back of a penitent boy, who loses his concentration on not speaking and must fetch the corpse again and again with each new tale.

The tales themselves are peopled with familiar characters and tropes: wicked men, evil tyrants, ineffectual or foolish rulers, wise poor men, honorable tradesmen, and creatures who can change their skins. We learn that the rich disdain having the same name as commoners and that commoners are quite often smarter than any rich or powerful man. These stories abound with promises not to reveal identities, as often seen in other fairy tales: yet this promise, when broken, doesn’t always result in punishment or disappearance. Compassion is the key here. We see how important adages are to the Tibetan culture, as almost every story seems to contain at least one proverb. Some of the stories are complete in themselves and resolve the story, where other tales end suddenly and leave one guessing some of the concluding details. This is due to the framework within which the stories are told: once the penitent boy talks, the corpse immediately retreats back to his home cemetery and the whole fetching process must begin again. At first, this game of Sudden Story Death can seem tiresome, but one quickly realizes a benefit of this format: sudden endings leave you wondering about the story longer. Sudden endings let the story sink into your mind and take hold as you try to resolve it for yourself, drawing out the lesson and deciding what just might have happened in the true end. This is a brilliant and intriguing way to involve listeners in a narrative.

Following the collection of twenty-five stories is a section of Commentary that gives further information and background to each of the stories. While the basics of the stories are easily grasped, this extra information helps ground the stories more deeply in the framework of Tibetan culture. The author was also kind enough to include a glossary for some of the most common terms used in the stories: a reader can easily reference these when there’s a particular common element he doesn’t quite understand. The recommended reading section is also quite useful for those wishing to study these tales or Tibetan culture more closely.

As a fan and student of fairytales, I found this book to be a worthy addition to my library. I wouldn’t hesitate to share it with children or other adults! These stories have much to say about how to live life well, and it does so simply and effectively. Some of the imagery is disturbing, while some imagery is quite charming: but in our fairy tales, would we have it any other way? If you have any interest in fairy tales or Tibet or teaching yourself (or others) some great values, pick up this Tales of the Golden Corpse immediately.

This review was originally published at Green Man Review on August 22nd, 2007. It received the Excellence in Writing Award from the editorial staff of that publication.