Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Ocean of Story

An 11th-century Kashmiri court poet, Somadeva, assembled a vast collection of stories from a wide range of sources, some known, some forever obscure; many of the tales were of Indian origin, but many (it is likely) had come to the subcontinent from abroad. This gathering, known as the Katha Sarit Sagara, contains a wide range of adventures with supernatural elements – Beast Fables, Vampire tales, etc. – and stands as a kind of encyclopedia of story types, a Cauldron of Story. It first appeared in English under the original title (trans C H Tawney 1880-1884 UK) but is now best-known in the version prepared by Norman Penzer from Tawney's translation, The Ocean of Story (10-vol anth 1924-1928 UK), as ed Somadeva. In putting together his original compilation, Somadeva incorporated not only individual tales but at least two already existing Story Cycles: the Panchatantra ["Five Books"], in whose Frame Story a Brahmin, who must educate three princes in proper behaviour, does so by telling them a number of exemplary tales; and the Vetalapanchavinsati ["25 Tales of a Vampire"] (part trans Sir Richard Burton as Vikram and the Vampire, or Tales of Hindu Devilry 1870 UK), in which a friendly Vampire spirit tells a king – who has gone to its cemetery to retrieve a corpse hanging from a tree, at the request of a beggar to whom he is morally indebted – a number of stories to prevent his returning to court, where he will be murdered. Not only, in other words, does The Ocean of Story preserve many classic tales, and comprise therefore a compost of tales from which much modern fantasy has grown – specifically shaping, for instance, Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories (coll of linked stories 1990) – it is also, along with The Arabian Nights (> Arabian Fantasy), a central example of the story cycle. Typically formed of large cycles, it also incorporates stories which turn out themselves to frame further sets of stories within stories (>>> Arabian Nightmare).

More generally, the term OOS can be understood – and is so used in this encyclopedia – as referring to the current critical understanding that almost every traditional Story exists in multiple versions; that it is exceedingly difficult to sort these versions into chaste stemmata (> Stemma); and that we in the 20th century cannot lop our versions of traditional tales from the top of a linear tree but must instead cast our nets in an unfathomably complex ocean. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.