Lost worlds
Encyclopaedism and riddles in the tale of Tawaddud/Theodor
in Bestsellers and masterpieces
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This chapter tracks the pre-modern popularity of a tale of a scholarly slave girl who wins a knowledge contest over the greatest scholars of her time. It investigates what made the tale of Tawaddud/Teodor so gripping to its medieval readers and translators. The argument is simple: that the tale’s medieval appeal lay in its encyclopaedic capacity for making knowledge into worlds, with the added benefit of moral inculcation into the world it creates. However, this worlding is double-faced – so intimately translatable is this tale that it can be levied not only in the service of colonial indoctrination but also to spur decolonising popular resistance. The translations of this tale, then, enact a literal war of the worlds. The tale seems to have struck a global chord that resonated long beyond the medieval period, only to dwindle to relative obscurity in modern times. Tawaddud in Arabic means ‘To show love or affection, to attract, captivate.’ A looser translation might be ‘Beloved’, and like her counterpart in Toni Morrison’s novel, Tawaddud’s uncanny medieval afterlife is filled with translators who seem unable to let go of her. The chapter ends by charting the ripples of Tawaddud’s post-medieval translations and transculturations – to Spain and Europe, but also to the New World of the Maya, to nineteenth-century Brazil and to the Philippines.

Bestsellers and masterpieces

The changing medieval canon


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