Literary Reflections

From Kalila and Dimna, The Crane and the Crab

About This Resource

One of the first Arabic texts to be illustrated tells the story of a crane and a crab. “Kalila wa Dimna” (“The Crane and the Crab”) originated in India, but it is one of the most famous frame tales in Arabic literature. (A frame tale is a narrative that connects a set of otherwise unlinked stories. This format, with its stories within stories, is somewhat reminiscent of that used in one of the volumes on the Muslim Journeys Bookshelf, The Arabian Nights.) It was also one of the earliest Arabic texts to be illustrated. “Kalila wa Dimna” was first translated into Arabic in the eighth century CE by Ibn al-Muqaffa (714–59 CE) from a Pahlavi version that is now lost. The illustration for "The Crane and the Crab" is from one of the oldest Arabic copies of “Kalila wa Dimna,” dated 1220 CE, created in Syria, and now preserved in the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (French National Library), in Paris. The story is based on the Indian frame tale “Panchatantra” (“Five Books”), a collection of Sanskrit parables. The work was translated into many languages, including Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and French, and is said to have  inspired Jean de La Fontaine (1621–95) and other compilers of fables.

“Kalila wa Dimna” belongs to a genre of courtly literature called “mirrors for princes.” The stories draw the listener into the many episodes and digressions, and would have been told over many sittings. Stories of this kind would have enabled a storyteller to put moral and political advice into the mouths of animals so as not to offend a royal listener. “Kalila wa Dimna” begins with King Dabschelim, who miraculously discovers a scroll containing the stories, and a wise man, Bidpai, who relates them to the king. The main characters are two jackals named Kalila and Dimna, who tell stories of intrigue in the lion's kingdom, ending each story with a moral. The illustration of the crane and the crab is a from a page in a Syrian manuscript of “Kalila wa Dimna” that was created in 1220 CE and brought to Paris in the seventeenth century.


“The Crane and the Crab”
A crane once dwelt upon a pleasant lake placed among little hills spread over with herbs and flowers. He lived upon such fish as he could catch, and for many years got plenty. But at length, becoming old and feeble and unable to plunge into the water with his former speed, the crane was driven to fly in the air and feed only on the occasional cricket. Soon he was almost starving.
While the crane was poised in the bankside shallows one morning, sighing and looking mighty melancholy, there wandered sideways by a huge old freshwater crab who asked him what the trouble was.
“Oh,” replied the crane, “I'm depressed by the conversation I overheard between two fishermen yesterday. That's all.”
“And what did they say?” asked the crab.
“Do you really want to know?” answered the crane.It's not very pleasant news, and I have no wish to burden you.”
“Don’t worry,” the crab said. “Tell me about it. I'm interested.”
“Well, I was standing around one-leggedly over in that patch of reeds at the other end of the lake. The sun was shining fiercely, and I must have dozed off. Anyway, I didn’t hear these two men approach. Their voices woke me but they were too close for me to move without risk. I stood stock still, camouflaged by the reeds, and listened. ‘If we dug a trench through the left bank, we could drain this lake and catch all the fish in it,’ said one. ‘True,’ said his friend, ‘and there are many fish here. But I think I have a better idea. You know that smaller lake higher up in the hills, a mile or so away? Well, it also teems with fish and would be even easier to drain. Let's do that smaller one first, and later, on another day, we can come back here.’ “
“I'm sure they mean business,” continued the crane, “and when they return, that means the end of the fish and therefore the end of me. Without fish to feed on, my days are numbered. I am too old to fly about in search of a new home and start all over again. I am waiting for the day the fishermen come back, and facing the inevitability of death. There is nothing to be done except to wait, and learn to accept my fate.”'
“Very interesting,” said the crab, and she slid off into the lake to seek out the President of the Fishes. He was taking a nap—floating almost motionless near the lake bottom among some waving weeds—a huge old carp that had seen at least a dozen summers and weighed nearly six pounds.
“Mr. President,” said the crab, “Mr. President—please wake up!”
“Burble,” said President Fish, and in a start his body swished left and right until he saw who it was. “What is it, Madam Crab?” he said irritably. “Why have you interrupted my siesta?”
“President Fish,” answered the crab, “it’s about the fishermen coming to drain the lake. It's an emergency, and I think you had better call your cabinet together for a special meeting.”
This is exactly what happened once the crab had told him the full story. After the meeting the president's most intimate advisers fanned out into every nook and cranny of the lake to declare an Extraordinary Session of the Parliament of Fishes. Soon a great hubbubble arose from the traditional meeting spot deep in the middle of the lake. When all the fishy debates were done, and every opinion heard, a vote was taken which carried the motion to speak to the crane. That afternoon the fish swam towards the old bird in a great wedge-shaped armada with their president in the vanguard.
“Although you are our enemy,” he said from a safe distance, “we feel we must have a word with you about our common danger.”
“But of course, by all means,” responded the crane in a somewhat lackluster tone.” What can I do for you?”
“First, please simply answer this question. Are you quite positive that you heard two men saying they intended to drain the entire lake?”
“Yes, I heard it with my own ears. I swear it by all the feathers on my body.”
“Well, then,” said President Fish, “we are both in the same dilemma. For if we who are your food die, you die too, old bird.”
“I am well aware of the delicate ecological balance which is involved,” the crane remarked testily. “In fact, I have personally resigned myself to my own death, and sincerely feel the inescapable doom which awaits ...”
“But is there nothing we can do to protect ourselves?” interrupted President Fish.
“No, I think not,” said the crane. “We do not between us have sufficient power to withstand two determined men. There is only one way out, but I doubt you will try it, for it involves placing your complete trust in me.”
“For love of the lake, tell us anyway!” President Fish exclaimed.  “What have we to lose even if it fails? Say on, for we have not the least idea of what to do, and have come to hear your advice.”
The crane slowly rotated his head on the end of his long neck and carefully tucked his left leg up under his wing. “There is a rather special pond not far from here,” he said at length, his little jet eyes peering past the tip of his beak. “The water is cool and clear, and the bottom so deep that men could never drain it. More important, it is uninhabited by fish. My idea would be to fly you there, one or two at a time, depending on size. You could grip the feathers on my back with your mouths and, strength permitting, I estimate I could make four or five trips per day.”
“But how do we know this is not a trick?” asked President Fish.
“There,” said the crane, “I predicted you wouldn't trust me. So, what is to be done except wait around for the fishermen? It won’t be long now; they should finish with the smaller lake inside a couple of months.”
“Would you take me upon your back to see this pond?” asked President Fish. “I could swim about in it and verify the truth of what you say, and then you could bring me back here to tell the others. Will you also guarantee a complete truce between us during this difficult period of transition? No fish-eating until we are newly settled and things return to normal?”
“Why, of course I will,” answered the crane. “Certainly, certainly.  Maybe you would care to have a trial run now?”
“Why not?” President Fish answered. “There’s still plenty of daylight left.”
It was agreed. The crane dived underwater so President Fish could obtain a good grip on the shoulder feathers with his mouth. He surfaced with the big fish nestled on his back. When all was balanced, the crane flew slowly off, mustering every bit of his remaining strength, and shortly arrived at the pond. President Fish plopped off the crane’s back and spent a good quarter of an hour exploring the locale.
“The pond is everything the crane says it is,” President Fish told all the other fish excitedly when he had returned. “I urge you, therefore, to accept his offer. Let the great exodus begin! It is our only hope of survival. Three cheers for the crane. Hip hip ...”
“Hooray!” sang out all the gathered congregation of fishes. “Hip hip, hooray!” Even the old she-crab joined in the cheering and waved her claws about in the air.
The next day the crane made five trips, carrying away a total of seven fish, four little ones in pairs and three large ones riding solo. But he flew his finny passengers to a rocky hilltop out of sight of the lake, and—when they could no longer hold their breaths and released their holds from his feathers—he flung them violently off his back so they lay gasping for water in the sunlight. Then he killed them and devoured them. Thus for many days he continued filling his belly, and soon grew sleek and glossy-feathered.
However, one morning the she-crab requested a ride to the pond, as she missed a particular tench friend who had flown on before her. The crane, realizing that the crab was a potential troublemaker, readily agreed—determined to drop her from the air onto the rocks below and smash her to pieces. The crab scrambled up on to the crane's back and tightly clasped his feathers with her legs and claws. They mounted into the skies and soon left the lake far behind, but after many minutes the crab still could not see the famous pond.
“Friend, friend,” she cried out over the wind which rushed past her, ”how much farther to the cool, clear water which we have heard so much about?”
“Ha ha!” the crane yelled back over his shoulder. “You dumb crustaceous bitch—there is no pond for you! Look yonder to those rocks and you'll see the garbage heap where I am dumping you!” Sure enough, the crab could see in the distance great piles of fish heads and fish bones which the crane had scattered about on the hilltop. He now began to swoop sharply left and right, trying to shake the crab off his back. But an instant later he felt first one then the other of the crab's powerful claws grip his neck as tightly as a blacksmith's pincers. The claws squeezed so hard that the old crane began to gasp and tears ran from his eyes. Madam Crab carefully pulled herself forward and shouted down his earhole:
“If I were you, foul fowl, I'd stop this nonsense and make a nice soft landing immediately. Otherwise I shall cut off your head as clean as a man lops through a lotus stalk with his hunting knife, and we shall perish together.”
“Hrvvck aahh krr,” the crane rasped out from deep in his throat. “Stop, stop, you're strangling me! I can't see! Stop, for God's sake, so I can land!”
Madam Crab relaxed her grip perhaps a millimeter: the old crane glided ever so gently to the ground.
“Sit down, you evil trickster, so I can climb off your back,” the crab ordered.
“I was only joking,” the crane said in great pain, folding his legs and lowering his body to the earth.
“Tell me another,” said the crab, and with a mighty squeeze she shut her claws and cut his head off clean as a whistle. When she had recovered and wept over the bones of her friends, the crab made her way back to the lake and told all the remaining fish of her adventure with the treacherous crane. Needless to say, they gave her many thanks for their deliverance, but poor President Fish somehow became the scapegoat for their collective poor judgment, and was hounded from office and never forgiven."


Wood, Ramsay. Kalila and Dimna: Fables of Friendship and Betrayal. London: Saqi Books, 2008, pp. 104–111. Image: Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, “L’art du livre Arabe” [The Art of the Arabic Book], MS Arabe 3465, folio 57, accessed May 14, 2013,

How to Cite This Page

"Muslim Journeys | Item #151: From Kalila and Dimna, The Crane and the Crab", April 17, 2024


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