Wednesday, December 19, 2007


In the mid sixties Dick apparently got interested in the teachings of Sufiism, a middle eastern philosophy from the middle ages, and around 1966, he collaborated with Idries Shah on a series of books. Shah had written "The Sufis", the seminal work on Sufiism and was now collecting the Folk tales about the famous Mulla Nasrudin.
Nasrudin, who is known throughout the middle east and Russia, combines the figures of Teacher and fool, sometimes based on the idea, that, if you make a preposterous statement to your pupil, the pupil, by contradicting you, will have to reason his own way to the truth.
I am pretty convinced that Dick illustrated 2 books for Shah,
The exploits of the incomparable Mulla Nasrudin
of which I have a copy, and
The pleasantries of the incredible Mulla Nasrudin
which I once had a snoop through at Dick Purdums house.
The stories are mostly philosophical jokes and some of them resemble parabels that I remember being told in my childhood, so the basic concept seems to be a universal one. They're great fun and the illustrations are a perfect match for the strange tales.
The interesting thing is how many elements in the illustrations are predecessors of what would ultimately become the "Thief style".
Middle eastern illustrations, the influence for the backgrounds in the movie, rely heavily on the use of perfect geometrical patterns, that have an almost mathematical quality to them.
I remember, working up patterns for the crane across the golden city up to the minaret and being amazed by their logic.
Patterns that looked like a collection of star shapes would turn out to be nothing else but lines that turned left and right alternatively, but would weave over and under the lines they met in perfect regularity.
This created quite remarkably complex patterns.
Just look at the scene where Zig Zag contemplates men being "fools who walk in dreams" in his study.
The window in the background consists of ten pronged stars, surrounded by ten diamonds, interspersed with ten pentagons and ten pentagrams, before repeating again, yet, it's just bars going: turn right, over, under, turn left, over, under and so on.
Quite apart from the use of arabic patterns, the illustrations also featured many characters that resemble those in the film.
There is a Proto-thief, a Proto princess and many references to the Escher style optical jiggery pokery that later made up King Nod's palace.
Being a great fan of mathematical games and conundrums, I'm sure I will come back to these patterns later, especially when it comes to the work of Roy Naisbitt, the single most important influence in my life, as far as what "really melts my butter" is concerned, when it comes to graphic translations of reality into screen imagery.
I include some images from the book, published by Jonathan Cape.
There must, at some time, have been the plan to turn Nasrudin into a series of animated films because piles of boxes labelled with that name were populating the shelves at the forum, and many a rough animation on the theme seems to have been canibalized to populate the scenes of the final movie.
Incidentally Dick fell out with Shah after illustrating the book and there are rumours that Zig Zag is based on the character of the great Sufi master.
After what I heard Dick say about his film-villain, I would be very interested to meet Shah, with his 12 fingers, extra digits, two elbows on each arm and two arses...

I wonder...

Anyway, here's a Nasrudin Story:
In a dream Nasrudin saw himself being given money.
When there were nine silver pieces in his hand, the invisible donor stopped giving them.
Nasrudin shouted: "I must have ten" so loudly that he woke himself up.
Finding that all the money had gone, he closed his eyes again and murmured:
All right then, I'll take the nine...


roque said...

This site is amazing! Thanks for sharing all your experience with the rest of us...

Holger said...

I remember when you found this book. I had seen a few Nasrudin linetests of the "Bread" sequence, but had not been aware that it started all with these book illustrations. It's great to see the first incarnation of the Thief at the bottom.
It's funny how a guy like John Hubley evolved from working at Disney towards very stylized personal work, while Dick went the other way exchanging some of the stylization for a closer to life approach, because of his admiration for Milt Kahl and other old school animators.

Anonymous said...

Omar Shah was producing the Nasrudin animated film - Idries' brother. He and Dick fell out - apparently Omar was embezzling from the production and most people feel that Zigzag was based on Omar, who can be seen in the "Creative Person" documentary from 1967, along with some line tests from the Nasrudin film. A full scene of the Nasrudin film appears in the documentary "One Pair of Eyes: Dreamwalkers," which Idries Shah narrated. Dick fell out with Idries because Idries wanted a huge cut of the film - 50% perhaps - for the use of his characters. Dick wound up cannibalizing the unfinished Nasrudin film to become The Thief, and the supporting cast of Nasrudin became the supporting cast of The Thief. A version of the Nasrudin screenplay called "The Majestic Fool" (which makes no sense whatsoever and would not have been nearly the film that The Thief is) can be read at . I have both Nasrudin books - they're not hard to find online even now.

Will Finn said...

i just discovered these books this past year, thanks to blogger Donnachad Daly. It took a while to track them down, but I finally got my hands on both books for my library. The first one is the better of the two, IMO.

The illustrations are simply astounding. These drawings may be my favorite Richard Williams works of all. Deceptively simple, yet completely perfect. The color cover alone is one of the best cartoon drawings I have ever seen. And they do indeed appear to have inspired much of the visuals in the film.

Brett W. McCoy said...

The Nasrudin stories have been my favorites for years, even before I had heard of Dick Williams and once I discovered "The Thief and the Cobbler" I was excited to rediscover Williams' work in the books I had.

Sad the Nasrudin never saw the light of day... how can Shah claim he owns the rights to a character that is over 1000 years old?