The World of the Shining Prince synthesizes a vast amount of Japanese history, anthropology, and aesthetics through the prism of the world’s first novel—The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. From its sparkling prose to its lucidly conceived themes, this 1964 book by Ivan Morris must rank as one of the greatest achievements in liberal arts. Reading The Tale of Genji before reading The World of the Shining Prince is probably a good idea, and recommended, but not absolutely necessary. Morris’s book conveys most of the 1,000+ page novel’s plot—which spans 75 years around the turn of the 11th century and contains hundreds of characters—as well as its aesthetic flavor. The triumph of the book is that he adds so much more to the picture.
Morris writes that “The Tale of Genji gives a realistic and fairly complete picture of cultural life in the capital.” What his book adds is the context—historical, anthropological, political, artistic—that makes this picture more three dimensional. Reading The Tale of Genji is like being steeped in tea, soaking up dreamlike episodes linked by poems. Morris’s book is more clear-eyed, yet forms multiple bridges of understanding into the dream world.
The Shining Prince in Morris’s title is none other than Prince Genji, the aristocratic ladies-man aesthete whose adventures are chronicled in the first two-thirds of The Tale of Genji. The author, Lady Muraski, was a noblewoman in the Heian-era court. Both main character and author are so absorbed in court life that a reader needs a guide like Morris to understand how unique, elite, and remote from other civilizations court life had become.
Genji’s era is known as the Heian, which lasted from 794 to 1185 and marked the rise of Chinese influence in Japan. The country became Buddhist during the preceding Nara period, and the borrowing of Chinese culture continued into the Heian. However, Morris makes an interesting point about the time period depicted by Muraski: that for 100 years the Japanese aristocracy had been purposefully distancing themselves from Chinese influence and retreating into a more insular and uniquely Japanese way of life.
This way of life could be extremely strange. Bureaucrats would often start their working day after nightfall and work into the pre-dawn hours, their dreary activities made more lively by drinking rice wine. Their lives were dominated by aesthetics such the turn of a poetic phrase that conjures meaning through allusion (Japanese are masters at speaking indirectly), the quality of a fabric, the thoughtfulness of an incense blend.
Why is this small cast of courtiers and their strange rituals worth studying? Because, Morris argues, they produced a unique and indelible flourishing of literature written by women (Murasaki and her contemporary Sei Shonagon being the most famous) that have not only stood the test of time but become increasingly renowned across the centuries. Only Shakespeare is trailed by more commentary.
The thing that really makes the book stand out to me—its heart, so to speak—is that Morris’s work builds upon Murasaki’s themes of dreamlike reality and impermanence. He writes toward the end:
Throughout the novel…Murasaki rings the changes on the image of dreams and thereby evokes one of her central themes—the nebulous, unreal quality of the world about us, and the idea that our life is a mere ‘bridge of dreams’ (the title of her final book), over which we cross from one state of existence to the next.
When I read this line, I thought that this theme is also a perfect metaphor for Morris’s own work.