At first glance, "World Tales" may seem to be a rather drab title for so elegant a book. However, Idries Shah, the leading interpreter in the West of the Persian mysticism known as Sufism, and author of such piquantly named previous works as "A Veiled Gazelle" and "wisdom of the Idiots," has not chosen carelessly. On the contrary, as one goes through the 65 stories in this anthology, one soon realizes that "World Tales" is a fitting name indeed for this beautifully illustrated coffee-table volume.

What else would you call a collection of folk tales and fables that not only represent, in their present continents -- but which have each, in one form or another, been told and read throughout the globe for hundreds and even thousands of years? The outer trappings may change with the geography, but the essential story lines appear in so many different countries that one can only conclude they exert some strange attraction on the human mind. Small wonder, then, that Shah's subtitle is "The extraordinary coincidence of stories told in all times, in all places."

The particular story versions featured in the book have been left in the general style of their native countries, thus preserving something of the flavor of lands as diverse as Afghanistan, Scotland and Madagascar. A few of the selections are familiar tales in familiar garb, such as the popular "Dick Whittington and His Cat," while others are unfamiliar versions of childhood favorites, such as the hauntingly beautiful "Alonquin Cinderella" (one of over 300 worldwide variants on that theme); and still others are likely to be completely new to readers of the English-speaking world.

The informative, brief introductions for the tales raise a question which Shah himself poses now and again throughout the book. That is, how can one account for the multiple appearances of the same basic story in cultures that seemingly could have had no contact with each other up to and during the period when the stories first appeared? It's one thing to trace a tale's dissemination from, say, Africa to America by way of the slave trade, or from India westward to Persia and on to Europe. But how does one explain, for example, thje fact that a story closely resembling that of Joseph and his brothers was current in Polynesia before the natives there had ever seen a Bible? Shah offers no easy explanation, but does mention something that nevertheless serves to cast in a new light a form of story art that once thought to be unworthy of serious attention. He notes that, aside from their obvious entertainment and didactic value many folk tales "have a secondary, inner significance, which is rarely glimpsed consciously, but which nevertheless acts powerfully on our minds." Such stories, it would appear, have been used intentionally in this way from time immemorial by certain groups interested in spiritual developement.

But spiritually edifying or not, the stories in "World Tales" definitely offer a liberating kind of entertainment not often found in today's standard reading fare. For these are fairy tales, and as such are peopled by magical and wondrous beings -- genies, talking animals, beautiful princesses and handsome princes -- who fly through the air, slay monsters, acquire kingdoms and live happily ever after. And something about this defiance of everyday logic seems to have an effect upon the reader that is at once stimulating and, somehow, reassuring. As Shah puts it, such a "suspending of ordinary constraints helps people to reclaim optimism and to fuel the imagination with energy for the attainment of goals . . ." Idries Shah deserves praise for restoring the beguiling folk tale to its rightful place as something to be enjoyed by everyone for all ages and cultures -- and for presenting such an engaging sampler from that "certain basic fund of human fictions which recur, again and again, and never seem to lose their compelling attraction."