The Elephant’s I: Looking for Abu’l Abbas

  • Radhika Subramaniam
Part of the Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature book series (PSAAL)


The Elephant’s I is an experimental approach to the writing of an animal biography that takes an elephant, its human companion, and the writer/researcher as three prongs in the construction of the story. The elephant Abu’l Abbas was purportedly gifted to Charlemagne by caliph Harun al-Rashid of Baghdad. Most likely an Asian elephant, scant traces indicate that he was gifted to the previous caliph by an Indian king.

The larger project, to which this essay is a general introduction, constructs a plausible tale of this elephant’s travels in the company of a mahout (an elephant handler). Their intertwined experiences of intimacy, isolation, confinement, migration, and intelligibility form the tale, posing the challenge of telling stories across species and time.


Elephant Mahout Middle Ages Harun al-Rashid Charlemagne Infrasonic 



I am grateful to André Krebber and Mieke Roscher for the generative context they created at the Animal Biographies conference in Kassel; to Carla Freccero for comments on an earlier version of the essay; to Philip Schauss who translated several sources from the German for me; to Frank Pohle for the introduction to the cartoon world of “Karl’s elefant”; and to John Bruce who introduced me to the film Bella e Perduta.


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Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Radhika Subramaniam
    • 1
  1. 1.Parsons School of Design, The New SchoolNew YorkUSA

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