THE TALE OF KHUN CHANG AND KHUN PHAEN: Siam's Great Folk Epic of Love and War. Translated and edited by Chris Baker and Pasuk Phongpaichit. Silkworm Books, 2010, 970 pp., $60 (hardcover)

Those who like their novice monks prim and proper, taming desires, meditating and selflessly engaging in good deeds will encounter more than a few uncomfortable moments in this bawdy, sprawling, ribald tale about love and ravishing, leavened by scenes of war and betrayal, set in the early 17th century.

Here monks cast "beguiler mantras" that render women randy, take advantage of gullible maidens who fall for their sweet lies while others peep at bathing beauties. Seldom has the sangha (community of monks) been portrayed in such an earthy and irreverent manner, one that acknowledges that robes and prayers are little match for human foibles.

This spellbinding epic emerges from a rich oral tradition, meaning it was a story that grew over time, with various embellishments. Above all it was popular entertainment. Various written versions have survived and here are gathered together in this splendid translation of a story that conveys much about life, customs, courtship and mores in the past that still, much like Shakespeare, resonates powerfully today.