Epic sto­ry­telling

In­spires thoughts on other folk epics.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - READS -

I LEARNT a new word in the process of writ­ing this col­umn. While search­ing for a us­able def­i­ni­tion of a “folk epic”, I read that folk epics are sto­ries or col­lec­tions of sto­ries that be­gan as oral lit­er­a­ture be­fore be­ing later writ­ten down by ei­ther one or sev­eral au­thors.

A key as­pect of a folk epic, ap­par­ently, is that it is an im­por­tant part of the weltan­schau­ung of a peo­ple.

If you, like me, have never come across this frankly im­pres­sive- sound­ing word be­fore ( doesn’t count if you speak Ger­man!), it trans­lates roughly as “world view”, or more gen­er­ally, view of life.

Hence, John Mil­ton’s Par­adise Lost or Dante’s Di­vine Com­edy, while cer­tainly epic in na­ture, are not folk epics; the Ma­hab­harata, the Iliad, and Shah­nameh, mean­while, are. ( Stu­dents of lit­er­a­ture may also di­vide th­ese into pri­mary and sec­ondary epics.)

Why all this waf­fling on about un­pro­nounce­able words and world views, you may won­der? Be­cause I am cur­rently in the midst of read­ing Jour­ney To The West, at­trib­uted to Wu Cheng’en, and one of the “Four Great Clas­si­cal Nov­els” of Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture. ( The other three are The Ro­mance Of The Three King­doms, Wa­ter Mar­gin and The Dream Of The Red Cham­ber.)

Mon­key: Jour­ney To The West tells of the Bud­dhist monk Tang San­zang’s pil­grim­age from China to In­dia to fetch sa­cred texts, and the many dif­fi­cul­ties he faced dur­ing his jour­ney. Pro­tect­ing him while he ful­fils his task are three of Bud­dha’s dis­ci­ples: Sun Wukong the Mon­key King; Zhu Ba­jie, who is part hu­man and part pig; and Sha Wu­jing, who is a river ogre. ( I’m not at all a fan of their names in many of the English trans­la­tions: Mon­key, Pigsy and Sandy.)

While this is the first time I’m read­ing Jour­ney To The West, I’m re­minded yet again why I love th­ese clas­si­cal epics so very much.

My ear­li­est in­tro­duc­tion to folk epics was by my pa­ter­nal grand­mother, who would nar­rate the great In­dian epics to me as bed­time sto­ries.

I got to know the var­i­ous book ver­sions in later years, but truly, the Ra­mayana, Ma­hab­harata, Si­la­pad­hikaram and many oth­ers were given to me by my Paati.

She was a won­der­ful sto­ry­teller and had a real mem­ory for de­tail; de­spite it hav­ing been more than two decades, I still re­mem­ber many of the sto­ries and the way she told them.

The best thing was that she never sugar- coated the truth: whether it was some­one get­ting their head hacked off or some­one over­come by lust, she told it as it was. And yet, as a child, it all felt like a per­fectly nat­u­ral part of the story.

As I grew older, I was in­tro­duced to or found other epics, each of which I love for many dif­fer­ent rea­sons: Homer’s Iliad ( some­how The Odyssey never quite caught my imag­i­na­tion), One Thou­sand And One Nights ( or Ara­bian Nights), Be­owulf, and Malaysia’s own Bi­dasari.

And then there are oth­ers that I want to read but haven’t got to yet: Per­sia’s Shah­nameh, In­done­sia’s Na­garak­ertagama, the Sun­jata Epic of West Africa and the Epic Of Gil­gamesh from an­cient Me­sopotamia.

What makes th­ese folk epics so fas­ci­nat­ing to me is how they can be ap­pre­ci­ated on so many lev­els. Their roots in oral tra­di­tions are clear from how well they lend them­selves not just to be read out but also to be told. De­pend­ing on the cir­cum­stances, the tales can be knot­ted in de­tail or out­lined in sim­ple strokes.

On the sur­face, they are usu­ally ex­cit­ing, dra­matic sto­ries, of­ten with broad, larger- than- life char­ac­ters. Dig into the de­tails, how­ever, and some­thing much more com­plex emerges.

When I re- read now the epics I ei­ther heard or read as a child, I gain a whole new ap­pre­ci­a­tion for how much is con­tained within them, how clever it is that a seem­ingly sim­ple frame can en­fold so much within.

And yes, I do find my­self look­ing for the ob­vi­ous and sub­tle ways in which th­ese sto­ries speak of the way a cer­tain peo­ple or cul­ture saw or still see the world in its many facets.

Sharmilla Gane­san is cur­rently a Ful­bright/ Hu­bert H. Humphrey fel­low at the Univer­sity of Mary­land in the United States. She is read­ing her way through the ti­tles in

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