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 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. Join the conversation at facebook.com/BeBookedOut or Tweet @SharmillaG.