Saturday, April 18, 2015

P is for the Panther Skin Knight (Epics from A to Z)

The Knight in the Panther's Skin, written by poet Shota Rustaveli, is the national epic of Georgia. The epic poem was composed in the 12th century, under the reign of Queen Tamar, with whom sources suggest the poet was distantly and madly in love. I read the epic in its English prose translation.
The Knight in the Panther's Skin is a tale of love and adventure. It doesn't actually take place in Georgia - rather, it happens in a half-imaginary landscape between Arabia, India, and the Kingdom of the Seas. And while it aims to tell a double love story, it ends up being something more than that: A tale of friendship and loyalty.

The Heroes
The two main male heroes of the epic are Avtandil, commander-in-chief of the Arabian armies, and Tariel, a young king from India (the latter being the knight in the title). Both of them are great champions - honorable, brave, loyal, and blindingly handsome. They are also both madly in love with two young queens, Queen Tinatin of Arabia, and Nestan-Darejan of India, respectively. The story centers on Tariel's exile from India and his meeting with Avtandil. The two love-struck heroes soon become best friends, and Avtandil takes it on himself to reunite Tariel with Nestan, which he manages to do, after many adventures.
Next to the star-crossed power couples, there are also some notable female supporting characters in the epic, such as Tariel's loyal sister Asmat who follows him into exile, and Phatman, a rich woman from the City of Flowers, who saves Nestan-Darejan in her exile and makes sure the lovers end up united.

The Highlights
After reading so many epics centered on fighting, I enjoyed this tale of love, intrigue and adventure. It is essentially a friendship for the ages, between Avtandil and Tariel, as well as between the two queens, and their supporting cast. Some things that I especially liked:
1. The fair treatment of women. They not only become sovereigns in their own right (spoilers, even Asmat gets a kingdom), but they are also described with the respect and admiration due to sovereigns, and their legitimacy is never questioned.
2. The importance of friendship. "He who does not seek a friend is his own enemy," says Avtandil at some point. One of the great messages of the epic is that no one can be a hero alone. One of the most powerful scenes is when Avtandil talks Tariel out of suicide, with compassion and ingenuity.
3. Phatman's character. Not only is she crucial to saving Nestan who had been thrown out of her kingdom, but she also acts as a mother figure and some kind of early feminist icon to her. She clearly takes pleasure in sleeping with younger men and she admits it - and she never gets punished for it. She is a rich, clever, independent lady married to a not-too-bright husband, and she puts her means to good use, helping young love find its way.
4. The cathartic final fight. Avtandil, Tariel and their third king-friend, Nuradin-Phridon, launch an attack against an impregnable citadel to rescue Nestan. It is a fairly well done fight scene (with some serious planning), but the crowning moment of it all is the end: Once the fortress is secured Avtandil and Phridon go in search of Tariel (they got separated in the fight). They find a trail of dead guards and scattered weapons, and finally find Tariel himself inside the citadel, helmet cast away, sword dropped, kissing Nestan for dear life. Boom. Hollywood ending. I totally ship them.
5. Love is suffering. I like how much guys suffer from love in this story. They definitely don't hide their emotions or try to look tough. They sigh, they cry, they faint. One of my favorite moments early on is when Tariel tries to write a love letter to Nestan and fails; finally his sister Asmat dictates to him what to write. Because that's what big sisters are for, after all.

Friday, April 17, 2015

O is for Ogier the Dane (Epics from A to Z)

I remember reading the story of Holger Danske in a picture book when I was little: The story said that he was a great knight who now sleeps under the castle of Kronborg in Denmark, waiting to wake up and return when he is needed.

Ogier the Dane (French), or Holger Danske (Danish) is a hero from medieval romances of chivalry. While the stories claim he was a Danish prince, most of the romances in which he is featured are French and Italian. I read a prose version of his story based on a French romance (Chevalerie d'Ogier de Denamarche) written in the early 13th century.

The Hero
Ogier is the firstborn son of the king of Denmark. At his birth he is visited by "six ladies of ravishing beauty" who each grant him a gift (and, surprisingly, none of them curses the child). The last of the six is none other than Morgana le Fay, who takes her chance to call dibs on the little hero (after he has been gifted bravery, strength, and handsomeness).
Ogier grows up as a hostage in Charlemagne's court and becomes one of his greatest paladins (and makes friends with legendary characters such as Roland and Olivier). If you like the legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, definitely read more about this court as well!
Ogier is strong, brave, and honorable - the very image of chivalry. What is even more important, though, is the gift given to him by the fourth fairy: “Lest all these gifts serve only to betray, I give you sensibility to return the love you inspire.” That's a very good quality for a hero.

The Highlights
The legend of Ogier the Dane has pretty much everything you would expect from a medieval romance of chivalry: Epic battles, daring duels, enchanted love, magical voyages, and even a trip to the Holy Land.
One of my favorite parts is the duel between Ogier (merely a day after he has been knighted) and the King of Mauritania, the Saracen Carahue. The son of Charlemagne, Charlot (who is very Mordred in a lot of ways) is also scheduled to duel with Carahue's cousin, but he decides to plan an ambush instead and get rid of the enemy, as well as Ogier (because he is jealous of his father's love for the young knight). Seeing the ambush Ogier and Carahue stop their duel and fight side by side - for chivalry, and against treason. They end up saving each other's lives and becoming best friends. Carahue keeps showing up over the course of the romance to save Ogier or help Charlemagne against other Moorish armies. It is a remarkable moment in the legend where honor and friendship trumps cultural and religious differences.
Another favorite character of mine is Turpin, who "occasionally recalled to mind that he was an archbishop." He is a priest, but also a knight and a warrior, and a very clever man - Charlemagne's most trusted adviser. He saves Ogier's life when he is imprisoned: The king plans to starve him to death by only allowing a quarter loaf of bread and a quarter cup of wine a day. Turpin, keeping to the word of the law, starts making loaves from two bushels of flour, and makes a cup the size of a barrel, keeping Ogier well fed. He is a fun, clever, likable character, and I have loved him since I read a folktale about him saving Charlemagne from enchantment (Aix-la-Chapelle: The Magic Ring).
Ogier has a wife, and a hundred-year enchanted love affair with Morgana, but the most touching love story happens at the end of his tale: After missing almost two hundred years of French history, he returns from Avalon to find Hugh Capet on the throne. He is introduced to the young queen, who is very curious about Ogier's stories and the history he lived; he tells her all of his life, and they fall in love through long conversations. When Hugh Capet dies, Ogier proposes to the queen... But sadly, the marriage never comes to pass.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

N is for the Nart sagas (Epics from A to Z)

(I have written about the Nart sagas once last year, but they are amazing enough to be featured again.)

The Nart sagas are the shared epic heritage of several ethnicities that live in the Caucasus. Some researchers suggest that the original core of this large corpus of stories was the Ossetian sagas (a group of people of Iranian roots), but now they are widely told by surrounding groups of various origins as well. There is a great English edition for many of the Circassian, Abaza, Abkhaz, and the Ubykh sagas, but the Ossetians were only available in Hungarian to me. John Colarusso seems to have been working on an English translation for a while now.

The Heroes
The Nart heroes are all one happy, magically endowed, slightly violent family. The matron presiding over it all is Satanaya, a mix of a fertility goddess and wise adviser. The male heroes include Soslan (or Sosruqo) who was tampered in wolf milk, but the milk didn't cover his knee (sounds familiar?) and because of that, he had a limp; Hamic and his son Batradz who he gave birth to because his wife was a frog princess (epics, amirite?...); as well as many other generations before and after.

The Highlights - 10 Reasons the Ossetian Nart Epics are Epic

1. Two heroes having a dance-off for the hand of a lady.
It's a refreshing change from people beating each other into the ground (which also happens a lot). Dancing happens on the blades of swords, with a bowl of water on one's head, and also on the feast tables around the food (and this was the only way I could picture it).

2. This story ending, after the hero wins the hand of a lady: "And they lived very happily for a while. But they realized that they were too different, and they decided to go their separate ways." Peaceful divorce ever after. Good for them.
3. This prophecy one hero comes by in the Underworld (which, by the way, is also a place that gives Dante a run for his laurels): "One day men and women will live peacefully as equals."
Important words from a culture where kidnapping wives was common practice at the time.
4. There is a God of Wolves called Tutir. I rest my case.
5. Sirdon the Trickster, Curse of the Narts. Dog person, single father of three. Pretty much described (accurately for a trickster) as "the Narts can't live with him, can't live without him." He is very close to Loki in attitude, but he is bullied way worse than the Norse trickster. Looks like the Narts torture him for kicks. To which he responds with nasty mischief of his own. Very layered character.
6. The practicality of the tale when Satana wants to tamper a newborn and red-hot hero baby in wolf milk (as you do), and her husband's response is: "Where the heck am I supposed to get wolf milk?!" He then goes on to ask for the help of the Mother of Dogs, and she herds a couple of hundred she-wolves into a pen. To which our hero responds: "Umm... okay, now how am I supposed to milk them?"
And really no one ever responds "Hey, we are in a mythical saga, it will just magically happen!"
Nope. He milks them with his own two hands.
7. The Nart hero Hamic has a Mustache of Steel.
And he kills a snake with it. Enough said.
8. The time the Narts got God on a technicality: God cursed them saying that no matter how much wheat they work a day, it will only amount to one bucket of grain. So they started only working a handful of wheat each day, and they still got a full bucket out of it. Sheer brilliance.
9. Smart woman moments such as "I am not marrying you, hero of the Narts, because your mother is evil" or "If you don't leave my tower right now, I will put your eyes out with my scissors." Nart women might not be equal to their heroes, but they sure do run things in the background. And they do raise a raiding army every once in a while.
10. The moment one hero explains how he learned not to hurt women: He tells his companions of a time when he was a guest in a house where only women lived (men were away) and he overheard them talking among themselves in a language they didn't know he spoke. He listened to their conversations and learned from them. In the adventure he claims that he would never hurt a woman for making a mistake (namely, even for cheating!) because he listened and now he knows better.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

M is for Manas (Epics from A to Z)

The epic of Manas is the national epic of Kyrgyzstan, and UNESCO appointed as a Masterpiece in the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. It is truly epic in every sense of the word: In some of its sixty recorded versions it is more than 500.000 lines - twenty times the length of the Iliad and the Odyssey put together (!!!). It is also estimated to be more then a thousand years old, which is all the more impressive because it has never been written down until the 20th century. It is regarded as one of the greatest examples of oral epic poetry in the entire world.
I only read a short snippet of the story from a book that focuses on the art of one particular storyteller. It was a selection of episodes from the epic, and although it was short, it was utterly captivating.

The Heroes
The epic follows the story of three generations of great heroes - Manas, Semetey, and Seytek. They are all strong, brave, honorable, and great leaders. In addition, they are surrounded by great warriors, loyal friends, and strong-willed women. They fight a lot, usually against the Chinese.
One of the great things about the successive generations of heroes is that their stories intertwine. People who were young alongside Manas return as old and trusted advisers to help young Semetey along the way. Their children join the next group of warriors. There is a lot of inter-generational continuity that adds to the heroes' character and background.
One of my favorite female heroes in the story is Kanikey, Manas' wife and the mother of Semetey. When her husband is killed, she puts on his armor, and runs into exile with her newborn child and her ninety-year-old frail mother-in-law. She does not only make it back to her homeland, but she also manages to stay strong until her son grows up, ready to reclaim his father's place. She becomes the matriarch of the next generation of heroes, and lives to return home in victory.

The Highlights
(These are the highlights from the particular book I read, I am sure there are many others).
1. Right off the bat, the story of Manas' father involves a magical nighttime otter wedding. With frolicking offer brides and husbands. Yes.
2. Hands-down my favorite character of the story was Almambet, Manas' best friend (okay, so maybe I just have a thing for heroes' best friends). He is born into a family on the Chinese side and trained as a special warrior from childhood, prepared specifically to assassinate Manas. However, when his father beats his Kyrgyz mother, he kills him and runs into exile, eventually befriending Manas and staying loyal to him to the very end. Almambet is smart, diplomatic, and takes advantage of his upbringing. He is apparently very good with the whip and the lasso. His son becomes Semetey's best friend too.
3. The epic expands on motifs known from folktales. For example, when two heroes kill a one-eyed giant, it goes into great detail about how giants can be killed - pointing out that there is too much fat for a bullet (they have guns) to pierce, and describing the problems with trying to hack off and transport the dead giant's head.
4. One of the best moments in the story was an expansion on the "Swan Bride" folktale type. Semetey marries a woman named Ay-cürök who can turn herself into a swan. This is not unusual in traditional stories - except, in this case she turns herself into a swan and goes out to spy on all the heroes in the world until she finds one she likes. Later on, when she is already married to Semetey, and the Kyrgyz are preparing for war, Semetey remembers her ability and sends her out to spy on the enemy. She fearlessly flies over the Chinese army, dodging bullets, and returns with good information. Heck yeah.
5. Another scene I really liked was twelve-year-old Kül-coro (Almambet's son) going on a mission as a messenger for Semetey. He has to get to Ay-cürök on the far side of a flooding river. He is terrified, but makes his horse jump into the water anyway. As he struggles against the current, the spirit of his father, accompanied by the spirit of Manas and all the heroes of the previous generation, appear to help him, lift him, and urge him on, telling him he has so much to live for, such a great life ahead of him. It is a really touching and powerful scene. (Yes, he makes it)

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

L is for the Lianja epic (Epics from A to Z)

I have read a large number of epics for this challenge. This one was not only new for me too, but I also have to admit that it is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful pieces of oral literature I have ever read. Because I loved it so much, today's post is going to be a little longer than usual, so I can fit all my favorite parts into it. I hope you will enjoy it as much as I did!

This epic, like yesterday's, is named after its main hero. The culture it belongs to is the Mongo, a Bantu ethnic group that lives in the tropical forests of the Congo Basin in Central Africa. This story has been narrated since the 14th century; the English text I read is based on the performances of three storytellers, recorded in the 1980's. The narration is divided into three nights' performances (the introduction of the book describes really well what these performances look like).

The Lianja epic, unlike many others I have read for this challenge, is a story of peace. It is the tale of a foretold hero-messiah who will come to lead warring tribes to brotherhood and prosperity. It is exciting, eloquent, visually captivating, all-around gorgeous, and has a strong, amazingly relevant message of peace, forgiveness, and cross-cultural understanding.

The Hero
Lianja, while definitely the most important, is not the only hero in the story - in fact, he is not even born until the third night of the performance. He is preceded by a line of strong and wise men and women, like Bokele who leads the Mongo out of darkness into the light, Lianja's father the half-spirit Ilele, or his mother Mbombe, who is not only a famous wrestler, but also named Lady of Wisdom for her advocacy for peace. Lianja also shares his destiny for peace with his twin sister Nsongo.

The Highlights
Too many to count, really. Here are some of my favorites:

1. The prominent role of women. They fight beside their husbands (they lead armies and they have their own groups of experienced female warriors), they decide their own destiny, and they give speeches of wisdom to the community. One time the elders of a council try to shut wise woman Mama Isaso up, and instead a spirit appears to tell them that they should listen.
2. The descriptions of nature. This epic teems with beautiful, detailed descriptions of scenery, nature, and everything that lives. My favorite line is "The clouds played acrobatic games across the sky."
3. The questioning of the enemy's motives. Multiple times in the epic heroes ask themselves: What made our enemies hate us? What do they think about us? Even evil spirits are described like this: "They are infinitely asking themselves the meaning of their lives. As they are questioning themselves and how to change their lives they are lost in their thoughts and thus go around all the cosmos creating havoc, death and misconduct among the living."
4. This line: "How much better is life among strangers with light, than home without the sun and the moon."
5. Choosing a wife: After every nation and kingdom sends girls he can choose form, Ilele turns down the "short-listed" (sic!) bride, saying he wants to marry a girl he had "met, talked with, and loved." He goes on a journey, and joins a group of girls at a dance celebration, picking one he likes. But when he says "I want you to be my wife" this it he response he gets: "Your wife? What do you mean by your wife? A first wife? A second one? Or just for the occasion?" (This smart girl turns out to be a half-spirit herself, and they don't get married). Eventually, Ilele wrestles Mbombe in a pool of palm oil and defeats her, and they get married (she actually wants to marry him before the wrestling, but she says she can't give any suitor preferential treatment). In the wedding song the ideal wife is described as "a girl of plentifulness, selflessness and greatness, a girl of bravery, courage and without self praise, a girl of kindness, power and a sense of humor." Damn right.
6. Talk before action. Most conflicts in the epic are solved through talking them out. When Mbombe is bullied for her too-long pregnancy, the elders gather the community and explain to them how their words hurt her, in simple terms so they can understand. The epic says "Even those who spoke ill of Mbombe did not quite hate her, though they may have said some things out of jealousy." When Mbombo's husband is killed by the rival Sau-Sau (instigated by evil spirits), she is the first one to stand up and say the Mongo should not take revenge, because violence does not bring a solution. She only starts grieving after she makes sure no one goes off to avenge her husband.
7. The miraculous birth of Lianja: Mbombe, after years of pregnancy, becomes a sort of All-Mother: She gives birth to insects, birds, animals, and an entire race of people, before at last her twins are born, fully grown and ready for action. One of the small details I really liked is that Mbombe approaches her children with caution: They might be hers, but they have just been born, and she does not know what they are like, or how they think. They are, essentially, grown-up strangers to her.
8. The tortoises. Tortoises play important roles in the epic. My favorite part is when Mbombe lies to Lianja, telling him his father had died when a tree fell on him (she doesn't want him to go on a revenge quest). Lianja sends the tortoises to investigate. Tortoises stage a re-enactment of the accident to see if a tortoise can get away from a falling tree. When they succeed, they report back to Lianja that his father could not have died that way. CSI: Tortoise. (They also say "trees hate to drink human blood.")
 9. Minimum casualties. After the epic final battle, and killing the evil chief-spirit that ruled the Sau-Sau, Lianja brings all his dead warriors and his enemies back to life to start a new nation together. They cut down the tree that started the war, and plant a tree of peace in its place. Lianja then sets out to lead his people to a Promised Land, and many other groups join them on the way. When they are attacked and they have to fight. Lianja always brings back the dead from both sides.
10. One of the beautiful parts of the journey is the time the traveling nation takes refuge in the branches of a baobab tree from a group of evil ogres. The tree protects them, and in exchange they heal the tree when the ogres try to cut it down. Powerful image.

Monday, April 13, 2015

K is for the Kalevipoeg (Epics from A to Z)

The Kalevipoeg is the national epic of Estonia. Much like its close cousin, the Finnish Kalevala, it has been pieced together from folk songs, tales and ballads by an ambitious 19th century poet. Friedrich Reinhold Kreutzwald had a lot less material to work from than Elias Lönnrot, and the first version of his epic couldn't even be published due to censorship (there are some pretty risky details in there) - but he still managed to compile a twenty-song long continuous story. The epic is now available in English both in verse and in prose format.

The Hero
The hero of the epic is called Kalevipoeg; he is named after his father, Kalev, who was a famous hero himself. With that said, Kalevipoeg is the least likable character in the entire epic. He is very strong and large - in the original tales, he is a giant - but he is not very smart, and he also treats women fairly badly (and sometimes violently). Like any decent hero, he has a magic sword, but his first feat is to get drunk and kill the son of the blacksmith who forged it. In return, the blacksmith curses the sword, and it becomes Kalevipoeg's downfall in the end.

The Highlights
So if the hero is not exactly a likable fellow, why should anyone read this epic?
Well, here are some reasons I found:
1. The first song. It tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mother, and her cosmic courtship by the Sun, Moon, Water, Fire, and other supernatural suitors, before Kalev comes along. There are various versions of this tale collected from Estonia; one of them tells of the creation of the Milky Way.
2. Wizards. There are many different kinds of wizards in the world of the epic. There are word-wizards, wind-wizards, death-wizards, and my personal favorites, salt-sorcerers. They all have their own spells, magic rites, and personalities.
3. The tiny episode where Kalevipoeg gives a spiky coat to a naked hedgehog. Because: naked hedgehog.
4. The description of Hell (Kalevipoeg visits the underworld multiple times) from where three girls are rescued. Hell itself is a series of chambers - according to folktale tradition we see chambers of iron, copper, silver, gold... aaaand then we go on to silk, velvet, and lace. The rescued girls take some time to loot the latter rooms before they return to the world of the living. I would too. Also, the three girls get their own story after they are rescued, and they generally fare better than other women in the epic. (The second descent into the underworld is also entertaining - it reads like a well-designed Dungeons & Dragons adventure, with caves and traps and everything.)
5. Song 16 tells us the story of Kalevipoeg's mythic journey to the end of the world in the far North. There are whirlpools, whales, islands of fire, and half-canine men - all in all, pretty much everything that makes a mythic voyage a mythic voyage.
6. Olev. There are other heroes around Kalevipoeg (Alev, Sulev and Olev), and Olev is by far the most likable. He spends his time building splendid cities for people. When Kalevipoeg realizes that he is not really a good king (duh), he gives up his throne for Olev. Best choice he makes in the entire epic.
7. The language. Much like the Kalevala, the Kalevipoeg also has an enchanting, repetitive, alliterative rhythm that lulls you into reading it. I imagine it would be even more enthralling if sung.

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Visiting day: Favorite themes in A to Z!

The second week of the A to Z Challenge has come to an end, therefore we are about halfway through the alphabet! As I do my visiting rounds today, I wanted to gather a list of some of my favorite themes this year (in no particular order). I have also been tweeting about them, but I thought it would be nice to have a more static  collection.

First off, a shout out to my fabulous Legendary Ladies, the four bloggers who are helping me stay on top of my co-host duties this year!

Mary Garrett, or Storyteller Mary, blogging about Tales out of School.
Mary Garrett, writer and storyteller, tells folk tales, humorous tales and personal stories. She shared stories with her students at Francis Howell North High School and has since told at the Kansas City Storytelling Celebration, Texas, Timpanogos (Utah), O.O.P.S. (Ohio), and NSN (national) conferences, the St. Louis and St. Charles Storytelling Festivals, the Greater St. Louis Renaissance Faire, day care centers, parks, scout events, elementary through high schools, and retirement communities.

Lanise Brown, blogging about the Most Beautiful Libraries in the World.
Lanise Brown is a bookworm who dabbles in everything from science fiction to romance, classics, literary, nonfiction, graphic novels, and more. She's a daydreamer, would-be Timekeeper, ebook hoarder, part-time ninja, and an avid lover of all things Steampunk. In her spare time, she likes to write tales of science fiction and romance. 
Twitter @Lanise_BrownFacebook @

Courtney Turner, blogging about Life on Maui
Courtney Turner blogs about life on Maui from a jungalow (jungle bungalow), providing amusing insider perspectives about the reality of living on Maui as opposed to vacationing on Maui so that Maui residents can be more informed and connected.

Corinne Rodrigues, blogging about the A to Z of Self Leadership


And now, to some of the themes I have been avidly reading and following this year:

Scottish Folktales, at The Wee White Hoose

Mythological Ramblings, at A Year with the Mad Grad Student

Heidi Dahlsveen's storytelling theme on Understanding Trolls (the Norwegian folklore kind, not the Internet kind)

Minor characters and their stories in Indian epics, on Modhukori

The Little Princess' theme of the many types of love, and tales from India to illustrate all of them

Famous and intriguing personalities from the 16th century on The Art of Not Getting Published (and not just from Europe!)

Sharon Marie Himsl's theme on Famous Inventions by Women

Hannah Givens' theme on LGBT+ superheroes! I am learning a lot from this one! :)

The theme of female monsters and the monstrous feminine on Part Time Monster

The mythology theme on Flaming Sun, presenting a full tale every day, mostly from Indian mythology

Sarah Zama's theme on the Roaring Twenties in America

Alex Hurst's beautiful posts and pictures about life in Japan

Sara C. Snider's theme on tree-related writing prompts for amazing flash fiction

The "Names from the Decameron" theme on Onomastics Outside the Box

Happy visiting, happy posting!