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.
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.
(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)