Apr/May 2014  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Song of King Gesar: A Novel

Review by Ann Skea

The Song of King Gesar: A Novel.
Alai. Translated by Howard and Lin.
Canongate. 2013. 392 pp.
ISBN 978 1 84767 233 9.

Like the Mahabarata, the Shahnama and the Ramayana, the Song of King Gesar is an ancient, epic hero-story that for centuries has been part of the oral tradition of an ancient culture. Like these, too, it has been elaborated on by story-tellers over the years until there are hundreds of different episodes and versions. In Tibet and Mongolia, where the story is still told as chant-fable (partly poetry, partly prose), King Gesar—his miraculous birth, the marvelous feats he performs, the demons he banishes, and the divinities who watch over him—is a widely-known and much-loved hero. He is believed to be an historical figure whose deeds are recorded in fable and myth.

The epic of King Gesar is said to date from the 12th century or earlier. Hundreds of versions have been collected and written, and it is reputed to be the longest ancient epic poem in existence. The first English translation was published in the 18th century, and one 20th century Han Chinese abridged version runs to forty volumes. Luckily, the Tibetan writer Alai has managed to reduce his re-telling to a manageable length, and this has now been published in English by Canongate as part of The Myths series.

There are many different accounts of the miraculous birth of Gesar. In Alai's novel, it is a Buddhist monk, Master Lotus, whose magic is so strong that he can "catch a ray of light as though he were scooping up water, wave it as though it were a willow branch and fly on the light's back," who advises the deities on the choice of Gesar's parents. Senglon, a member of the Mu clan whose eldest son is already a victorious warrior, is to be Gesar's father, and Metog Lhartse, the youngest and favorite daughter of the Dragon King, is to be Senglon's second wife and the mother of Gesar. Master Lotus, seated on a white cloud, appears to Metog Lhartse in a vision to announce the news. In some accounts the "miracle" of Gesar's birth is that he has no earthly father. In Alai's account, the miracle is that Metog Lhartse experiences no birth pains, despite the baby being "the height and weight of a three year old."

The storyteller in Alai's book is a young shepherd, Jigmen, whose dreams reveal the story of Gesar, and whose own life is inextricably entwined with that of his hero-king. Like many another mythological hero, Gesar has a miraculous horse, a magic bow and arrow, and a demon-slaying sword. In some versions (but not Alai's) he is also expected to return to earth at some future date.

Sadly, for a poetic work that still survives as a performing art and is still chanted to many people by bards, there is little poetry in the text of this book. Sadly, too, in spite of my love of oriental mythologies, there is a limit to the amount I can read in one book about deities, Bodhisattvas, beautiful maidens, miraculous flights, heroic feats, and shape-changing demons. This book was still too long for me.


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