The Timeless Power of Legends

A Review of The Monkey King & Other Stories Edited by Griffin Ondaatje (Harper Collins, 1995).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Griffin Ondaatje compiled The Monkey King & Other Stories as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of World Literacy of Canada. The stories within represent Canadian and Sri Lankan adaptations and re-tellings of Buddhist, Hindu, and Muslim tales, bringing the timeless wisdom of these tales to an English-reading audience. Written by a variety of authors and including such powerful voices from canonised Can Lit as P. K. Page, Timothy Findley, Michael Ondaatje, and M.G. Vassanji, this volume represents a multitude of voices telling tales that have transformed and changed throughout history, illustrating the timeless quality of their narrative as well as the multiplicity of their voice and ability to transcend a single person’s narrative.

Each of the tales in this volume focuses on raising questions and imparting some form of wisdom, and although they are largely tales borrowed from religious texts, I have included them on Speculating Canada because of their speculative quality (asking timeless questions) – this is not to suggest that the religious texts contained in this volume are speculative fiction themselves, since they hold a religio-mythic realism, but their speculative quality is evoked in the re-telling of these stories to a diverse audience and the focus of the volume on rendering these religious tales into stories for consumption outside of a religious setting.

Many of the tales in this volume caution against ignorance, against the belief that there is something in this world that people don’t need to know about. They teach the importance of an open mind that is prepared for receiving new wisdom and new ideas. The thing that is most critiqued in these stories is arrogance and the limiting quality of arrogance as well as its impact on the world around it. Closely allied with this is a critique of the misuse of power and misunderstanding of the relationship between the common people and those in power.

Many of the tales in The Monkey King & Other Stories give voice to the animals surrounding humanity, allowing the largely ignored fauna of the world to gain a presence in human consciousness. These stories critique the misuse of animals by human beings and critique human power over animals (or the perception of power over them) while making the reader consider the way that humanity systematically de-voices the animal world, robbing the other creatures of the planet of agency. Buddhist tales in this volume, which contain the potential through ideas of reincarnation to make literal the humanity of animals, teach that it is essential to look at the wisdom of animals. After all, the Buddha did take the form of animals in the past, and therefore there is an essential transcendent quality of animal existence. The tale “Brighter Still” (retold by Graeme MacQueen), about the Buddha in the form of a deer teaches that animals serve a pedagogical value for humanity, imparting ideas of self-sacrifice, protection of one’s people, and the cruelty of over-hunting. “The Deer, The Tortoise, and the Kaerala Bird” (retold by J.B. Disanayaka) uses a discussion of the diversity of animal bodies and the ability of diverse animal bodies to each serve a different purpose to remind readers of the essential importance of  diversity and that our system of “normalising” certain bodies or ideas is limiting.

The narratives in this volume focus on the importance of sharing resources, both material and intellectual and looking for a fair distribution of goods and ideas. Stories like “The Monkey King” (retold by Shyam Selvadurai) teach the importance of self-sacrifice as an essential part of leadership, as well as cautioning about the power of fear to override justice. “The Chola King” (retold by Tim Wynne-Jones) reminds leaders that they are ultimately responsible to the people they represent. “Two Friends by the Villu” (retold by Ranjini Obeyesekere) reminds the reader that friendships and alliances are often strained when there is a deficit of resources, while “The Dog Who Drank From Socks” (retold by Griffin Ondaatje) teaches that occasionally shared thirst can teach compassion for others who are suffering. “Power Misused” (retold by S. Samarasinghe) warns that the power to destroy often facilitates the desire to destroy. “The Cycle of Revenge” (retold by M.G. Vassanji) warns about the ability of revenge to escalate violence and trap the participants in a permanent and self-destructive battle that damages them and those around them. “Kundalini” (retold by Chitra Fernando) teaches compassion for difference and the importance of being inclusive and creating a welcoming society for diversity. The narratives in this volume are pedagogical and illustrate the important role of telling stories to help people transcend their limited viewpoints and gain further, diverse wisdom as well as questioning taken-for-granted ideas about the way the world is or “should be”.

Griffin Ondaatje’s retelling of “The Resting Hill” teaches the importance of place in creating stories and illustrates that stories often come from the land itself and an explanation of the features of the landscape. Land embodies memory of the events that have taken place on it as well as being filled with the myths of the people who have lived on it. We live with a diverse history of myths around us as well as within us, shaping who and where we are. He reminds us that the telling of stories is essential and important to our existence. Timothy Findley, in “The Unicorn and the Grapevine” reminds readers that magic exists in the world through the ability of words from stories to transcend the teller, to survive the ages and the distance and that telling stories is itself a form of magic that pervades our world and prevents the destruction of mythical creatures like the unicorn. Telling stories keeps magic in the world

The tales in this volume are those of gods, monsters, common people, animals, and transcendent sages and each evokes a sense of wonder and a desire to learn more about the world around us. Ondaatje’s ability to collect tales that evoke questions and challenge preconceptions makes this volume accessible as well as evocative.

You can explore more about Griffin Ondaatje at http://harpercollins.co.in/author.asp?Author_Code=1296 . You can find out more about World Literacy of Canada at http://www.worldlit.ca/ .

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