Wednesday 13 September 2023

#bookreview: The Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales

The Epic of Bidasari and Other TalesThe Epic of Bidasari and Other Tales by Aristide Marre
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are four tales included in this book, which was first published in 1901. This edition doesn't seek to retranslate or even clean up much of the text, so the writing isn't exactly...stellar lol.

The Epic of Bidasari itself is amusing, a Snow White type of fairy tale written in epic verse that's divided into six songs. There are several key differences: Bidasari is a lost princess; the evil queen (Lila Sari) isn't related to Bidasari in any way; there's no magic mirror (heh) but the queen sends out her maidens to scour the land for "a face more beautiful than mine". It's not just pure vanity, though. The reason she does this is because her husband tells her TO HER FACE that if he finds anyone more beautiful than her, he'll take her as his second wife. Which, I mean, I can sympathise a little?

But of course, as this is a fairy tale, this very act of Lila Sari looking for the beautiful maiden then makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy. It's nice to note that the actual stepparents in the story (well, not really "step" but the merchants who find and adopt Bidasari) are the good guys.

There's hints of Sleeping Beauty, insofar as after escaping the palace, Bidasari is cursed to sleep throughout the day until the spell is broken. But seeing that her prince charming is a married man who's all like "I love you because you're more beautiful than my wife" and who goes back to visit his first wife and says "but it's all your fault that I married her because you beat her and hid her from me!!"... ugh.

Yeah, so not very romantic at all. Anyway, it's all very dramatic and twisty, with a lot of false accusations, quests and side quests, and "I cannot bear to part with you!" declarations so maybe it's worth it for that kind of OTT drama. Which kind of feels on par of what little I know of the stories of that era. (Most of these would have been told orally, and probably incorporated music and dance and singing.)

The main problems with the readability of this text (besides it being really old-school) is the inconsistency in titles (lack of modern editing!), where Lila Sari is Queen on one page, but Princess on another, and Djouhan Mengindra is sometimes Sultan, sometimes King, sometimes Prince. It's fairly easy to follow at first, but when the other Kings/Princes from other lands come into play, that's where the reader needs to track who's who very carefully. It's rather amusing, though, to look at transliterations from an earlier century and snigger a little at how odd they look - eg: dyang, mantri, tjempakka - or to try to puzzle out what on earth that word was really supposed to be.

I skimmed through the second one, Sedjaret Malayou, because I've read the full text of (Sejarah Melayu: The Malay Annals) which is a much, much better (and complete) translation. I feel like I should get around to reading the newest translation, though (The Genealogy of Kings), which would probably be more accurate and less clunky, seeing that it's a 2020 translation by Muhammad Haji Salleh.

The Princess Djouher-Manikam is another fascinating tale, this time set in Baghdad. It's about a princess who really has no agency and is just shunted from place to place and through harrowing events "because of God's will" (but mostly because of horny men who think they should own every pretty woman they see). It gets a little annoying the longer goes on, but towards the end, the princess does take matters into her own hands in a meaningful way to direct her own life, albeit by dressing up as a man. It's hard to criticise this meaningfully because those were the constraints of the time, for a woman in her culture.

The final piece in this book is Makota Radja-Radja (The Crown of Kings), which isn't so much a single narrative, but a collection of stories/extracts about various kings that's intended to showcase how a king should act. It was a little jarring to read at first because most of the stories are centred around Middle Eastern countries, but the foreword sheds light that it was originally written in the 1600s by a Bokhari who lived in Djohore (Johor). The text jumps around a lot and doesn't have any meaningful arrangement or sequence, though I don't know if that's a translation problem or the fact that it feels like just a fragment of the original text.

ANYWAY. Read this for the TBR challenge. I don't know if I'd recommend it as a "you should read this" but if you're on a fairy tale/folklore kick and want to know more about stuff from Asia, this would fit. I'd say just focus on The Epic of Bidasari and The Princess Djouher-Manikam though.

View all my reviews


This was supposed to be August's stretch goal but it took longer than expected, because I had other books to review and post. Plus, I did change my book at the last minute. 

No comments:

Post a Comment