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How to Read a Folktale

Foreword to Ibonia

Mark Turin

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1Two decades after it was first published, a powerful oral epic from Madagascar is once again available to a global readership, in print and online. How to Read a Folktale: The Ibonia Epic from Madagascar is the story of a story; a compelling Malagasy tale of love and power, brought to life by Lee Haring.

2Throughout this carefully updated text, Haring is our expert guide and witness. He provides helpful historical background and deep exegesis; but he also encourages us to let Ibonia stand alone — deserving of attention in its own right — a rich example of epic oral literature. And it is through this exquisite rendering of Malagasy orature that we — the readers — appreciate once again the value of oral literature for making sense of human culture and cognition.

3Until someone wrote it down (around 1830), Ibonia was communicated only orally. And some 160 years later, Haring transcribed and translated it, introducing the epic in print form to a global audience through Bucknell University Press. Somewhat perversely, while the epic itself remained timeless, the medium of its transmission was endangered. Cultural forms endure and transform, but books simply go out of print.

4At an important juncture in the tale, the splendidly named Ratombotombokatsorirangarangarana [Able to Withstand False Accusations] turns to his parents and says: “So long as this tree is green and healthy, I will be all right. If it withers, it means I am in some danger; if it dries up, it means I shall be dead”. As for nature, then, so for literature and culture. As long as the Ibonia epic remains in circulation and use, whether orally in Madagascar, in print through our committed partners — the Cambridge-based Open Book Publishers — or online in the ever-present cloud, we will be able to celebrate the human creativity that it encapsulates.


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