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How to Read a Folktale

1. Introduction: What Ibonia is and How to Read it

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1I introduce to you a longish story containing adventures, self-praise, insults, jokes, heroic challenges, love scenes, and poetry. Here I answer two questions: “What is it?” and “How do I read it?” You might decide it is a love story featuring the hero’s search and struggle for a wife, or a wondertale emphasising supernatural belief and prophecy, or a defence of conjugal fidelity, or an agglomeration of psychoanalytic symbols, or a symbolic exposition of the political ideology of a group of people you do not know anything about. You would be right every time.

2One way of interpreting Ibonia, perhaps a way to begin reading it, is to think of it as a fairy tale. It is fictional. It includes encounters with the supernatural and a diviner who is clairvoyant. It includes magic charms and magic objects. The hero’s endurance is tested, and he successfully rescues the princess from his rival. Other elements in Ibonia that are common in folktales include magic talismans, which give the hero advice (as birds and animals do in fairy tales); a transformation combat (as in the British folksong “The Two Magicians”), and a set of extraordinary companions (as in Grimm tale no. 134, “The Six Servants”). As in most fairy tales, the time when the action occurs is not specified. Though it does not open with a formula like “Once upon a time”, it closes with an etiological tag. And like all folklore, it exists in variant forms. It was read as a fairy tale by its first non-Malagasy readers, who like ourselves could only perceive it in the terms or categories provided to them by their culture. Ibonia is more complicated than the tales we grew up with. Below, I take up its non-fairy-tale features and show why it should be called an epic.

1.1 Madagascar

3The world’s fourth largest island lies in the Indian Ocean, 260 miles from Mozambique on the East African coast. It was settled by waves of Indonesian emigrants from across the Indian Ocean during the sixth to ninth centuries C. E., at a time when the Swahili civilisation of East Africa was also developing. The convergence of Indonesians and Africans created early Malagasy civilisation, including the language in which Ibonia was performed.


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