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How to Read a Folktale

3. What it is: Texts, Plural3

Texte intégral

1What is a “text”? A set of words printed on paper. The text translated here is forty-six pages from a book 6 1/2 by 4 1/4 inches, published in Madagascar in 1877.4 The pages have sentences that begin with capital letters and end with periods; it has paragraphs. It also has those long Malagasy names, which are more pronounceable than they look.5 Those long names are constructed out of short elements, each of which means something. Take Andrianampoinimerina, the great king of the Merina ethnic group at the beginning of the nineteenth century. His name is simple: Andriana [prince], am-po [in the heart] in [connecting device], Imerina, the name of his land and people (pronounced Mairn’; the last syllable is likely to be inaudible). Thus he was the Prince in the Heart of the Merina. His memory lingers over the story of Ibonia, which however is a fictional text, like Homer’s Odyssey or the Old English Beowulf. I call it Text 1; it is translated in this book. Until someone wrote it down (about 1830), Ibonia was communicated orally.

2How does an oral folktale get to be a text? Someone has to experience the communication that happens when a storyteller performs the piece for an audience, and then write down the words. He or she will probably not record changes in the performer’s voice, gestures, audience reactions — only the words. Scholars like Charles L. Briggs, who study this sort of thing, have devised a mighty word for this process: entextualisation. What makes the folklore performance available for study and translation is the act of entextualisation. It is worth noting that by entextualising, folklorists mark the folklore performance as a worthy object. The implication is that maybe it is good art, and if it is not, studying the text will tell them why. As to Madagascar, hundreds of folktales and thousands of proverbs, riddles, and folksongs have been recorded, in the Malagasy language, and translated into French and English. University libraries, like that one at the Université de Madagascar, contain these, as well as the great French collections by Charles Renel, André Dandouau, and Émile Birkeli. On the Internet you can find books in English about Madagascar’s folklore, by nineteenth-century folklore collectors like James Sibree and W. E. Cousins.

3.1 Who is an Author?

  • 6 African epics can be found in the books by John William Johnson and Stephen Belcher.

3If a poem or story — Ibonia, or Cinderella, or The Tarbaby and the Rabbit — is presented as Anonymous, who is the author, or is there one? In 1968, the French critic Roland Barthes said what everybody knew and still knows: “the author still reigns in histories of literature, biographies of writers, interviews, magazines …. The image of literature to be found in ordinary culture is tyrannically centred on the author, his person, his life, his tastes, his passions”, as if authors are continually confiding in us (50). In the literary milieu of Paris, where Barthes lived, attention to language had replaced attention to the users of language. The old centreing on the author, said Barthes, had to end. He announced the death of the author. Writing, he said, destroys the very concept of author, or voice. Looking outside Europe, Barthes understood that in non-Western societies “the responsibility for a narrative is never assumed by a person but by a mediator, shaman or reciter …” (49). He was right about Malagasy performers. They conventionally recite opening and closing formulas in their performances, which declare, “I am not the author”. Tales, legends, myths were attributed to ny ntaolo [the ancients]. One northern storyteller begins, Nipetraka reo talôha [The old ones lived there]. Sôla ny lôhany [their heads were bald], Bana ny hiny [their teeth had fallen out]. These images, which have nothing to do with the story about to be told, are conventional formulas, like “Once upon a time”. She uses other formulas to close the story: at the end, she says, Ke io atany korana e! [That’s what I wanted to tell you]. Angano, angano, tsy mavandy fa reo talôha, io volan..a e! [Story, story, not lies but the words of the old ones] (Ramamonjisoa et al. 108, 158). Opening and closing formulas make the storyteller more nearly anonymous. Text 1 of Ibonia, as translated here, lacks opening and closing formulas, probably because the transcriber thought of them as belonging to oral performance. For all we know, parts of it may have been sung, as African epics often are, but no singing of it has been recorded.6

4The “folk” in Madagascar had other reasons for keeping authors invisible. Their tradition required anonymity. The words of the ancestors were preserved and cherished without change. That anonymity is the real-life Malagasy counterpart of Barthes’s figurative death of the literary author. At every marriage proposal and every funeral, you would expect to hear the conservative slogan, “We have changed nothing in the customs of the ancestors”. The narrator of Ibonia was not dead, only anonymous, like the narrators of nine tenths of the world’s folktales. The questions do not go away: Who is the author of a piece like this? The transcriber? A translator? A publisher? Does a folktale have an author at all, or is it merely the oral performer’s property?

3.2 Texts are Versions

5Whether it is oral or written, all literature tends to develop variation. Hamlet, Shakespeare’s most celebrated play, which has excited and puzzled audiences for four hundred years, exists in several printed versions. These differ enough from one another to present a serious problem to any producer who wants to put it on, yet no one doubts that the version on the stage or in the book is really Hamlet, even if the setting is twentieth-century New York City (as it is in Michael Almereyda’s film of 2000). Variant forms are produced by poets too. The poet William Butler Yeats, late in his life, irritated literary critics by revising his earlier poems. One of them, “The Sorrow of Love”, exists in a manuscript version of 1891, a printed version of 1892, and a final printed version of 1925, all from the poet’s own hand (Abrams et al. 2462–2463). Which is the authentic text? The acclaimed short stories by the American writer Raymond Carver were so thoroughly worked over by his editor Gordon Lish that readers do not know how to choose between the texts.

6Because so much folklore is passed along orally and has to meet the needs of different social settings, folk poems and tales are more obviously variable than written literature. Every new version of Cinderella (there are thousands) has some validity: when anthropologist William Bascom discovered Cinderella in Africa, he helped to establish the distribution of the tale over the world. Folklorists use the terms version for any oral or written performance of a tale, and variant for a version that differs markedly from other versions. But the three versions of “The Sorrow of Love” do not give a norm for comparison, unless you decide that the first one is the authentic one and that Yeats had no right to change it. Arbitrary, no?

7If the word variant is to mean anything, many versions have to be recorded and compared, to establish a “normal” state from which the variant varies. Nineteenth-century scholars did that. Their rigorous study of folktales assumed that tales are entities that exist “out there” somewhere, waiting for someone to come along and realise them in performance. All Indo-European folktales were then systematically cataloged, by scholars who, in Robert Georges’s words, “came to regard stories as cultural artifacts and to conceive of them as surviving or traditional linguistic entities pervaded by meaningful symbols” (313). Those scholars did not know Ibonia, but they provide the model for how to read it: as an object existing in variant forms. Being told repeatedly, the story exists in multiple oral performances and printed versions. Texts, I mean. After 1877 it became part of a publishing tradition in which each item draws on the ones before. There is no hard and fast rule for determining which versions of a tale are different enough from the majority of versions to be called variants. Only a comparative study of all versions of the same story will show which variants are significant. Nor is there any hard and fast rule for determining which version is the best, because criteria for excellence vary from one group to another.

NIHOTRAKOTRAKA, hono, Aiidriambahoaka atsi-nanana, fa hamangy an-dRailaiiitra, ka nitondra ny zanany : dia Ingarabelahy sy Izatovotsiota, ary Andriam-bavitoalahy, sy ny vahoakany, —dia Imaroahina sy Imaromanaiky. Ary naka omby fob lahy sy folo am-pianahana izy, dia tamiii' Itaiiimaroanio sy Isakatriniba.
Ary dia nihotrakotraka koa Aiidriambahoaka ava-ratra, dia nitondra any Imbolahongeza sy Irainingeza. Ary día hoy ny fitenin-dRailanitra raíbeny: " Ravo aho, fa tsy holován-dambo aman' alika ity taniko ity."
Ary dia iiihotrakotraka kosa Aiidriambahoaka andre-fana ka nitondra any Ipandrafitrandriamanibola sy Imbolahongeza, ary ny zanany vaio vavy.

Ary nihotiakotraka koa Andriambahoaka atsimo, dia nitondra any Ikabikabilahy sy Ifosalahibehatoka, ary ny zanany vaio vavy.
Dia mba hamangy an-dRailanitra ireo izy ireo, fa zafiny. Ary dia hamahana azy kosa Railanitra raibeny, ka dia naka omby ny ombiny, izay atao hoc Ibetsiviliana sy Itahontaka ; ka dia toy izao no fitenin-dRailanitra, ralla tafahaona tarnin' ireo zafiny ireo izy

Fig. 1. Lars Dahle, Specimens of Malagasy Folk-lore (Antananarivo: A. Kingdon, 1877), p. 108.

8Text 1, the version of Ibonia translated here, is odd — very much a variant from the norm. It was published in 1877 by a Norwegian missionary, Lars Dahle, in a collection of tales, poems, riddles, song lyrics, and other folklore called Specimens of Malagasy Folk-lore. There is actually a Text 0, a seventeenth-century document (translated in the Appendix) that is obviously a prototype of all the later ones, written down long ago by the first French coloniser. Étienne de Flacourt (1607–1660) attempted to set up a French colony at the southern end of the great island; his book is the first grand report on the colony Madagascar would become, long after his attempt failed. In the story he wrote, the hero Rasoanor vows to capture the wife of a king across the water. His father does not oppose his adultery: the only reason he dissuades him is that the voyage is dangerous. When he returns with the lady, he is received with open arms by his parents. So the theme is the independence of the princely son from his father’s wishes, and his parents’ final acceptance of that independence. The narrator’s portrayal of these arrogant, self-serving people reveals that ordinary audiences were not deceived by the social hierarchy under which they lived.

9Text 2 (1877) is a shorter Merina version of the Ibonia plot, printed by Dahle probably because he knew how popular the hero was. It came from Vakinankaratra, the region of the plateau south of Antananarivo (around Antsirabe and Betafo, if you want to look at a map). It was quickly translated by Sibree (see Appendix), who was the most enthusiastic folklorist among the British missionaries of the 1870s–1890s. It tells the same story, with a few differences. The hero’s aunt comes onstage at the beginning; she and her sister, both pregnant, commit their unborn children to a cross-cousin marriage (that means that if one sister brings forth a boy and the other a girl, the children will marry). Once Ibonia has cut his way out of his mother’s womb and grown up, he demonstrates his heroic quality by recovering his stolen dog and vanquishing an adversary, whose subjects accept him as their ruler. On his way home he meets some persons with extraordinary powers, who do not appear in Text 1; they will resuscitate him when Stone Man shoots him dead in the climactic battle. They are familiar characters in other Malagasy tales (Sakalava, Tanala) and in tales like How Six Made Their Way in the World (Grimm no. 71). Two other Merina versions were collected and published by Sibree and Richardson in 1886, in a book they published for the expanding number of literate Malagasy, but primarily for their own circle. Today it is a rare book. Though Dahle mentions a Sihanaka version he might have collected but did not, the geography makes Ibonia look more and more like Merina property.

10Text 3 (1877), perhaps one of the versions in that obscure little book, was summarised by one of the British missionaries (see Appendix). It shows little of the zealous attention that Text 1 pays to royal families who are disputing supremacy. The beloved here is deformed, yet beautiful enough to attract the hero Bonia. Raivato abducts her and Bonia rescues her, with the aid of three extraordinary companions.

11Text 4 (1908) is the lead piece in a revised edition of Dahle’s book, edited by a British Quaker missionary, John Sims. His book, Anganon’ny Ntaolo: tantara mampiseho ny fomban-drazana sy ny Finoana sasany nananany [Tales of the Ancients: Stories Composed by, and Customs of, the Ancestors, with Some Beliefs], provides a version, not a variant, by revising Dahle’s grammar and spelling. Sims’s reedition of Dahle remained continuously in print under his name. That printed book is the only context in which many readers in Madagascar know Ibonia. Anyone can buy it from a street vendor in Madagascar’s capital city, Antananarivo. The book they know, published by the Lutheran printing house, contains editorial changes far more fundamental and extensive than Sims’s. Beginning with the fourth printing (undated), one or more anonymous editors reorganised the book in a way Sims might have hesitated to sign. Text 5 also appears in that book, which has never been out of print. In 1992 it was translated into French from a 1937 printing, by Louis Molet and Denise Dorian.

12Text 6 (1907–1910), see Appendix, is a Merina tale with many of the features of Texts 1 and 2: barrenness, a scene with the board game fanorona, abduction of the heroine, a hero who effects his own Caesarean delivery, precocity, a life token, two verbal charms, a house transformed into iron, and a successful combat. In this version, the famous name is awarded to the heroine and the flayed skin belongs to a female donor. It reads as if the narrator was a woman.

3.3 Variants

13The meaning of variant becomes clearer when we go outside Imerina to look at Texts 7 (1907–1910) and 8 (1934) (both translated in the Appendix). Obviously, if Ibonia originated in Imerina, increasing distance from the point of origin means that versions will be more and more different. These two come from regions to the south, where the people have been carefully studied by anthropologists. The Tanala (whose name means Forest People) live inland from the southeast coast;7 the Bara (cattle-herders, historically) live farther inland, west of them.8 Reflecting the less rigid class structure of the two groups, the Tanala and Bara tales bear little resemblance to the Merina tales. The Tanala tale (Text 7) has a similar plot to Text 1: the hero is betrothed to his future wife while still in the cradle, she marries another king, and the hero successfully retrieves her in battle with his adversary, aided by magic defences against dissimilarities, especially in gender roles. The Tanala hero is less prominent, less assertive than the high-and-mighty Ibonia. The woman he marries as a child is so eager for a husband that after one king rejects her, she is accepted by another, who is less scrupulous about adultery. The Bara tale (Text 8) clearly deserves the name of variant. The hero does enter his adversary’s village as a disguised flayer, but the abductor is only a sexual rival, not a political enemy, of the hero. Instead of abducting her himself, he employs a vulture to carry her off, and at the end he is stupefied but not killed. Outside the central plateau, then, it is a conventional hero story. The Tanala and Bara stories illustrate what happens when a cultural product migrates from one people to another. The old anthropological term is diffusion.9

14Closer to the epic version, though still far from Imerina, is Text 9 (1907–1910), a related tale told by the Antankarana (People of the Rocks) of the northeast. Unlike Ibonia, this hero is the younger of two brothers, born after Ranakombe the diviner has aided the childless parents to conceive, by means of an infusion from magic leaves. Once he is born, the hero turns into a trickster: he steals his brother’s wife, cheats his way into an inheritance, and kills the rich man who has adopted him by throwing hot stones into his throat. Such ingratitude and antisocial behavior, which would be a regular part of his personality if he were a trickster, have only a limited part in the self-assertions of the Ibonia of Text 1, where transgressions that would be unacceptable from a hova [freeman] are tolerated from the hero because he is andriana [nobility]. Here as in Text 1, says historian Paul Ottino, “These restricted and limited misdeeds merely herald the excellence of the reign of a civilising sovereign” (“Mythology of the Highlands” 968). Ibonia’s antisocial behavior and shows of strength recall the real-life stories told admiringly about Radama II, who reigned Imerina from 1861 to 1863. In childhood, it was said, he was fond of pulling the wings off chickens and setting fire to his playmates (Haring Malagasy Tale Index 226–227). These men give a new sense to the old phrase noblesse oblige.

15The versions and variants of Ibonia help to define the two terms. Texts 1, 2, 4, 5, 10, and 13 present versions in a chain of editing and publication; they are not variants, whereas texts 7, 8, and 9 conform precisely to the definition of a variant, a version significantly departing from the majority of other versions.

16Text 10 (1939) is an important re-edition and translation of Dahle’s text, made in the mid-1930’s by a Frenchman, one R. Becker. Knowing something about the French anthropology of his time, Becker made some changes based on Dahle’s text, maintaining that Sims should not have divided the tale into chapters, changed the order of paragraphs, or made “corrections” of style. But Becker does the same things, creating other chapters where Dahle made none, and my translation inserts still others. Convinced that the tale originated among the Sakalava people of the northwest (who were traditionally hostile to the Merina), Becker restored some words from Sakalava dialect. He interpreted Dahle’s Ibonia as a solar myth, in accordance with a kind of mythology no one today would believe (Dorson “Eclipse”).

  • 10 Note that the childless queen, at the beginning of Text 1, is tested and receives supernatural aid (...)

17Ibonia’s story is still alive in oral tradition. Two Masikoro versions (Texts 11 and 12) were recorded as recently as 1978 and 1986. The Masikoro people live in the south of the island, still farther away from Imerina than the Tanala or Bara. They herd cattle; they derive income from raising lima beans, of all things. We may expect them to tell a different story even if the hero’s name is the same. Text 11 (Mandihitsy et al. 90–101) is decidedly a variant from all the others. First the hero Boniamanoro reenacts Madagascar’s favorite legend: he captures a wife while fishing in the sea. But his father, who is named after the seven-headed monster of other tales, opposes their marriage, as does his other son, Revato. The father abducts the wife, motivating a rather Oedipal quest by the hero to find and slay his father. In the sea he meets three potentially dangerous piscine characters, Big Fish, Sir Shark, and Water Mistress. Fortunately he is able to supply each one with meat, and in gratitude each take turns carrying him part way across the sea. These three moves exemplify a pattern that occurs in many folktales, called the “donor sequence”: the hero is tested, he responds appropriately, and he is rewarded with something that will enable him to fulfill his quest.10 Arrived at his destination, Boniamanoro receives a skin offered by a kind old man, which does not prevent Revato from recognising him in the hoop game. Brother and father are both killed, and the narrator remarks that even a father can be wrong. This text, dominated by the Oedipal theme, brings together motifs found in many other Malagasy folktales. As to the traversal of the sea, realistic references to maritime voyages seldom occur in those tales, but island people never forget that the sea is near or that foreigners come from it. In folktale, crossing any water can become crossing the sea, and the crossing marks the separation of two worlds, especially when the hero passes over on the backs of sea-creatures. Ibonia, like Radama I in real life, might have conceived a plan to subjugate those from beyond the sea (Ottino L’étrangère 464–465), but no such plan shows in Text 11.

18Text 12 (1986) is much grander (Mandihitsy et al. 15–75). Again by a Masikoro narrator, it portrays at length a hero, Tsimamangafalahy, “the self-circumcised man”, who is intent on avenging his father’s death. He is born after an unusual pregnancy; then his father sets out across the sea to challenge a rival king. There he is defeated and slain, thus providing a motive for the future hero, who aggressively effects his own birth, shows his precocious strength, engages in verbal duelling, acquires a magic object to aid his quest, and defeats the son of his father’s murderer in a triumphal battle. But in contrast to Ibonia’s obsessive quest for his betrothed, which makes marriage the main concern of Text 1, the climactic battle in the Masikoro tale is what all the rest leads up to, much like the gunplay or sword fight in any classic Western or in a Jackie Chan film. Masikoro are a warlike people, says historian Hubert Deschamps, dominated in the past by a “turbulent warrior aristocracy” who were fond of raiding European merchants and ships coming into the southern ports (194). Memories of this aristocracy could provide a real-life model, though hardly an explanation, for this hero’s behavior.

19Text 13 (1992) is a French re-translation, with erudite commentary, of texts 1 and 10 by François Noiret, today’s leading authority on Ibonia. It is the basis of this translation, and M. Noiret’s translations, notes, and commentaries pervade this book.

20Text 14 (1970s): Ibonia still lives among the Sakalava, a large and important ethnic group in the northwest of the island. The French anthropologist Suzanne Chazan-Gillig collected a version of the story during fieldwork there. In her own words, with a few parenthetic explanations (translated in the Appendix), she retells the tale from a performance by the chief of the Sakoambe lineage, in the village Andranofotsy. Perhaps some edition of Dahle’s book is in the teller’s background, but the Sakalava chief reinterprets Ibonia’s story to symbolise power relations, whereas Text 1 shows concern over maintaining the royal dynasty. Politically, what is at issue in Rabonia’s story is the succession to royal power, which is achieved at the end of the tale. A new form of organisation, which Chazan-Gillig calls the birth of Sakalava identity, comes into being when the aboriginal inhabitants have been subordinated. Normally the elder brother Ravato would inherit the throne; his younger brother’s challenge to him, which focuses on possession of the woman Soamananoro, has some of that Oedipal resonance that transpires from Text 11. As Chazan-Gillig points out, Konantitse the diviner lives in the forest and “represents the first groups to settle, who were hunter-gatherers”. Destined to be excluded from power by this royal dynasty, they favor Rabonia over Ravato. Two magic objects, the ody [charm] and the old man’s skin, enable the hero to win the woman and gain the power. Two helper roles are fused, the diviner Konantitse and the old man whose skin is Rabonia’s disguise. A potent political symbolism lies in the opposition between earth, into which the combatants sink, and water. “Every time Ravato and Rabonia are overcome, they sink into water, and a well or a marsh appears …. the efficacity of the ody is attached to the taboo against lying down near the mouth of a river …. The earth-water opposition makes clear the real content of the assimilation whereby all the social groups in the south, sharing a common history of domination, were incorporated; that assimilation engendered Sakalava identity, at the end of a process whereby the autochthones [aboriginal inhabitants] were dispossessed and became slaves ….” (164–165). Chazan-Gillig’s political interpretation points us to inquire about the theme of power relations in the other texts.

21The story evidently was known among Sakalava long ago. Both Sakalava and Merina people speak Malagasy (as all people in the island do), but their dialects are different enough for an editor like Becker to identify Sakalava words in Dahle’s Merina text. Since his narrator came from the western part of Imerina, which adjoins Sakalava territory, those Sakalava words in the text should not be too surprising. In former times the two societies were quite different. Sakalava society, “a pastoral society of warriors exchanging slaves and cattle for firearms”, contrasted with the top-down-directed Merina society, in which power expanded outwards from the king (Ottino “Myth and History” 243). One historian, Raymond K. Kent, even thinks it may have been the Sakalava who brought guns and gunpowder to the Merina, before Robert Farquhar, the first governor of Mauritius, made his arms treaty with Radama I. Merina society shows plenty of Sakalava influences: “silver chains, funerary dances and chants …, human funerary sacrifices …, the poison ordeal applied to humans rather than animals, …the idea to ‘divinise’ living rulers, … [and] marking the ears of cattle” (Kent 162–163, 241). The Ibonia story might have originated among Sakalava, as Becker thought, but the variant forms only demonstrate multiple existence, which is a defining characteristic of any folktale.

22Text 15 (1992), the most recent version published, combines traditions from two neighbouring groups, Merina and Betsileo. It was recorded by Noiret, who appends it to his re-edition of Becker and Dahle (Text 13). It shows more influence from the Dahle-Sims collection than the Sakalava tale of Rabonia. Unlike most folktale collectors in Madagascar, Noiret gives the reader background information about his storyteller. This, according to accepted rules for folklore research today, is a requirement of proper field research in folklore. Not only must texts be taken down literally from the lips of informants, but full background information must be given about every informant, and newly collected material must be connected with what has already been published by others (Dorson American Folklore 5–6). Noiret passes these tests admirably. His informant, he tells us, lived in the region of Ambohimahasoa. Not every reader will know Imerina’s geography well enough to say, "Oh sure, that place".

The teller, Randrianjaona Julien, born in 1923, comes from an old Merina family originating six generations ago in Rangaina (a territory of the efa-toko [authentic] Imerina from before Andrianampoinimerina). Having moved through Ambohitsimanova (Betafo) in Vakinankaratra, five generations ago, the family settled here [Ambohimahasoa] from his grandfather’s time, shortly before 1873, since his father was born at Vohiposa the same year as Ranavalona II’s visit to Fianarantsoa. Though he prefers to call himself Betsileo, because of language, the [family] tomb, marriages and customs, Randrianjaona preserves a certain number of tales from that old family stock. He likes to recount those evenings in Betsileo country when everyone in turn had to tell a story; from those he enriched his repertoire. His language moreover is a mixture of Merina and Betsileo dialect, in which he is visibly more at ease (238).

23Randrianjaona’s story is highly recognizable to a reader of Text 1, even in summary. First we meet the heavenly prince (no deity, a mere mortal) with a childless elder son. When his two sons come to visit, he thanks them for their gifts but regrets not having a grandchild. At home, the elder son’s wife, instead of weeping, tells her husband to seek a second wife. Barrenness, she knows, is the strongest argument for polygamy. But he refuses, remaining faithful to a barren wife and demonstrating loyalty to his class. He sends her instead to the diviner, who forewarns her that she will bear a loza ny zaza [a trouble child]. The diviner’s predictions of the future greatness of the unborn child are “signs warning of [the hero’s] ascendance”, in the words of one of the first scholars to study the patterns in hero stories (Dundes Study 142). At his direction, she goes to a standing stone to retrieve the magical valala [locust]; the stone stretches high, she captures the childbearing charm, and she takes it back to the diviner to grill it. As in Text 1, her victory over stone (mineral) and valala (animal) establish her supremacy over the subordinate realms. As soon as it is cooked, the magic valala impregnates her by being swallowed. Startling images of this kind are typical of hero tales. Lord Raglan, a crusty British aristocrat who analysed such tales in his book The Hero, pointed out that again and again, “the circumstances of his conception are unusual” (174). During her pregnancy, the hero takes his name, speaks, and betrothes himself to Iampelasoamananoro, Girl of Grace, wife of the famous ombiasy [diviner] Rainivato (Rock). After six years he tells her to swallow a knife in a banana and he will cut his way out, thus getting born and circumcised at the same time. Randrianjaona, the narrator, remarks that the mother does not die in childbirth.

24There is much more to Randrianjaona’s wideranging story. Growing up as in Text 1, the hero shows his kingly qualities, which are again rather antisocial: he beats his playmates in sports and upsets women’s water-jugs. His father attempts to do away with him but is unsuccessful (Raglan 174: “At birth, an attempt is made, usually by his father …, to kill him”). His mother sends him to fight a voay [crocodile]; he sets out, telling his companions to watch for blood in the stream. If the crocodile wins, the visible blood will be Ibonia’s, but if Ibonia wins, the current will carry its body away and its blood will appear downstream. The hero’s victory over the crocodile foreshadows his victory over his adversary. Disguised in an old man’s skin, he passes himself off as a slave of a previous generation. When he wins at fanorona (another forecast of victory), the suspicious Rainivato wants to kill him but is prevented by his father (“Are you mad, to kill a slave of my ancestors?”). In the fields, he thinks to trap him under the hooves of the cattle, but they do not touch him. Iampelasoamananoro recognises him (“It’s you!”) and agrees to go home with him; standing at the window, she watches him wrestle and beat Rainivato into the ground. The successful victory of the hero over his adversary corresponds to Raglan’s point 11, victory over a king (175), and incorporates the worldwide combat myth into the story. The father allows him to take her home. “That is why marriage is a serious thing”, says the narrator. “When you say wife, that means wife. That’s why marriage is a serious thing. So they say, tandremo ny malaka vadin’olona, Beware of taking another man’s wife. That is the story of Ibonia” (Noiret 238–267). Wife-stealing is the luxury of a few privileged Merina families. The narrator’s concluding words echo what Ibonia says at the end of Text 1. More distantly they echo the edicts about marriage of the real-life king Andrianampoinimerina, two centuries ago. These edicts, well known to a royal audience, are a climactic episode in the definitive history of Merina royalty, the Tantaran’ny Andriana [Royal Histories]. Resemblances between this Betsileo-Merina Text 15 and Text 1 point to an unbroken chain of oral and written tradition.

3.4 Variability = Authenticity

25Oral and written traditions exist side by side everywhere in the world. How can we declare that a particular text is only oral? The desire to authenticate oral texts, to imagine an “original” that is free from possible written influence, has motivated many folklorists. It is still a popular notion for many people. Authenticity, for the collector in Dahle’s time, would be present in a collected text if three conditions were met. (1) The tale would have to have been invented in a remote time by ancestors of the informant, or members of some related tribe; (2) the tale would have to have been learnt by the informant by means of an unbroken chain of oral transmission since that invention; (3) European influence would have to be proved to be absent. One who got caught in this dilemma was probably the most insightful malgachisant (scholar of Malagasy language and culture) of that time, Gabriel Ferrand (1864–1935). He found such close parallels between two tale texts he collected and two fables by France’s classic author Jean de La Fontaine (1621–1695) that he wondered about a connection. A Malagasy translation of La Fontaine, he knew, had been published in the 1830s and reprinted in 1867 and 1875, as part of France’s never-ending programme of cultural colonisation. The scrupulous Ferrand had to convince himself that the informant could not have been influenced by that book. Hard to believe: resemblances so detailed, in a structure so complex, could not have arisen except by diffusion. The same issue today is delicately handled by Noiret, analysing Text 15. Could it, he asks, be the present-day descendant of a distinct oral tradition, untouched by the popular Dahle-Sims collection? Are the assertions that Randrianjaona heard the story as a child enough to “decontaminate” his version? Or is Text 15 simply a folktale, reinterpreted according to Betsileo cultural emphases? Noiret finds a crucial hint in the hero’s name. Randrianjaona insisted in performance that it had to be accented on the last syllable — ee-boo-NYAH. That accenting might indicate Arabic origin, or it might be merely a mispronunciation in the printed versions (Noiret 239–240). The search for authenticity will never stop, as Regina Bendix has definitively shown, but it remains true that folklore may be oral or written, and that Noiret’s text exists in the context of the other versions and variants (see appendix). The variability of Ibonia — which means its persistence in tradition, therefore its popularity — is what constitutes its authenticity


3 This introduction follows a three-part scheme for analyzing folklore, devised by the influential American scholar Alan Dundes (1934–2005), under the title “Texture, Text, and Context”.

4 See supplementary material on

5 See

6 African epics can be found in the books by John William Johnson and Stephen Belcher.

7 See

8 See

9 See

10 Note that the childless queen, at the beginning of Text 1, is tested and receives supernatural aid in conception, as if she too were a hero going through a donor sequence. The text thus awards her equal status to a man.


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