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How to Read a Folktale

4. Texture and Structure: How it is Made

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1Texture asks about the presented surface of a work — its words, sounds, images; its component parts; its style. Structure asks how the parts fit together to create a whole. Texture and style in Ibonia are certainly mixed. If you read Dahle’s printed text carefully, you see rhythmic, measured lines; the narrator is relying on these to move the story ahead.

Fig. 2 Lars Dahle, Specimens of Malagasy Folk-lore (Antananarivo: A. Kingdon, 1877), p. 155.

2In dialogue he includes even more rhythm and measure, coming closer to verse. Towards the end he switches into the kind of prose other Malagasy narrators use for folktales. The mixing of styles, which shows in the translation, was the first thing the enthusiastic Sibree noticed about it. The tale, he said,

includes a great number of incidents not contained in either of the foregoing [versions, i.e. Texts 2 and 3], and a good deal more of the miraculous. In this variant a locust comes out of the fire, settles on the head of Ibonia’s mother, sinks into her body, and so becomes the origin of the wonderful child. A long conversation is held between the child and its mother before its birth as to where he should be brought forth, a great number of places being proposed, but successively rejected for various reasons, until at length he is born while his mother sits in a golden chair of immense size. Wonderful portents accompany his birth; for he announces that he is “God upon earth”, and that a thousand canoes could not bear him over the water, &c. All living things are broken, the rocks and the heavens resound, the earth turns upside down and this, they say, was the origin of earthquakes. (“Malagasy Folk-Tales” 57)

3No doubt these incidents do retard the narrative, if James Sibree was looking for linear movement. They could be called digressions. So could the prologue in heaven, the scenes of self-praise and of mutual boasting between hero and adversary, and so on. The editor Becker rejected some of these scenes as inauthentic, verbose, confused in style, rhetorical jugglery in doubtful taste. Therefore, by his logic, they had to be later oratorical interpolations. Such things do not occur in the Grimms’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen. But notice: by classifying some parts as digressions or interpolations, Sibree and Becker were imposing their own aesthetic categories, assuming, indeed prescribing, that a folktale should move directly from point to point. They brought European categories and expectations to this strange product of a mixed Indonesian-Indian-African culture, while Text 1 was enacting a different aesthetic, expanding the narrative. This it does by inserting, framing in, other genres.

4Framing, for a major part of human history, has been the storyteller’s principal means of expanding an oral tale. Embedding one plot in another is the most familiar form of framing. Homer does it when Odysseus recounts his adventures on the way to Calypso’s island. As everybody knows, the Arabian Nights consists of several dozen plots, framed into one. —Shahrazad’s successful attempt to preserve her own life by performing stories. Those books, Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and Boccaccio’s Decameron, all use this device. All are tales about storytelling.

5Framing tends to reflect its social context. It is a favorite device of narrators in complex societies like Imerina, where control is exerted from the top down. During the two centuries before Dahle recorded Ibonia, Imerina was undergoing what is now called vertical integration, at the hands of the successive sovereigns, Andrianampoinimerina, Radama I, and Ranavalona I. The construction of Ibonia, with its insertion of other poetic genres, is a microcosm of vertical integration. In Imerina, as well as in societies far removed, framing is the device that makes possible, at least for the narrator of Text 1, the large, inclusive genre called epic. The narrative cycles of both Ireland and India drop in stories about events related only distantly to the main story. Sometimes the only connection is the appearance of a certain character. Analytically, to interpolate an event looks like a way of expanding the short forms of folk literature, to solve the problem, “How shall a long piece be constructed?” The genres available to a nineteenth-century Merina storyteller range from small to large. Text 1 of Ibonia is remarkable for the number of styles and genres it comprises.

4.1 Genres: Proverbs, Riddles, Hainteny, Panegyric, Verbal Duelling

6The smallest genre of verbal art that a narrator can quote is the one-sentence aphorism or proverb. Interpolations in African epic can be far briefer than what we find in Ibonia. In the Nyanga epic of central Africa, observes the collector-translator Daniel Biebuyck, the narrative is repeatedly interrupted by “aphoristic statements and terse formulations which, with their highly condensed thought, are difficult to translate” (Hero and Chief 6). Perhaps at those points the narrator is quoting a known sentence, or else he is creating one on a traditional model. That is known to be the favorite device of Malagasy orators, to show reverence for the words of the ancestors by sounding like them (Haring Verbal Arts 141–146). Ibonia contains few one-liners. One is “That is how earthquakes first appeared“, which is an “etiological tag”, a pseudo-explanation for something everybody knows. Etiological tags in Ibonia concern the origin of earthquakes, of sea waves, and of the expression “a bad day for old women” as something to say when thunder is heard. They depart from the narrative to take the hearer momentarily back to the real world. Aphorisms in Ibonia are few.

7Riddles: Normally, riddling is a competitive game played by children. You win if you know the answer; if you do not, and have to learn the right answer from the questioner, you have learned something about the way adults use metaphor. In riddles like “White chicks filling a hole. — Teeth in the mouth”, or “My grandmother’s ox bellows day and night. — A waterfall”, the important information is hidden. Important information always should be hidden, according to Merina custom (Haring “Malagasy Riddling” 166). Riddles are a prime tool of learning about how language works, so it is not surprising that baby Ibonia likes the ridgebeam of the house as a possible birthplace, “because of the thousand men suspended and the three men separated”. Only those in the know, like the Merina audience or an outside expert, can interpret the metaphor. The thousand men awaiting command are the rafters (the word for them, rozaroza, also means penis). The three standing men are a phallic symbol of authority. Unborn baby Ibonia uses riddle language again when he rejects water for his birth: “it is a big mat that cannot be rolled up, a lamba that cannot be folded, a pillow that cannot be carried.” Each time, the second term contradicts the first, a very frequent device for riddles. Allusiveness of this kind expresses a Malagasy fondness for indirectness.

8Hainteny: The great refinement of metaphor, in Merina poetic discourse, is a genre European readers do not know: the traditional poetic form hainteny. The word means “word play” or “beautiful language”, though a more accurate translation is “the art of the word”. It is a sort of verbal table tennis or duel. One etymology connects hainteny with its homonym ainteny, breath of the word or life of words. “In traditional poetry”, writes the great authority on the genre, Bakoly Domenichini-Ramiaramanana, “the word is simultaneously animated and dominated by inspiration, by the breath. Breathing determines both the measure and the melodic line of the verses, just as their rhythm often creates balance, parallelism, and symmetry” (103–106). This etymology marks the genre as poetic. In its name and nature, the hainteny relies on the same functions as all African poetic language — ambiguity (double meaning) and simultaneous plural meanings. Paul Ottino, who had the deepest understanding of Madagascar’s culture, connected these functions to history — the people’s Malayo-Polynesian background. In highland Madagascar, Ottino says, verbal artistry expresses a maximum of thought with a minimum of words, makes constant allusions to proverbs and folktales, and relies continually on metaphor for the sake of dissimulation or obscuring another meaning (“Un procédé littéraire”). In this poetry, brief allusions continually refer to something external to the words. That is, the words point to a symbolic significance behind their manifest meaning, which the audience is expected to recognise. Allusiveness is coupled with ambiguity. The terms of a verbal message can possess several different, or even opposed, semantic values. Before World War I, the French literary man Jean Paulhan (1884–1968) collected and translated a large number of these oral poems. He noted that they were performed as a verbal duel, like riddling: each text calls for a “comeback”, called setriny. Sometimes, Domenichini-Ramiaramanana observes, they were chanted in a style known as “falling rice”, vary raraka. Inserted into a hero tale, they are a structural equivalent to oral formulas, which Albert Lord showed to be essential to the composition and performance of Homeric epic.

9Hainteny poems are dialogues. The performers continually rely on a question-and-answer form, in which the second part of the text balances or caps the first. Here is a brief example from Paulhan. A man speaks and a woman answers.

“I am an ant.
They say off there to the west
are ricefields with small, small rice”.
“It’s not the ricefields
whose rice is small, small.
It’s the love of us two
that is small, small”. (Les hain-tenys 214)

10The two speakers are debating about the most accurate use of metaphor, as their means of discussing their love affair. It is a poem about poetry. Leonard Fox definitively collects the largest number of these haunting poems in his book of translations. He likens this one to the Japanese haiku (413 n.100). Another hainteny is a dialogue between our hero, Iboniamasiboniamanoro (he of the clear and captivating glance), who does not forget to praise himself, and a rejected woman who tells him,

ny fitia efa ho lany
sy ny fitia efa hihahaka
tsy mba itohizam-pangoka intsony
The love that will soon be exhausted
and the love that will soon be dispersed —
its broken threads can never be united. (216–217)

11Panegyric and verbal duelling: Hainteny most often appear in Ibonia when the hero or his adversary praises himself. In Imerina, many traditional hainteny include praise, sometimes reciprocal.

12Rafaralahy said:

“Are you Andrianaivo of Namehana?
When he stands erect, he eats aviavy fruit,
when he bends down, he eats amontana fruit;
in the evening, he plays with limes,
and in the morning he makes lemons roll”.
“Yes, I am he”,
he said in reply.
“Are you Rafaralahy, the son of those in Iarivo?
If he is poor, he places money in his mouth,
if he is rich, he is not sued for debt;
if he rides an animal, he is not slandered,
and if he swings on a palm, he is not reproached”.
“Yes, I am he”,
he answered. (Fox 322–325)

  • 11 Ethnic slurs usually attribute certain characteristics to social groups; in effect, they constitut (...)

13Reciprocal dispraise — insult, in other words — was a normal poetic genre in Imerina: a verbal duel. I wonder if it still is in use. One tale of mutual insult between the fly and the ant looks much like a hainteny-like rhetorical display (Richardson, “More Folk-lore” 452–456). A mutual-insult story, which Dahle collected (303) and Sibree translated (“The Oratory” 316), pits the chameleon (so much prized today by conservationists concerned about Madagascar’s wildlife) against the lizard. When chameleon remarks, “Life is full of danger”, lizard replies, “You think so because you’re so thin, with your bulging eyes”. “As for you”, says chameleon, “you think like that because you’re ugly and dirty brown”. Reciprocal insult is a dramatised, metaphorical form of another folklore genre, the ethnic slur or ethnic insult.11 Both insult and praise are crucial to the magnitude and inclusiveness of Ibonia, which derives its force as metaphor from the stature and exploits of the hero. Praise and insult raise the hero and his antagonist to a stature larger than life. Neither panegyric nor verbal duelling is a mere rhetorical flourish interrupting the narrative; it motivates the whole story. Laudatory names are given to Stone Man, always by women. Living-Lady, Ibonia’s aunt, calls Stone Man a meteor and a thunderbolt, and his mother echoes these praises later: “His fingers are horns; he makes hammers of his fists; his head he uses as an anvil”. Ibonia’s betrothed, the Girl of Grace, calls him “a disaster man, a calamity man, a thorn it’s better not to touch”.

14He also praises himself in a hainteny:

I am not stopped by a thousand pirogues.
Those who ford I gnaw up their loins,
those who cross, I kill by thousands.

15Ibonia is willing to concede to Stone Man the names Nothing-Man-Who-Is-Seeking-Trouble, Owner-of-Big-Lands, and Owner-of-Wide-Lands. An adversary has to be genuinely formidable; think of Grendel in Beowulf or Satan in Paradise Lost.

16The praises given to the hero’s antagonist, however, are secondary to the praises given to Ibonia himself. These are no mere literary convention. They take their style from the widespread Malagasy and African practice of changing one’s name at different stages of life (Ruud 171–180, Kottak 217–222). When his mother tries to name him, he hears and rejects four honourific names. While his mother is in labour, he pours forth an extended passage of self-praise in hainteny:

I am an edible arum in the chink of a rock
uncrushed by any foot
its leaves not eaten.

17Self-praise of this sort is a frequent theme of hainteny, drawn from his stock of fixed phrases, seldom made up by the performer. To show Ibonia as a hainteny speaker is to claim for him the oratorical skill of an elder.

18Clearly, not all of the tale is poetry. Some interpolated incidents are ordinary, independent folktales with a heroic tinge. In one frequent scene, a hero or heroine returns in disguise and is seen reflected in a pool (Haring Malagasy Tale Index 193–196, 202–203, 363–371, 411–412, 474–475). Ibonia reenacts this familiar incident. Moreover, the scenes in which Ibonia begins to be recognised by his skill at playing fanorona, throwing cross-sticks, or bullfighting have analogues in the Malagasy repertoire: there are several Malagasy versions of the international tale The Youth Who Wanted to Learn What Fear Is (Grimm no. 4), in which the hero reveals his superior qualities. These blocks of independent material, probably performed without much heightening of voice or gesture, are interludes framed into the epic to contrast with the panegyric and verbal duelling.

19If we compare Text 1 to the other versions of this tale in the appendix, it is clear that the narrator conceives its style as embracing all these genres, which he knew were performed independently, and bringing them into one structure. A European forerunner of this practice was “the Italian epic poet Torquato Tasso [,who] sought such unity-in-diversity in his massive romantic epic Jerusalem Delivered (first complete edition, 1581)” and who was one model for John Milton’s conception of epic in Paradise Lost (1667) (Flannagan 298). It is these parallels that justify calling Ibonia an epic.

4.2 Riddle language, metaphor, metonymy

20The three genres inserted into the epic rely on indirect, figurative poetic language, which is used all over the African continent and the Indian Ocean islands. Riddles, hainteny, and verbal duelling illustrate “riddle language”. This is Geneviève Calame-Griaule’s term for an African way of speaking whereby a speaker both hides and reveals his thought. You attempt to communicate, but indirectly; you practice verbal ambiguity so as not to undo social cohesiveness. African-American folklore and literature use riddle language in the form of “signifying”, speaking indirectly and ironically, knowing that the target is present and will hear. Signifying is masterfully captured by Zora Neale Hurston in her classic Mules and Men. A compelling theory of African-American literary criticism by Henry Louis Gates is built on signifying. Folktales from the slavery era in the United States and the colonial era in Madagascar are riddle language in narrative form, always referring to something beyond the literal. The two-sided game fanorona, which Ibonia plays twice, is a nonverbal model for the verbal genres. It is as metaphorical as they are.

21Metaphor and metonymy are key terms of analysis for a work like Ibonia. Beginning from the work of a great linguist, Roman Jakobson (1896–1982), critics and researchers have deepened our understanding of metaphor and metonymy. Topics in language, Jakobson found, may be connected through being either similar (alike) or contiguous (in contact with each other). Later brain research places metaphor and metonymy at the centre of human intelligence. Researchers like George Lakoff are finding that they are not mere decorative figures of speech, as the handbooks of literary terms say, but are a matter of thought; that metaphorical language is a normal, everyday part of the way human beings speak and talk (123–124). To express similarity in condensed fashion, we use metaphor. Poetry often applies a word denoting one thing or action to something seemingly different. In this hainteny (collected by Jean Paulhan) a man’s first wife speaks:

Kotsakotsa rambon-damba
Rano saiky nosotroiko
Notsipitsipihan’ilay sahona
The fringe of my shawl is damp
into the water I was about to drink
a frog jumped
(Les hain-teny merinas 230–231)

22Her shawl (lamba) is damp because she has been drying her tears with it. Yet she denies having wept; the frog symbolises the young second wife, for whom her husband is neglecting her. About a Chinese poem, in which a wife speaks in similar mood, Ezra Pound observed, “The poem is especially prized because she utters no direct reproach” (55). The indirectness of metaphor is a help for handling such delicate matters. Cultures like the Merina develop metaphor from their normal way of speaking into a refined literary diction.

23Metonymy, the other term Jakobson expounded, is a figure of speech in which the literal name for something is applied to something it is closely associated with. It expresses contiguity. The textbook example for British people is “Whitehall”, meaning the office or authority of government. A Malagasy reader might say, “I have read all of Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo”, using the name of Madagascar’s most eminent poet (1901–1937) to mean his books of poetry. Metaphor and metonymy are at the base of all the “minor genres” of Malagasy folklore — riddles, hainteny, and verbal duelling — which are inserted into the story. They transform the hero tale we see in Texts 2–6 into an epic. Any hero’s story is a complex metaphor affording an opportunity to fantasise a powerful and successful life.

24The texture of Ibonia can also be seen from a different angle, as an assemblage of parts on a pre-existing skeleton.

4.3 Motifs

25A large structure like Ibonia is made up not only of other folklore genres, but, more microscopically, of particles, which folklorists call motifs. The characters, incidents, and objects in any tale are distinct enough to be visible, though they are usually too small to constitute a whole story. Folkloristics used to depend on the study of motifs, and the larger units called tale types, on the assumption that a traditional folktale is composed of characters, incidents, and objects, arranged into recurrent, recognizable sequences. That atomistic view is defined in a fundamental tool of the folklorist, Stith Thompson’s Motif-Index of Folk Literature. It is a classification of the molecules of narratives, as if to say, “All folktales, ballads, myths, fables, mediaeval romances, exempla, fabliaux, jest-books, and local legends are made of one matter common to them all, and here’s the alphabetical catalogue of it”. The Motif-Index is not only a dictionary of familiar quotations, but also an encyclopedia of world imagery. When you glance through it, you think, “Surely everything that there is can be described by one of Thompson’s motifs, with its letters and numbers”. If something new is invented, a new motif can be invented to peg it. As an empirical tool, the motif concept aims at identifying the component parts in a body of collected stories. Since a motif may occur in many different stories, which may or may not be historically related (think of a princess being abducted by a monster), it enables comparison with other (especially European) repertoires. The Motif-Index is a monument of the comparatism that makes folkloristics a discipline.

26Thompson’s Motif-Index proves useful for discovering component elements of Ibonia. Thompson set up, labeled, and numbered three large categories: actor motifs, object motifs and incident motifs. Actor motifs refer to the characters found in a story: D1712, Soothsayer (diviner), or K2221, Treacherous rival lover. Object motifs refer to special objects that figure in it: D482, Stretching objects, or E781, Life token. Incident motifs give labels and numbers to particular incidents that are important in the story, for example A511.1.2, Culture hero speaks before birth, or H41.5, Unknown prince shows his kingly qualities in dealing with his playmates. Folktale scholars normally try to list the motifs in their texts (see appendix), especially as a means of connecting newly collected material with what is already known.

27Here are some of the motifs found in Ibonia, in the order in which they appear. Thompson’s catalog wording sometimes seems irrelevant to a particular narrative, but that is a consequence of any classifying process. A210, Sky-god, A211, God of heaven. Z71.2.1, Formula: north, south, east, west. “The very idea of a ‘Prince of the centre of the Earth’”, Ottino writes, “involves a symbolism of space that is itself inseparable from a political intention: to found a dynasty outside of the common order, the necessary prerequisite for sovereignty on earth” (“Mythology of the Highlands” 965). A500, Demigods and culture heroes. D1712, Soothsayer (diviner); D1810.0.2, Magic knowledge of magician. M311, Prophecy: future greatness of unborn child; perhaps M343, Parricide prophecy. F790, Extraordinary sky and weather phenomena. D482, Stretching objects. K1837, Disguise of woman in man’s clothes. D931, Magic rock; D1539.1, Magic elevator. A715.2, Sun and moon born from a goddess impregnated by the wind; D1347, Magic object produces fecundity. D1610.2, Speaking tree. C710, Tabus connected with otherworld journeys. Motifs F51.1.1, Spider-web sky-rope, and F101.7, Escape from lower world by spider’s thread, connect Ibonia to Indian tales. D2161.3.11, Barrenness magically cured. T584.0.1, Childbirth assisted by magic; C152.3, Eating tabus for pregnant woman; A511.1.2, Culture hero speaks before birth. A511.1.2.2, Culture hero in mother’s womb indicates direction to be taken by her; T581, Place and conditions of childbirth. P10.1, Special place where occur births of royalty. T584.1, Birth through the mother’s side; A511.1.1, Culture hero snatched from mother’s side. Ibonia’s birth, says Ottino, is also his circumcision (L’étrangère 555). F960.1, Extraordinary nature phenomena at birth of holy person. K2221, Treacherous rival lover. K1963, Sham magician. W117, Boastfulness. H41.5, Unknown prince shows his kingly qualities in dealing with his playmates; F611.3.2, Hero’s precocious strength; F614.11, Strong man jumps across rivers. A163.1.1, Gods play chess. H1210, Quest assigned. H1500, Tests of endurance; H1543, Contest in remaining under water. A1101.1.2, Speaking trees. D1384.3, Charm gives safety on journey; D1541.0.1, Charms control storms. F628.1.4.1, Hero kills crocodile. H1165, Bullfight as task. H1501.2, Single combat to prove valour. D1840, Magic invulnerability. F911.6, All-swallowing monster. F913, Victims rescued from swallower’s belly. E781, Life token. J1791.7, Man does not recognise his own reflection in the water. N825.2, Old man helper; K1941, Disguised flayer. D1317, Magic object warns of danger. H192, Recognition by supernatural manifestation. H32, Recognition by extraordinary prowess. H31, Recognition by unique ability. D610, Repeated transformation; D152.6, Transformation: man to kite; D142, Transformation: man to cat; D281.1, Transformation: man to wind. D866, Magic object destroyed. D1841.5, Invulnerability from weapons. L225, Reward refused by hero. B551.3, Crocodile carries man across river; B551.1, Fish carries man across water. The separation of the worlds is marked by Ibonia’s passages over the river and his return dry-footed (D1551.6, Magic stick causes waters to divide). T100, Wedding. A1130, Origin of thunder. M341.1, Prophecy: death within certain time. Every motif, even a static one, functions to move the story along.

4.4 Structure

  • 12 The concept of tale type was developed by scholars who hoped to discover the origin and movement o (...)

28How do the parts of Ibonia — the words, images, minor genres — go together to make the whole? One answer would be that it belongs to a “tale type”, a tale that persists in tradition.12 It is more useful to see that this story is held together by a familiar kind of plot, which was first identified by the Russian formalist critic Vladimir Propp. His book Morphology of the Folktale demonstrates that one type of folktale, the fairy tale, found in one culture, Russian culture, has a constant compositional structure. Later scholars have found that this same structure is found in all Indo-European fairy tales, as well as in novels (both written and graphic) and films. Working originally from a random collection of 100 Russian fairy tales from Afanasiev’s classic collection, Propp showed that each story could be divided into units he called functions. These functions are units of plot narrative action, larger than Thompson’s motifs. Propp also demonstrated that there were only a limited number of these basic functions, thirty-one in all, and that they always occurred in the stories in a certain order. Not all functions had to occur in all stories, but if a story did contain, say, functions 1, 2, 6 and 7, then it would contain them in the order 1–2–6–7.

29Distant though Madagascar is from Russia, Ibonia contains many of the plot elements that Propp found in Afanasiev’s Russian tales. The numbered functions do not occur strictly in Propp’s sequence, but even in his own limited corpus, as Anatoly Liberman points out (xxxi–xxxii), the sequence of functions is not always the same. To begin with, the birth of the hero is a preparatory section. The complication is begun by an act of villainy (Propp’s term), namely Stone Man’s abduction of the girl. Intermediary functions then lead to marriage. Propp’s terms do apply to what happens in Ibonia.

  • 13 Both the social order and the human domain suffer this lack of a ruler. In a myth, the lack would (...)

Preparatory Section
Place: heaven. Time: unspecified.
Composition of the family: Sky Father, his son Heaven Watcher, his five married grandsons, and their wives.
Complication (the real beginning), 8a. Lack: Rasoa’s barrenness; the need for a ruler to inherit the kingdom.13
9. Mediation: by the diviner Ranakombe.
11. Departure: Rasoa goes in quest for a childbearing charm.
It was Propp who identified the “donor sequence” noted above. In function 12, the hero is tested or attacked, in function 13 he responds to the test, and in function 14 he either fails the test and is punished, or passes it and is rewarded with a magic object. Rasoa is the first to play the hero role.
12. The first function of the donor: she is assigned the difficult task of getting the charm.
13. The heroine’s reaction: she succeeds.
14. Provision or receipt of a magical agent: she acquires the charm.
Certain functions, like Interdiction and Violation, occur in pairs. The master pair is Lack (the hero wants something) and Lack Liquidated (he gets it).
19. Lack Liquidated: she conceives and brings forth Iboniamasiboniamanoro.
Once the hero is born, there is a new beginning.
8a. Lack: Ibonia longs for his betrothed.
14. Provision or receipt of a magical agent: he gives power names to his weapons and ox.
9. Mediation (the connective incident): he consults the diviner.
11. Departure: he leaves home.
12. The first function of the donor: his endurance is tested, which prepares the way for his defeating enemies.
13. The hero’s reaction: he passes the tests.
15. Spatial transference: Ibonia goes to Stone Man’s village.
23. Unrecognised arrival: he disguises himself there.
27. Recognition: he begins to be recognised by Stone Man. He reveals himself to Girl of Grace.
16. Struggle: Ibonia and Stone Man join in direct combat.
18. Victory: Stone Man is defeated.
19. Lack Liquidated: Ibonia retrieves Girl of Grace, thus liquidating the initial lack.
20. Return: he returns home with his bride.
31. Wedding: Ibonia is married and ascends the throne.

30The tale ends with a dual incident unknown in Propp’s Russian tales, namely Ibonia’s prescription of laws and his death, in accordance with his prediction. Most revealing of a cultural emphasis reflecting Merina values is the mother’s quest plot, which makes a woman nearly as prominent as the hero.

4.5 The Combat Myth

31One incident is essential to the structure. In a hero story, direct combat between hero and adversary is necessary (think of High Noon, Bad Day at Black Rock, or any other Western film). It is a story element that is truly worldwide, known as the combat myth. Traditional heroes around the world invariably face such combat. Anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn found the combat myth in thirty-seven of fifty cultures which he studied for their myth themes. He interpreted the conflict psychologically:

Not infrequently, the elabouration of the theme has a faintly Oedipal flavor. Thus in Bantu Africa (and beyond) a hero is born to a woman who survives after a monster has eaten her spouse (and everyone else). The son immediately turns into a man, slays a monster or monsters, restores his people — but not his father — and becomes chief. (163)

32The Masikoro tale of Tsimamangafalahy (Text 12), like many African tales, turns the Oedipal theme into a son’s avenging his father, thus making a place for himself to succeed him. In that tale, the combat myth is the decisive episode, whereas in Text 1, it is woven into a larger narrative structure. The reason a hero’s story requires a combat is that his victory will set him apart from ordinary people and demonstrate that he is now a Man, eligible to marry.

33Ibonia, in Text 1, resembles many a mythic hero in that he solves two problems. He prescribes laws; hence he is a “donative” hero, one who gives a necessary something to his people. He is also a “purgative” hero, because he rids his people of an awful threat (like the curse hanging over Thebes, in Sophocles’s play of Oedipus). Ibonia rescues victims from the belly of an all-swallowing monster. Madagascar acquired this favorite motif (Thompson’s F911.6) from Africa. With this episode, Ibonia can demonstrate his valor; with the successful combat, Tsimamangafalahy avenges his father’s death by slaying the son of his father’s murderer. Like most combat myths, the swallowing monster story is a fantasy in which a boy achieves identity as a man by means of a deed of manliness. One Greek myth, far more cosmic, portrayed “a chaos demon in serpent form, whom a god-champion overthrew in the earliest days of the world” (Fontenrose 230). This is true myth. The hero is the god of the world order (the cosmos); the chaos demon represents all moral and physical evil, which must be defeated for the world to endure. Chaos in African and Malagasy tales is less cosmic; the threat is to society. The demon is an ogre who swallows all the people and their livestock; by rescuing them the hero restores order and renews society.

  • 14 Thompson’s motifs H936, Tasks assigned because of longings of pregnant woman, and H1212.4, Quest a (...)

34In both “Tsimamangafalahy” and Ibonia, the hero’s mother is a prominent character, brought on stage at the beginning with concern about her pregnancy. When the collector Cyprien Mandihitsy recorded the Masikoro tale of Tsimamangafalahy, in April 1986, the longings of the pregnant mother-to-be took up at least the first ten minutes of the performance. This emphasis is a particularly African touch, although stories around the world tell of a quest that is motivated by a pregnant woman’s longings.14 In a swallowing-monster story collected from a Sakalava informant on the west coast in 1907–1910 and published by Renel (1:117–119), a pregnant woman craves the liver of the mythical beast kiridy (a name meaning something like Tough), who has already swallowed people and animals. Her husband sets forth, traversing desert and crocodile-infested rivers, becoming hungry and discouraged. When he finally finds the kiridy, he shoots and misses; he is killed and swallowed. Back to the wife: she gives birth to a son (the hero), who grows precociously fast and strong. After his playmates say, and his mother admits, that his father was killed by the kiridy, he sets out with a gun in search of the monster, finds it, kills it, and begins cutting it open. From inside, his father says, “Be careful not to cut me with the axe, son” (echoing heroes like Ibonia who speak from inside their mother’s womb). Opening the stomach, he releases all the people and animals. The Masikoro narrator performing this story spotlighted the pregnant woman by chanting this segment. Then when she went into the later episodes, where the father is challenged and defeated at the hands of his enemy, she switched to speaking (Mandihitsy et al. 19 n. 3). Her command of three registers — chanting, speech, and song — corroborates her skill in selecting and combining familiar narratives like the swallowing monster.

35With an understanding of texture (the insertion of minor genres) and structure (the Proppian outline as a skeleton), we can move at last to Context.


11 Ethnic slurs usually attribute certain characteristics to social groups; in effect, they constitute a popular account of the national character of other tribes or nations, generally in very uncomplimentary terms.

12 The concept of tale type was developed by scholars who hoped to discover the origin and movement of every recurrent, recognizable plot. The authoritative catalog of tale types is by Hans-Jörg Uther; the best explanation is an encyclopedia article by Ulrich Marzolph.

13 Both the social order and the human domain suffer this lack of a ruler. In a myth, the lack would be cosmic: for instance there is no dry land until the waters which have covered the earth recede. In folktale and legend, the lack is social, a disequilibrium that must be rectified.

14 Thompson’s motifs H936, Tasks assigned because of longings of pregnant woman, and H1212.4, Quest assigned because of longing of pregnant woman.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 2 Lars Dahle, Specimens of Malagasy Folk-lore (Antananarivo: A. Kingdon, 1877), p. 155.
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