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How to Read a Folktale

5. Context, History, Interpretation

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1Translation gives Ibonia a new audience, which means a new context; it “re-contextualises” the epic. Context is basically of two kinds, social and cultural. A social context is needed for any performance. As Bauman says: “I understand performance as a mode of communication, a way of speaking, the essence of which resides in the assumption of responsibility to an audience for a display of communicative skill …” (Story 3). Context of social situation is “the narrowest, most direct context for speaking folklore” (Ben-Amos 216). It entails a kind of microscopic study of oral performance that is available only to scholars who witness and record live performances. Written texts of course have a social context too, as seen in the headnotes in anthologies of literature: “Shelley composed this work in Italy between the autumn of 1818 and the close of 1819 and published it the following summer” (Abrams et al. 678). The production of the texts of Ibonia — its literary history — has been sketched above. Both literature and folklore are produced in a social context.

2Context of culture is much broader, taking in all the topics of literary criticism: “the reference to, and the representation of, the shared knowledge of speakers, their conventions of conduct, belief systems, language metaphors and speech genres, their historical awareness and ethical and judicial principles” (Ben-Amos 215–216). Context of culture, for a translation into English from Malagasy, encompasses even more: the conventions of the “original” audience, the expectations of western readers, and all interpretations and critical commentaries. The historical context for interpreting Ibonia now is the encounter between Malagasy and European cultures. But that was also the context in which it was produced, back then. Once the British ships came over the ocean from Mauritius, cultural purity could no longer be assumed. It would have to be created, and the new literacy was the tool. So many times, in human history, imported tools have been employed by invaded peoples, who found ways to wield their traditional arts against cultural invasion, or globalisation. People who are economically backward and politically irrelevant are continually invoking native cultural traditions and mixing them with what is imported. Thereby they either resist the foreign or, more likely, create something new that is their own. Cultural creolisation is their weapon.

5.1 Context of Situation: Cultures Meet

3In 1818 David Jones was a young Welsh missionary, sent with his family from the United Kingdom to Madagascar by the London Missionary Society (LMS). The LMS had been founded a generation earlier by Congregationalists (non-members of the established Church of England) to spread the Christian gospel to “the heathen”, as Africans and Indians were known in those days. Especially eager to bring an end to the slave trade, LMS missionaries became active agents in creating friendly economic relations between Britain and Madagascar. The missionaries were not colonists; they wanted to proclaim the gospel and convert the Malagasy to Christianity, whereas the British government wanted economic and strategic advantages. The economic incentive was real enough. Through the Treaty of 1814, which ended the Napoleonic Wars, Britain had acquired Mauritius (the small island seven hundred miles away) from France. Mauritius was almost entirely planted in sugar. If its French and British colonists were to be fed, the island would need staples: rice, chickens, and cattle for meat. These necessities could come from Madagascar. So Robert Farquhar, governor of Mauritius, faced “a tricky situation”, as historian Mervyn Brown puts it (133). He had to facilitate that kind of trade. At the same time another kind, the trade in slaves, increasingly unacceptable at home, had somehow to be stopped.

4The Malagasy whom Farquhar and his envoy James Hastie had to deal with were the prominent Merina ethnic group, who lived in the capital city, Antananarivo. Merina still occupy the island’s central plateau. It was only a couple of years before David Jones arrived that the Merina king, Radama I, began to welcome Europeans. Having inherited the throne at the command of his great father, Andrianampoinimerina, Radama too faced a tricky situation. Slaves were his main export. But in a treaty (1817) guaranteeing him British money and military hardware and naming him “king of Madagascar”, Radama agreed to end the export of slaves. With arms and this new title, he could make true what he had told the British, that the Merina ruled the whole thousand-mile-long island.

  • 15 It has been speculated that the transcriber was an ombiasy [diviner], from the Antaimoro of the so (...)

5At first David Jones liked the Malagasy enough to start schools for them: “I consider that the people in this country is [sic] in further civilisation than numbers in Wales …” (qtd Gow 6). The ones he knew were not average; he dealt only with the Merina nobles (andriana) and freemen (hova) in the capital. Radama helped; he favored literacy. Once he and Jones discovered that to write Malagasy, Jones could use the Roman alphabet (the alphabet used in all European languages, the only alphabet he knew), Radama gave David Jones permission to open a school. Very soon, Malagasy boys were writing their lessons for him (the girls may have been in sewing class). Within a few years David Jones translated the Bible into Malagasy (from English, of course, God’s language); he and his colleagues founded other schools; missionary artisans arrived to teach carpentry and other skills. Britain and Madagascar seemed ever so friendly. Literacy had arrived. I speculate that one of those young men, having gone through school, wrote down the tale of Ibonia.15 Imagine him: newly literate, a product of a school operated by foreign men, many of whom were intolerant, even contemptuous, of the customs and traditions of his people (Gow 12–13). With his new skill he could resist the coming imperialism. He could honour the culture he came from by writing what had never been written — the life of a Merina hero, as he had heard it performed. Or was he himself an oral performer? The story glorified the Merina andriana [nobles]. Those who heard it performed, and those who would read it, must think of the royals and nobles they knew, Radama or Andrianampoinimerina. If these British were going to demand “complete adherence to a European standard of religion, dress, and general behaviour” (Gow 13), a large-scale product of Malagasy verbal art would keep the monarchic heritage active and alive.

  • 16 Classic though it is, Dahle’s book should not have prevented further folklore research in Madagasc (...)

6His manuscript lay in family hands, as is the way with many Malagasy documents (who read it?), until another European missionary came along to uncover it as its editor. This was the Norwegian Lutheran Lars Dahle (1843–1925), who was inspired to collect folklore in Madagascar by the nationalistic example of other Norwegian folklorists of his time. For his countrymen Dahle wrote Madagaskar og dets Beboere [Madagascar and its People], in two volumes (1876, 1877). The person who owned the Ibonia manuscript gave it to Dahle, supplementing it orally in conversation (Dahle ix). That person was another voice in its multiple authorship. Dahle placed the long tale at the head of a section called Angano na arira [Tales and Legends], in his collection. He used Malagasy names for the various genres, but for the title of his book he used the new word Folk-lore, coined thirty years before by the Englishman William Thoms. Since its publication in 1877, Dahle’s collection has been the point of reference for Malagasy readers and scholars seeking an understanding of pre-colonial Malagasy expressive culture.16

7The context in which Ibonia was produced was the literary system of Madagascar. Every society has several modes of literary production, written and oral. Before David Jones made Malagasy a written language, the performance and reception of folklore was constituted by “structures of production, distribution, exchange and consumption” (Eagleton 47); these are what both folklorists and literary historians study. Folklore was produced and appreciated, if not systematically studied, all over the Great Red Island.

5.2 Context of Culture: Folklore in Madagascar

8Madagascar is rich in folklore. There are myths of the origin of human beings and of death. There are legends about giants who left rocks and footprints that can be seen today. There are folktales of deformed and unpromising heroes, who accomplish quests and succeed where others fail. There are animal tricksters. There is an especially charming, inseparable pair of human tricksters, who collaborate on taking advantage of everyone else. There are innumerable proverbs; the collection by Father Paul Veyrières has over 6,000. There are riddles; there are the hainteny which Leonard Fox has translated. There are verbal charms. There is divination (consulting the supernatural). Dance, drama, art, and music are traditionally preserved and re-created; so is traditional costume; so is folk architecture. Malagasy tomb sculpture is famous.17 It is a country saturated in tradition.18

  • 19 See

9The folk traditions have been much studied, especially by non-Malagasy. When European investigators recorded this “native culture”, as Antoine Bouillon has shown, their vision of folklore served colonial domination by trivialising Malagasy reality. A generation or two after independence, Malagasy scholars such as Domenichini-Ramiaramanana began to analyse folklore from the inside, and fieldworkers such as Fulgence Fanony collected significant numbers of texts. Much more remains to be done. Too little is known of the expressive folk culture of the Antanosy (Island People), Antankarana, or Antaifasy (People of the Sand). Meanwhile, modern surveys of Malagasy culture by John Mack and the Musée d’Ethnographie de Neuchâtel map out the folkloric territory to be explored. They make a fieldworker itch to explore it, especially after seeing the dramatic photographs on the Internet by Frans Lanting.19

10Ibonia comes to modern readers as a legacy of the golden age of folklore collecting in Madagascar, 1869–1914. After the death of the fierce queen Ranavalona I (1861), missionaries began to return from the exile she had decreed. The Jesuit Father François Callet arrived in 1864 to record the Tantaran’ny Andriana [Royal Histories of the Merina], which Alain Delivré has shown to be the most comprehensive oral history ever made in the African region. By the 1870’s, the LMS men had begun publishing teaching materials on the press supplied by Quaker missionaries. They also reported folk traditions in their Antananarivo Annual.

  • 20 The word tribe, in Madagascar as in Africa, is disfavored, because it wipes out any sense a people (...)

11Who produced Ibonia? The question of authorship has already come up above. In one sense, the Merina people were the author, in that the epic symbolises their deep concerns, in a style they could appreciate. Merina are the most numerous and best known of Malagasy groups, getting their name, The Elevated People, from living in the highlands.20 Merina are visibly of Indonesian origin, contrasting with the African-derived coastal people, and Indonesian influence can be detected in their culture. Their social structure was traditionally hierarchical, in three strata: the andriana [nobles], who were called fotsy [white]; the hova, inexactly translated “freemen”, sometimes grouped with the mainty [blacks], who were servants and freed slaves; and at the bottom, the andevo [slaves], who have no ancestral tombs (Brown 128). Merina people are sensitive to questions of descent. The late Pierre Vérin, who knew Madagascar well, cautioned his students that today, mentioning that last category to Malagasy people would be a social error.

12Part of the social background of the epic was a turning point in Merina history. Family descent was replaced, as the source of power, by a political state which could be dominated by one group that possessed firearms. This was the achievement of Ralambo (Sir Wild Hog) in the seventeenth century. His son Andrianjaka (Lord Governor), by taking possession of the most elevated point in the plateau, naming it Antananarivo (Town of a Thousand), and converting the marshes into ricefields, assured a great future to the Merina.

13Vertical integration of Imerina came four generations later. By 1806, the greatest of Merina kings, Andrianampoinimerina (Lord in Imerina’s Heart), unified Imerina through treaty, conquest, firearms, and the most skillful administration the island had seen. Then he expanded his power over neighbouring groups until he aspired to rule the entire island. Historians date the Merina concept of divine kingship from his time. The concept may be reflected in the prologue in heaven at the beginning of Ibonia. “The very idea of a ‘Prince of the centre of the Earth’ [says Ottino] 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). Andrianampoinimerina influenced Merina folklore as much as he did social and political life. Around the sacred capital Ambohimanga (Blue Hill) you could hear legends about him: one says he was guarded from childhood by crows. Since you can still see crows flying around the sacred village, the legend must be true. When a boar attacked the young prince, the crows blinded it with their wings; when his uncle was about to try doing away with him, the crows woke the sleeping prince and he fled. The attempt to do away with him (which connects him with mythical heroes like Oedipus) is told as part of the royal histories of the Tantara (2, 74–75). Later, another bird showed him which direction to use in entering a town where he would find a wife. Then there was oratory: the rise of the great Merina art of oratory began to flourish after Andrianampoinimerina decreed that direct rule had to mean direct communication. Dispensing with intermediaries, he regularly took his case to the people, in huge assemblies which gave their name, kabary, to the oratorical genre. The shadow of this great king falls over Ibonia’s whole life story.

5.3 The Hero Pattern

14The ultimate origin of Ibonia lies outside Madagascar. It is a type of hero story which was already in existence by 9000 BC (Edmonson 150–154). Being so old, it diffused widely and shaped various kinds of narrative. Raglan gives one classic formulation of it (174–175), which I adapt: Ibonia’s mother has no children, his father is a king, and the circumstances of his conception are bizarre. We are told almost nothing of his childhood, but on reaching his precocious manhood he goes in quest of his betrothed, to a kingdom that will become his. After his victory over the adversary (there is the worldwide combat myth), he marries her, becomes king, reigns uneventfully, prescribes laws, and dies. Does this sound familiar? The anthropologist Franz Boas observed, “Nothing seems to travel as readily as fanciful tales” (169).

15The hero pattern represents the synthesis, or the ancestor, of myth, legend, and folktale. Generally folklorists define these genres separately. In Bascom’s classic formulation, myths are “prose narratives which, in the society in which they are told, are considered to be truthful accounts of what happened in the remote past”. Legends are stories “regarded as true by the narrator and his audience, but they are set in a period considered less remote, when the world was much as it is today”. Folktales are not set in real time. They are “prose narratives which are regarded as fiction” (“Forms of Folklore” 8–9). By these definitions Ibonia is basically legend. Raglan believed (and never stopped arguing) that this pattern derives from a universal ritual; Joseph Campbell believed it was innate to humanity. Folkloric research discredits both these beliefs, and asserts that what explains the widespread distribution of hero stories is simply history. “In the perspective of literary history [says Munro Edmonson], heroes are made, not born”, and every language group sets in place the character of their hero (150). Scholars – Georges Dumézil, M. L. West, and Jaan Puhvel among others – have proved that the hero stories of ancient India, Iran, Greece, and Rome, as well as those of Teutonic, Celtic, and Slavic mythology, are all historically related, through the contact between peoples of different ethnic and linguistic traditions. The hero’s traditional story was being narrated in these regions, in many different, varying forms and languages, long before people arrived in Madagascar. From the most ancient times, as people migrated across the Indian Ocean to Madagascar by way of Africa, maintaining their traditions of storytelling, they brought the hero with them. Just as they adapted rice cultivation to a new landscape, so they adapted ancient mythology to reflect new cultural emphases.

16Other folk heroes in Madagascar are part of Ibonia’s cultural context. Heroes cognate to Ibonia, who are abnormal “in excess or transgression” (Ottino “Mythology of the Highlands” 964), or who are strong, weak, or deformed, all coexist with him in the Malagasy repertoire. Our hero is one extreme of a range that includes tricksters, clever lads skillful in riddling, and a challenger rather like the Greek Prometheus. As he stands apart from all others except his betrothed, he calls to mind a Sakalava opposite, a culture hero who challenges God so successfully that he achieves equal rank with him, and donates the food supply to human beings. His tale is a myth (Dandouau 123–132), which Ibonia is not. Other culture-hero tales resemble Ibonia still less, for instance when they make the culture hero a trickster (as in some Native American folklore). Some tales connect the challenger, an earth-god, with the origin of death. He claims the bodies of the dead; the God who animated them claims the spirit. Thus the challenger completes the work of ordering human life and death. Still other Malagasy myths, not connected to Ibonia, reinforce this theme of shared responsibility for creation (Faublée 344–348, Michel 177). Of course Ibonia does reverse power relations, as these challengers do, but his epic adventure exists in the same repertoire with folktales in which a clever child talks back impertinently to a noble or answers a king’s inquiry in riddles. In fiction, or on the shelves of the university library, these heroes are all contemporaries, but they were not all born at the same time. Genres of folk literature are born from other genres. The more secular, fanciful hero stories in Madagascar, and the later trickster stories, may well have been based on the more sacred and awe-inspiring narratives, imitating their features. Perhaps with the diminution of religious influence after Radama I’s opening to the west, secularisation brought about more humorous and rational storytelling. Doesn’t that always happen? Propp and other scholars have believed so. But no one knows.

5.4 Epic in Madagascar?

17As we read it now, Ibonia is, in Isidore Okpewho’s words, “fundamentally a tale about the fantastic deeds of a man or men endowed with something more than human might and operating in something larger than the normal human context and it is of significance in portraying some stage of the cultural or political development of a people” (34). By that definition, Ibonia is an epic. Like African epics and folktales, the story paints a wishful picture of its society and reinforces the social hierarchy. But can Madagascar, or Africa, actually produce an epic? At the time when the LMS missionaries were zealously collecting Merina proverbs, customs, and beliefs, they classified Ibonia quite reasonably as a fairy tale. It is fictional. It includes encounters with the supernatural and a clairvoyant diviner, as well as magic charms and objects. The hero successfully brings home the girl; he acquires extraordinary companions and a magic object that gives him victory. These were all folktale characteristics, well established by British folklorists like E. B. Tylor and Andrew Lang, who were contemporary with the missionaries (Dorson British Folklorists 187–265). Classifying Ibonia as a fairy tale was one mode of interpreting it. The editor Becker classified it with another term, from French literary history. “It is a sort of chanson de geste”, he wrote, “repeated across the generations by Malagasy minstrels up to the fairly recent point when it was fixed in writing” (117 n. 3). A century later, Ruth Finnegan and John William Johnson debated whether there was such a thing as epic in Africa.

18At the same time, fieldworkers such as Biebuyck were discovering new examples of oral performance that could only be classified as epics. It became clear that epic does exist among African peoples. The performers of Text 1 were not consciously imitating African models, but they independently arrived at, for instance, the same sort of hero tale as the Kimbundu (Angola) tale of Sudika-Mambi, which had been published by Héli Chatelain long before those debates. Sudika-Mambi (Thunderbolt) speaks from his mother’s womb, is born with his weapons in his hand, undergoes many adventures in quest for a wife, dies and is resuscitated, and quarrels with his brother. Both Sudika-Mambi and Ibonia are heroic tales, with enough panegyric to expand them into epic. With these discoveries it was no longer possible to limit the notion of epic to Homer, Virgil, Ariosto, and Milton. Okpewho discovered common features in African and Mediterranean epics; Christiane Seydou went farther, reversing the canon to make African epics the norm which reveals constants of the epic genre around the world. At the same time, epic performances were recorded in India (Beck, Blackburn), which contributed to a redefinition of the genre on nonwestern models.

19Always there is a correlation between social structure and folklore, as there is between social structure and musical style (Lomax). For the rise of epic in particular, two conditions in society have been postulated as necessary by René Étiemble. One is an organised, privileged caste of warriors or men admired for valour. That caste existed in Imerina, once Andrianampoinimerina had organised his guard of honour, “fifty, later seventy, warriors, including the twelve chiefs who had placed him in power” (Brown 125). Étiemble’s other condition is a class of literate, dominating priests. In Madagascar, these would at first be the andriana [nobles], making common cause with foreign missionaries like David Jones. Like the African ethnic groups who produce epics, the Merina had “elabourate traditions of migration, expansion, and cultural assimilation [and] well-established traditions of conquest and warfare” (Biebuyck, “African Heroic Epic” 337). Later the oral histories transcribed by Father Callet created a Merina past in writing, as Elias Lönnrot had created a people’s epic for Finland (Wilson 55–57). Callet’s informants, says Ottino, were “theoreticians, careful to transpose into the operative terms of applied politics the theological and religious concepts of Ibonia and the cycle of the Andriambahoaka” (“Ancient Malagasy Dynastic Succession” 247–248). Other European members of this loose Malagasy quasi-priesthood were the Protestant missionaries like Richardson the lexicographer and Ellis the historian, not to mention the folklorists Sibree, Cousins, and Dahle himself. The social conditions sufficed to foster the composition of epic. With the emergence of a guard of royal protectors and a quasi-priestly class for royal tradition, the genre suddenly emerged in Imerina. Those who have heard or read dozens of shorter, less elaborated folktales may know, from this one example, that a long Malagasy epic narrative has existed. One could exist again, I suppose, but only if social conditions reverted radically into the past, which is not likely (Cole).

20As this class of literate folklorists sedulously recorded dictation, were they and their informants acting against the interests of the Malagasy people? The literacy David Jones and his fellows instituted, which was required to read the books by Callet, Dahle, and the rest of that quasi-priestly class, was not necessarily an instrument of subordination, but few indeed were the Malagasy who could read the books. As Edward Said has argued elsewhere, even their kind of cultural activity played an indispensable role in subordinating their people to Europe. By this argument, the andriana and hova, who opened Madagascar to European domination, become agents of oppression (72). Yet in their time they were the most progressive members of Malagasy society.

21Commenting on Ibonia, Africanist scholar Harold Scheub points to its two directions of panegyric: “Its metaphorical power derives from measuring the subject against the ideals of the society, and it contrasts the hero with the ‘flawed contemporary leader’”. In its performance, Ibonia’s tale “elicits pleasure through the recounting of his adventures” while pointing the hearer towards the grandeur of the past. “The hero is a quasi-historical figure, but the poem is historical and unhistorical at the same time” (12). Ottino specifies this ambivalence: “After episodes about the extraordinary circumstances whereby the first Malagasy royal dynasties were founded, [Ibonia] offers us a veritable philosophy of ancient sovereignty. The theoreticians of the Tantara translated these philosophical conceptions into technical rules for the choice and designation of sovereigns” (L’étrangère 415; “Ancient Malagasy Dynastic Succession”). Legend and oral history imparted the same philosophy.

5.5 Interpreters as Cultural Historians

22If in this book, the translation is the text (shall I call it Text 16?), then all commentary and interpretation of the epic must be a kind of context. Interpretations of Ibonia, like interpretations of all literature, arise, in Madagascar and Europe, and are then succeeded by other interpretations. Often the last one claims to be superseding all the earlier ones, but in fact they do not cancel each other out. The array of interpretations is part of the context of culture for any work of literature, art, or music. The most valuable interpretations are pieces of cultural history, both of the people being examined and the writers doing the examining. “All epics”, writes the great Africanist authority, “obviously provide rich, unsolicited information on the cultures and societies in which they occur” (Biebuyck “African Heroic Epic” 355). In that sense, folklore preserves the past into the present.

23But preserving the past does not relegate the epic, or any folklore, to quaintness or obsolescence. Conceiving folklore as an accumulation of survivals from the past is itself a dying notion. Once, folklore was defined as consisting of survivals of past stages of the evolution of civilisation, from lower to higher. French colonists in Madagascar arrived with this assumption, which was part of the accepted master narrative of colonialism. With the rise of civilisation, they thought, folklore would disappear. After sixty-four years of French occupation (1896–1960), that did not happen, but back then, the collecting of folklore became urgent, because these survivals were a window into history. An exponent of this view was Georges-Sully Chapus (1887–1963), a great authority on Merina history and culture, who was well schooled in 1920s French anthropology. For Chapus, Ibonia was a narrative about history, which had been gilded. It was basically a story of the rivalry between two princes and their localities. Verbal artistry and variant forms of the tale held no interest for him; what was interesting was the array of surviving, archaic facts about the times before European contact. Realistic reflections of old Merina society in the text included the pastimes of the boys, the board game fanorona, the westward orientation of house doors, the groups working in the fields, and of course the deploring of a woman’s barrenness. These were survivals from old times in Imerina. The hero’s fantastic birth, and the elaboration of his naming, showed to Chapus the vital importance eighteenth-century Merina attached to the birth of a royal baby. So he read the texture closely, as he thought old Merina audiences would have done. What might seem to modern readers to be nothing but useless and fussy chatter, he said, was appreciated by the hearers as subtle, clever manipulation of language. Similarly, they valued the verbose discussion of Ibonia’s encounter with Stone Man, because it demonstrates the versatile style of debate favored in old Imerina. The earthquakes, droughts, and tidal waves reflect the supernatural power of royalty. Chapus knew just what to look for in the tale. His interpretive mode required every folk narrative, no matter how fanciful, to have a historical kernel. When Chapus confronts an obviously fantastic detail like the life-token — the banana-tree planted by the hero as a signal to his mother that he is all right or has been defeated — he manages to convince himself that even this bit of fantasy, which turns up in Irish, Indian, and North American Indian folktales (Thompson’s motif E761) is realistic, being a survival of an old belief. The old-time Merina must have believed in such things, according to what his contemporary, the eminent anthropologist Lucien Lévy-Bruhl, called the “law of participation”. The amulets which Ibonia carries to impart their magic force to his body, the force of Stone Man’s talismans, the importance of divination, and the powerful role of the diviner Ranakombe – all these he interpreted as elements of primitive Malagasy religion.

24Given his role as a French settler devoted to the interests of the colony, Chapus was bound to see the Malagasy as a primitive and superstitious people, whose history he would uncover. The Ibonia narrator’s statements about destiny and fate, he says, come out of a host of superstitious beliefs in Merina narrative. Ranakombe’s precautions, for instance, can do nothing against the oracular predictions voiced by the hero from the womb. Ibonia’s pronouncements are predictions of what will happen, but they are also causes. So neither he nor his evil adversary Stone Man is morally responsible for his behavior. The decisive evidence that the old Merina were primitive folk, in Lévy-Bruhl’s sense, was actually the mixed texture of the piece: natural and supernatural elements are mixed, because “Malagasy hearers were not shocked by the world of implausibilities contained in this tale. They did not distinguish the natural from the impossible” (Chapus 111) as modern Europeans do. Although Chapus speaks from that moment of Europe’s history when colonised people had to be seen as mentally inferior, his researches do reveal information about Merina society.

25Other interpreters use Ibonia as evidence for old Malagasy beliefs about the divine origin of royalty. For L. X. Michel-Andrianarahinjaka, traditional Malagasy thought denied any direct kinship between the creator and any race, real or imagined. That is why Ibonia dies like an ordinary mortal. Michel-Andrianarahinjaka believes that Malagasy folktales like Ibonia are of literary origin, and become anonymous only because oral transmission distorts them. The troubling consequence of thinking this way is to assume that there could have been no Malagasy oral tales before literacy, say before 1820. But it takes only one text, Flacourt’s story of Rasoanor’s overseas quest for a wife (Text 0), to disprove that. It is an old and discredited idea to say that folktales descended from an upper-class cultural elite to the common people, probably becoming cruder in the process. That could happen; cultural interchanges do occur, in all directions; but to assume that a downward flow is inevitable is nothing but ruling-class ideology. It presupposes a hierarchical class structure and denies creativity to ordinary people.

26Cultural history finds every reason to look in Ibonia for kernels of older Malagasy thought. Divine kingship may be one kernel. The editor Becker — writing cultural history, despite adhering to the discredited idea of solar mythology — pointed to names like Railanitra, Heavenly Father, and Ifararangarandanitra, He Whose Gaze Remains Fixed on Heaven, as evidence for tracing the genealogy of this earthly prince back to heaven. Divine kingship remains an important strand of thought among the Sakalava (Feeley-Harnik). If, as Becker thought, the tale originated among them, the hero’s genealogy was conceived to support the belief that kings are of divine origin. Like any Sakalava king, he changes his name at death. Like any ordinary Malagasy, Ibonia submits to mortality knowing that he will be reintegrated into the primary society, that of the ancestors. His story functioned to justify the claims to power of the andriambahoaka [princes].

  • 21 The ZafiRaminia are thought to be traditional ancestors of some ethnic groups on Madagascar’s east (...)

27What if Ibonia reveals remnants of ancient Malagasy mythology? This is the interpretive position of Ottino, who pioneered the vision of the Indian Ocean as a territory that connects, rather than separates, the islands around it. He sees the Southwest Indian Ocean islands — Madagascar, Mauritius, Réunion, Seychelles, and the Comoros — as “singular amalgams”, constituted at different historical periods through the convergence of cultures. Ottino’s ambitious programme is to extract the ancient strands of thought from this “preliterate ‘Creole’ civilisation” (“Mythology of the Highlands” 961). He writes: “Society, culture, religion, ritual, and institutions in central Madagascar, which largely determined kinship and political structures, may be regarded as the result of the rapprochement and combination of ZafiRaminia conceptions, which were Indonesian, and Antemoro conceptions, which were Sunni Muslim, moderately Africanised” (L’étrangère 520).21 Malagasy culture results from a renegotiation of these heritages. Creolisation characterises early history on both sides of the Mozambique channel. To understand it, “Malagasy ideas and conceptions, whether comprised in myths and wondertales or in historical legends, must be systematically brought together with the Indian and Muslim religious, philosophical, and political representations that, from the thirteenth century on, converged across India on the Malay peninsula and the Insulindian archipelago, at the same time as Islam and the Bantu world were encountering each other on the shores of the east coast of Africa, producing what were to become Swahili civilisation and culture” (L’étrangère 576). So Ibonia bases his division of jurisdictions on influences from Indonesia, southern Africa, Islam, and India (L’étrangère 519–520). Ottino often seems to be saying, “Whatever you think Madagascar is, it’s more complicated than that”. Thus he foreshadows the more recent studies that advance creolisation as the central instrument of cultural creativity (Baron and Cara).

  • 22 Exogamy is marrying outside your group, however that group is defined. Endogamy is marrying within (...)

28Fusing these diverse influences into a unified ideology takes Ottino into the politics of folklore. To reconstruct the connections of tales like Ibonia to Indian and Indonesian mythology, Ottino reads Dahle’s anthology of folktales, hainteny, riddles, and folksongs as a more unified corpus than it is. In Ibonia and other wonder tales, which mythologise the origin of the upper class (andriambahoaka), the motive force is the necessity of ensuring that they shall have posterity. That is why Ibonia insists, all the way through, on retrieving only the wife of his destiny. Though at first that quest for a distant wife might seem to symbolise exogamy, Ottino says it is quite the opposite. Ibonia can marry only someone so close to him as to be nearly identical, symbolising endogamy.22 “I/ampela/soa/mananoro is quite naturally destined for Ibonia/masi/bonia/manoro” (“Les Andriambahoaka” 84). Indian tradition is in the background when Ranakombe gives the baby boy the androgynous name Manly Princess: in the Ramayana, Ottino adds, the hero’s quest for Sita can be read as a quest for his other half. Also, India possessed the image of a universal sovereign who is hermaphroditic; all through his story, Ibonia is only trying to recover his other half. In his semidivine person he unites earth, wind, fire, and water, the four elements which Madagascar inherited from Indonesia. If Ibonia is a divine king, who can control nature, ensure successful harvests, and make the waters divide before him, he can surely control human fertility. In this political interpretation, myths and tales are the discourse of the ruling class, the andriana. By mythologising the origin of princes (andriambahoaka), myths of their origin could mask that great shift in Merina society, the rupture between kinship structure as the source of power and the imposition of royalty, which was an institution the society had not yet known (Raison-Jourde 35). “Malagasy mythology”, Ottino writes, “remains first and foremost a political mythology, through the use that has been made of it” (“Mythology of the Highlands” 974).

29Ottino’s historical approach sees the Great Red Island doubly. Madagascar is the result of a cultural renegotiation, which yielded a new and unpredictable civilisation; at the same time it is a tissue of ancient strands of thought, which have been preserved without change. At the end of the story, as the bard begins to move his audience out of the fictional world of his tale back to the waking life of the court, the parallels between Ibonia and historical Merina sovereigns become clear. The edicts of Andrianampoinimerina about marriage, which were well known to a royal audience, are a climactic episode of the Tantaran’ny Andriana (3:144–152; Delivré 31–33). The continuing immediacy of Merina concern about marriage across caste lines was underlined four years after Dahle published Ibonia, when Queen Ranavalona II promulgated laws regulating matrimonial alliances. Ottino traces this concern back to India (L’étrangère 556–578).

30Interpreting Ibonia politically makes sense. It helps to explain why a young Merina would have felt an urgency to celebrate his people’s hero. His tale would flatter the sovereign and members of the royal family, indirectly through inviting their identification with the hero’s exploits and directly through praise poetry. It is the script of a state drama. As Shakespeare in Macbeth aimed at providing James I of England with an appropriate ancestor, Banquo, so the reciter of Ibonia sought to provide a Merina monarch with a forerunner. Repeated performances (if there were any) could be convoked by the desire of one or more of these andriana [nobles] to reassert claims of sovereignty, especially if the performer implied a family connection between the legendary hero and the living ruler. If the andriambahoaka [princes] were of divine origin, they deserved to rule over the hova and andevo. Thus the tale of Ibonia, like other Merina folklore, functioned in the classic way formulated by folklorist Bascom: “Folklore operates within a society to insure conformity to the accepted cultural norms, and continuity from generation to generation through its role in education and the extent to which it mirrors culture. To the extent to which folklore contrasts with the accepted norms and offers socially acceptable forms of release through amusement or humor and through creative imagination and fantasy, it tends to preserve the institutions from direct attack and change” (“Four Functions” 297). The subject of the epic was power; the intent was to remind Merina royalty of the glory of their past, and perhaps to incite them to some action in the present. No wonder that all through the era of British and French contestation over Madagascar, the story remained popular as a remembrance of Merina heritage. That answers the question, “Why would anyone like this story?” It is their history, their entertainment, and their identity.

31When we reconstruct the artistic communication and social life of a specific group, we go beyond the limitations of mere history-writing. The complex metaphor constituted by an epic tale attests to the creativity of people’s responses to their circumstances. What anthropologist James Fernandez calls the “missions” of metaphor apply to this epic. One is to give people an identity, which Ibonia does by glorifying its epic hero. Another is to “move inchoate subjects into an optimum position in quality space”, by which Fernandez may mean an audience’s imagined living among the andriambahoaka. Another mission of metaphor is to enable an audience to take in images from the symbolic domain of the art-work. Fernandez gives an important place to transcendence, a “repeated search to ‘return to the whole’”, to capture all bodily and social experience, “out of dissatisfaction, perhaps, with the ‘partness’ of any of our devices of representation” (Fernandez 62). Consequently a capital mission of metaphor is to rescue people from an excessively narrow consciousness. The metaphoric “offer[s] both periodic and exceptional conversions” from being preoccupied with the part to an awareness of the whole. Ibonia carries out these missions. The epic holds up before its audience, and before us, a vision of the extraordinary potentials of human nature.

5.6 Why Translate It? Why Read It?

32Why should a fantastic hero tale from a Malayo-Polynesian language be translated into English? Doesn’t it restrict our attention to the problems and concerns of some faraway people we shall never know? Isn’t it too local to be interesting? Admit that the story gave Merina hearers, a century or two ago, an imaginary relationship to something grander than themselves, a triumphal past, a glorious hero. Yet you might still decide that for us, Ibonia lacks transcendence — that it may appeal to Malagasy people, but it takes no one outside Madagascar into a realm of excitement or adventure or romance. Looking at the flow of languages and tradition-bearers around the world today, I do not agree. I see Ibonia’s vision of human potential as crossing the boundaries of language and ethnicity.

33Translation of Ibonia into English waited over a century after Sibree wrote, “It is to be hoped that a complete version and translation of this exhuberant [sic] product of Malagasy fancy will some day be published with full illustrative notes, so that English readers may judge of the merits of this Ramayana of Madagascar …” (“Malagasy Folk-tales” 57). The primary text for my translation is François Noiret’s revision of Becker, checked against Dahle’s text of 1877. I especially want to reveal the narrator’s oft-repeated hono [they say], which attributes the story to the ancestors. Like Ottino in L’étrangère intime, I break prose into verse when quoting from Dahle, but only in the presence of the two marks of elevated Malagasy style, antithesis and parallelism. As in so much of the world’s oral literature, antithesis, balance, parallelism, and repetition of words and phrases are important devices of poetry in Madagascar. The extent to which the narrator relies on familiar hainteny patterns is an instance. The linguist-folklorist-critic-translator Dell Hymes sees such devices around the world. “Spoken narrative”, Hymes writes, “has a level of patterning that is likely to be found everywhere, or nearly so …” (Now I Know 95). I attempt here to show the patterning of verbal art in a particular culture, so that the reader can summon up the voice of the performer and imagine the live performance of the piece. One can look, for example, for expressions like “and the rest”, or “all the water creatures did the same”, which probably are the written version of a direction to the performer to repeat verbatim a speech or list given earlier. Some lines, which looked to earlier editors like interpolations by a transcriber, are italicised. Finding such expressions is practice in folkloric restatement.

34Every kind of study today — anthropology, comparative literature, psychology, information science — means taking possession of something “other” in language, social structure, politics, or art; it means translating that “other” into understandable knowledge about other people, and thereby about ourselves. The organisation of knowledge and the very concept of culture both require translation. Breaks in continuity and communication are everywhere. Mixtures of language, repertoires, and ways of speaking are everywhere. To think our way through the breaks and mixtures, we must explore what critic Homi Bhabha calls that “in-between space — that carries the burden of the meaning of culture” (38). Like any classic, Ibonia is timebound yet transcendent, projecting both a vision of the contradiction between past glories and present conflicts and an imaginative way to go beyond that contradiction.

Fig. 3 View from an estate on the east coast (Betsimisaraka Country). Photo by Lee Haring (1976).


15 It has been speculated that the transcriber was an ombiasy [diviner], from the Antaimoro of the southeast, but there is no more hard evidence for him than I can give for a tradition-minded graduate of the LMS school.

16 Classic though it is, Dahle’s book should not have prevented further folklore research in Madagascar. Despite the collections by Charles Renel and Gabriel Ferrand, and the excellent monographs on Sakalava folklore by Émile Birkeli and André Dandouau, there was no effort until after independence to establish a systematic study of folklore. The failure is a stain on Madagascar’s cultural history.

17 See

18 Most collections and studies of Malagasy folklore are in French; the important authors are mentioned elsewhere in the book. Most English-language studies are anthropological or historical (Bloch, Feeley-Harnik, Cole, Emoff) and touch folklore only glancingly.

19 See

20 The word tribe, in Madagascar as in Africa, is disfavored, because it wipes out any sense a people have of themselves. In Madagascar, “tribes” are not necessarily ethnicities (though a few are: the Sihanaka, “marsh people”, have a genuine consciousness of belonging to the same group). Ask those who know them, you get one set of answers; ask the people themselves, you get another. There are groups like the Betsimisaraka who correspond to a historic reality. The designations that grew up in colonial times are usually geographical: Tanala, the Forest People, is the outstanding example. Philippe Beaujard, who has studied them most closely, says the only thing Tanala have in common is that they all exploit the forest. Other examples of geographical designations are Tandroy, People of the Thorn Bush, and Antanosy, People of the Island.

21 The ZafiRaminia are thought to be traditional ancestors of some ethnic groups on Madagascar’s east coast.

22 Exogamy is marrying outside your group, however that group is defined. Endogamy is marrying within it.

Table des illustrations

Légende Fig. 3 View from an estate on the east coast (Betsimisaraka Country). Photo by Lee Haring (1976).
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