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Updated: Jan 5, 2022

Too much of a good thing isn't always fabulous. A hero of Jangar drinks a bowl of wine it would take sixty men to lift, a common occurrence in the Epic of Jangar, from the opera Baatar Jangar at the Jangar Cultural and Tourism Festival in Khovogsair, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, 2016.

He created a heaven on earth, but one morning, he got bored. Jangar was tired of his duties, ruling and defending the state of Bomba, where everyone was perpetually twenty five, and he was worshipped almost as a god. Imagine King Arthur simply getting tired of Camelot, that magical land of “happily ever aftering” and going off to do something else.

It must be one of the stranger acts that lead to the destruction of a fairy tale kingdom, and yet, living through a pandemic that has pushed most of us to live and work in difficult conditions, Jangar’s king-burnout is, to me, one of the most remarkably human and sympathetic moments of the Mongolian epic cycle of Jangar. As depressions go, Jangar’s is recognizable to anyone who has experienced one: it arrives without warning or obvious cause. He wakes up quiet one morning and does not seem to enjoy his breakfast. Jangar’s status as great khan can be appreciated in that a moody morning leads to his servant calling in an army of advisors. This seemingly comic response is prophetic. Jangar puts his greatest warrior in charge of the kingdom, gathers some belongings, and leaves.

The analogy to King Arthur seems apt. Like the legendary British king, the Mongolian hero of the Epic of Jangar is smuggled away as a child from his father’s falling kingdom. The team of heroes he assembles sit around him in concentric rings. Each is storied and superhuman. Altan Gheej sees ninety-nine years into the past and future, knowing all that happens. Hongor’s roar sets boulders rolling from the mountains. Sabar of the crescent-shaped ax is indomitable. Big-bellied Guzen Gumba could eat up an ox and drink eight hundred bowls of wine for a meal. Most of the early tales in the cycle are about Jangar winning over hero after hero after defeating them in combat, a la Robin Hood and Little John. This pattern began to seem repetitious to me and I was led to wonder whether Jangar would face true foes, the forces of evil. The real struggles of the cycle though, seem to be internal.

A Soviet stamp commemorating the Epic of Jangar, illustration by Georgi Yecheistov, 1940. (Wikipedia). The Mongolian epic is celebrated in the Russian state of Kalmykia, by the ethnically Mongol Kalmykians.

Another tale in the cycle similar to Jangar’s struggle with himself and notable for its humanity regards the hero Sabar, who feels unappreciated. Sabar loses his temper and is too proud or stubborn to back down. Jangar’s heroes are eager to prove themselves and when Jangar praises Hongor once too many times, Sabar stands up and vows “Well, since you look down on me, I will leave here to serve the khans of Shar Gol!” Jangar and his court are shocked into silence, which shames Sabar further. Sabar knows he must follow through with his vow, but he regrets it immediately. Hopefully you haven’t done this since childhood, but it seems to me that most of us have made this mistake before. Sabar does go to the hall of an enemy khan and requests membership, but he is seated last in the hall and no one pays any attention to him. He was a respected hero in Jangar’s hall, but here he is no one. He lies alone in his yurt that night with “only the barks of the dogs to keep him company.” Sabar’s unlikely savior is his horse, who tells him off for his childish behavior and informs him that Bomba has been attacked and Jangar taken prisoner. Sabar has a chance to repay Jangar and regain his status in Bomba.

When Jangar leaves his kingdom, it is beset by bickering from his twelve heroes, who split up. Then a devil decides to invade, destroying Jangar’s glorious palace, enslaving the people and turning the earth to dust with the tramping of its mounted army. In the meantime Jangar meets a young woman, marries, has a son and lives as a common man for three years. As with Sabar, it is Jangar’s horse who informs him of the disaster and lectures him for his negligence: “Why did you choose to neglect your people...I am just a castrated horse, but I know my responsibility. I was born for Bomba and I would die for Bomba.” This part of the story reminded me of Lancelot’s wife and son, whom he leaves to be a hero. Jangar already had a queen and when he sends his wife and son Shovshuur to her uncle, I worried that they would bear the cost of his decisions. Unlike Lancelot though, or any man who left his wife to start a separate family, Jangar, his second wife and his son are welcomed by his queen and Shovshuur becomes a hero who helps Jangar retake Bomba and restore it to its glory.

A Subterranean Side Trip

Jangar makes a journey to the hell beneath the sea to save his friend Hongor. The story is a version of the Grimms' “Strong John”, where the hero is lowered into a cave and abandoned by his comrades. Illustration from The Child of the Cavern, by Jules Férat 1877.

The final chapters of He Dexiu’s The Epic of Jangar stuck out to me as incongruous to the rest for the amount of folkloric details that are largely absent for most of the text. One chapter, about the rescuing of Jangar’s friend Hongor, captured during Jangar’s break from ruling, is a version of a tale that has significance to me because it has been identified by Beowulf scholars R.W. Chambers and J.R.R. Tolkien as a possible antecedent to Beowulf. This tale is also described as Aarne-Thompson type 301, “The Three Stolen Princesses,” and as AT type 650A, “Strong John”. When Jangar goes to the hell beneath the sea to save his friend Hongar, he meets two children who lead him to a yurt with a fire and walk and deer meat. The boys wish to make food, and Jangar sleeps. The boys are tricked out of the meal twice by a devil posing as an old woman and finally Jangar faces and overcomes her. This pattern plays out between Strong John, his two friends and a giant dwarf, and it plays out in the Georgian tale “Asphurtzela” between that hero and a lame devi (a troll-like creature). In Jangar the she-devil has sunken eyes that see remarkably well. I find it interesting that in each version of the tale the antagonist has what I’ve called a split nature. The dwarf is giant, the devi is lame and the old woman’s eyes are sunken, but see well.

The second part of the pattern has the hero lowered into a hole or cave where he finds one or more maidens and is betrayed by his comrades who pull up the maiden(s) but leave him to die under the earth. Jangar finds a maiden, who directs him to the house of the she-devil. Jangar vanquishes her seven dwarf servants and her son, who are immune to Jangar’s sword. He sends up the woman, which He Dexiu or his translator, Pan Zhongming, later describes as a fairy. When he tries to get the boys to pull him up, they lift him half way and drop him to the ground, injuring him. Jangar manages to get out of the cave with the help of mice and a magic tree and later saves his friend Hongor.

This tale stands out from the others in Dexiu’s telling of Jangar in that its plot, with its repetitions of three and dramatic shifts in fortune, is more complicated than the rest. It has more supernatural elements than are apparent in the other tales and brings Jangar to a location other than the steppes or mountains of Mongolia where all of the other stories take place. I don’t know the origin of the “Strong John”/“Three Stolen Princesses” narrative, but I would be surprised if it was originally part of the Jangar tradition. The shifting of the haunted dwelling to a yurt, and the inclusion of the dwarfs, devils, mice and magic tree made for an entertaining retelling of the tale.

Notes on This Edition of Jangar

Dexiu’s prose version of The Epic of Jangar, translated to English by Pan Zhongming, is part of a set of three works of minority Chinese literature published by China Intercontinental Press in 1990. The other works are the Tibetan King Gezar and the Kyrgyz Manas. From the two-month wait and the quality of the text, I suspect that copies are printed on demand. It is also available electronically through Apple Books. To my knowledge, this is the only full-length English translation of the cycle, and it seems to be an abridgement. The edition’s shortcomings are a large enough number of grammatical mistakes to provoke my commenting upon them and a lack of cultural and scholarly context to fully understand some of the details of the stories. Footnotes would have saved me time in looking up common terms, such as bataar, warrior, and others I could not determine, such as bodong, which cannot refer to the Philippine peace treaty of that name (my current theory is that it is a type of monk, but it could also be a type of warrior). It was also unclear to me in early chapters of the text that the frequent enemy devils were supernatural creatures rather than just evil men. English speakers of the west would likely benefit from some amount of cultural context.

A monument to Jangarchis, or Jangar singers, Druzhba park, Elista, Kalmykia. (Wikipedia)

Jangar is an epic poem and there is a tradition of Jangarcis, or Jangar singers, accompanied by a stringed, lute-like tobshuur. Dexiu’s introduction and other sources state that there are versions of Jangar with as many as a hundred chapters, and others with as few as twenty five. It is not clear how Dexiu arrived at eleven in this edition or what elements may be missing. I believe that Jangar would be worth studying in a longer, verse format and that there are likely details lost in this edition that would make the story even richer. Essays explaining pertinent elements of the culture and other scholarly apparatus would add even more value.

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Updated: Jun 30, 2021

The Saga of King Hrólf Kraki features two warriors, man and son, who fight as bears. The father is cursed to roam as a bear by day. The son goes into a trance to inhabit the bear. Untitled image used by permission by Korean artist, WooJin HO.

In a tale of shape changing and oddity, Bera and Bjorn didn’t stand a chance. Their alliterating names are both very old words that mean bear, for starters. He was a prince and she, the farmer’s daughter he grew up with and loved from the beginning. They are also characters in a saga that cuts straight to the point of greatest drama and then moves to the next tale. The Saga of King Hrólf Kraki has long been on the shortlist of works that a student of Beowulf has read or meant to read, but I am here to tell you that it will probably appeal more to the modern reader than Beowulf itself. There’s more scandal and drama than a Netflix mini-series and the finale, with its army of walking dead draugr and giant quill-firing boar commanded by an elfin sorceress, is worthy of a big budget HBO treatment.

But the descriptions I’ve read of Hrólf Kraki from Wikipedia are so Beowulf-centric that they don’t do Hrólf Kraki justice. Take the moment that the evil queen forces Bera to eat morsels of bear meat that were her lover Bjorn, while she is pregnant with his children. Then there is the completely different evil queen (this one dresses like a warrior) who seeks out her daughter, happy in marriage, to tell her that her husband is also her father. These moments of tragic romantic loss are mostly absent in Anglo-Saxon warrior poetry, in which the loss of a lover is rarely touched upon.

The creepy wooing of Yrsa by her father Helgi (unbeknownst) by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström, 1895.

Years after first reading Hrólf Kraki, the enduring detail for me was Elk-Frodi, a character overshadowed by his more famous brother Bodvar Bjarki. Elk-Frodi is a man to the navel and an elk below. Unhappy that he is shunned in games for maiming the other children and dissatisfied with his inheritance, he makes his way in life by killing travelers for their gold. He admits that he spares weaklings and children when his boy scout like brother Bodvar refuses to accept wealth earned in this manner. Hrólf Kraki has not been illustrated anew in some time and I sorely yearn for images of Elk-Frodi and the third brother, Thorir Hound's Foot, whose feet from the instep down were doglike, “otherwise, he was the most handsome of men.”

In “Rolf's Last Fight” Bodvar enters a trance-like sleep and fights as an enchanted bear that cannot be struck with weapons. Illustration by Norwegian illustrator Louis Moe, 1898.

My favorite story of the famous Bodvar, who has drawn comparisons to Beowulf, has naught to do with fighting a creature that attacks Hrolf’s hall by night and cannot be harmed by weapons, à la Grendel. It is rather the tale of the sidekick he rehabilitates and makes into a hero in his own right. The character Hott, who will become Hjalti the Magnanimous, is so comically cowardly and pathetic that he complains when Bodvar pulls him out of the pile of dinner bones Hrolf’s men have pelted him with for so long that he has built them into a barrier to protect himself. Hott’s aged mother begs Bodvar, if he should find her son, “that you throw smaller bones at him rather than larger ones; that is, if he is not already dead.” Bodvar saves Hott from the pile and kills the first man to throw another bone at him. Just as Sigurd the dragon slayer does, Bodvar feeds Hott some of the night-raiding troll’s heart and blood, which makes him braver and stronger than other men.

For the Beowulf fan, Hrólf Kraki treats us to a daring childhood story of King Hrothgar and his brother Halga (here named Hroar and Helgi). If we want to see Beowulf continuing the tradition of tales about Hrothgar, we are also given some context to the marriage plans between Hrothgar’s daughter Freawine and Ingeld. In Beowulf, Ingeld is the son of Froda, whom Hrothgar must have killed (directly or indirectly) in order for the blood feud to continue. This is suggested in the speech by an old warrior who identifies a piece of armor that his father wore, which is followed by “murderous hate well[ing] up in Ingeld” and the wedding party turning into a slaughter. It is an interesting story in that it does not literally happen in Beowulf, Beowulf simply expects it to happen. In Hrólf Kraki, Hrothgar has an uncle named Frodi (not to be confused with Elk-Frodi), who kills his father (Halfdan) and usurps his land. Hrothgar and Halga spend their childhoods hidden from Frodi by various friends and relatives. Frodi repeatedly tries to locate and kill the brothers. The boys finally trap Frodi in his hall and burn him alive in it with the help of friends and relations.

The genealogies between Beowulf and Hrólf Kraki are tantalizingly similar, if not entirely the same. For instance, Hrothgar’s elder brother Heorogar is not present and Halga outlives Hrothgar. We learn that Hrolf/Hrothulf is both Helgi/Halga’s son and grandson as he unwittingly marries his daughter Yrsa. An Yrse is mentioned in Beowulf after the three sons of Halfdane that suggests she is their sister. Curiously, in Beowulf, she is said to have married Onela, the Swede whose family is later in conflict with Beowulf’s family. In Hrólf Kraki Yrsa is said to marry a king Adils, a name which is thought to correspond in Beowulf to Onela’s son Eadgils. These kinds of changes are not unusual in Beowulf. The Beowulf poet also shifts father and son in the story of Sigurd the dragon slayer.

Hrólf foils King Adils's attempt to kill him by scattering Adils's gold rings on the road to distract his men. Hrólf cuts off Adils's right and left buttocks when Adils tries to rcover his most famous ring from horseback. Illustration by Swedish illustrator Jenny Nyström, 1895.

The events of Hrólf Kraki, as in Beowulf, are based on legendary figures from the 5th and 6th centuries, common era, but this story of King Hrólf dates to the 14th century, making it some centuries later than Beowulf. The Scylding/Sköldung characters are present in other works of literature: Sköldunga Saga, “Widsith” and Saxo Grammaticus’s Gesta Danorum. The last work preserved details from a lost work named for Bodvar, Bjarkamál. Hrólf Kraki strikes me as a blending of old sagas with the medieval romances that would take on the mantle of fantasy writing. The transition seems to be with the introduction of Bodvar, whose sense of justice and adherence to a personal code make him different from Helgi, the saga’s first focal character, who uses sexual violence as a form of revenge when Yrsa’s mother bewitches him, shaves his head and covers him in tar.

Clocking in at seventy-eight pages, Hrólf Kraki could be your beach read, or, as I read it, on an overnight April trip to the Berkshires where it snowed and my wife and I kept the gas-fireplace burning as I alternated reading to myself and sharing crazy details from this surprising and delightful little set of tales.

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  • Writer's pictureBen Hellman

Updated: Aug 19, 2021

Detail of Sludge, the Catoblepas, a wall-mounted sculpture by author, paper mache and mixed media, inspired by an illustration by David A. “DAT” Trampier in the D&D Monster Manual, 1978.

When I was a child there was a dog on my street named Sultan. It was a big, loud German Shepherd; very territorial and on a short chain in the yard at the end of my street. The kids on the street said he used to have a brother named Satan and I was too little to know what Sultan meant, so it might as well have meant the devil. Sultan’s bark penetrated my little body, even from the sidewalk across the street. No one ever walked on the sidewalk in front of his yard. Even if you weren’t afraid of him, his bark would hurt your ears.

And yet I stood and made faces and danced and managed to get Sultan crazy more than once. I never threw anything at him. I could never have gotten close enough. One day Sultan got loose and chased me under the porch of our house. It had slats on the sides and you really weren’t supposed to be able to get under there, but we cut one slat with a saw to make a secret fort. It was dank and full of spiders so this might have been the one time it was useful. I hid under the porch and Sultan paced around, ready to kill me. When he wandered far enough away, I made a break for the stockade gate to my backyard. Sultan got to me before I reached the gate, but he only nipped my little boy's leg.

This is the context in which I first read about the dreaded Catoblepas. I had played Dungeons & Dragons with my friends across the street as early as I can remember. I could have been seven or eight. The Monster Manual was the most thorough encyclopedia of anything I would have read at the time, a most valued guide of creatures from myth and legend. And amongst its much loved pages was artist David A. “DAT” Trampier’s Catoblepas. Trampier’s grumpy, rumpled creature looked like the offspring of a warthog and a brontosaurus. It had the look of having had a few too many rough nights drinking. If a Catoblepas lived on my street, or in the swamp behind my elementary school, it probably would have killed me.

The Catoblepas, by David A. “DAT” Trampier, from a celebration of his art from Heavy Metal’s “The D&D Monster Manual Art of Dave “DAT” Trampier”. Trampier’s story is a poignant one. His art is iconic and recognizable to players of a certain vintage, but despite his success in his 20s, he left behind illustrating and disappeared from public life. After being discovered in a college newspaper story he refused offers to return to the industry until he was diagnosed with cancer. He died in 2014.

The strange nature of Catoblepas was that its gaze could kill you, but its name came from the Greek verb meaning “to look downward,” Romanized from Κατωβλεψ, because its neck was thought to be too weak to hold up its head. So it was very unlikely to look up at you. And therein, I believe, was its charm to me. I had seen Ray Harryhousen’s Clash of the Titans and would not have dared to seek out Medusa. She was fast and wily and very scary (in addition to turning one to stone.) But Trampier’s Catoblepas was a sluggish looking creature and I would have tried to sneak up behind it and whack it with a stick. Which is why it would have probably killed me.

Images of the Catoblepas From Natural Histories

Images of the Catoblepas from historical natural history texts, (left) Der Naturen Bloeme manuscript, 1350, from the National Library of the Netherlands; and (right) by Jan Jonston, from Historia Naturalis de Quadrupedibus, 1614, Amsterdam.

The strange Catoblepas has a strange history. It was not dreamt up for Dungeons & Dragons, or told of in Greek or Roman myths, but was written of quite seriously by Roman naturalist, Pliny the Elder, in the first century of the common era in a serious text, Naturalis Historia (Natural History), a ten volume text that would become the model for encyclopedias. It told of everything that needed to be known about the natural world including animals, but also botany, astronomy and mathematics, and many other topics. Pliny wrote that the Catoblepas was to be found in Ethiopia near the head of the Nile. Pliny’s Catoblepas seems to have been picked up as a verified creature by future natural historians, who added to it a dangerous fiery or poisonous breath. The creature is depicted by some artists as a sort of wildebeest, which may have been its model. Leonardo da Vinci, in the 15th century, gives an account of the creature that is similar to the rest: “It is not a very large animal, is sluggish in all its parts, and its head is so large that it carries it with difficulty, in such wise that it always droops towards the ground; otherwise it would be a great pest to man, for any one on whom it fixes its eyes dies immediately.” In the 19th century, the creature reared its head (or tried to) in the novel The Temptation of Saint Anthony. Gustave Flaubert wrote that its neck was as “long and loose as an emptied intestine.” In the 20th century, Jorge Luis Borges, that lover of things whose veracity may be questioned, included the Catoblepas in his wonderful The Book of Imaginary Beings (which I have also found entirely in a free pdf online).

The Catoblepas Sculpture Project

Various steps towards having a hangable piece of art. For more images, check out the Catoblepas page of this site. (Photos by the author and the author's wife.)

When I met my wife-to-be, we discovered that we both owned jackalopes, small faux-taxidermized rabbits with horns. If that isn't a sign of finding one's soulmate, I really don't know what is. Given that she was a fan of Portland, Maine's International Cryptozoology Museum and I had already had several small art pieces depicting things like the Yeti and a giant squid attacking a ship, we decided to create a cryptid wall. Rachel recently described our décor style as “A Night at the Museum”; we have a suit of armor, tapestry prints, several globes and a collection of fantastic maps of this world and a few fictitious ones. So we weren't far off from having a set of faux-taxidermized fantasy creature wall-mounted heads before we bought our home.

My art projects generally begin when I want something that does not already exist or if it does exists, I can't afford to buy it. To my knowledge, there are no other wall-mounted sculptures of a Catoblepas, but there are some wonderful artists to be found selling fantasy sculpture on Etsy and their own sites and when we started decorating our house, I quickly bought some beautiful pieces that were within my price range and then ran out of options. My Catoblepas project was inspired by the extraordinary art of Dan “the monster-man” Reeder of Gourmet Paper Mache. Reeder’s web tutorials and his Paper Mache Dragons led me step by step through sculpting a head with cloth and paper mache. Of course, Reeder does dragons, and I had already bought a dragon head for my wall. I looked through my trusty Monster Manual for inspiration and found Trampier’s Catoblepas.

Reeder’s resources came close to solving all of my problems, but my Catoblepas needed a long sloping neck and somewhere in my process I thought the creature’s tusks should be made of a polymer clay that ended up being quite a bit heavier than I expected. I did not expect a paper or cloth mache shell to hold it up as far away from the wall as I wanted it so I needed to engineer something that I thought would hold it and yet allow me to bend it to the shape I wanted. This and my worrying about the paint stretched my process out a bit longer than a year, but I finally finished and got it hung!

I named him Sludge because the black and dark blue swirls of his paint looked oil-like to me and because the Catoblepas has come to represent the wastelands, to be a symbol of life contaminated by pestilence. And he looked like a Sludge. He took his place with several other creatures in my barn. Sometimes people suggest that the trophy-like heads lead to the logical conclusion that I hunted these creatures and killed them, but I don’t think of it that way. I am not a hunter and would not kill real animals to mount on my walls. I don’t think of Sludge or the others as dead either. I like to imagine them having conversations when we are out of the house. I also like to think of them as protectors. And because Sludge hangs opposite my front door, I like to think that if anyone comes in who shouldn’t, the intruder will have to roll against death ray or I will find the corpse when I get home.

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