Too Much of a Good Thing; Epic Burnout in the Jangar Cycle
Updated: May 11
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 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.