Significant stories in Other Cultures
September 16, 2012 12:42 AM   Subscribe

Are there Asian, African, or Spanish speaking equivalents to the Arthurian legends?

Are there Asian, African, Arab, Jewish or Spanish speaking equivalents to the Arthurian legends? I don't mean a similar plot or story line; I mean are there legends in other cultures that have inspired the retelling of the story over and over and over in literature and movies. There are hundreds of books and movies that retell the stories of Merlin, Arthur, Guinevere, and the Knights of the Round Table. I'm curious if other cultures have such significant myths. Also, are there any prevalent theories out there about why the Arthurian legends inspire so many variations?
posted by gt2 to Writing & Language (30 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Yes they do.
posted by flabdablet at 12:59 AM on September 16, 2012

Uh, of course, they do. Forgive me; this question seems astonishigly ethnocentric.

A classic example is Journey to the West. But really, a cursory tour through wikipedia with Country + Mythology will show you dozens, including where they've been adapted.

It is integral to the nature of myth and legend that it is retold - otherwise it's just a text. This is partly because they have largely come from oral traditions and thus have to be retold to be told. And partly because (if you subscribe to this, like most folklorists do) they are fulfilling a need to explain natural or social phenomena; the need to explain specific phenomena remains, even if their nature changes over time, and so do the stories.

Really, their is absolutely nothing unique about King Arthur, it's crazy how un-unique it is. Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, etc, even in Western culture there is a huge corpus of constantly adapted folklore.
posted by smoke at 1:00 AM on September 16, 2012 [4 favorites]

Well, the torah, and it's derivative, the old testament, and all the resulting 'biblical' works spring to mind for things birthed out of the Jewish cultural tradition. For example the story of Noah is not only Jewish, christian and Muslim but also repeated as a kid's story and through works like "Not Wanted On the Voyage".

Asian would be a very, very broad range to choose from, but the first thing I can think of is the story of the Monkey King which again, pops up in repeat retellings, as the original or synthesis like references in silly cartoons like Dragon Ball. This is even leaving aside religious traditions like Buddhism, again, thematically inspirational to endless limits, and so on...

I don't know much about "African" again a huge, varied land mass, or for that matter, Spanish, a smaller land mass with a ton of strongly self identified micro-groups. I think the accusations of ethnocentrism should be seen as supplemental to the question since curiosity is good, but tone suggestions help as well- you'll get better results if you don't think of Africa or Asia as monoliths.
posted by Phalene at 1:21 AM on September 16, 2012

I guess I didn't phrase the question correctly. What I mean is, What are the stories of other cultures that have inspired the retelling over and over and over in books and movies? I read a lot and I think there are significantly more books and book series and movies based on the Merlin, Arthur stories than Cinderella or Beauty and the Beast or other legends. The Mary Stewart trilogy, Mists of Avalon, The Once and Future King, Avalon by Steven Lawhead, just to name a few. There's even one by Deepak Chopra. There are tons of books based on Arthur and Merlin. I'm looking for the stories from other cultures that inspire the same thing.

And yes, I'm asking because I don't know what those stories are and what books and movies have evolved from them over time.
posted by gt2 at 1:22 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

The Ramayana and Mahabharata.
posted by threeants at 1:23 AM on September 16, 2012 [3 favorites]

The only Jewish ones I can think of of the top of my head that are extra-biblical are the Golem and the Hanukkah story. Or maybe Chelm jokes.
posted by threeants at 1:31 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Romance of the Three Kingdoms and associated stories have been passed down in oral tradition, movies, novels, murals, comics, video games, and probably any other form of media you can think of. It is more historical in nature than Arthur, but still pretty firmly in legendary territory where the details are concerned.

And don't let anyone tell you that the pursuit of knowledge beyond the boundaries of your prior experience is somehow wrong or embarrassing. You're one of today's lucky 10,000.
posted by Winnemac at 1:49 AM on September 16, 2012 [8 favorites]

China also has Fong Sai-Yuk (probably mythological/fictional) and Wong Fei Hung (real, but mythologised). Both have books and many films based on their stories.

Mongolia of course has Genghis Khan - a very real person who has become wrapped in Arthurian-style legends of divine destiny and nation-building.

Wikipedia has a list of folk-heroes but to me it seems skewed to English-speaking and European cultures.
posted by BinaryApe at 2:12 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

For Japan, probably the Heike Monogatari (based on a true story!) would be pretty close -- lots of retellings, revisionist takes, latterday literary flourishes that people now think were part of the original stories/history, etc.
posted by No-sword at 2:39 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You're talking about myths of origins, which are essentially what the Arthurian legends are; a way of describing the origins of a certain type of culture that continues to this day. Arthurian legends aren't mere hero myths; they're linked to a way of life (English-speaking Christian) and a transition from pagan to that (the presence of "bad" sorcerers and witches, especially female, and what have you, and placing a Christian-supporting sorcerer, the male Merlin, as "good" and pagan stuff as "bad" - I'm simplifying for explanatory sake, but that generally holds true).

Myths of origins are found in every culture that has self-awareness as a culture; that's essentially what they're for, after all.

The reason that "ethnocentric" was used as a qualifier by another commenter, by the way, is that it really is an ethnocentric way that you've phrased it. You don't realize it, a few others don't either – it is good you say so and have asked for clarification. It' can be fascinating to realize the deeper effects of this Arthurian myth of origin (though it's not the only one in Western society; namely it gives a secular and more modern foundational story to Christianity): those of us raised in it have this myth of white warrior men who honor and defend the Christian faith, and see its retellings and defense (also embodied by the Crusades) as inherently valid, and other "pagan" variants as inferior because they don't fit into this formative cultural story. This is emphasized when you clarify (emphasis mine):

What are the stories of other cultures that have inspired the retelling over and over and over in books and movies?

You implicitly disqualify the largest manner of cultural sharing since the beginning of humankind as a species with language, in favor of Western inventions (the printing press and film): orality; oral literature.

This is the sort of thing that Joseph Campbell meant when describing the functions of myth, and also one of the reasons Jung's archetypes are still misunderstood - Jung never meant that a single archetype means a single thing, but that an archetype, take for this instance "culture", can indeed mean different things for different people (you speak of books and movies; others speak of fairy tales; still others of cosmogonic myths; spoken, sung, dreamt, written, drawn, painted... so on and so forth), and that most of us are unconscious, that is, unaware to what extent our cultural archetypes influence our ways of thinking. Then you get into the question of "why are we unconscious of it, and what purpose do myths serve", especially in our Western society where we've tended to equate myth with falsehood and "faith" (namely Christian) with something more true... but that's beyond the scope of this question.
posted by fraula at 2:40 AM on September 16, 2012 [14 favorites]

I was going to add the Ramayana but will simply add that its a story that is even retold outside of its original homeland - the wayang kulit of Malaysia and Indonesia, the Balinese dancers, the Ramakien epic of Thailand.
posted by infini at 2:43 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

You get the legend of King Gesar across a large swathe of Central Asia in song, verse and opera inter alia.
posted by Abiezer at 3:03 AM on September 16, 2012

Kalevala has inspired lots of reinterpretations: eg. in Tolkien's Silmarillion Túrin's story arc is based on Kullervo, a character in Kalevala. Also it's characters and concepts have a strong influence in finnish culture, all the way to company names: Sampo (bank, money-making machine), Pohjola (insurance company, place in Kalevala), Tapiola (insurance company, place in Kalevala), Lemminkäinen (construction company, character in Kalevala), Ilmarinen (insurance company, character in Kalevala). At latest count there are about 150 companies directly named after Kalevala. There are of course dozen's of places named after Kalevala, and some first names have enduring popularity because of it (Aino, Ilmari).
Especially Kullervo, which is a tragedy of woe, bad luck and self-destruction, has turned easily into new versions for each era, if not directly referencing Kullervo, then compared to it in criticism, similar as story of Job from bible gets referenced in english speaking world.
I know that in Estonia there is similar set of stories affecting their culture.
posted by Free word order! at 4:05 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

Daastaan Amir Hamza and Tilism-e-Hoshruba are two epics that serve exactly this function in the South Asian/Persian/Urdu tradition. Amir Hamza and Umar Ayyaar are much-beloved characters, showing up in all sorts of literary works. Someone upthread referenced Alif Laila (The Thousand and One Nights), which is the source for Aladdin, Ali Baba, Scheherzaad, and many many stories about Khalifa Haroun ur Rasheed.
posted by bardophile at 4:06 AM on September 16, 2012

Wikipedia has a nice partial list of World Folk-Epics.
posted by taz at 4:18 AM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel like we are missing the point of gt2's question pretty hard.

Smoke's answer is good; Journey to the West is a popular story, and various bits of it are taken out (and out of context) and retold in all sorts of ways. In the same way that the Arthurian legend seems particularly open to retelling and remixing and being put into different contexts and times and what have you, that happens often with Journey to the West.

This is a good question, and I hope you get good answers!
posted by Poppa Bear at 6:05 AM on September 16, 2012

Sundiata Keita is the subject of an epic poem from the kingdom of Mali in West Africa. It's been adapted.
posted by anansi at 6:21 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do modern comic book characters count?
posted by cmoj at 8:15 AM on September 16, 2012

The Edda.
The Epic of Gilgamesh.
posted by MinusCelsius at 8:20 AM on September 16, 2012

I would think that there are quite a few stories that have been re-told many more times than the Arthurian Legends, it just may not be as evident in cultures without industrial book publishing and industrial movie making.

But if you take a story that originated in Shang Dynasty or Zhou Dynasty China, stories about the Duke of Zhou for example, those will have been re-told again and again by singers, street performers, storytellers, theatre performers, children's entertainers and just uncles telling their nieces and nephews stories and people telling yarns around a campfire, across thousands of years. Just the fact that there have been way more people in East Asia for most of history than in somewhere like the British Isles or Europe in general will mean that there have been many more retellings, even of stories of the same age.
posted by XMLicious at 9:08 AM on September 16, 2012

Oh, also, from Punjabi folklore the story of Heer has been told and retold and then retold again, in a variety of forms and over different times in history. Similarly Sohni Mahiwal is another Punjabi folktale that has been reworked and retold for centuries. I don't know that Sohni Mahiwal was originally an epic, but Heer is definitely told as an extended romance.
posted by bardophile at 9:35 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

What are the stories of other cultures that have inspired the retelling over and over and over in books and movies?

The stories around Birbal, advisor to the Mughal Emperor Akbar fall into a similar category as do stories of Mullah Nasruddin. Though fraula's point about oral cultures counts when taken in context with what XMLicious has just said.

Aesop's fables (the tortoise adn the hare for eg.), the Panchatantra and Anansi the spider are all collections of folk tales shared over and over from grandmothers and fathers.
posted by infini at 9:42 AM on September 16, 2012

Sheikh Chilli
posted by infini at 9:45 AM on September 16, 2012

Adding onto threeants and infini's comments about the Ramayana, there's also the Ramayan TV series, which combines bits and pieces from Valmiki's Ramayana, Tulsi Das's Ramacharitamanasa, and Kamban's Ramavataram. And there's an upcoming Speculative Ramayana anthology.

Incidentally, I think the Water Margin is another great example of what you're looking for. The link goes to a list of TV series, movies, manga, video games, etc. that don't just adapt the original but rather re-tell it or include characters from it piecemeal. And like the King Arthur stories, it's got a wide cast of legendary characters who ostensibly lived in historical times.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:48 AM on September 16, 2012 [1 favorite]

Kathasaritsagara, best known in English in the Ocean of Story translation
posted by TheRaven at 9:49 AM on September 16, 2012

Someone who is better versed in Chinese folk lore can probably expound better but Wuxia as a genre dates back 2000 years. It even has its own wiki.
posted by adamvasco at 10:11 AM on September 16, 2012

There's also the Song of Roland, which acts as a myth of origin for the Holy Roman Empire, and as such, was widely translated and adapted throughout Europe.
posted by frimble at 10:30 AM on September 16, 2012

Heloise and Abelard
posted by infini at 10:48 AM on September 16, 2012

I think World Literature or World Mythology or World Folklore might be some good Google terms for you to use. You might be getting a little pushback because the question was phrased a little strangely -- asking if other cultures had these types of stories at all, when of course they would because Western European culture/the Arthurian myth isn't so special and unique as to be the only nations to have developed recurring myths and stories. I don't know if maybe you're getting at the role of Arthurian legend in national mythology? Which is a more specific question.

If you're not sure yet, and really just want an overview, there are tons of introductions on the web and through Your Favorite Bookseller -- this is a really well-studied area. If you want a list of good texts, sometimes you can search for college syllabi on the web. This one seems a good intro. Anything that's an intro anthology would also have a nice, broad approach. Finally, Wikipedia has an ever-growing list of literature by country, which in most cases should discuss the classic myths and stories of that area. And finally, if you're most interested in the adaptations of myth into popular culture, TV Tropes can have some excellent info although really spotty coverage.
posted by lillygog at 1:38 PM on September 16, 2012

Just as important as the Arthurian legends in Western culture are the Roland/Orlando/Roldán stories; these would have been known in Spain (though their greatest development was in Italy, by Boiardo and Ariosto).

A more particularly Spanish interest is El Cid. There was also an extensive and flourishing genre of caballería in Spanish, Catalan, and Portuguese, which of course was parodied in Don Quixote.
posted by zompist at 4:59 PM on September 16, 2012 [2 favorites]

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