December 10, 2013

Shadow of the Horn-Crowned King


There’s a shadowy character that weaves in and out of my stories in Swords of the Four Winds, always off-camera but still casting a lengthy shadow on my setting, thanks to a  movie based on a Rudyard Kipling story. I still remember seeing The Man Who Would be King on TV one late night with my late dad, who filled me in on the historical background. I think I was no more than nine or ten at the time, but that started a long fascination with the career of Alexander III of Macedon.

When I was a kid, he was to my mind Alexander the Great. But reading his histories again as an adult, I began to realize there was another side to the man, specially if you looked at him from the point of view of the Persians and Indians; in our time, Alexander would’ve been declared a war criminal. And yet these same people revered him, naming him Dhul-Qarnayn, the Two-Horned, perhaps in reference to his wearing the ram’s horn crown of Ammon on his commemorative coins. Tribes and dynasties from Afghanistan to as far away as Southeast Asia would claim descent from Sikanda Jokanin; Sikanda being Alexander in Sanskrit, and Jokanin, the Malay pronunciation of Dhulcarnein.

It was the mystique and Asian legacy of Alexander that gave me the ideas first for The Sons of Zhulkarnein, an Orhan Timur story in which Orhan fights to win the treasure of the legendary conqueror Callistos Zhulkarnein from the city where it’s been hidden for the past thousand years, only to find out it’s not what he had hoped. Betrayal, mayhem, dark sorcery and more mayhem follow, of course.

That story was very quickly followed by the character of Arios the Spearman, whose stories are set very shortly after the end of Callistos’ career. For the Arios stories, my main inspiration came from the wars of the Diadochi, the generals who usurped power after Alexander’s death. Arios for me is a real milestone in my writing. While Orhan is a savagely ambitious barbarian in the mold of Attila or Hengist, Arios is a tired old soldier who only wants to get back to his family. In building the character I read up accounts of soldiers from the Vietnam and Gulf conflicts, and the stories – thanks to David Gemmell – ring on themes of chaos and suffering and the futility of war. Don’t get me wrong though – the Arios stories are as filled with the clangor of battle as any of my tales, it’s just that the hero’s motivations are very very different.

I’m now planning to start writing up Volume II of Swords of the Four Winds (whenever I’ve time from my shoots, like tonight), with some of the existing characters and maybe some new ones. I tend to base my stories on snippets of history or legend that I pick up, so I’m pretty certain this Conqueror figure will be part of my background again. Maybe something based on the old Buddhist kingdoms of Bactria? Hmmm …

Among the Ata Manobos

Ata Manobo woman

Activity on this blog’s been very slow lately, thanks to a spate of research – er, I mean, work. For the past several weeks my wife and I have been covering a series of cultural revival workshops wherein crafts masters from the more traditional indigenous communities like the Kagan, Tausug, and here, the Ata Manobo, come to teach their more assimilated brethren the traditional ways. Needless to say, it’s been a great experience.

We spent most of the past week in the Paquibato District of Davao City, a remote hilly area that can only be reached overland by looping through the province of Davao del Norte – there’s no direct way from Davao City proper.  As the crow flies, we were surprisingly close to home, but the terrain simply makes this area practically another world. The roads are still dirt and rock in many places, steep, winding, and without safety rails or lights. The regular afternoon thunderstorms make travel after sundown doubly difficult, as there are a number of bridgeless rivers that cannot be crossed once their waters swell with rain. The result is that these highland tribes’ communities are still relatively isolated, giving them space to keep their old ways. The remoter the community, the more traditional they are.

And what traditions! I’m learning a lot of things that’ll make great additions to Hari Ragat. Among them:

  • The Tuno – a giant with the upper torso of a man and the underparts of a deer or boar; those with deer underparts are benign, but those with a boar half are evil;
  • The La’aw – tiny, mischievous but benign elf-like beings of the deep forest, whose feet grow backward.
  • The Timbusaw – a kind of Busaw ogre, tall, hairy, and with enormous claws, that eats men’s souls. A datu of the Tiguahan Manobos told me this story:

Two hunters once went into the jungle. After a whole day of hunting, they made camp beneath a tree, one hunter choosing to sleep in the branches, the other on the ground because he wanted to lie beside the fire. Late in the night, the hunter in the tree awoke to ominous grunting sounds; he looked down and saw a Timbusaw tearing apart his companion. He froze with fear and could do nothing to help.

In the morning, though, he discovered his companion apparently alive and well, and without a mark on him. They returned to the village, but the first hunter continued to have misgivings and warned the other’s family. They paid him no heed though. The morning after, the second hunter’s body was found on his sleeping mat, stone dead. The Timbusaw really had eaten his soul, but delayed his death.

  • Many Manobos have Christianized, but still revere the diwatas and other nature spirits. I found their justification for this really interesting. My source, Datu Roger Limbo of the Tiguahan Manobos, told me that his people don’t worship the diwatas as such, but consider them as very real, very powerful neighbors, so it’s only good manners for them to give signs of respect. They fell no tree and plant no field without trying to make contact and ask permission, usually with gifts of food.  Such offerings must be cooked without salt, because salt repels the diwata’s kind. It’s an interesting correlation between this and the belief that salt (and ashes) repel or harm the supernatural – for example Visayan belief is that the manananggal can be killed by sprinkling salt or ash on the stump of its lower torso.
  • And the best for the last: By Manobo law, the honor of one Manobo woman is worth the lives of ten men. Yep, that’s exactly what it means.
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