Sunday, October 23, 2011

Lao Steampunk Sundays: Adventures in Ancient Lan Xang

In our continuing discussion on what it would take to engage Lao writers around the world in imaginative consideration of a retro-future and the fantastic, let us consider some of the many scenarios that might be suitable for writers, as well as for those who are creating role-playing games within this setting.

I'm intrigued by accounts that indicate that following his accession to the throne, King Wisunarath commissioned the Tamnan Khun Borom, or the Legend of Khun Borom. This was a compilation drawn from various existing chronicles regarding the royal dynasty of Fa Ngum, and would trace Fa Ngum's lineage to the mythical Tai ancestor Khum Borom.

Under the reigns of Photisarath and Sai Setthathirat I, close relations were established with Lanna, now modern-day Chiang Mai. Lanna was a realm that had a thriving literary heritage, and they had a significant influence on Lao literature that led to a Lao version of the panchatantra moral fables, and an important collection of 50 jataka tales, 27 of which are unique to Laos.

From a writer's point of view, there is a lot of room to work with here as we follow the storytellers collecting and developing each of these stories and epics. We might wonder how they learned from each other and decide which elements to incorporate, and which elements were left out.

The myths and legends of Lan Xang offer us a fascinating field of study because we have so many cultures within this realm to consider. This can be daunting but also opens many possibilities for us as we examine the many themes that emerged from these stories:

Thwarted Lovers: The epic of Phra Lak Phra Lam is centered on the efforts to recover the kidnapped Nang Sida from Thotsakane (also known as Hapkhanasouane). We might also draw inspiration from the tragic love triangle of King Phadaeng, Princess Aikham, and the Nak Prince, Phangkhi. Of course, the story of the Kinnary princess Manola and Prince Sithong also provides a good example.

Nyak (or Yak): These magical man-eating ogres are the source of many conflicts and disputes, frequently corresponding to the rakshashas of Indian legend. Occasionally they may be reasonably good, but they are often driven by their greed and hungers that brings them into conflict with any number of Lao heroes throughout the ages. There are often disputes about the extent and limits of their powers in the legends.

Contests and Riddles: The Lao New Year includes a legend of the king who lost a bet with a young man who solved three riddles, while many other traditional legends also focus on several tests, frequently seven, given to the hero to demonstrate their wisdom or their ability to invoke the aid of divine creatures. Some hear the answers to riddles by chance by passing birds or other creatures.

Kindness, Compassion: A frequent theme involves people who do good, even if doing good inconveniences them. The jataka of Phra Vet (or Prince Vessantara) is among the most prominent examples that come to mind, but there are other examples of stories among the peoples of Lan Xang are filled with those who are generous to a fault and it leads to any number of adventures and challenges.

Dreams, Prophecies and Astrology: Many adventures have been set in motion by dreams, prophecies and astrologers who were advising the heroes or rulers who would need help. In a story like Manola and Sithong, the adviser has bad intentions and purposefully misleads characters to serve his own ambitions.

Monsters: Here's where I think Lao stories are the most different from other cultural traditions. Lao mythology and legends aren't as driven by mythical creatures as other cultures. Xieng Mieng, for example, has no stories where he deals directly with supernatural entities such as phi.

The classic creatures such as nak, hong, kinnary and other entities of Himmaphan Forest are largely benevolent and supportive when encountered. There are reports in the jungles of supernatural man-eating creatures, as well as some malevolent forms of phi, but most Lao legends focus on avoiding them rather than trying to go out and slay them as you might in Greek or Norse legend.

But what are other themes common to traditional Lao stories that writers might find useful when creating new adventures set in Lan Xang and Laos?

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