Monday, October 26, 2015

[Folktale] Nang Phom Hom

Preface: Nang Phom Hom, “The Perfume-haired Girl” is a classic folktale in Lao tradition, and relatively easy to tell once you understand the basics of the story. The biggest challenge is that the ending is a bit gruesome. 

Under modern Lao values, one could argue the punishment of the villain seems way out of proportion (The prince seems to escape direct karmic consequence by ordering his servants to do the dirty deed, but that’s a debate for another time.) I imagine most Lao would interpret the villain’s fate as a warning not to mess around with magic because undoing the mess magic causes often carries a very high price.

This is far from a final version, but I wanted to retell Nang Phom Hom in a way that had greater internal consistency and gave Nang Phom Hom greater agency and personality than what’s found in the current translations available so far. Hopefully, it also will provide future generations enough of a chance to add to the “Untold Adventures of Nang Phom Hom” later.

Nang Phom Hom

Once, before Laos was even a dream, there was an old widow who was searching for food in the jungle. She became thirsty, and spotted a giant elephant’s footprint filled with water. She drank from the footprint and returned to her village. To her surprise, she became pregnant, and soon gave birth to a girl with beautiful smelling hair. She named the girl Nang Phom Hom.

It was not an easy childhood for the young girl. The other village children constantly teased Nang Phom Hom, calling her the “Daughter of an Elephant,” and ruder names, but she never understood why, and her mother never told her. When Nang Phom Hom was nine years old, her mother at last told her with her the whole strange story with her very last breath. Her mother’s story deeply confused Nang Phom Hom. Few attended her mother’s funeral, and when it was finished, Nang Pham Hom set out to find her father and her true destiny.

Her journey took her across many lands over many years, including the Realm of Bandits, the Realm of Spiders, the Realm of Laughing Monkeys, the Realm of Ugly Giants, the Realm of Blackbirds, the Realm of Ancient Serpents, the Realm of Riddling Tigers, and the Realm of Giant Catfish. Finally, when she was twelve, she arrived at the edge of the Realm of Elephants, and told her story to the guardians at the border.

The guardians laughed at her story, for how could she be the daughter of the King of Elephants? But they agreed to take her to their master to let him decide her fate, noting it was forbidden for humans to enter the Realm of Elephants.

The King of Elephants was doubtful of her story but offered her a challenge. “If you are truly my daughter, you will be able to walk on my tusks without falling off. But if you are not, I will crush you flat with my foot for lying to me, and no one will ever remember you.”

Nang Phom Hom agreed to the challenge, and boldly climbed onto the King of Elephants tusk, certain of her roots. Step by step, one foot after the other, to the astonishment of everyone assembled, she walked the entire length of his left tusk, and then his right tusk, and never once fell off. The King of Elephants smiled joyously and acknowledged her as his true daughter. He ordered a palace built for her and decreed that no one was to enter but her. At last, Nang Phom Hom was home and happy.

She spent many years with her father, who spent his time with her teaching her the ways of the elephants and showing her the secrets and mysteries of his kingdom. But one day, the King of Elephants told her that he and his court needed to travel to his brother in a distant land, and she needed to stay in the palace, where she would be safe. The King’s journey would take several years. Although saddened by her father’s departure, she agreed to stay, and wished them well.

Over the years while everyone was away, she grew into an elegant woman. One night, she had a strange dream that she met a man who would fall in love with her, and they would marry. When she woke up, she cut off a lock of her hair, and put it into a box that she set adrift in the river. She made a wish that whoever found the box would come to find her and marry her.

Many months later, a prince found the box and was so enchanted by the fragrance of the hair inside that he mounted a search far and wide for the owner. After many adventures, he finally found Nang Phom Hom. Just as Nang Phom Hom had wished, they fell in love and he asked her to marry him. They soon had two children and were happy.

They lived this way for several years when news arrived that the King of Elephants was at last returning. Knowing that her father had forbidden anyone, especially humans, to come into his realm and especially her palace, she hid her family.

When the King of Elephants arrived, she welcomed her father warmly. Sensing something was strange, he asked her if anyone had come to visit her. She told her father no, and he believed her. This continued for almost a month, but finally it became too frightening for her, so she and the prince built a raft together to voyage to her husband’s homeland.

The King of the Elephants came out of the jungle to see Nang Phom Hom and her family floating down the river. They were almost completely out of sight when he fell to the ground and called out to her. “My daughter, my daughter Nang Phom Hom, come back! Don’t be afraid. I forgive everything. But come back, I just want to see you one last time before I die.”

With tears, Nang Phom Hom leapt off the boat and swam back to her beloved father. As he lay dying, he smiled at his daughter and said, “I have always loved you, my daughter. When I have breathed my last, take my tusks and throw them into the river. Do as I ask, please.” The King of Elephants closed his eyes one final time and left the world. Weeping, Nang Phom Hom did as she was asked. First one tusk, then the next, each perfect and magnificent. When she was done, something magical happened and the tusks transformed into a splendid boat of gold.

Nang Phom Hom called her husband and children back, and together they boarded the golden boat to return to her husband’s people. It would be a journey of many months, and they saw many strange things along the way.

Alas, one night they stopped ashore near the hut of a horrid witch who decided she wanted the prince all for her own. Just before everyone was about to depart, the witch disguised herself as a perfect white lotus near the boat. Nang Phom Hom was delighted by the flower and reached down to pick it up to show her family.

Instead, she was transformed into a monkey, while the witch took the form of Nang Phom Hom. She tried to tell her husband, frantically waving her arms, but the witch chased the monkey into the forest, then climbed aboard the golden boat with a smile. The prince was none the wiser, although his children suspected something was wrong. As a monkey, Nang Phom Hom could do nothing but try to follow the river and her family.

Nang Phom Hom’s family finally arrived at the palace of the prince, who welcomed them with open arms. But the children knew more than ever that this was not their true mother. One night, they snuck out into the nearby forest and found their mother, who wept at the sight of them. But Nang Phom Hom knew they had to be careful, or the witch might kill everyone before the truth could be told.

One afternoon, while the witch was sleeping, dreaming of what she would do with all of the wealth of the prince’s kingdom, the children asked their father to come with them. They led him to the forest, and to the monkey who was Nang Phom Hom. When the prince caught scent of the monkey’s fragrant hair, he realized at last this was his true love. But he did not know what to do to help his wife, or how to deal with the witch in his palace.

A wandering forest hermit came by, and saw the prince and his dilemma. The hermit pondered the problem. After deep consideration, he told the prince that the only way to turn Nang Phom Hom back into a human would be for her to bathe in the blood of the witch who cast the spell. The prince agreed.

When he returned to the palace, he instructed his servants to go walking with the witch in the woods, and when they traveled far enough that no one could see them, they were to kill her and collect the blood. The servants did as they were told, and the prince brought the blood to Nang Phom Hom, who was transformed back into a human.

Although there were many adventures afterwards, for the most part, Nang Phom Hom and her family lived happily afterwards.

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