The Tale of the Heike; Japan's Long-Running Medieval Saga

By Sieffert, Rene | UNESCO Courier, August 1985 | Go to article overview

The Tale of the Heike; Japan's Long-Running Medieval Saga


Sieffert, Rene, UNESCO Courier


IN the 1320s, "monks with th biwa" began to appear on the highways and byways of Japan. (The biwa is a four-stringed lute which reached Japan from the Middle East by way of China.) Most of them blind, wearing monks' robes, they travelled from village to village, from castle to castle, chanting the exploits of the heroes of the great conflict which in the 1180s had opposed two important clans of the Imperial House, the Taira and the Minamoto, in an implacable struggle for power.

They were in many ways similar to the rhapsodists, the reciters who spread the Homeric epics through Greece, judging from the countless variants and interpolated episodes which feature in the hundreds of known manuscripts of the chief of these epic stories, the Heike Monogatari ("Tale of the Heike"). The shortest version is in six "books" (maki or rolls), the most extensive in forty-eight.

The strange thing is, however, that this epic, apparently a monument of oral literature, emerged in Japan after some five centuries of highly developed written literature which produced among other masterpieces, the Man yo-shu, an anthology of largely scholarly poetry (8th century), and the Genji Monogatari, a veritable psychological novel which might be called "Proustian" had it not been written almost a thousand years before A La Recherche du Temps Perdu.

However, the paradox is only apparent. It seems to be accepted that there was originally a written text of the Tale of the Heike, a kind of chronicle whose author is unknown although various names have been proposed over the centuries, usually those of monks. This original Heike, in three books, was probably the third part of a trilogy, the first two parts of which have survived almost in their original form.

This is an original instance, in a country with an advanced civilization, of the formation of an oral, popular epic literature on the basis of a written work. Furthermore, this came about near the capital, in a part of Japan where there was a high rate of literacy.

Courtiers, administrators and monks from big monasteries displayed rare curiosity about and interest in what we should today call the "popular arts" or "folklore". In a profusion of stories, chronicles, essays and diaries, they have left us descriptions of the way in which the new culture developed and took root, largely through the diffusion of epic stories. They also recorded in writing the successive forms of the texts. Thus we can follow more or less from the fourteenth to the end of the sixteenth century the chequered fate of what was to become the quintessential Book of Japanese national culture until the last century.

At the end of the sixteenth century, a "definitive" printed version appeared of this work which had until then been collective and malleable. …

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