The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – Anonymous

TToTBCThis is a very short folktale from 10th century Japan.  So short that it is rather hard to describe without telling you the whole tale.

At a whole 5 and a smidgen pages in length, in the only edition I could get my hands on, it had to share the book with stories from Cicero, Lucian and Voltaire amongst others.

Many of the motifs will be very familiar from folk tales and creation myths, far and wide.  It is also touted as one of the first, if not the first, science fiction story.

It starts with a poor bamboo cutter going about his daily work.  He and his wife have no children.  One evening, lo and behold, he sees a fabulous light shining nearby.  On investigation he finds a baby girl small enough to fit on the palm of his hand.  Naturally he takes her home and raises her as his daughter.  They name her Lady Kaguya.

Is this sounding familiar?  Lots of modern stories feature that particular motif, not looking at anyone in a funny suit and cape at all.

As she is not of this world we find that Lady Kaguya grows quickly (a few months) from a baby to a beautiful young woman.  Cue the romantic and quest section of the folktale.  Young men and their desire to see her beautiful face wears thin and in the end the bamboo cutter is left trying to dissuade only five noblemen.  Each is given an impossible quest.

Eventually the Emperor hears of her and requests that she come to the palace.  Unfortunately she will, apparently, die if she leaves the bamboo cutter’s home so the Emperor (bless him) comes to her.  Naturally, as folk tales go, he falls in love with her but she cannot leave her home and so he resigns himself to leaving.

After some time Lady Kaguya becomes pensive and sad whenever she looks up at the moon.  Eventually she explains that she is not from Earth, but from the Moon and is soon to have other Moon People come to take her home.

Mystified, her father asked her why she had come to Earth.  Lady Kaguya explained that there had been a great war on her world, and that she had been sent to Earth for her own safety.  Now that the war was over, she would have to go home.

Sound vaguely familiar, anyone?

And eventually this does come to pass.  Lady Kaguya’s people come down in a bright cloud, descend from a strange craft and with a little hey presto magic and an Elixir of Immortality she is whipped off back to her people.

I would not be exaggerating to say that it took longer to write this review than it did to read the tale.

To our modern ears the familiarity of extra-terrestrial beings as fictional characters makes it seem a small and unimpressive story, but in the context of 10th century Japan it must have been really quite radical to introduce other-worldliness into a tale.  If you find it in a book of folk tales, it is a nice way to see the beginnings of many themes that make their way through to modern science fiction.

Happy reading everyone.

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3 thoughts on “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter – Anonymous

  1. nannus August 26, 2013 / 9:30 am

    It is a beautiful story, but I think it is not so radical in the context of ancient Japanese culture. Our concept of “extra-terrestrial” is certainly very different from that of ancient Japan. They would have thought of spirits, of kami, we think of little green men (E.T. phone home 🙂 – indeed your article made me wonder if this story might have inspired the end of the E.T. film). The other world was not one of stars, planets and moons in the modern scientific sense but one of spirits. Our scientific concept of the moon was not theirs. For another example, think also of the solar goddess Amaterasu who is thought to be ancestral to the emperor’s family in Japanese mythology. This is just the most prominent example of stories where humans interact with the world of the Kami. I think this is quite typical for old Japanese stories, both those that are considered mythology and those that have fairy tale status.
    The visitor from another world as well as the visit to another world also occur in different stories. There is, for example, the story of the boy Momotaro, who is found by his “parents”, who don’t have children of their own inside a peach, a very similar motive. Momotaro then travels to an island inhabited by demons and fights them. An example of a story where a human visits the other world is that of Urashima, who is visiting a submarine kingdom. Maybe some shamanistic thought system is the ultimate source of such stories.

    • Ms Oh Waily August 26, 2013 / 12:00 pm

      Hi nannus,

      Thanks for your comment.
      I’m sure in it’s original language this story is lovely. Unfortunately as I’m reading it in translation it came across as quite bald and not particularly lyrical. It is the downside of not being multi-lingual and relying on translators to do justice to the works – or knowing and having access to excellent translations. :-/

      So are you saying that this ‘not of Earth’ being in this story would have been regarded in the same way as mythological or deity figures? And therefore are not really antecedents of our ‘scientific’ versions of beings from other places? Or is it more the case that nowadays, after the Enlightenment (from a Western standpoint), that mythological archetypes were shifted into the ‘scientific’ frame of reference? Therefore ending up with SF writers creating ‘modern mythologies’?

      Goodness me, it’s a bit early on a Monday for me to be trying to reason these things out. 😀

      • nannus August 26, 2013 / 6:02 pm

        Good morning!
        I suppose that stories should be, for a start, interpreted in the cultural context they came from. If we are interpreting something from a different culture (which might also be something from an earlier stage of your own culture), we should try to learn a bit about that background.
        Of course, you can put them into new contexts and reinterpret them, as people have been doing all the time (e.g. on my blog, I have just been reinterpreting some stories from Greek mythology, giving them a new meaning).
        Translations are a complex problem. I have done some translation myself (for private purposes) and found it difficult. A translation is always an interpretation and only an approximation. To translate a poetic text in an adequate way is very difficult. It requires a poet. For a book company doing such a project, it is probably a matter of economics.

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