Monday, September 05, 2005

Installment #2
Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah



THE PURPOSE of this study is to examine critically the portrayal of character in Hikayat Hang Tuah. The number of persons mentioned by name in this Malay or Malaysian epic[1] runs to something like 130. But not all of them are characters and only a few will be dealt with in this study. The nature of the story is such that our task is, in effect reduced to that of considering the over-all pattern of its characterisation and, particularly, the individual persons of Hang Tuah and Hang Jebat.

Some doubts might be expressed over the plausibility of this undertaking. A critical question can be asked: is there any characterization at all in this story, for that matter, in any of the Malay classical works? To a great extent these doubts are valid. Malay classical compositions, on the whole, do not display much interest in character.[2] But Hikayat Hang Tuah happens to belong to a specific category of old literature which, in relative terms, concerns itself with individuals to a marked degree. Among the old works it alone seems to possess this distinctive feature of characterisation. However, Hikayat Seri Rama, although it does no belong strictly to the heroic type,[3] also shows as much, if not more, evidence of character portrayal. The reason we have not chosen this work for our study is simply that it is not essentially a Malay-Indonesian composition. Grounded as it is on Hindu mythology and Hindu conception of life, it therefore does not portray Malay characters.

Hikayat Hang Tuah has, until now, been neglected by scholars of Malay classical literature. It occupies an obscure and undeservedly low place in the literary hierarchy. Scholars have generally tended to focus their attention on Sejarah Melayu.[4] We do not seek to underestimate or diminish the importance of this fine work, but it is our opinion that Hikayat Hang Tuah deserves, in many respects, better attention than has been accorded it.

Among the Malays it has been the most popular story. In the days of the ‘bangsawan’ it became the frequent theme of the stage play and always attracted a large audience. The fact in 1956 Shaw Brothers made it into a film shows that the story has not lost its appeal. Modern versions of the story have also been written. In 1950 Abdul Ahmad Samad brought out his Dosaku![5] And in 1954 Laksamana Tun Tuah [6] appeared. It has also, of course, become the theme of many children’s comics and school plays.

In short, then, Hikayat Hang Tuah is, or rather has been, to the Malays, a national epic just as the Iliad and the Odyssey had been to the Greeks of old. In it is expressed the heroism and aspirations of the race from the dawn of its history. It is difficult to imagine a Malay who has not heard of Hang Tuah or Hang Jebat. For the simple kampong folks these two heroic characters are still respectively the embodiments of heroism and treason. Hang Tuah was the hero and represented the highest peak of Malaysian endeavour in the Heroic Age [7] of their history. Hang Jebat was the traitor as he violated their ideal of human service. However, to-day both these characters are no longer unanimously held in those lights. A critical attitude towards the time-honoured “heroism” of Hang Tuah is developing and Hang Jebat is beginning to appear in better colours. [8] It is part of our plan, therefore, to re-examine these two controversial figures of easily the most important work , from the standpoints of literary composition and social history, in Malay classical literature and, thereby, to evaluate them afresh.

It would be misleading, of course, to speak of characterization in this classical work in modern terms. In modern western literature or in any literature that has been fully developed the novel form [9] characterisation has become a matter of elaborate technical organization. A great deal of writing has been done on the problems and methods of of bringing out live characters. Under these conditions modern writers work. Consciously they learn these techniques and consciously they apply them or develop new ones in their writings. As such, characterisation becomes a refined, if not somewhat sophisticated, art. But the ‘author’ [10] of Hikayat Hang Tuah worked under no such conditions. He was not aware of characterisation as a component part of a good story. He was not aware of any technique for bringing out characters. What he knew was that he must tell a good story – interesting enough to hold his literary unsophisticated audience. This does not, however, mean that there would be no character portrayal in his work. In so far as his commitment was to tell a good story, he was bound, by the mere fact of being an artist, to bring out human characters. How he does it is a different matter and cannot be judged by our modern standards. While modern novelists write their stories for a reading public, the bard of Hikayat Hang Tuah recited his narrative to an audience. Their methods must therefore differ.

Still we can judge his characterisation. We are asking what he has produced out or a certain specific situation, and not so much as how. We want to know whether his men and women are convincing, whether they lead independent lives and how far they are types and how far individuals. And over and above these, we want to know whether his characters truthfully portray the times they live in.

We are therefore concerned with the human aspect of the story. From the historical point of view the narrative is, of course, preposterous. Fifteenth century Malacca is rendered contemporaneously with fourteenth century Majapahit. Hang Tuah, the Sultan and Bendahara Paduka Raja are among the major characters who live throughout the whole story from the time of the founding of Malacca till its downfall. These are weaknesses, certainly, but they do not, in any substantial way, affect the human ingredient in this grand epic. Events historically arranged do not necessarily present an artistic picture. An artist has to integrate his world so as to bring a pattern and meaning to it. It is in the nature of an epic to construct a vast and splendid canvas. And the ‘author’ of Hikayat Hang Tuah has integrated the highest period of Javanese classical history to that of Malacca, thereby presenting a unified and artistic picture of the Malaysian Heroic Age. It does not matter whether or not the Hang Tuah of fifteenth century Malacca could also figure in Java of the fourteenth century. The important thing is that these two historically different periods are, culturally, essentially similar. They represent the highest peaks in the Malaysian medieval eras. It is therefore intelligible that Hang Tuah, the highest concretized conception of a Malay feudal hero, should find his opponents among the best Javanese produced in their best of their history.


1. It seems to us that this hikayat belongs in the category of epic narrative. (Incidentally Dr. C. Hooykhas has made the interesting suggestion that is comparable to the Iliad or the Odyssey–cf. footnote 2, p2). It is a story of courage and endurance, of exploits, and adventures. It shares a number of characteristics in common with what is known as heroic poetry or saga; for example its princely personnel, its aristocratic milieu, its cardinal virtues of courage and absolute personal loyalty. (Cf. Chadwick, Growth, Ch. IV).

2. Almost the entire body of Malay literature before Abdullah Munshi may be divided into ‘heroic’ or ‘non-heroic’ types. The latter, which makes up the greater part of the literature, is didactic in strain and concerns itself little with character. But the former always has a hero and devotes itself to telling, in an objective and entertaining way, his exploits. It is this type which presents features of characterisation. Hikayat HangTuah is a specimen of this type.

3. Brown, p.v.

4. Two translations of Sejarah Melayu have been made into English: by Leyden and by C. C. Brown. Brown describes it as “the finest literary work in Malay” (CL Sejarah Melayu, JMBRAS, p. 7). Winstedt says that it is “the most famous, distinctive and best of all Malay literary works”. (Cf. Winstedt, p. 105). On the other hand, there is no translation of Hikayat Hang Tuah in English. Winstedt in the same book remarks that “it is notable as the only original romance in Malay literature….” (p.44). H. N. van der Tuuk, however, has better words for it. He says: “this composition is very interesting, as it exhibits a faithful picture of Malay life, and is written in genuine Malay”. (Cf. Tuuk, p.1). And Dr. C. Hooykaas has dropped an interesting suggesting. He calls this work as a Malay legendary novel comparable to the Iliad or, particularly, the Odyssey (Cf. Hookyass, p. 80). This is the view we, in fact, subscribe to.

5. Dosaku. (Kuala Lumpur, 1950) is not actually a story about Hang Tuah, but Hang Tuah’s death is impressively related.

6. Laksamana Tun Tuah, Kuala Lumpur, 1954.

7. What is termed the Heroic Age is represented rather by its sociocultural characteristics than mere chronology. It is less a historical epoch than an artistic scheme. (Cf. Brown, p.26).

8. The first note of skepticism as to Hang Tuah’s rightful title to honour as a hero has been struck in the film just mentioned. Early in 1953 Mohd. Ali Aziz, an undergraduate of this university, brought out a lengthy radio play entitled Terajadi Hang Jebat in which he sets to show Jebat as a tragic hero.

9. Self-conscious probing of the human character comes with the novel.

10. There seems to be no doubt that Hikayat Hang Tuah originated as an oral composition. Most probably there existed several reciters who must have taken the liberty to improvise as they told the story over and over again. As Winstedt suggests, there appears to be more than one compiler as the early style changes towards the end (cf. Winstedt, p. 45). However, it is our view that the story as a whole has preserved its unity of literary conception.

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