Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Installment #8

Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah



The Major Characters (excepting Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah)

Patih Karma Wijaya

Patih Karma Wijaya, as the name implies, is a Javanese. Before entering the service of the Melaka Sultan he was a senior minister to a certain ruler of Lasem.[i] When he was away on state business, the ruler snatched away his beautiful daughter. This so shamed him that he decided to migrate with all his followers to Melaka. He is therefore an alien and a bitter man when he enters the Malay service.

His character is not clearly depicted. Like Patih Gajah Mada, he is a villain, though on a smaller scale. His villainy seems to stem from a purely personal consideration: a grudge against and jealousy for Hang Tuah. He does not, with Patih Gajah Mada, conspire against the Melaka Sultanate; as a Javanese we would expect him to do so. The Bendahara does not trust him,[ii] but there is no evidence that he is disloyal to the Sultan of Melaka. In fact he serves him well. It is he who suggests that the Sultan ask for the hand of Raden Mas Ayu, the daughter of Seri Batara, after the failure to get Tun Teja. And it is he again who leads the subsequently successful mission for Majapahit.

His villainy can have meaning only in terms of his personal relationship with Tuah. And it is on this point that his character is not clear. Why is he so jealous of Tuah that he leads two similar and highly dangerous conspiracies against him? There is no evidence that he is ambitious. Of course, Hang Tuah has snubbed him once.[iii] This, however, is too flimsy a ground to embark on such adventurous risks. Yet the reader cannot help feeling that this was the beginning. It is conceivable that the showers of honour and privileges upon Tuah made by the Sultan would breed jealousy among the senior but less influential officials;[iv] even then one feels that not enough of this is shown to render the argument of jealousy substantial.

He is a cowardly, selfish and shameful fellow. There is no balance between his seeming sense of responsibility[v] and his physical ability to stand by his action. Hang Jebat knows that he was one of the culprits. He waits for him and his accomplices to come to the palace. But he does not come. When the Sultan orders him to remove Jebat, he only sends his men in while he himself waits at some distance.[vi] Even when the Sultan refers to him directly as the conspirator against Tuah and challenges him to redeem himself, he remains unprovoked.[vii] This, it will be noticed is the exact opposite of the heroic character.


The foregoing discussion has, it is hoped, shown that the characters so far examined are largely real. Judged against modern standards, they may be found to be inadequately depicted: there is a tendency to standardize and simplify character. But if it is recognised that we cannot so judge a piece of characterization which is definitely the product of a dissimilar set of circumstances, then we may perceive something more genuine. These characters are by no means puppets. They lead independent lives and so portray the social traits of their times. The ‘writer’ has in no way used them as a means to project his own subjective and artificial ideas.

Next: Installment #9: Chapter III: Hang Jebat

[i] Lasem at about the time of Majapahit was an independent kingdom on the northern coast of the eastern half of Java.

[ii] Cf. p. 124.

[iii] While in Majapahit negotiating the royal marriage, Tuah mentioned to him that he would like to visit the famous Javanese ascetic, Sang Pertala, who was living on Mt. Merta Pura. The Patih said that he would like to go too. Hang Tuah, however, retorted that a big official like him would not be able to master such a rigorous discipline (p. 110).

[iv] See the conspirators’ arguments on both occasions, pp. 178 & 303-304.

[v] The second plot against Tuah did not directly originate from him. It was hatched among the jealous officers themselves and when they reported Tuah’s alleged misbehaviour to him, he became indignant with anger. He immediately led the group to see the Sultan himself (Cf. pp. 332-333).

[vi] Cf. p. 335

[vii] Cf. p. 320.

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