Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Installment #14

Characterisation in Hikayat Hang Tuah



It does seem quite obvious to us now that characterisation forms an important aspect of Hikayat Hang Tuah. If it is possible to talk in terms of the highest event in the story, that event is surely the rebellion of Hang Jebat. And this rebellion would not have taken place had there not been the revolutionary character of Jebat, the conservative character of Tuah, the rashness of the Sultan, the jealousy of the courtiers and the wisdom and flexibility of the Bendahara. The event, in its entire movement from the jealousy-inspired plot (its personal level) to the ideologically determined duel (its social level), in indeed directed by an inspired hand. It is a masterly combination of isolated incidents (when the plot was made, Tuah was not in court (1) and when Jebat avenged his friend, his friend was not dead) and the character-tendencies, which in the end achieves an integrity of its own. (2)

But, as we have said before, it is in the nature of the epic narrative, on the whole, to concentrate on the happy few and neglect the others.(3) Tuah is the most exhaustively treated character, we follow him form the beginning to the end. Jebat’s character is concentrated in the last few, but most exhilarating, pages of his life. Then come the Bendahara, Tun Teja and the Sultan. These form the company of the happy few in the epic. The others – more than a hundred of them – are simplified and standardized human beings who make up the vast and vague background against which the entire movement of this drama is placed.

Many of the characters are derived from historical content sources. A number of them, at least by their names and titles, are recognizable historical figures. Tuah, Teja, Bendahara Paduak Raja, Jebat, Kasturi, Patigh Gajah Mada are all mentioned in Sejarah Melayu. (4) But it is not on historical considerations that they are of interest in this story. In this story they have been re-created , they have assumed a few artistic life of their own, quite independent of their original historical one. Hang Tuah in Sejarah Melayu is a hurried , badly-done character sketch; the lines are broken in many places. (5) This is in the nature of things. Sejarah Melayu is a kind of historical work. It does not represent people artistically, integrating all their actions and activities around an inner logic of human development. Hikayat HangTuah on the other hand, is an artistic work, essentially possessing a unity, if somewhat crude (most probably because of improvisation and later interpolations), of artistic conception. (6)

The characters reveal and express themselves directly, with practically no intervention by the ‘author’. Speech and action are the dominant means. There is a tendency to be dramatic. Except for Tuah, virtually none of the characters is presented gradually. This is probably due to the fact that characters express themselves only on the heroic plane. Their private lives, to all intent s and purposes, are not shown. (7)

The practice to portray merely on the heroic level may also account for the general lack of inter-character influence. There is no clear evidence that characters exercise an influence on each other. The flexible attitude of the Bendahara towards royal commands does not seem to have any visible effect on Tuah’s own. Jebat does not show evidence of being influenced by Tuah’s moderation, or Tuah by Jebat’s revolutionary leanings. In short, it may be said that the characters tend to develop not so much from within as from without. (8)

But all the major characters in the story depict indigenous traits and portray the social consciousness of the age. Tuah, Teja, Jeabat – they are unmistakably Malay characters. And in the characters and doings of the Sultan, the Bendahara and Tuah, we see projected the major social trends of that bygone epoch. This book is thus, in truth, a remarkable piece of social history, as most works of fiction are.

In our discussions on Hang Jebat and Hang Tuah we have not been able to spot the real hero of this story. The book obviously tries to state – more implicitly than explicitly – that Tuah is the hero. But, almost unconsciously, it nearly succeeds in making out Jebat to be the man we are looking for.

In our opinion, viewed objectively, this story has no hero. Obviously Tuah is heroic; and Jebat is heroic too. But each perform his heroism from a post slightly off the central position which is the hero’s own. The central position is, therefore, left vacant. To describe the situation in modern terminology, Tuah is to the right of the ideal, while Jebat is to the left. The only major character who seems to be nearest the ideal centre is Bendahara Paduka Raja. But the Bendahara is not endowed with the necessary heroic qualities to enable him to express, to the highest level, this near-ideal that he embodies.

Therefore, after there strictest consideration, this hikayat lacks a hero – the man who is the highest and best representative of the ideals and aspirations of his age. But perhaps we have little ground to be so strict. This story is not perfect in its conception. That it has brought out such a mighty character as Jebat (to challenge the very ideal that its chosen hero upholds) must be enough. To satisfy us. There is certainly no hidden trick hero to deceive the reader. If there is any, it had rather deceived the ‘author’. For Jebat has come u in spite of him. It looks as if Jebat, once conceived and launched into the world of artistic existence by the ‘author’, gets out offhand and leads a dangerously independent life of his own. For this reason, for the one thing that he did – the rebellion which is the crucial event in the story and which subjects the two heroes to a test of true heroism – Jebat secures a glory of a higher order, a glory that at once discounts Tuah’s many and varied achievements. Viewed thus, Jebat is the man to whom we must give priority of place in our attempt to find the hero of this Malaysian epic.


1) He had taken the whole of his family to Ulu Melaka for a holiday. (Cf. p. 304).

2) The Sultan soon learned that the Laksamana had not been at court for some time, but that did not seem to matter to him. The mere mention that somebody had dared to encroach on his most royal and private rights of relationship with his ‘gundik’ was outrageous. That person deserved to be condemned. As for Jebat, when Tuah suddenly turned up to fight him, he was not sorry for what he had done. The Sultan’s decree on Tuah was most unjust and ungrateful anyway and deserved to be challenged. And if Tuah thought that he had done wrong and wanted to fight him, Jebat could not, not on a point of hour – which is a heroic cult – surrender to him. The jealous courtiers, of course, had by their action, brought about an inversion of their selfish desires. Their plan had been to oust Tuah in order to to get more royal attention. Jebat came and snubbed them all. In the end they got Tuah back, thus putting them again in the position where they had begun. Viewed as whole, therefore, this episode is a complex of personal and social interrelationships, the conception of which indicates a remarkable insight into human life.

3) The phrase is Brown’s. (Cf. footnote 1. p. 23).

4) Cf. Sejarah Melayu: Chapter 14, 16 &28 (Tuah); chapter 14 (Jebat); chapters 13 & 16 (Bendahara); chapter 29 (Teja); chapter 14 (Patih Gajah Mada).

(5) Ibid, chapters 14 a& 16.ole of his family

(6) A study of the summary that we have prepared (Appendix II) would make this evident.

(7) Tuah is a probable exception. His activities in Inderapura (pp. 180-212) may not pass for private, but his holiday with his family up in Ulu Melaka while a serious accusation was being made against him at the court can certainly be seemed so.

(8) Towards the end the Sultan shows a tendency to develop from within. Tuah’s deteriorating health and that of his own, the loss of the crown, the experiencing of the “getting-into-the-grave” incident all play their part in determining the development of his character in the last years of his life.

Installment # 15: Appendix 1 – An Abstract of Exercise (in Malay)

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Malaysia's soi-disant foremost thinker, philosopher, etc. Pass the puke bag, Mabel, methinks I feel sick.

A bit of modesty would be in order, to start with. Especially from a mere dilettante.

First incarnation a socialist, man of the people. Second incarnation, man of religion offering a fresh view of Islam and hadith, duped by none other than Rashid Khalifa, former Coptic Christian turned "Submitter".

Third incarnation, UMNO member.

But the solipsism remains. Yes, Kassim Ahmad wrote a PhD on Hang Tuah, which wasn't brilliant, just acceptable. He gave a talk at SOAS once which I attended, and that was just mediocre.

Shame he doubts the hadith, because there are many instances there urging the virtues of modesty.