(Excerpt) Locating Fantasy in Filipino Literature

Here’s another teaser from my chapter of Mapping New Stars: A Sourcebook on Philippine Speculative Fiction (Editors: Gabriela Lee and Anna Felicia Sanchez, UP Press pre-publication) which was entitled “The Roots of Speculative Fiction in the Philippines” (you can also read the chapter intro here). For this section, I tried to identify the earliest known Filipino works that could be reasonably argued as Fantasy or Proto-Fantasy, but excluding Folk Literature.

Hope you find this interesting:

One of the earliest novels that could be characterized as proto-fantasy fiction is Ramon L. Muzones’ Margosatubig: Maragtás ni Salagunting (“The Land of Margosatubig: The History of the Hero Salagunting”) written in Hiligaynon from 1946. This is the cover of the English translation by Ma. Cecilia Y. Locsin-Nava (Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2012).

Navigating the genre of fantasy can sometimes be difficult and confusing as “fantasy” is not a single definite category but rather a cohesion of many diverse, often wildly different, sub-genres. Wikipedia defines “fantasy” as “a genre of speculative fiction set in a fictional universe, often inspired by real world myth and folklore[1]”.

Fantasy proper takes place in a world other than our own (second world fantasy), whereas the sub-genre of magical realism (also known as magical realism or marvelous realism) focuses entirely on an ordinary “real” world where everything is normal, “except for one or two elements that go beyond the realm of possibility as we know it[2]”. To date there are at least 58 named sub-genres of fantasy[3] including urban fantasy, Christian fantasy, dark fantasy, epic fantasy, mythic fantasy and vampire fantasy, just to name a few.

In the Philippines the roots of the fantasy genre begin in folklore – particularly in local tribal myths and legends, as well as in pre-Hispanic ethno-epics of which over 20 oral narratives have been recorded and translated (many more remain to be transcribed and/or translated – Palawan alone has sixty-three)[4]. It should be noted that while the natives of what would be eventually  named las Islas Filipinos had little by way of books in codex form, the inland tribes and early maritime polities in the archipelago possessed a remarkable level of literacy and a strong literary tradition[5].

Myths and legends still figure prominently in modern speculative fiction works, albeit in reimagined or subverted forms, such as the graphic novel The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre (Quezon City: Alamat Comics,1999).

Epics (in the Philippines we speak of ethno-epics[6]) are considered the most direct ancestor of the fantasy tale. These long stories essentially consist of an oral narration of the adventures and trials of a revered folk hero. Sadly, as important as they are to Filipino culture, they have been less of an influence on modern speculative fiction compared to indigenous myths and legends. One of the few to have any impact was Biag ni Lam-Ang which is pre-colonial in origin.

Biag ni Lam-Ang (“Life of Lam-Ang”), tells the story of his extraordinary birth, his various quests aided by magical animal companions, as well as his death and resurrection. It became the subject of a metrical romance in the early 20th century, as well as various comic book adaptations in the 1970s, a movie, an animated film and even a musical theatre production.  

Lam-Ang, from “Kagitingan at Pag-asa” by Crisanto Aquino in the CCP Encyclopedia of Philippine Art: Philippine Literature, Volume 9 (Cultural Center of the Philippines, 1994)

Let’s Start with (Philippine) Metrical Romance

The most popular genre of fiction during the 18th and 19th centuries was the metrical romance or chivalric romance, a type of narrative poem which in Europe developed from traditional myths and fables and was typically centered on courtly love, knights, and chivalric deeds. This genre wholeheartedly embraced fantastical elements and was a forerunner of the modern fantasy genre.

In the Philippines, metrical romance in vernacular languages (particularly Tagalog) took on two forms: the awit (a poetic narrative verse set in dodecasyllabic quatrains) and the korido (a poetic verse narrative set in octosyllabic quatrains). Like the epics that preceded them, these tales of chivalry were made to be sung and chanted.

 Numerous works in Tagalog (around 200 titles were known to have been published[7]), Bicolano, Ilonggo, Kapampangan, Ilocano and the Pangasinan language were written during this period. Interestingly, while metrical romances are not speculative fiction per se, there has been no other time in Philippine history where fantasy-adjacent genre stories were the most accepted and feted literary works.  

[1] Wikipedia Foundation Inc., “Fantasy”,  Wikipedia Commons, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fantasy  (accessed 17 December 2020)

[2] Burlington County Library System, “Focus on Genres: Magical Realism”, Fantasy (accessed 17 December 2020)

[3] BestFantasyBooks.com, “Fantasy Sub-genres Guide”, 2015, http://bestfantasybooks.com/fantasy-genre.php#urban-fantasy  (accessed 17 December 2020)

[4] Eugenio, Damiana L., “Introduction: The Philippine Folk Epic”, Philippine Folk Literature: The Epics (Quezon City: University of the Philippines Press, 2001), p. xi

[5] Jesuit friar Pedro Chirino notes, ‘All islanders are much given to reading and writing, and there is hardly a man and much less a woman, who does not read and write in the letters used in the island of Manila They used to write on reeds and palm-leaves, using as pen an iron point’. However, writing was used mainly for the exchange of letters. Religion, government, and literature were founded on oral tradition. In Chirino, Pedro, Relacion de las Islas Filipinas (Rome: Esteban Paulino, 1604) as translated and reproduced in Blair, Emma Helen and Robertson, James Alexander, The Philippine Islands, 1493-1898: Volume XII, 1601-1604 (Cleveland: Arthur H. Clark Company, 1904), p. 169

[6] As opposed to national epics like Germany’s Niebelunginlied, ethno-epics are “histories” of ethnic groups or small maritime polities that consider themselves “nations”. As per David-Maramba, Asuncion, Early Philippine Literature: From Ancient Times to 1940, (Mandaluyong:  National Bookstore, 1971), p. 21. See also Godinez-Ortega, Christine, “The Literary Forms in Philippine Literature”, GOV PH, https://ncca.gov.ph/about-ncca-3/subcommissions/subcommission-on-the-arts-sca/literary-arts/the-literary-forms-in-philippine-literature/, (accessed 15 November 2020).

[7] Jurilla, Patricia May Bantug “Tagalog Bestsellers and the History of the Book in the Philippines”, doctoral thesis submitted to the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 30 August 2006 p. 52

The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre. Originally published by the author in four issues in 1999, it was collected into a special edition by Anino Comics in September 2005 and Nautilus Comics in 2014.

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