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The Tale of the Heike by Anonymous

The Tale of the Heike

by Anonymous

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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The Jetavana Temple bells
Ring the passing of all things.
Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
declare the great man's certain fall.
The arrogant do not long endure:
They are like a dream one night in spring.
The bold and brave perish in the end:
They are as dust before the wind.

These is the opening song of the epic, The Tale of the Heike. Although this is a war story, detailing the quick rise and steady fall of a clan which sought a military takeover of Japan, it is something more. The Heike monogatari, written to be read aloud and sung over nightly installments, is a long and winding journey through triumph, defeat, religion, and myth.

It is made clear in the very first lines that a main theme of the Tale of the Heike is the Buddhist concept of impermanence or transience, also known as mujû (ûûaûxx). Sadness at the passing of things, or, to use a 19th-century term, mono no aware (ûûiûûnûû€ûûû). There are falling spring blossoms, death poems, and lamentations over burning temples.

Yet despite (or because of?) this focus on impermanence and death, the work is also an early contributor to the myth of the warrior code (ûmfûckûûû - bushido). There are multiple instances of an honorable deaths, suicide, and one of the first instances of death by seppuku. There are little parables of war horses, heroism, fathers defending their sons, wives mourning their husbands, warriors with nine-foot-long bows. A child-emperor and his nurse jump into the sea to reach a more heavenly and eternal throne.

Perhaps in this way, it is not dissimilar to the Iliad or the more contemporary Beowulf. Although there are lamentations of the loss of divine virtue and that this is a corrupt age, warriors still chant their names and their deeds. Individuals are frequently singled out for their bravery. They"still decorate their uniforms with bright colors, black or red or blue or gold or white. Some blacken their teeth - for beauty, not for intimidation.

A third narrative thread is that of religion and karma. Karma, or (E¥­)GŁE, of course, is where one's deeds and one's past life affect your own. Death is ordinary, but it is temporary. The tyrant, Taira no Kiyomori, was once a wise Buddhist teacher who had not yet comprehended the nature of evil. Of course, this religion is not detached from ordinary lives and political struggles. Warrior monks are wily players in this struggle, and they compete in very earthly struggles for allegiance. Yet this is a particular form of Buddhism which they fight, with the Amida Buddha promising eventual redemption to all of those who sincerely ask for it and chant his name as they die.

This is a 'war story', but there is also poetry and emotion. It is elegant at times, and even dares to hint at the complexity of life - and it's difference from Buddhist notions of simplicity. The winners are not always good, and the losers are not all bad. At the moment where the Taira suffer their greatest defeat, there are some digressions on how noble and good some of their followers were as they were slaughtered. From Chinese history. Didactic as well as emotive.

Royall Tyler does a magnificent job with the translation, moving from song to recitation with fluid ease. This edition also has ( )
2 vote HadriantheBlind | Mar 30, 2013 |
Generally considered the greatest of the gunki or war tales, though I must admit I did not find it as exciting as expected. ( )
  antiquary | Dec 10, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Anonymousprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Kitagawa, HiroshiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McCullough, Helen CraigTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tsuchida, Bruce T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Tyler, RoyallTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Kitagawa Torajiro
who through his poetry inspired
this translation of the Heike Monogatari
whose last wish in this world
was for the completion
of this valuable work
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Disambiguation notice
Although the titles may look similar, and have been translated into English by the same person, Helen Craig McCullough, "The Tale of the Heike" (Heike Monogatari) is a totally different book from the "Taiheiki". Please do not combine the two. Thank you.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0804718032, Paperback)

The Tale of the Heike is one of the masterworks of Japanese literature, ranking with The Tal of Genji in quality and prestige. This new translation is not only far more readable than earlier ones, it is also much more faithful to the content and style of the original. Intended for the general audience as well as the specialist, this edition is highly annotated.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:37 -0400)

(see all 4 descriptions)

"With a reflection on the fleeting nature of power and glory begins The Tale of the Heike, an epic from twelfth-century Japan. Comparable in stature to The Tale of Genji, The Tale of the Heike narrates with wit, energy, and compassion the stories of such unforgettable characters as the ruthless warlord Kiyomori, who dies still burning with such rage that water poured on him boils; Hotoke, the beautiful young dancer who renounces wealth and fame to follow her conscience; Shigemori, the tyrant's righteous son, who struggles against all odds to uphold fairness and justice; and Yoshitsune, the daring commander who defeats the enemy in battle after battle, only to be condemned by his jealous, powerful brother. The Tale of the Heike is a foundation stone of Japanese culture and a major masterpiece of world literature. Lavishly illustrated and accompanied by maps, character guides, and genealogies."--Publisher.… (more)

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