What makes a story or a hero resonate so strongly across cultures?
Robin Kornman, one of the Kluge Center's International Studies Fellows, discussed this question in a May 23 presentation titled "Nomadic Self-Knowledge in Inner Asia: the Tibetan Gesar of Ling Epic." King Gesar is a popular hero throughout Asia whose notoriety, Kornman believes, will eventually spread to the West.
Kornman received a grant from the Luce Foundation to work at the Library of Congress using the Asian collections to complete his translation and study of this widely-known Tibetan epic, the largest existing oral narrative of the Silk Route. Kornman received a doctorate in comparative literature from Princeton University in 1995, has degrees from the University of Colorado and Indiana University, and has received research grants from many organizations, including the Luce Foundation, the American Council of Learned Societies and the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation. He has traveled throughout Asia and Europe in search of people familiar with the village dialect of the Yak herdsmen who lived near the Yellow River and originally created the epic of King Gesar.
Although Kornman is a Tibetan-Buddhist translator and transcriber, he found that he needed "better informants" to help him translate the story's many written versions. Through his travels, he located more than 100 volumes of works, previous translations from the 1940s, and modern art and artifacts relating to the heroism of King Gesar.
Kornman found that the field of anthropology, rather than comparative literature, helped him uncover the cross-cultural elements associated with the tales of King Gesar. He noted that the epic is used today as a role model for the younger generation throughout Asia—that of a devilish youth who goes on to become a wise Buddha.
As part of his lecture, Kornman played sound recordings of traditional and modern music depicting the life of King Gesar; he also showed slides of a modern brocade portraying King Gesar as a Silk Route magician, a native Tibetan hero and an enlightened Buddha with rainbows emanating from him.
"This Tibetan epic has traveled across cultures in what anthropologists define as 'standard nomadic behavior,'" said Kornman.
Kornman used many texts in the Library's Asian Division to assist in his editing and translation of 800 pages of the epic, which is to be published by Penguin Press. He thanked the Asian Division staff for locating crucial reference materials for him and paid particular tribute to the Library's Tibetan specialist, Susan Meinheit.
"I hope that one day readers will be able to find this Tibetan epic at the Library of Congress on the same shelf as Homer's 'Iliad,'" he concluded.