The Heroic Journey in Shirley Lim’s Princess Shawl
by Nurul Huda
This article will be discussing a work of an author that is no stranger to the Malaysian literary scene. Or, as a matter of fact, to the Singaporean, Hong Kong and American literary scene. Many Malaysian students know her from studying her poem “Monsoon History” in our secondary school English syllabus, and most university students study her short story “Mr. Tang’s Girls” for our Malaysian literature course. The first Asian woman to win the Commonwealth Poetry Prize in 1980, Shirley Lim continues to contribute largely to the development and writings of Asian American literature. Her works mainly deal with serious post-colonial issues, so therefore, I was surprised, but pleasantly so, when she announced that she was writing a book for Malaysian and Singaporean children based on the famous story of Princess Li Po, who was sent by the Emperor of China as a bride and ambassador of goodwill to Sultan Mansur, an account of which many Malaysian schoolchildren grew up listening to. Published in 2008 by Maya Press, I believe that Shirley Lim’s Princess Shawl is an important addition to the slow but steady growth of children’s literature in Malaysia. As a generation that grew up on a steady diet of Enid Blyton, Rudyard Kipling, Aesop’s tales and Grimm’s fairy tales, I find my imagination in my youth was filled with images of the four seasons, treacle puddings, golden hair and blue eyes. Wonderful though these images may be, they are alien to me, for I cannot even imagine what snow looks like, much less the taste of treacle pudding, and my hair and eyes are black.
Reading materials, especially at a very young age, will shape the ideals and identity of a very young child. It is important for readers of all ages to have books that they can relate to, books they can read and nod and say, “Aha—I’ve been through that.” In Rouwen Lin’s article “Telling Our Tales”, Tots for Teens columnist Daphne Lee says that it is important for the development of the child to find books they can relate to on a personal level in order to build their confidence and develop their self-identity. Beyond several perfunctorily didactic books, few authors answer this call for children books with Malaysian children in mind, but there has been a slow but steady publication of well-written Malaysian children’s books, such as Iain Buchanan’s Fatimah’s Kampung, and indeed, Shirley Lim’s Princess Shawl. It is important for Malaysian children to be able to read a character that they can strongly relate to culturally and emotionally, and it fires their imagination when we take historical and mythical characters and turn them in storybook characters, a trend that authors around the world have done like in the recent Percy Jackson series, the Harry Potter books, The Sea of Trolls trilogy and many other fantastical books whose roots firmly belongs to the real-world mythologies and folklore.
However, despite the culturally-unique setting and background for Princess Shawl, Shirley Lim still inadvertently follows the universal pattern in storytelling. In her autobiographical essay “Writing for Asian Children”, Shirley Lim admits that she combined the Euro-Western literary written style and Asian-Malaysian-Chinese oral story traditions in telling the story of Mei Li, the hero-child of the story. Indeed, Mei Li’s journey, while is uniquely Malaysian-Singaporean in setting, carries echoes of many classic universal storytelling, such as the call for adventure, the supernatural helper, the heroic quest and coming-of-age theme in many children’s literature around the world. Therefore, my paper will examine Shirley Lim’s children’s book Princess Shawl and attempt to identify whether the story follows the conventional narrative pattern of the monomyth, or the heroic journey, as proposed by Joseph Campbell, the leading scholar in the study of the heroic myth. The aim of this article is to identify Mei Li’s own heroic journey that is universal, but nonetheless carries the uniquely Malaysian-Singaporean themes of the search of belonging and identity.
The Monomyth, or the Heroic Journey
We all need heroes in our lives. How dreary life would be without heroes! Heroes are figures that inspire awe and amazement, against whom we measure our success. No matter how diverse and different we are, how old and powerful, how humble and young, we all need someone to look up to. Charles Horton Cooley says that “To have no heroes is to have no aspiration, to live on the momentum of the past, to be thrown back upon routine, sensuality, and the narrow self.” Our universal desire for heroes is evidenced in the abundance of heroic stories in cultures spanning across the globe. From the myth of Heracles, Odysseus and Perseus, to the legend of King Arthur and our very own legendary Hang Tuah, every culture has its own story that regales the mighty deeds of these heroes. But what is the measure of a hero? How does one define a hero? Their characteristics, personality, or the journey they go through? Must heroes be brave and bold all the time, or can they change and transform into the heroic figure they will become? I believe that what makes a hero is the journey that they undertake, and the transformation they underwent in order to be reborn into a heroic figure.
And no one has studied the path of a hero in more detail than Joseph Campbell. In his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell states that while stories and myth diverse according to their own culture and its society’s sets of belief, there is an underlying similarity and pattern in their narrative structure, especially pertaining to the heroic tale. He called this common structure the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, and according to Campbell, there are three stages that the hero must go through in order to emerge at the end of the story triumphantly. Many heroes in folklore, myth and history have characters that went through the heroic journey and alleviated into a mythical status, such as Prometheus, Odysseus, Buddha, Moses and Jesus.
The first stage is called the Departure, in which the hero will receive the call for adventure. The hero may initially refuse the call, but in the end realize the gravity of the situation and choose to shoulder that responsibility. However, the hero will not be alone in his adventure, for help will come in the form of a helper, or the supernatural aid that will guide him in his quest and bestow him with talismans or advice to support his journey. It is when the hero crosses the threshold that contains him in his previous life that the hero finally finds himself in an unknown world, in which his quest will begin and his metamorphosis will be set in motion.
The second stage is the Initiation, in which the hero encounters his roads of trials, tests and ordeals that will assist his transformation. He will meet myriads of characters in his journey, and each will play their part in the hero’s transformation into a higher level of being, and ultimately achieve his ultimate boon, the object of his quest.
The third and final stage is the Return, in which after the completion of his quest, the hero will face the moment when he will decide whether to return to his old world with the knowledge and boon that he achieved. He may refuse to return, but once he made up his mind to return, he will engage in a magical flight and may require a rescue from without to assist him home. Upon crossing the return threshold, the hero must assimilate what he achieved and transformed into during the journey and the life he left before. Only when he is able to do so that he will finally become the master of the two worlds and attain the freedom to live life without fear of death and the unknown.
Many classic and contemporary children’s literature has the hero, in whatever form, age and size they may be, follow this traditional pattern of the monomyth. We have the hobbit Bilbo Baggins going through this transformation in The Hobbit, and later succeeded by his nephew Frodo in The Lord of the Rings. Harry Potter himself went through this in the seven books, as well as Wilbur the pig in Charlotte’s Web and Despereaux the mouse in The Tale of Despereaux, as does our young hero in Princess Shawl.
Mei Li, the protagonist in Princess Shawl, is a normal 9 year old Singaporean girl whose main priority in life is school, homework and making her parents happy. The story opens with the news of the death of Mei Li’s namesake, her Grand-Aunt Mei Li. It is the arrival of this news, and the subsequent arrival of Grand-Aunty Mei’s heirloom, the magical shawl, that sets the motion for the quest in the book. According to Campbell, the heroic journey begins with the hero’s realization that there exists worlds outside of their own with the arrival of the herald that assigns the hero of their quest. Like any good quest story, Mei Li was given a task by her late Grand-aunt, the herald of the story. On the first night after the arrival of the shawl, Mei Li meets her recently deceased great-aunt in a surreal dream. Revealed to be the descendent of the legendary Princess Li Po, Mei Li discovered that centuries in the past, the princess was spirited away to Pulau Tikus by an evil sorceress, the Bomoh before she is able to marry her intended, Sultan Mansur of Melaka. Unless Mei Li succeeds in her quest to reunite the two star-crossed lovers using the magical shawl, the princess and the sultan will never meet and history will not carry its course. At the earlier point of her call to adventure, Mei Li hesitates and doubts her ability to complete the task.
Furthermore, the task was assigned with a deadline, and Mei Li has to do it before she turned ten, which contradicts the prophecy that the child of a single age (in this case, an age with a singular number) will carry the task, and who knows when the next child will inherit the shawl, or if it is not too late? Despite her misgivings, Mei Li acknowledges that she has to answer the call to adventure, signalling her understanding of her responsibility and duties for her ancestors and her past. She was given the talisman, the beautiful magical shawl that was passed down from generations before Mei Li herself. The shawl acts as the supernatural helper that transported Mei Li to the lands of the past, the place that Campbell calls the belly of the whale, that outside, alien world in which the hero will begin their adventure and transformation.
So begins Mei Li’s journey, and as Shirley Lim puts it, her journey is like that of the traditional Malaysian kuih lapis, each layer revealing surprises and wisdoms for the child to take with her. Every night, Mei Li is transported to the past, each journey going further and further back in history. During her journey into the past, Mei Li encounters her ancestors in various periods of history. Through each woman Mei Li, a modern child living in Singapore, learns more and more about her roots and heritage in Malaya. While some would consider that the point of a quest story is getting to the completion of the task, in the heroic journey, the journey itself is as important – if not more – as the task itself. This is true when it comes to Mei Li’s journey. It is down this road of trial an Asian reader will feel the most empathic with our little heroine, as she journeys back into Malaya’s history.
In classic heroic stories, a Campbellian hero’s Roads of Trial will be wrought with battles against dragons and monsters and fighting against enchantments and traps by vicious sorcerers. While the main antagonist of the book, the deceitful Bomoh, is indeed an evil, wicked-hearted sorceress, Mei Li’s Roads of Trial does not involve battles with dragons and monsters, but instead her struggles are more internal: ignorance, insecurity and searching for her origin. Mei Li represents the embodiment of young Diaspora Chinese living in modern Singapore, who are gradually losing their heritage and tradition. Mei Li’s journey serves to reacquaint her with her roots and place in history.
History is important in the shaping of our own identity. We live today in the shadow of the people of the past, to whom we owe our identity and belonging. Malaysian literature has always been connected with the search of identity and belonging, especially so since our country is a melding pot of multiple cultures and beliefs. It is important that children like Mei Li, who is part of the Chinese Diaspora, recognize that their ancestors have always lived in this country, and that they are part of Malaysia’s colourful history since centuries ago. In her nocturnal journeys into the past, Mei Li encounters her ancestress, each living in different periods of Malaya’s history. These wise and gentle guides, being mirrors of the past, helped reconnect Mei Li with her roots, and provide her with wisdoms and insights of the generations before, that old wives’ tales and wisdom that is rapidly disappearing in Malaysia and Singapore’s rapidly modernizing age. Grand-Aunty Mei Li says that in the olden days, magic is associated with ancestral spirits, and the loss of magic in modern times symbolizes the loss of our connection to our roots. Grand-Aunty Mei Li commented on this disappearing magic from modern life,
“Well, there are other forms of magic not in law, and you are just the right age for those. Too bad your parents don’t believe in any of them, but I see you do. In the venerable days, magic was simply ancestral spirits. But if no one will remember them today, it is no wonder magic is disappearing from Malaysai.” (27)
Her meeting with her foremothers serves to teach her important and valuable lessons on wisdom, strength and feminine solidarity. Armed with the gifts and advices from her ancestress, Mei Li is able to face the final journey with courage and determination, successfully rescuing Princess Li Po from her island prison and reuniting her with the Sultan.
After the hero completes his task, there is still the final stage, which is the Return, in which the hero goes back to his old world, bringing back the boon that he acquired in his journey. Successfully reuniting the Sultan and the princess, Mei Li completed her task in ensuring that history runs its intended course. However, the well-water, the talisman intended to bring her home has been used up, and Mei Li despaired ever going home. But her selfless act in sacrificing the water to help the princess does not go unrewarded, and as the princess drapes the shawl over her shoulders, Mei Li finds herself waking from a long dream into her parents’ arms, finally crossing into the Return Threshold. Her journey with the magic shawl also marked a coming of age passage for her, and she returned home wiser than before, carrying the memory of her history and heritage within her.
There has been much criticism on Campbell’s monomyth theory; critics claim that Campbell’s theory undermines original storytelling, is inherently misogynistic and supports hereditary superiority. However, I believe that the theory of monomyth reminds us that there lies in everyone of us the potential and ability to become great heroes, no matter how minor and small our fights may be. The journey may be hard and arduous, but what we encounter in that journey is what shaped us into the person that we are today. As such, our own country’s journey and history is important and should be remembered for us to know where we belong today. There are also criticisms on Princess Shawl itself. Some critics claim that the book is too straightforward, formulaic and lacked originality. But while I admit that these criticisms are not baseless, we cannot simply refuse to acknowledge the important contribution that this book will lend to the growth of children’s literature in Malaysia. While other writers are content to write didactic and under-stimulating local children’s books, Princess Shawl is one of the first genuine attempts by an acknowledged author to integrate Malaysia’s colourful history into a fantasy tale. Shirley Lim’s Princess Shawl is an important contribution to the development of children’s literature in Malaysia, for not only is it one of the few books that are written primarily for Malaysian-Singaporean children in mind, it also gives young readers a character that they can relate to on a personal and cultural level, and reminds us no matter how small, young and humble our origins are, everyone of us has the potential to go down that hero’s journey and emerge triumphant in the end.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. 3rd Edition. California: New World Library. 2008.
Lim, Shirley. Princess Shawl. Petaling Jaya: Maya Press. 2008.
__________ “Writing For Asian Children: History, Fantasy and Identity” Asiatic. 3.1 (June, 2009): 21-27.
Lin, Rouwen. “Telling Our Tales.” Retrieved from TheStar Online on January 28, 2010 from <http://thestar.com.my/lifestyle/story.asp?file=/2010/1/17/lifebookshelf/5062515&sec=lifebookshelf>
Nurul Huda Binti Abdul Mutalib has received Bachelor in English Language and Literature at the International Islamic University of Malaysia and is currently working on her dissertation for Masters in English Literature at University of Malaya, with strong interest in children’s literature and folklore. When she’s not busy fretting over her thesis, she is an unapologetic book addict, an amateur book/zine writer and part-time bookseller.