Folk Tales of the Maldives

By Xavier Romero-Frias. 2012. NIAS Press. 240 pages. ISBN: 978 87 7694 104 8 (hard cover), 978 87 7694 105 5 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Eva-Maria Knoll, Austrian Academy of Sciecnes

[Review length: 940 words • Review posted on February 18, 2013]

There is little that compares with how oral tradition is able to reveal linkages between past and present and between a culture’s knowledge and its environment. The volume discussed here can be seen as a particularly fine piece in this regard. Through Folk Tales of the Maldives we come to know the people and spirits, the fauna and flora as well as particular landmarks of the coral island archipelago in the center of the Indian Ocean. Moreover, we find explanations for particular fish habitats and behavior, for example, or for how the first coconut palm arrived, and how the islanders responded to the introduction of motors to the traditional rowing and sailing boats. And we learn that folktales resonate and linger on in the meanings of some current proverbs and that they provide an overall moral landscape of what is appropriate behavior and what should be avoided.

The volume comprises eighty folktales, two maps, and sixty-one black-and-white pictures and illustrations. The stories presented here are a selection from a much larger corpus compiled by Xavier Romero-Frias in the course of his long-term residence on the Maldives between 1979 and 2007. Since the book provides little information on the author’s background, it is worth noting that Romero-Frias is a Spanish writer, scholar, and artist, and he is fluent in two dialects of the Maldivian language (Dhivehi). He investigates and stresses pre-Islamic aspects of the Maldivian cultural heritage and is also well-known for his appealing illustrations of coral fish and Maldivian boats.

The strength of his publication lies in a comprehensive introduction into Maldivian literary genres, oral traditions, and lifestyles that allows the reader to put the following folktales into a broader cultural context. Though the Maldives still have the highest literacy rate in South Asia, the stories assembled in this volume were not passed down in written form. They were told, mostly by male storytellers, to an audience of all age groups in an extended household or just by somebody spontaneously during the long equatorial nights or on the long boat-journeys within and beyond the Maldivian atolls. Romero-Frias links the material presented here to story traditions of the Indian subcontinent and of Southeast Asia but identifies radical changes and a general decline in the oral storytelling tradition on the Maldives since the 1980s due to the influence of an increasingly conservative Islam, the spread of modern media, such as television, the internet, and cell phones, and an overall decrease in extended households.

Beyond this valuable background information Folk Tales of the Maldives is of particular significance in three regards. First, it is the first comprehensive collection of Maldivian short stories and legends. Second, this treasure of a centuries-old tradition of storytelling is made accessible to a wider audience in English. Third, Romero-Frias provides a first attempt at classifying Maldivian folktales by suggesting six categories. 1) Tales of spirits and monsters provides insights into how average people and those experienced in magic arts (fanditha) struggle with and deal with the spirit world. Remarkably, these tales are often about diseases and death linked to dangerous female spirits (handi). According to Romero-Frias, “the abundance of women killing or eating people is one of the most distinctive features of Maldivian folklore” (xxix). The author identifies this category as “the most popular and enduring tales of the Maldivian lore” (xxvii), and here one might see some continuity with the outstanding contemporary popularity of published vampire stories from which teenagers and grandmothers alike love to get goose bumps. 2) Long fairytale-style myths are mostly told in a typical Maldivian verse form, the raiveru. Romero-Frias identifies especially those about a good-looking, loving couple who have to withstand a powerful king as modified Maldivian versions of the Ramayana myth. 3) Stories with humorous characters provide another window into the country’s past by telling – with a comical note – about the interactions between the king (radhun) and his subjects. 4) Fables with animals are not only limited to the local fauna such as crabs, birds like the grey heron, and the huge variety of coral fish, but also point to the country’s oceanic trading history with references to non-domestic animals such as elephants and tigers. Even more strongly linked to the Maldivian history of seasonal ocean trading is category 5) seafaring stories. Ancient poems (veshi) serve as a kind of nautical oral map, describing geographical features on boat journeys through atolls and around islands, thereby guiding other travelers. 6) Chronicles of semi-historical events report about more–or–less identifiable incidents such as epidemics or the explosion of a naval mine that had been washed ashore.

Although Romero-Frias adequately credits his sources and assistance in the preface, we learn little about the storytellers and the actual context of their listening and memorizing. Apart from a few instances of uneven letter size, the collection of well written folktales accompanied by the author’s charming illustrations is generally convincing and a pleasurable and profitable read. Though one might miss references to the work of Naseema Mohamed or Sonja Fritz, or to Hassan Ahmed Maniku’s “Dhevi,” Romero-Frias provides an extensive bibliography. Together with the comprehensive introduction, the illustrative footnotes and the useful glossary and index make this volume highly recommendable for scholarly work. The author dedicates the book both to travelers who would like to gain insights into Maldivian culture and history and to scholars such as folklorists, anthropologists, linguists, and Islamic scholars. I would further recommend this publication to scholars with research interests in South Asia, the Indian Ocean, island and maritime studies, and—since the Maldivian art of storytelling is on the decline—the volume might also be of value to the inhabitants of the archipelago.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.