The Impossibility of Escaping the Palm of Buddha’s Hand

The joy of reading epic fantasy(1) is the pleasure of seeing how things fit together. As we never can in real life, we get to watch characters and events click into place and spin down the ringing grooves of change towards a satisfying denouement(2). Tennyson would not have liked epic fantasy. He was a pantheist, always chasing epiphanies as elusive as Pan in a modern wood.

The pleasure of epic fantasy is not the pleasure of the epiphany. In contrast to literary fiction, epic fantasy doesn’t hang its baggy plots and earthshaking finales on anything as flimsy as a perspective shift. Instead, it seeks to convince us that the world was always already like this. It’s a conservative literature, as Moorcock et al. have repeatedly noted.

Our foundational epics shape today’s fat fantasy trilogies (alas, so crudely), and to the extent that epic fantasy exists outside the Anglosphere, its local quirks can sometimes be traced back to the epic stories of other cultures. Which is why it makes sense to think about Journey to the West.

The Chinese version.

You probably had to read it in college if you took a World Literature type of course. I did–the Arthur Waley translation. I couldn’t really get into it. The problem was partly what Amazon calls its “combination of nonsense with profundity, slapstick comedy with spiritual wisdom,” and partly the fact that, er, I was in college. Why, why do we send our children to college when they’re at the most distractable, opposite-sex-obsessed, binge-drinking-prone, angsty age in human life? Only for them to graduate having learned next to nothing, with $100K plus in debt? We should pack the little buggers off to boring entry-level jobs when they graduate from high school, set the minimum age for matriculation at 28 or so, and legislate three-year “college leaves” so that people can take time off from their jobs to acquire higher education. Do all that and I guarantee you that 90% of people will realize that they don’t actually need a college education after all.

See what I just did? “A combination of nonsense and profundity, slapstick comedy and spiritual wisdom,” except that you couldn’t see the slapstick part where the cat jumped on my desk and tried to bite my fingers while I was typing; expressing a spiritual wisdom deeper than mine. (“What is the sound of one hand typing and one hand clapped to the mouth to muffle a screech of pain?”)

That’s pretty much how I felt while reading Journey to the West.

Journey to the West

Then I read it again and realized that it is actually very funny. It’s funny in the way a kung-fu movie is funny, which is not surprising, because Journey to the West is the grandmother of the entire kung-fu genre. It’s the story of a monkey superhero who can fly and breathe underwater, and when he pulls out hairs from his head they turn into Mini-Monkeys that go on the rampage. The monkey and his companions (a monk, a pig, and a kappa in the Japanese version) travel by an extremely roundabout route from China(3) to India to get hold of some precious sutras; they get them and go home, the end. But the journey is its own reward.

Insofar as the story has a moral it is this: Travel broadens the mind and makes you a better person.

Not surprisingly the modern Japanese adaptations of Journey to the West have tended to focus on the humor rather than the Buddhist themes. Most Japanese people of a certain age will remember seeing the 1970s TV series as children. The more recent (2006) TV series also leaned hard on the pratfalls, as well as featuring SMAP members Shingo Katori in the lead role and then-heartthrob Takuya Kimura in a bit part.

But the real legacy of Journey to the West in literary terms is its picaresque structure. The characters have adventures and learn life lessons. Overarching plot? Not so much. This is still true of much Japanese fantasy today, especially the “light novel” sub-genre–essentially, manga in words–which tend to feature rambling, discursive stories anchored by a few key characters. These are often series. If the author of a light novel bumps into a “Meereenese knot,” hey, no problem; she just gives her protagonist a new superpower.

The virtue of this approach to storytelling is obvious. It’s the way we go through life. (Without new superpowers, as a rule.) Any overarching plot in our lives is likely to appear only on the teleological level. Journey to the West and its successors simply elevate Buddhist eschatology into a narrative structure.

In one famous scene from Journey to the West, Shaka-sama challenges Monkey to escape from his palm. After running for miles, Monkey finds he’s still only on Shaka-sama’s fingertip. He is then imprisoned under a mountain for 500 years. As centuries of good-natured monk jokes prove, Shaka-sama (Buddha) has a sense of humor. But cross him and watch out.


1. I’m saying epic fantasy, but take this to include epic space opera as well. I won’t get into whether space opera is really just fantasy with lasers and spaceships.

2. Tennyson thought trains ran in grooves. They run on rails, of course.

3. Yeah, I know Journey to the West is a Chinese epic, and I’m supposed to be writing about Japanese fantasy. But these things are all the same after a few hundred years. Le Morte d’Arthur was originally written in French.

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