Friday, April 1, 2011

The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung-Ma, by Sybille Noel

Despite its title or history, The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung-Ma, by Sybille Noel has almost nothing to do with climbing Mount Everest, unless perhaps you'd prefer to ride a magic drum or a sunbeam to the summit. I had heard that Captain John Noel's wife, Sybille, had collected Tibetan folk stories while her husband was busy filming the Everest climb of 1924. I was a bit incredulous about this book, but I brought it home to read after finding out that Noel included an introductory chapter on her journey. I know that she traveled to and from Tibet along with the Everest party, but in this book they get but a single passing mention, and her husband gets no mention at all. Perhaps this is an appropriate Everest book for April Fools Day.

In addition to the tale of her trip, she includes the tale of the contest between Padma-Sambhava and Pombo Lama in her introduction. Padma-Sambhava is the saint who is believed to have brought Buddhism to Tibet; Pombo Lama was the head of the traditional animist religion already there. To prove whose powers are superior, Pombo Lama challenges Padma-Sambhava to a race to the top of the tallest mountain in the world. Pombo Lama has a magic drum that will carry him wherever he wills it, and he begins to ride to the mountain. Padma-Sambhava decides it's time for a nap, and though his followers fret, he sleeps through the night, for he knows that his righteous powers will prevail. As the sun rises the next day, Pombo Lama is nearly there, and Padma-Sambhava is only just waking. When the first rays of the sun filter in through the window, Padma-Sambhava is instantly transported by a sunbeam to the top of the mountain, where he takes up dominion over Tibet upon a golden, jewel-encrusted throne. Tibetans believed that the throne was still there, and the throne was the likely objective of the (Here comes the reference!!!) Mount Everest Expedition.

In addition to the introduction, I also read the first folk story, the only tale that deals directly with the world's highest mountain. "The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung-Ma" is fantastic tale of a selfish girl, her two loyal brothers, and a handsome suitor. The suitor knows of a glorious bird that drops jewels from its feathers and lives in the mountain of Chomo-Lung-Ma, and he seeks it out to present it to the girl as a gift of proposal. This bird happens to be the prince of evil in disguise, and he manipulates the characters to suit his villainous intentions. It's a long and interesting story, with plenty of twists, and I had a great time reading it. Since I am one that rummages around in books looking for interesting facts, I decided to see what the story tells us of Tibetans' knowledge of the world's highest mountain. The story properly describes the broken glaciers leading from it, the hermit dwellings just before the mountain, the feeling of "glacier lassitude" described by the early expeditions, and perhaps even the great depth of the crevasses in the initial climbing of it. I was impressed by overall how much specific information made it into this folk tale.

I highly recommend this book for the stories. Though I didn't read this one through, since it only marginally has anything to do with this blog, I honestly had a lot of fun reading what I did. If the other tales are anything near as well planned and written as the first, then The Magic Bird of Chomo-Lung-Ma is classic of folk literature.

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