Phra Aphai Mani

Phra Aphai Mani (Thai: พระอภัยมณี, pronounced [pʰráʔ ʔā.pʰāj mā.nīː]) is a 48,700-line epic poem composed by Thai poet Sunthorn Phu (Thai: สุนทรภู่), who is known as "the Bard of Rattanakosin" (Thai: กวีเอกแห่งกรุงรัตนโกสินทร์)[a]. It is considered to be one of Thailand's national epics. With 48,686 couplets, it is listed the longest Thai single poem. Suthorn Phu started working on this epic fantasy from 1822 and took 22 years to finish in 1844. It is also one of well-known Thai folklores that has been heavily adapted into films and comics. The main protagonists are Prince Aphai Mani, the mermaid, and the Pisue Samutr; a female yak who can transmute herself into a beautiful girl.

Although, Phra Aphai Mani contains many mythical creatures and supra-natural protagonists, its major difference from other Thai epics is that they are originally created by Sunthorn Phu himself, unlike those poetic tales based on well-known folk stories like Khun Chang Khun Phaen. Moreover, Phra Aphai Mani was composed during the period of western colonisation of Southeast Asia. As the result, many parts of the story include the characters of European ancestry, from mercenaries to pirates. Some Thai literary critics believe that Suthorn Phu composed Phra Aphai Mani as an anti-colonialist tale, disguised as a versified tale of fantasy adventures.[1]

Phra Aphai Mani (พระอภัยมณี) (shortened to Aphai) and his brother, Sisuwan (ศรีสุวรรณ), are Thai princes. Their father sends them to study abroad, wishing to let them enthrone after he passes away. Sisuwan masters the martial art of sword fighting, whilst Phra Aphai Mani masters playing a magical flute (klui, ขลุ่ย) that either puts people to sleep or kills them. When they return home, their father is infuriated by the fact that what they learned was not useful for rulers, as he expected, and so he expels them from the kingdom.

One day, while Aphai's companions were lulled to sleep by the sound of his flute, a female ogress (yak) named Nang Phisuea Samut (นางผีเสื้อสมุทร), came and took Aphai away to her cave. She disguised herself as a beautiful maiden and Aphai fell in love with her. They lived together and gave birth to their son, Sinsamut (สินสมุทร). When Aphai found out that his wife was actually an ogress, he decided to flee with his son. He was assisted by a family of mermaids, a father, mother, and daughter. The father and mother were caught and eaten by the ogress. The mermaid daughter took Aphai and Sinsamut to Koh Kaeo Phitsadan (lit: Weirdly Wonder Island) where a (ruesee)(ฤาษี: hermit) saved them from the ogress. Aphai married the mermaid who partially helped him escape and had a son, named Sutsakhon (สุดสาคร).

One day, a junk carrying King Silarat (ท้าวสิลราช) and Princess Suwanmali (สุวรรณมาลี), passed the island where Aphai lives. The princess was engaged to the European Prince, Usaren (อุศเรน) of Lanka. Aphai and Sinsamut asked to join the ship in order to get home, but the ogress saw them and got infuriated, attacking them and killed King Silarat. Aphai managed to escape and found himself on a shore. Then, he played his magic flute that killed the ogress. Afterwards, he met Prince Usaren, who was looking for a fiancée.

Meanwhile, Sinsamut, escaping the ogress, swam with the princess Suwanmali to an island where they met Sisuwan and his daughter; Arun Ratsami (อรุณรัศมี). Together, they went in search of Aphai. When they found Aphai and Usaren safe, the princess Suwanmali refused to engaged to Usaren, which caused the two parties to fight and Prince Usaren fled to his homeland of Lanka.

Aphai later moved to the kingdom of Pharuek where the queen asked him to enthrone for the next king. Angry at Phra Aphai for giving her up to Usaren, Princess Suwanmali fled and become a nun in a monastery. But, with the trick of her own maid; Walee (นางวาลี), Suwanmali decided to leave the nunhood and marry Aphai. They had twin daughters named Soisuwan (สร้อยสุวรรณ) and Chanthasuda (ฉันทสุดา).

Years later, Usaren and his father attacked the kingdom of Pharuek. Usaren's father was killed and so did Usaren who died from being heart-broken by learning that Suwanmali married to Aphai. The throne of Lanka later fell to Usaren's little sister, Laweng (นางละเวง). The beautiful blonde-haired Laweng decided to take revenge for Usaren. She proclaimed to all neighbouring cities; whoever kills Aphai of Phareuk, she will grant her son and her kingdom of Lanka. Seeing the armies surrounded, Aphai fled with Laweng and eventually won her heart, whilst the war continued until the hermit came and helped to stop the war between them.

The cover of Phra Aphai Mani published by the National Library in 1963 (abridged)

The epic tale of Phra Aphai Mani is a truly massive work of poetry in klon suphap (Thai: กลอนสุภาพ). The unabridged version published by the National Library is 48,686-Bāt (2-line couplet) long, totaling over 600,000 words, and spanning 132 samut Thai books - by far the single longest poem in the Thai language,[2] and is the world's second longest epic poem written by a single poet (the longest being the Iranian epic Shahnameh). Sunthorn Phu, however, originally intended to end the story at the point where Phra Aphai abdicates the throne and retires into the wood. This leaves his original vision of the work at 25,098 lines of poetry - spanning 64 samut thai books. But his literary patron wanted him to continue composing, which he did for many years until it reached final length. Today, the abridged version - i.e. his original 64 samut-thai volumes, totaling 25,098 couplets of poetry - is regarded as the authoritative text of the epic. It took Sunthorn Phu more than 20 years to compose (from around 1822 or 1823 to 1844).

Phra Aphai Mani is Sunthorn Phu's Chef-d'œuvre. It breaks the tradition of earlier Thai poetic novels or nithan kham-klon (Thai: นิทานคำกลอน) by including western contemporary inventions, such as steam-powered ships (Thai: สำเภายนต์) which only started to appear in Europe. Sunthorn Phu also writes about a mechanical music player at the time when a gramophone or a self-playing piano was yet to be invented. This made Phra Aphai Mani surprisingly futuristic for the time. Also, unlike other classical Thai epic poems, Phra Aphai Mani depicts various exploits of white mercenaries and pirates which reflects the ongoing colonization of Southeast Asia in the early 19th Century. Phra Aphai himself is said to have learned "to speak Farang (European), Chinese and Cham languages." Moreover, the locations of cities and islands in Phra Aphai Mani are not imagined but actually correspond to real geographical locations in the Andaman Sea as well as east of the Indian Ocean. Sunthorn Phu could also give an accurate knowledge of modern sea voyage in that part of the world. This suggests that the Thai Bard (Sunthorn Phu) must have acquired these knowledge from foreign seafarers first-handedly. The multi-cultural and the half-mythical, half-realistic setting of Phra Aphai Mani - combined with Sunthorn Phu's poetical brilliance - makes Phra Aphai Mani a unique literary masterpiece.

European colonial powers had been expanding their influence and presence into Southeast Asia when Sunthorn Phu was composing Phra Aphai Mani. Many Thai literary critics have thus suggested that Sunthorn Phu may have intended his epic masterpiece to be an anti-colonialist tale, disguised as a versified tale of fantasy adventures.[3] In a literary sense, however, Phra Aphai Mani has been suggested by other Thai academics as being inspired by Greek epics and Persian literature, notably the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Argonauts, and Thousand and One Nights.[citation needed]

The structure of Phra Aphai Mani conforms to the monomyth structure, shared by other great epic stories in the Greek and Persian tradition. It is possible that Sunthorn Phu may have learned these epic stories from European missionaries, Catholic priests, or learned individuals who travelled to Siam during the early-19th century. Phra Aphai, the protagonist, resembles Orpheus—the famed musician of the Argonauts—rather than an Achilles-like warrior. Moreover, Phra Aphai's odyssean journey conjures similarity with the King of Ithaca's famous journey across the Aegean.[citation needed]

Pii Sue Samut ("the sea butterfly"), a love-struck female titan who kidnaps the hero, is reminiscent of the nymph Calypso. Also, much like Odysseus, Phra Aphai's long voyage enables him to speak many languages and to discern the minds and customs of many foreign races. Phra Aphai's name (Thai: อภัย: 'to forgive') is pronounced quite similar to how "Orpheus" (Greek: Ὀρφεύς) is pronounced in Greek. In addition, Nang Laweng's bewitching beauty, so captivating it drives nations to war, seems to match the reputation of Helen of Troy. Others have suggested that Nang Laweng may have been inspired by a story of a Christian princess, as recounted in Persia's Thousand and One Nights, who falls in love with a Muslim king.[citation needed]

All of this suggests that Sunthorn Phu was a Siamese bard with a bright and curious mind who absorbed, not only the knowledge of contemporary seafaring and Western inventions, but also stories of Greek classical epics from learned Europeans. In composing Phra Aphai Mani, Sunthorn Phu demonstrates a grand poetic ambition. He became the first Thai writer to draw inspirations from Western literary sources and produces an epic based, loosely, upon an amalgamation of those myths and legends. Thus, rather than writing with a political motive, Sunthorn Phu might simply have wanted to equal his literary prowess to the most famed poets and writers of the West.[citation needed]

There have been some Thai films which are based on this popular legend, including The Adventure of Sudsakorn and Legend of Sudsakorn.[citation needed] There has also been a Thai comic series produced with the name Apaimanee Saga, also based on the tale.[citation needed] In some regions in Thailand, such as the Ko Samet island and Cha-am, there are statues erected which are related to the Phra Aphai Mani story.[4][5] A ballad with some kind of a similar story exists in Sweden: Herr Mannelig.[citation needed]