In a world ruled by demagogues, we are reminded of a time when the immortals - the gods - ruled, where myth and legends pervaded our understanding of the world and the cosmos, where human beings were human and the gods immortal. Monsters lived in their midst and it was one of the reasons the gods went to war, to wage battle against fearsome beasts who threatened all manner of destruction. But there were also men who became monsters, who turned against all that was good and all that was human. ‘Monsters & (Im)Mortals’ looks at light and dark; of genius and madness, reality and fantasy, the element of the shadow in literature and of divine tragedy.

Monsters and (Im)mortals in Our Midst

Keynote Address by Prof Muhammad Haji Salleh

Monsters are how our minds picture the ugly, evil, the unjust and the cruel. In our Nusantara area they may come up from the swamps, like the gedembai, the misshapen gergasi, giant, or they may come in the form of black and albino crocodiles, or dragons, nagas that sink ships and take away princesses to imprison them on distant islands – that generally put fear into the innocent villagers – and with them young girls and boys. They may also come from the seat of power, the palace, as in the case of Raja Bersiung, the Fanged King, who would kill a subject each day to flavour his soup, until there was no one left in the state. Many of them are moral stories with lessons to be learnt. They are symbols or metaphors made concrete to enhance our familiar tragedies.

Immortals are now an almost passing breed in the mythologies and legends of Malaysians. With the coming of the new religions, the immortals of the past have been relegated to spend earthly lives on earth. The good offices of Hanuman, who helped many in the past, linger with his name for now. The keeper of Mount Kinabalu is still looked up to protect the sacred mountain and abode of the ancestors of the Sabahans. In the peninsula, Hang Tuah is described at the end of the epic: ‘It is said that Hang Tuah did not die, for he is a military chief to all men and above all a saint ... a king to all the forest folks.’ It is believed that if calamity were to befall his people he will return to save them. So he still is the protector and defender of his people forever watching over them.

However, as myths refuse to die they cast their meaning over time, they echo and reverberate in our time and age. As we confront demagogues, and present-day human monsters, wily politicians and military dictators who rule with outright powers, often denying the rights of others the myths return to offer their meanings. The gergasi giants, Rawana and the bloodthirsty Merong Mahawangsa, return along with them – and we see them in our government, military and commercial companies – with a force of relevance. For they are indeed real people in mythic garb. Some look forward to our immortal ancestors and protectors saving us, but others start their own war to defeat them.

These old myths point to possible solutions to the present problems. Others are reminders that among the citizens sometimes monsters may appear to trample their gardens and rights. We ask them and ourselves: Are they our making?

About The George Town Literary Festival

The George Town Literary Festival is the largest international literary festival in Malaysia which is supported and funded by the State Government of Penang. Held annually in the World UNESCO Heritage site of George Town, the GTLF is one of the last bastions of free speech in Malaysia and has a specific focus on world literature. The festival invites local and international writers, poets and performers to engage in topics and themes that are crucial to the world we live in. The GTLF believes in the power of free speech and expression, and is committed to being one of the most urgent, vital and provocative literary festivals in the region.