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The Four Puppets
A Tale of Burma

Told by Aaron Shepard

Printed in Australia’s School Magazine, May 2007


For more treats and resources, visit Aaron Shepard at
www.aaronshep.com

Copyright © 1997, 1998 by Aaron Shepard. May not be published or posted without permission.

PREVIEW: A young man seeking his fortune gets differing advice from four talking puppets.

GENRE: Folktales, fairy tales
CULTURE: Burmese, Buddhist
THEME: Virtue
AGES: 7 and up
LENGTH: 1500 words

Aaron’s Extras
All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.


Once there was a puppet maker who had a son named Aung. The father always hoped his son would grow up to be a puppet maker like himself. But to Aung, such a life was far from exciting.

“Father,” said Aung one day, “I’ve decided to leave home and seek my fortune.”

The puppet maker looked up sadly from his work. “I wish you would stay, my son. The life of a puppet maker is an honorable one. But if you must go, let me give you companions for your journey.”

He showed his son four wooden puppets he had carved, painted, and costumed. “Each puppet,” he said, “has its own virtue and value.”

The first puppet was the king of the gods. The puppet maker said, “The god’s virtue is wisdom.”

The second puppet was a green-faced ogre. “The ogre’s virtue is strength.”

The third was a mystic sorcerer. “The sorcerer’s virtue is knowledge.”

The fourth was a holy hermit. “The hermit’s virtue is goodness.”

He told his son, “Each of these virtues can help you on your way. But remember, strength and knowledge must always serve wisdom and goodness.”

Aung started off the next day. On his shoulder he carried a bamboo pole, with food and clothing tied at one end, and the puppets hanging by their strings from the other.

When night came, Aung found himself deep in the jungle. He stopped beneath a banyan tree.

“This looks like a good place to sleep,” he said to himself. “But I wonder if it’s safe.”

Then Aung had a funny idea. “I think I’ll ask one of the puppets!” He turned with a smile to the king of the gods. “Tell me, is it safe here?”

To his amazement, the puppet came alive. It got down from the pole and grew to life size.

“Aung,” said the god, “open your eyes and look around you. That is the first step to wisdom. If you fail to see what is right before you, how easy it will be for others to misguide you!”

And the next moment, the puppet was hanging again from the pole.

When Aung had gotten over his shock, he looked carefully all around the tree. There in the soft earth were the tracks of a tiger! That night he slept not on the ground but in the branches above. And he was glad he did, for in the middle of the night, he saw a tiger come prowling below him.

The next day took Aung into the mountains, and at sunset he left the road and camped a little way up the mountainside. When he awoke the next morning, he saw a caravan coming along the road below. A dozen bullock carts were piled high with costly goods.

“That caravan must belong to some rich merchant,” Aung told himself. “I wish I had wealth like that.”

Then he had a thought. He turned to the green-faced ogre. “Tell me, how can I gain such riches?”

Aung watched in wonder as the puppet left the pole and grew to life size. “If you have strength,” boomed the ogre, “you can take whatever you like. Watch this!” He stamped his foot and the earth shook.

“Wait!” said Aung. But it was too late. Just below them, dirt and rocks broke loose in a landslide. It rushed down the mountain and blocked the road. The terrified drivers jumped from their carts and ran off.

“You see?” said the ogre.

“Is it really that easy?” said Aung, in a daze.

He hurried down to the carts and rushed from one to another, gaping at the heaps of rich fabrics and piles of precious metals. “And all of it’s mine!” he cried.

Just then, Aung heard a sob. Lying huddled in one of the carts was a lovely young woman his own age. She cried and shivered in fear.

“I won’t hurt you,” said Aung gently. “Who are you?”

“My name is Mala,” she said in a small voice. “My father is the owner of this caravan. We were on our way to meet him.”

All at once, Aung knew he was in love. He wanted to keep Mala with him forever. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I’ll take you with me and care for you.”

Mala sat up angrily. “Go ahead! Take me, like you’re taking everything else! But you’re just a thief, and I’ll never, ever speak to you!”

Aung was shocked. Was he really just a thief? He didn’t know what to say.

The ogre came up beside him then. “Don’t listen to her. She’ll change her mind—and anyway, the important thing is you got what you wanted. Now, let’s go.”

The ogre cleared the road, then helped Aung lead the caravan. That afternoon, they came out of the mountains, not far from the capital city.

Aung asked the ogre, “What should I do, now that I have all these riches?”

“Don’t ask me!” said the ogre. “Ask the sorcerer!”

Aung turned to the mystic sorcerer. “Can you tell me?”

The puppet came to life and floated before him, as Mala looked on with wide eyes. “If you want your wealth to grow,” said the sorcerer, “you must learn the secrets of nature.”

He tapped Aung with his red wand, and together they rose high in the air. Looking down, Aung saw everything in a new way. He could tell what land was best for farming, and which mountains held gold and silver.

“This is wonderful!” said Aung. “Just think how I can help people with what I know!”

“Certainly you could,” said the sorcerer. “But knowledge is power. Why not keep it all for yourself instead? Isn’t that what other people do?”

“I suppose so,” said Aung.

So they came to the capital city. Aung became a merchant, and with the help of the ogre and the sorcerer, he grew many times richer than at first. He bought a palace for himself and Mala, and kept the puppets in a special room of their own.

But Aung was not happy, for Mala still would not speak to him.

One day, he placed before her a headdress fit for a queen. The heavy gold was set with dozens of large rubies, sapphires, and emeralds. The magnificent piece had cost Aung a third of his wealth.

Mala took one look and pushed it away.

Aung was heartbroken. He said, “Don’t you know I love you?” But she only glared at him and said not a word.

The next morning, Aung went to the puppets’ room and spoke to the ogre and the sorcerer. “Mala’s father must now be very poor, while I have more than I need. I’ll help Mala find him so I can pay him for what I took. Maybe then she’ll speak to me, and even learn to love me.”

“A terrible idea!” said the ogre. “You should never give up what is yours. You’re just being weak!”

“Besides,” the sorcerer told him, “you’re too late. Mala ran away last night.”

“What?” cried Aung. He rushed through the palace, but Mala was nowhere to be found.

Aung returned to the puppets’ room in despair. “What good is all my wealth if I’ve lost what I care for most?”

For once, the ogre and the sorcerer were silent and still.

Then Aung remembered there was one puppet he had never called on. He turned to the holy hermit. “Tell me, why has everything gone wrong?”

The puppet came to life. “Aung, you imagined that wealth brings happiness. But true happiness comes only from goodness. What is important is not what you have but what you do with it.”

The king of the gods then came to life and stood beside the hermit. “You forgot what your father told you, Aung. Strength and knowledge are useful, but they must always serve wisdom and goodness.”

“I won’t forget again,” said Aung.

From that day on, Aung used his wealth and his talents to do good. He built a splendid holy pagoda, and offered food and shelter to those who visited the shrine.

One day among the visitors, Aung saw a young woman he knew well. An older man stood beside her, both of them wearing humble clothes.

“Mala!” cried Aung. He rushed over to the startled young woman and knelt before her puzzled father.

“Sir, I have done you great wrong. I beg your forgiveness. All I have is yours, and I give it up gladly. I will be content to return to my village and make puppets.”

“Father,” said Mala softly, “this is Aung. But he has changed!”

“So it would seem!” said her father. “And if so, it would be a shame to let go of a young man of such talent. Perhaps he would like to work for me, and live with us in the palace.”

So Aung became the merchant’s assistant, and before long his partner, and when Mala’s heart was won, his son-in-law.

As for the puppets, Aung still called on them as needed. But though he was helped often by strength and knowledge, he was guided always by wisdom and goodness.


About the Story

In Burma—or Myanmar, as named by the current regime—puppet plays have been performed since at least the 1400s. In the 1700s, the royal court began to formally sponsor and regulate the puppet theater, causing it to quickly grow in prestige. In the 1800s, puppet theater was considered the most highly developed of the entertainment arts, and was also the most popular. Though no longer as popular today, the tradition is still maintained by a small number of performing troupes.

A Burmese puppet troupe includes puppet handlers, vocalists, and musicians. Plays are based on Buddhist fables, historical legends, and folktales, among other stories. The shows are performed for adults and children together, and typically last all night.

The puppets themselves are marionettes, ranging in height from about one to three feet. Nearly all are stock figures, changing their names but keeping their characteristics for each play. Some of these puppet types have been standard for centuries—especially those developed from Buddhist fables, which probably formed the puppeteers’ first repertoire.

The story retold here features four familiar figures. The king of the gods is Thagyarmin, the Burmese name for the deity called Sakka by Indian Buddhists and Indra by Hindus. (The rest of India’s heavenly gods—called devas—have been replaced by the Burmese with native gods called nats.) For Buddhists, a god is a powerful being still of lower rank than one who becomes a Buddha or Bodhisattva.

The figure here called an ogre is more accurately termed a demon—yaksha in Sanskrit. But with its great strength and its habit of eating people, it comes closer to the ogre in Western fairy mythology.

The sorcerer—zawgyi, in Burmese—is a survivor from pre-Buddhist Burma. The zawgyi practices alchemy to attain immortal life, along with lesser attainments such as the power of flight. An almost exact parallel is in the Chinese popular concept of the Taoist “Immortal.” The “dance of the zawgyi” is one of the most popular portions of the puppeteers’ pre-play warm-up.

Finally, the hermit is a seeker who lives in solitude and strives for spiritual advancement. Though he is more characteristic of the Hindu tradition—which many Buddhist fables draw on—the puppet is costumed as a Buddhist monk.

As with the puppet theater, most of Burmese society and culture is steeped in the dominant Buddhist faith. In Burma, no deed is considered more worthy than to build a pagoda—a towering shrine that typically houses holy relics or a sacred image. Making a pilgrimage to such shrines is also considered a worthy religious act.

This tale is retold chiefly from “The Four Puppets,” retold by Khin Myo Chit, in Folk Tales from Asia for Children Everywhere, Book 3, UNESCO, 1976. For more on Burma’s puppet theater, see Burmese Puppets, by Noel F. Singer, Oxford University Press, 1992. A good general introduction to the country is Myanmar, by Wilhelm Klein, APA Publications, 1992, from the Insight Guide series.

How to Say the Names

Aung ~ AWNG (rhymes with “wrong”)
Mala ~ MAH-la

Hear the Names
All special features are at www.aaronshep.com/extras.