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Hidden Paradigms: Comparing Epic Themes, Characters, and Plot Structures

Hidden Paradigms: Comparing Epic Themes, Characters, and Plot Structures
By Brenda E.F. Beck
University of Toronto Press

Understanding an epic story’s key belief patterns can reveal community-level values, the nature of familial bonds, and how divine and human concerns jockey for power and influence. These foundational motifs remain understudied as they relate to South Asian folk legends, but are nonetheless crucial in shaping the values exemplified by such stories’ central heroes and heroines.

In Hidden Paradigms, anthropologist Brenda E.F. Beck describes The Legend of Ponnivala, an oral epic from rural South India. Recorded in 1965, this story was sung to a group of village enthusiasts by a respected pair of local bards. This grand legend took more than thirty-eight hours to complete over eighteen nights. Bringing this unique example of Tamil culture to the attention of an international audience, Beck compares this virtually unknown South Indian epic to five other culturally significant works – the Ojibwa Nanabush cycle, the Mahabharata, an Icelandic Saga, the Bible, and the Epic of Gilgamesh – establishing this foundational Tamil story as one that engages with the same universal human struggles and themes present throughout the world. Copiously illustrated, Hidden Paradigms provides a fresh example of the power of comparative thinking, offering a humanistic complement to scientific reasoning.

Brenda E.F. Beck is an adjunct professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto Scarborough.

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