The Tale of the Heike
Translated by Royall Tyler?
Viking, 784 pages, $50

If you have ever read Lafcadio Hearn’s collection of Japanese tales Kwaidan , or seen Masaki Kobayashi’s brilliant film from 1965, you will recall “The Story of Mimi-nashi-H?ïchi,” which tells the tale of a blind biwa h?shi or “lute-priest””a professional rhapsode, that is”who lived in the temple of the Amida Buddha at Akamagaseki, near the Shimonoseki straits where the naval battle of Dan-no-ura had been fought centuries earlier. In that, the final great engagement of the Genpei War (1180“1185), the Heike (or Clan Taira) had suffered final defeat at the hands of the Genji (or House Minamoto), and the six-year-old Taira emperor Antoku had drowned in the arms of a court retainer who carried the child to his death below the waves rather than surrender him to his enemies.

Anyway, in Hearn’s tale, H?ïchi is visited one night at the temple by a stranger who, in the imperious tones of a samurai, summons him to come and recite the story of Dan-no-ura for a daimyo visiting the area with his court. H?ïchi obeys but cannot see (of course) that he is performing before the ghosts of the Taira who perished in those waters long ago. I will not reveal the ending; but I will remark that I was ten when I first read that story and even then could sense, just from the brief glimpse it afforded me of the Heike monogatari ( The Tale of the Heike ), that some immensely consequential history towered in the narrative background, and that its ghosts were somehow more terrible and tragic than the common run of fictional specters.

What I did not know then was how much of the special lore of heikyoku (Heike music) the tale reflects. The protagonist’s blindness, for instance, is more than an incidental detail; traditionally, the profession of biwa h?shi was chiefly occupied by men who had lost their sight. As for H?ïchi residing at the temple, biwa h?shi adopted a renunciant style of life, shaven heads and monastic robes included.

From the early thirteenth century on, moreover, their craft came to be almost exclusively associated with the story of the Heike’s downfall and related materials. Even the ghosts are an authentic touch: Heikyoku was intended in part (at least at first) as ritual appeasement of the wrathful spirits of the vanquished.

It was from this tradition that the Heike monogatari emerged, to become the Japanese national epic: a magnificent account of the twilight of Heian culture and of the rise of the sterner, more martial culture of late medieval Japan, full of beautiful and dreadful stories, and infused with a distinctively Japanese melancholy. It arose, naturally, not as a single authoritative text; beginning in oral tradition, it crystallized into a variety of versions, some intended for performance, others purely for private reading, each with its own distinct elements and emphases.

The best of the performance texts, however, and now effectively the definitive version, is that of Akashi Kakuichi (1300“1371), a master biwa h?shi of the Ichikata school who dictated it to his disciples shortly before his death. Kakuichi’s is the most refined synthesis of the various textual traditions of heikyoku , and the version of the tale that best brings out the themes of “devotional Buddhism” that pervade it: the impermanence of all things, the folly of pride and ambition, the inexorability of karma, the grace of the Amida Buddha (especially in the coda”the lovely “Initiates’ Book””that Kakuichi’s text, uniquely, attaches to the end of the epic).

There have been a number of complete or partial translations of Kakuichi’s Heike into English over the years. Particularly notable is Helen Craig McCullough’s version from 1988, which is so accurate and beguilingly elegant that it might almost be described as unsurpassable. At least, it leaves little room for any other version to improve upon it.

What a sufficiently talented translator might be able to do, however, is approach the work in a novel way, one no less faithful to the original than McCullough’s, but apt to allow Anglophone readers to appreciate dimensions of the text that otherwise would remain invisible to them. And this, it seems to me, is precisely what Royall Tyler’s new edition accomplishes.

Tyler is a distinguished scholar of Japanese literature, a translator whose most remarkable achievement to this point was the very impressive and almost militantly faithful Penguin edition of Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji , and his version of The Tale of the Heike is the fruit of long study, exacting fidelity, and real literary talent. It is a painstaking attempt to render the Japanese into English in a way that conveys as much as possible not only of the content of the source material but of its sensibility; it is designed to reflect, however imperfectly, the “texture” of the work as it might have been performed by a biwa h?shi . That is, even though the Japanese text is not laid out in the form of an epic poem (there being no native Japanese epic verse form), neither is it a prose narrative; rather, it is a combination of direct speech, stylized recitative, and song, each meant to be declaimed or sung in an appropriate manner.

So, rather than write another English prose version to rival McCullough’s, Tyler has used a heikyoku performance score from the eighteenth century (the Heike monogatari fushitsuki ) to arrange his text in a shifting combination of prose narrative, polypodal “epic” poetry, and a more “lyric” verse of shorter lines. This works extremely well.

The result is a style that is at once fluid and terse, and also one whose varying cadences and modulations of tone draw the reader continuously along with the flow of the story. It may not precisely reproduce the special music of proper heikyoku , but it certainly provides an analogous kind of pleasure. In this respect, it is indispensable. Simply said, it offers its readers a way of experiencing the tale that no other English rendering does.

Why a Western reader, even one largely uninterested in Japanese history or literature, might be attracted to that experience is not difficult to say. The Heike monogatari is, before all else, a grand and absorbing story, nearly as vast in its total effect as the Iliad and comparably ingenious in combining large-scale accounts of war and dynastic struggle with delicate portraiture of individual characters. Like most of the greatest Western epics, classical, medieval, or Renaissance, it freely mingles martial realism with mythic fantasy; but, framed as it is by real historical events, it also has something of the hard, clear reality of Icelandic saga.

The tale begins with the Taira clan’s ascendency in a time of imperial unrest, culminating in the rise of the ruthless tyrant Taira no Kiyomori (1118“1181) and the marriage of his daughter to the emperor. A failed conspiracy to remove Kiyomori from power provokes a response so cruel as to assure that the enemies of the Taira will only multiply. The only stay upon Kiyomori’s more violent impulses, as it happens, is his pious and honorable son Shigemori, who unfortunately falls ill and dies not long after the birth of Antoku to the emperor and Kiyomori’s daughter.

When his grandson is only three, Kiyomori deposes the emperor and places the child upon the throne. At this, the Minamoto resolve to overthrow Kiyomori and begin to gather their forces against him. At first, they suffer a number of grave defeats, but Kiyomori’s savagery”as well as his wanton destruction of a great many Buddhist temples”sets in motion a sequence of events that will ultimately lead to the total extermination of the Taira.

Kiyomori does not live to see the end of the war he has provoked, however, or the tragedy that his actions have made inevitable. But he does suffer for his sins. In his last year, he is tormented by vengeful spirits, harried by rebellions, and finally”about midway through the epic”killed by an agonizing ague. So fierce was his nature in life that his corpse remains as hot as a blazing furnace long after his death, and jets of water sprayed upon it from bamboo pipes are merely turned to flames and smoke. At the last, his wife Lady Nii (or Tokiko) is granted a vision in her dreams of the fiery chariot that will carry Kiyomori to hell.

From that point onward, the tale’s central figure becomes Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147“1199), the first military ruler (Shogun) of the Kamakura period. The Genpei war rages on, with great shifts in the fortunes of both sides, and many terrible battles, but karma favors the Minamoto, and the tale reaches its climax in the catastrophic defeat of the Taira at Dan-no-ura.

According to the epic, it is Lady Nii herself, Antoku’s grandmother, who wraps the child emperor in her arms and leaps into the sea. Thereafter, Yoritomo consolidates his rule and systematically eliminates the surviving members of the Taira clan; he even, after a long period of reluctance, orders the execution of the last male heir of the clan, Rokudai, whom initially he had been content to force to become a Buddhist monk.

A bare rehearsal of the central plot, however, can give no real sense of the grandeur and drama of the tale, or of the many subsidiary plots that rise and fall alongside the story of the Heike’s twilight”for instance, the tale of Kiyomori’s son Shigehira (1158“1185), the commander responsible for the burning of the city of Nara and its great temple, who becomes a penitent devotee of Amida as the day of his execution approaches. Neither can it convey how captivating the story is, nor certainly how moving its piety. In fact, in many ways it is its spiritual content that makes the Heike monogatari so unforgettable.

In Kakuichi’s version, this religious and moral dimension is given especially moving expression at the end, in the “Initiates’ Book” (which relates how the former empress Kenreimon-In, daughter of Kiyomori, lived out her final days as a nun). But it is also announced from the first, in the famous opening lines of the epic, which Tyler renders thus:

The Jetavana Temple bells
ring the passing of all things.
Twinned sal trees, white in full flower,
declare the great man’s certain fall.
The arrogant do not long endure:
They are like a dream one night in spring.
The bold and brave perish in the end:
They are as dust before the wind.

Very Buddhist themes, perhaps, but also quite universal; and in The Tale of the Heike they are given a treatment of rare power and beauty. Tyler’s version does the story justice, in its every aspect, and that is a very admirable achievement indeed.

David Bentley Hart is an editor at large for First Things . His most recent book is The Devil and Pierre Gernet .