I was reading Owen Rutter’s 1922 work, British North Borneo: An Account of its History, Resources, and Native Tribes, when I came across an interesting account about a “native” story about orangutans. By “native,” Rutter was referring to people on Borneo other than Malays. There were many different groups of “native” peoples at the time, and I don’t know if the story he recounted came from one group, or if it was shared by many.
In any case, I’m just going to quote what he wrote (pgs. 13-14) and then comment at the end:
. . . the most interesting inhabitant of the Borneo jungle is so strangely human that it has earned the Malay name orang utan — man of the forest. In its native state it travels great distances in search of the fruit that is its food, moving deliberately and not flinging itself from branch to branch like the monkeys, yet capable of great speed.
It obtains its water from the leaves and rarely comes to earth. It is found only in Borneo and Sumatra, and in at least two distinct species, the larger, which attains great size and strength, being more common in Sarawak than North Borneo.
Unlike the gregarious monkeys, it lives in families, not herds, and makes a nest of twigs and boughs far up in the forest trees. When pursued and enraged it tears off branches and hurls them to the ground uttering its strange cry, half-belch half-coo, from which it gets its native name kogyu.
It is not strange that the orang utan should be the subject of native legends. There is one which tells of a native girl whom an orang utan carried off and kept a prisoner on the top of a lofty tree from which there was no escape. He treated her kindly, made her a nest amid the branches and every day would bring her fruit to eat and coconuts to drink.
In course of time she bore the jungle man a little son, part ape, part human being. Her heart grew even heavier than before at this shame she had brought into the world and she longed more than ever to be free.
At last she hit upon a plan, and when her captor was away she would patiently twist into a rope the fibre from the coconuts he brought her, hiding her work among the leaves, until there came a day when the rope was long enough to reach the ground. Quickly she slipped down and fled towards the sea, leaving the little babe behind.
But her jungle husband soon discovered her escape, and, just as she saw the blue sea dancing beyond the lattice of the jungle, she heard his howls of rage from the branches overhead as he followed, swinging from tree to tree; before he could reach the ground, however, she burst her way through to the coral beach and scrambled into a fishing-boat that, by the kindness of the fates, was putting out to sea.
The baffled ape went back to his leafy nest; in his rage he seized his strange son and tore him in two, flinging all that was human of him into the sea after his mother and all that was of the jungle back into the forest from whence he came.
But the man of the woods never caught his one-time bride again and to this day, when they hear that strange guttural cry far up in the jungle trees, the natives say, “There is Kogyu looking for his lost bride, to take her back to his leafy home.”
– As I was reading this, and having seen “Tangled,” the recent Disney version of the Rapunzel story, I was thinking that this would make a great animation film – a kind of “Borneo Rapunzel” in which a trapped girl escapes by using coconut fiber rather than hair.
Then I got to the part where the orangutan tears apart the baby. . . and realized that if it is made into a movie, it probably shouldn’t be for kids. But it is a great story, and would make for a great animation.
Animation is wonderful for visually depicting folk stories like this one where “the impossible” happens. Some people at Monash University have been creating such animations for stories that some of the indigenous peoples of Australia created in the past (including audio of the narration in an indigenous language).
I really like what they are doing, and as the story above indicates, there are many more great stories out there that could be animated like this.