Ti Jean And His Brothers: An allegory on the story of the Caribbean

Al Creighton’s Arts on Sunday for The Stabroek News.

In the folklore of the Eastern Caribbean island of St Lucia there is a popular character known as Ti Jean. He is a folk hero and his story is known in the island’s mythology. Part of the lore is the widespread belief that the configurations visible on the face of the full moon are pictures that take the shape of a man with a bundle of wood on his head and a little dog following behind him. It is said that Ti Jean is that famous ‘man in the moon’ and there is a story about how he got there.

He was a young boy who had to fight against the Devil, but despite his youth, size and impoverishment, he used his wits and cunning as well as the elements of surprise and daring, to defeat his powerful and intimidating foe. As a reward for that achievement, God elevated him and put him in the moon as a guide to the world. That is known as a myth of origin – a story used in folk belief to explain the existence of things encountered in the universe. In this case it explains how the man came to be in the moon.

Additionally, it is a celebration of the triumph of good over evil that is found universally in folk tales, including fairy tales and many religious myths. In St Lucia, it is a victory on behalf of the people, most of whom are members of the impoverished class of peasants, village folk and workers. These tales of triumph sustain them in their daily struggle against poverty and a socio-political existence as a people without power, without voice and representation. They gain power and liberation vicariously through mythology and folk heroes with the motif of the victory of good over evil.

The name Ti Jean is Creole French Patois for Little John – John is a common name and this character is a mere boy – so called because he is the youngest of three brothers, and demonstrates how a common small man without economic, social or political power can triumph over the prevailing adversity. He is the equivalent of ‘the everyman’ in Caribbean society with whom all can identify, and the story is the struggle of the Caribbean people for success.

This folk tale and its hero were used by the late St Lucian poet and playwright Derek Walcott, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, to write the play Ti Jean and His Brothers, a prescribed text for the Caribbean Secondary Education Certificate English B (literature) examination until 2023.

In Walcott’s play there are three brothers, sons of a poor woman living on the edge of a mountain forest. The Devil, who lives nearby, has grown tired of his immortality and is bored with his triumphs and activities. He has an overwhelming desire to know what it feels like to be mortal; he wants to experience fear, anger, laughter and human emotions. So he challenges the brothers to a contest with him, one by one, to see who can succeed in making the other angry. If the brothers win they will be rewarded, but if they get angry first they will be devoured. The two older brothers, Gros Jean and Mi Jean fail, but the youngest, Ti Jean, demonstrates the characteristics for success and beats the Devil.

Apart from a plot whose source is a West Indian folk tale, in creating the play, Walcott drew on a mixture of many other forms and traditions, including the fairy tale, Classical Greek drama, comedy, tragedy, the fable, Caribbean folklore characters and talking animals.

The fairy tale has had a striking effect on West Indian folk tales and in this case Walcott enriched his drama with such traditions. Prominent among these is the very common motif of a man or woman with three sons who one by one ventures out into the world to seek his fortune. In this tale there is the fairy tale factor of absentation – their father is dead, then one by one they leave home to take up the Devil’s challenge. Then there are donor characters who are willing to render assistance if the hero of the story passes the test and possesses the qualities necessary for success.

As borrowed from the fairy tale, both older brothers Gros Jean and Mi Jean, fail that test. They are arrogant and conceited. Gros Jean is strong – he has “an arm of iron” and a false sense of invincibility, so he scoffs at the idea that he could need help from the weak little animals or any advice from anyone. With this arrogance he plots his downfall because the animals render him no assistance and even Papa Bois takes advantage of his hasty dismissal of anything that does not possess his physical might, including wisdom from an old man. Papa Bois, who in this play is really the Devil in disguise, laughs at the ease with which Gros Jean falls into his trap.

Next is Mi Jean who has nothing but contempt for the animals who he insults and therefore gets no assistance from them. In his conceit, he considers himself superior because of his knowledge and learning, which are in fact superficial leaving him unintelligent and easy prey to the Devil’s traps.

On the contrary, Ti Jean has the good qualities that allow him to pass the test. He makes friends with the animals, complimenting them and being humble and civil. Since the conquest of good over evil is a fairy tale motif, Ti Jean’s humane attitudes fit in here, and the animals give him every assistance and support. As in the fairy tales, the youngest sibling is the kindest, most intelligent and genuine, so Ti Jean succeeds where his brothers fail.

But he also makes full use of his wits and at every turn he outsmarts the Devil. Success for the hero by use of wit and brain power is not only a motif in fairy tales, it is also common in Caribbean folk tales – Anansi is the prime example of this. These forms also share the appearance of talking animals, also found in Classical Greek plays. There are Greek comedies with a chorus of animals, some of the comedies of Aristophanes have titles like The Birds and The Frogs (Walcott used a frog as his narrator). But animals persist in West Indian folk tales and this is therefore also common in the local storytelling tradition.

Walcott, however, had other intentions above the performance of a folktale. Much of what he did with these forms was symbolic and used as vehicles to achieve other purposes, such as the dramatisation of themes. Among these is the Caribbean struggle through its history against slavery, oppression, colonialism and poverty. There is the struggle of Caribbean people for liberation and independence.

In Ti Jean and His Brothers, the Devil disguises himself as a white planter and this is symbolic. That planter is an archetypal character representing plantation society and the coloniser class. Presenting him as the Devil suggests the evil at the head of the system of slavery, the entire history of racism, cruelty, exploitation and inhumanity and the reduction of a people to poverty.

The treatment of Gros Jean becomes important here. The planter perpetually infuriates Gros Jean by pretending to forget his name. This is a persistent weapon to drive him to anger whereupon he would lose the bet, but more than that it was a longstanding ploy under slavery and neo-colonialism. Non-recognition of the names of the enslaved was a known practice to strip them of their identity which would have given them a certain amount of cultural power, which for the planter was a threat against his security. The enslaved were given their owners’ names, Christian names, or names taken from Greek or Roman classicism and mockingly applied. The removal of names was as much a racist slur as it was a form of oppression and a weapon used by the Devil in the play.

When the Frog sneezes, using the utterance “Aeschylus-me!”, there is humour. He is saying “excuse me”, but it was also Walcott’s acknowledgement of borrowing from the Greek playwrights. Aeschylus was a tragedian, and Walcott introduced some elements of the Greek tragedy in his treatment of the Devil, who comes over at times as the tragic hero. There is an almost sympathetic study of a great tragic character. It is a humanisation of the immortal Satan and a comment on human weakness.

The play takes on Christianity with its frequent use of Christian mythology and the repetition of the ironic statement when Ti Jean says looking at the Devil’s face is like gazing at the blinding face of God, and the Devil responds: “It is hard to distinguish us”. Walcott teased the Christian with statements that the Devil “owns half the world”, that he and God are two equal emperors. But worse, Christianity often comes over as indistinguishable from colonial impoverishment of the people in the forest and the villages.

That is why Ti Jean and His Brothers is often describ-ed as an allegory, the disguise for a hard-hitting com-mentary on poverty and persistent colonisation of poor people, and the struggle of the Caribbean nations for independence.

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