Themes and Characters

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768

The cast of characters includes Buddhist monks, ancient warriors, and kings in their mighty palaces. A young apprentice monk seems very small in a world including all these people, plus the grand mountains and weather in many forms.

Even more clearly depicted than Sangay, the young yak-herder who becomes a...

(The entire section contains 768 words.)

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The cast of characters includes Buddhist monks, ancient warriors, and kings in their mighty palaces. A young apprentice monk seems very small in a world including all these people, plus the grand mountains and weather in many forms.

Even more clearly depicted than Sangay, the young yak-herder who becomes a monk, is Jatsang, the sorceress who decides to accompany him on his journey. That is partly because for the first half of Sangay's story, he is much like the other young people in the village and the monastery. However, Jatsang has a motley assortment of talents and character traits that make her more unique than anyone else in the story. The monks and Abbot may have taught Sangay for seven years, but Jatsang is able to teach him much in a journey of some weeks.

In the early part of the novel, Sangay works and plays with other children—his girl cousin Dechen from his village and young apprentice monks in the monastery. Kernaghan's experiences as a mother (or excellent recall from her own childhood) have helped her write realistic interactions among these children. In the latter part of the novel, Sangay sets out on a journey which sets him among less ordinary people—bandits and hermits, and strange creatures like yeti and tulpas. Kernaghan manages to bring a sense of wonder to these interactions while still making them seem believable.

The home life of young Sangay is both comforting and interesting. Though he has more responsibilities than many North American children who dwell in cities, the duties of a yak-herder are not too much for a five to eight-year-old boy. There is time to play with his cousins and sibling, just as there is for children in modern farm families. An on-going theme throughout the novel is that there is always useful work to be done, for daily maintenance, for training, and even after one has had visions. This novel is a clear depiction in fiction of the truth of a Zen Buddhist saying: "Before enlightenment, chop wood and carry water. After enlightenment, chop wood and carry water."

But there is more than only work at home and, later, in the monastery. It is clear that Sangay's parents both rely on their son and care for him deeply. They give him useful, handsome gifts when he is sent to the monastery. The knowledge of their love sustains the boy even when he is far away. It is also clear that Sangay's teachers see him as more than a pair of hands to sweep floors. He is given a fine education and taught to use his mind and body well by teachers who are concerned for his moral development and expect him to accomplish more than polishing shrines.

It is both a duty and an honor for each family to send a son to be trained as a monk. A country which provides a marginal living for a limited number of people cannot sustain a growing population without limits. Conscripting so many young males to be monks is partly a form of population control and partly a way to train a standing army for defense. Some may say it is among the gentlest ways possible to do both.

The training of a Buddhist monk encourages acceptance and obedience rather than heroic individual action. Kernaghan worked to make her protagonist faithful to the tenets of his Buddhist faith, yet capable of strong, independent action in the face of danger and adversity. "And so," Kernaghan says in an interview posted on The Lonely Cry website, "I gave my young hero Sangay as role-models the warrior-monks of earlier times who bore arms in defense of their country; and as mentor, the fiercely independent-minded Bon sorceress Jatsang."

It will not escape the reader who knows anything about the high mountains of the Himalayas that she also gave Sangay the name Tenzing. Tenzing Norgay was the Sherpa guide who, with Sir Edmund Hilary, first climbed Mount Everest safely to the summit and returned.

Sangay's quest to find the King of Shambhala bears some resemblance to the Quest for the Holy Grail and to the story of Percival. It is fascinating to note that a novel (written by a Canadian) which makes something of Tibetan Buddhism understandable to English-speaking readers, can touch on traditional story elements from the Grail Quest's blending of Celtic myth and Christian imperialism (composed by authors influenced by the Norman French). Perhaps the reason lies in both stories being composed by authors who intended to improve cultural understanding in their multicultural audiences, in addition to writing a good adventure story.

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