Go to epic
(approximately five pages.)
Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf,
and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song. John Miles Foley. 1990.
The stated purpose of the book is to
1) briefly examine some problems in oral traditional poetics.
2) set forth a "program for reading" oral and oral-derived texts.
3) apply this program to five texts
(1 ancient Greek, 1 Old English, and 3 Serbo-Croatian).
...analysis of traditional patterning.
Oral traditional characteristics include:
formulaic phraseology; typical scenes;
lengthy catalogues of items and people;
meter, alliteration, rhyme, assonance, consonance,
stress, tone, hiatus, juncture, elison,
and in general, sound patterns of any sort.
The relationship between melody and the poetic line
[Are persons or places sometimes represented
by certain rhythms, melodies, or other formal elements?]
distinction between unambiguously oral texts
(direct transcriptions of natural-context performances),
and oral-derived texts.
In Greece there was oral recitation of Homer from memory or script--
last stages of primary oral tradition.
One must ask:
Has a performer memorized an earlier performer's improvisations?
Did the scribe control the performance?
Did the performer perform it specially for the scribe,
slowing down, dictating it, foregoing strumming of the gusle
If so, how might this affect the text?
Albert Lord --
"An oral poet who is asked to dictate a song for someone
to write finds himself in an unusual and abnormal position.
He is accustomed to composing rapidly to the accompaniment
of a musical instrument which sets the rhythm and tempo
of his performance. For the first time he is without this
rhythmic assistance, and at the beginning he finds it difficult
to make his lines. He can easily learn to do this, however,
and he sets up a certain rhythm in his mind. He is also
somewhat annoyed by having to wait between lines for
the scribe to write."
In general, the oral-dictated text reveals fewer "errors" of all kinds:
fewer "bad" lines (unmetrical or fragmentary verse).
slips of the tongue ( substitution of words such as near-homophones),
divergences in the narrative,
and other blemishes in phrasing or plot structure.
Finally, one must always ask:
Did the scribe (or subsequent copiers) edit the manuscript?
knowledge of various genres (by scholar)
knowledge of a culture's entire oral tradition (by scholar).
(text's formulas, themes, sound-patterns, story-patterns, etc.;
and performer's repertoire and community of singers)
(historical and evolutionary background)
Tradition preserves what is of value to it from the past.
Outline of JMF's "program" --
a) Is the text oral or oral-derived?
what is text's original language and philology?
how does tradition compare/contrast with others?
what are text's national, local, and idiolectal aspects?
d) Synchronic and diachronic contexts.
Five-part story-pattern of the Serbo-Croatian "Return Song" --
Absence (from home).
Devastation (of home).
Retribution (against those who devastated).
Re-emergence of the seemingly lost hero
and his re-ascension to his proper social and familial position
through a series of contests, and a prolonged rapprochement
with his wife or betrothed.
[JMF of course sees this Return Song pattern in the Odyssey.
He deduces that the pattern is of Indo-European origin.
He is interested in the historical-geographic approach.
He is imagining that there was an Ur-form of the story.]
By the sixth century bc, Homeric poetry had already spread
from its probable source in Ionia to all parts of the Greek world.
The various meters which have emerged and now stand as
entities in the extent texts all stem ultimately from one or
a series of Indo-European prototypes of unitary and extremely
[Approximately a third of this book is dedicated to discussion
of meters in the various texts/languages. I could follow very little
of this discussion, so little regarding it is reported here.]
In the Stolac district of central Hercegovina, Parry and Lord
found folk anthropomorphization of the epic singing tradition.
Contemporary guslars sang of a semi-legendary guslar
who was summoned for only the grandest occasions,
and was always rewarded splendidly for his performances.
He was invited to perform before royalty
and at weddings of all denominations.
He won all song contests.
This idealized figure was a singer of wide experience.
He traveled and performed everywhere.
Guslars insisted their songs were "true"
but admitted to "ornamentation."
"All is true, I believe, yes, even though some things are added
to make it more fitting. But there were all sorts of things then--
there were heroes, and in yet earlier times there was a great
number of them, and there were horses and swords and all.
It was not then as it is today."
In other words, in singing he is recalling or recreating
a heroic age when the events that make up his and
others' songs actually took place, and although that time
is far-removed from the present day, he believes in its reality.
In order to portray that age in the most "fitting" way possible,
he and others "add" the stateliness and grandeur of the epic tradition.
Mujo (a guslar) tends to spice answers to questions
about his personal history with the heroic details of his oral tradition.
Formulaic phrases have to do with
1) common characters.
2) frequent actions.
3) the time when an action occurs.
4) the place where an action occurs.
Typical actions in Serbo-Croatioan epic include:
shouting in prison,
escape from prison,
speaking to an assembly,
mounting a horse.
An aspect of traditional parataxis crucial to the shaping and
maintenance of formulaic phraseology is that general area
encompassing the phenomena of pleonasm (more properly,
terracing), thrift, and enjambement. All three phenomena
are involved in the functional redundancy that operates at
all levels of oral poetics.
Terracing consists of the repetition, in the following line,
of a word or words employed in an initial line.
Lord described how the traditional epic phrase
evolved out of ritual into a metrical convenience
and compositional device. He views the formula's roots
as ultimately religious: "Its symbols, its sounds, its patterns
were born for magic productivity, not for aesthetic satisfaction."
There is a narrative morphology behind such scenes as
arrival, sacrifice and feast, departure (of ships and other vehicles),
armor and dressing, sleep, pondering, oath, and bath.
"The theme can be identified as a recurrent element
of narration or description in traditional oral poetry.
It is not restricted, as is the formula, by metrical
A typical scene does not necessarily involve
a fixed sequence of words or ideas, but
"an inherited preverbal Gestalt for the spontaneous
generation of a 'family' of meaningful details"
Complex of association and referentiality.
Conglomeration of narrative matter.
Aggregation of units and phraseology
in the service of a traditional idea.
Discussion of thematic morphology.
Looking at 3 themes in the Odyssey:
Bath, Greeting, and Feast.
In each case, how are actions and elements grouped?
What are the conventional or institutional associations?
Bath is embedded in the ritual of hospitality.
Within the conventions of Homeric hospitality,
there is a traditional set of expectations around sharing a meal.
Bathing generally leads to a Feast--
although conversations and other actions may intervene.
Other elements can be inserted into the breach.
Insertion of particularizing features.
Ways to delay closure of a unit include:
Intensification and enlargement of detail (ornamentation).
The asking of a series of questions.
The expected closure can be suspended while a unique,
non-traditional element is inserted. That is, the singer
can interrupt the pattern and rhythm of a scene.
Suspension of closure.
Delay in fulfillment of the action
creates a tension of expectation.
Singers sometimes disrupt the flow of a story
and seemingly pervert its compositional structure.
However, insertion of reversals of expected elements
spring from the same traditional form.
For example, an anti-Wedding may occur where a Wedding
was expected. But if the Wedding is either conditional or
negatively fulfilled, it cannot be a final Wedding. Rather,
the song will go on, seeking, as it were, an unconditional,
positive Wedding to close out the narrative.
Open-ended frustration is not inherent to epic.
Certain physical and verbal signals are associated with Greeting.
Usually a person hands a cup of wine to another.
With words of welcome, farewell, or honor,
one makes a prayer or wish for the other.
Sometimes one invites the other to make a libation.
Unlike the Bath scene, Greeting has no particular
association with other scenes, although Greeting
is associated with the general situations of coming
and going, that is, of arriving and taking leave.
The theme can consist of a tightly knit series of discrete
actions or of a looser aggregation that leaves more room
for individual, situation-specific variation.
Standard Homeric progression:
Seating, Washing, Feasting.
a) a maidservant brings water for washing.
b) a table is placed before the guest and host.
c) a housekeeper provides bread and other foodstuffs.
d) a carver passes out meat and golden cups.
e) the diners eat.
f) the diners are satisfied.
Core actions identify the pattern as a compositional unit.
There is a definite series and sequence.
"The singer always has the end of the theme in mind.
He knows where he is going. The singer can stop and
fondly dwell upon any single item without losing a sense
of the whole. The style allows comfortably for
digression and enrichment."
Some elements have no consistent sequential relationship
with others; some occur regularly together.
Lord's phrase, "tension of essences" --
themes cohere not by the mechanistic imposition
of a narrative latticework, but rather through
the mutual attraction of the involved units for one another.
"The guslar will pause at almost any point to rest himself.
But it is demonstrable that the singer will not resume his
song at just any point; rather, he 'backtracks' to the last
traditional boundary and, after a brief proem for continuance,
begins anew from there. This usually means reverting to the
last thematic or subthematic structure and identifying it
as a starting point."
Finding his way back into the flow of the performance...
No singer ever pondered the morphology of themes, motifs,
and elements; were he able to do so with any of the
philological rigor we espouse, he would have removed
himself from the oral tradition and lost the ability to sing.
Epic heroes often have substitutes and surrogates in a story.
In one Turkish epic, the enraged hero marshals his forces
and calls upon the trickster hero, named Tale, to join him.
Despite his almost comic reversal of heroic dignity and
appearance, Tale is essential to wedding parties and armies:
as the singers say time and again, one cannot do without him.