Oral formulaic epic

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Wade Tarzia
[Written for a defunct folklore encyclopedia project; this web-document is for personal information only; not to be quoted or further distributed without the author’s permission.]
ORAL FORMULAIC EPIC – A traditional heroic narrative, usually in poetry but sometimes prose with verse or song interludes, performed in a predominantly nonliterate society. The compositional method uses “themes” (narrative models) to construct scenes and short passages, and “formulas” (repeated phrase-types) to construct verse lines, which enables rapid, live creation of long stories. Performance is sometimes accompanied by a simple stringed instrument. The content of epics concerns the actions of a hero who benefits society by founding a ruling dynasty, killing monsters, or by representing ideal qualities of the ethnic group.
Besides serving as entertainment, traditional epics: preserve the folk history of the group; communicate the society’s worldview (‘rules’ of social and supernatural world); extol virtuous behavior and reveal shameful conduct; instruct the ruling class (and its political dependents) in the specific behavior of heroic and elite conduct (ceremony, loyalty, bravery, ruthlessness, etc.); and provide an ideology justifying the rule of the elite. Oral epics can also function in less obvious but equally important ways: their presentation of ideals and group history promotes social unity. Some epics predominantly concern the hero’s occult knowledge and power; others predominantly involve battles against mortal enemies (sometimes monsters), although features can be mixed.
A sample listing of world epics (not exhaustive) follows; dates refer to approximate manuscript date for ancient texts or recent date of ethnographic recording:
Gilgamesh (Sumerian ca. 2000 BC) -

The Iliad and the Odyssey (Homer, Greek, ca 700 BC)

Mahābhārata and Rāmāyana (India, 200 BC-200AD)

Shāhnāma Epic (Iran, 9th century AD)

The Cattle-Raid of Cuailnge (Irish, ca 8th to 10th century AD)

Beowulf (Anglo-Saxon, ca. 9th century AD)

Saga cycle of Sigurth (Old Norse-Icelandic, ca. 1,000 AD)

The Song of Roland (French, ca 1000 AD)

The Song of the Niebelungs (German, ca. 1100 AD)

The Song of the Cid (Spanish, ca 1100 AD)

The Book of Dede Korkut (Turkish, 15th century AD)

The Kalevala (Finland, 19th century)

Byliny (short Russian epics, 19th century)

The Wedding of Smailagic Meho (Serbo-Croatian, 20th century)

The Manas Epic (Kirghiz, 20th century)

The Epic of Son-Jara/Sun-Juta (Mali, Africa, 20th century)

The Mwindo Epic (Zaïre, Africa, 20th century)
Epic is a genre of folklore. Oral folk genres have a live performer and an audience, which influence each other. The mood and agenda of both poet and audience are affected by current events, resulting in different ‘pressures’ on the story, thus variations of it. If two prominent families in the community are feuding, the poet could perform an episode emphasizing the ideal behavior of neighboring kinship groups. Thus epics exist as “multiforms”: each performance is a different version (length and selected episodes) of the same story. Yet most tellings of a certain story type in a given locale will have a common ‘core’ of structure: variance is never “wild” because of the conservative tendency in folklore. These features are generally those of folk narrative, but folk epics also represent specialized techniques fully analyzed first by Albert Lord in his seminal work, The Singer of Tales (1960). Here he explained the formulaic method (comprising themes and formulaic phrases) by which long epics could be orally composed without the aid of writing, a theory later researchers have refined. The oral basis of traditional epic was not always recognized. Early scholarship tended to see such works as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as early literary masterpieces – with some stylistic quirks that only later were known as marks of oral composition – beginning the literary canon of Western culture. In fact, the telling of traditional stories was often associated as a negative trait of so-called ‘primitive people’ upon whom cosmopolitan, formally educated scholars sometimes looked condescendingly. This attitude changed as the disciplines of folklore, anthropology, and oral studies developed over the 19th and 20th centuries, and scholarship in general moved toward global perspectives.
Oral poets compose long epics by constructing them one segment at a time through use of narrative ‘models’ called themes. Themes are groupings of ideas in a sequence, or repeated passages of narration or description that appear often through an epic tradition. Oral poets do not memorize themes; they have learned to construct themes during live performance just as we have learned to start conversations with ‘themes’ (‘recent weather’ themes, for example) without having memorized any specific way to start a casual conversation. Think of themes as meal recipes – it is easier to carry the recipes than the food, and we can vary a recipe without ruining the meal. Thus, oral poets have available various themes to quickly form beginnings, endings, various episodes, transitions, and the like. Two themes of “the start of a sea voyage” from the Odyssey illustrate the theme. Here, Telemachos leaves to find his father:
They all carried provisions down and stored them in the strong-benched

vessel, in the way the dear son of Odysseus directed them.

Telemachos went aboard the ship, but Athene went first

and took her place in the stern of the ship, and close besides her

Telemachos took his place. The men cast off the stern cables

and themselves also went aboard and sat to the oarlocks.

The goddess gray-eyed Athene sent them a favoring stern wind,

strong Zephyros, who murmured over the wine-blue water.

Telemachos then gave the sign and urged his companions

to lay hold of the tackle, and they listened to his urging

and, raising the mast pole made of fir, they set it upright

in the hollow hole in the box, and made it fast with forestays,

and with halyards strongly twisted of leather pulled up the white sails.

The wind blew into the middle of the sail, and at the cutwater

a blue wave rose and sang strongly as the ship went onward.

(Bk 2, ll. 422ff., Lattimore trans.)

Here, Odysseus and his companions leave the isle of Circle
‘Now when we had gone down again to the sea and our vessel,

first of all we dragged the ship down into the bright water,

and in the black hull set the mast in place, and set sails,

and took the sheep and walked them aboard, and ourselves also

embarked, but sorrowful, and weeping big tears. Circe

of the lovely hair, the dread goddess who talks with mortals,

sent us an excellent companion, a following wind, filling

the sails, to carry from astern the ship with the dark prow.

We ourselves, over all the ship making fast the running gear,

sat still, and let the wind and the steersman hold her steady.

(Bk 11, ll. 1 ff.):
These narratives complete a similar scene of voyaging and use some of the same essential ideas – setting the mast, provisioning the ship, watching the wind fill sail, mention of the prow and rigging – but the theme leaves room to vary details, to lengthen, shorten, or ornament. The poet adds details – perhaps descriptions of the hero’s clothing and weapons – or omits them to move quickly to the next theme. Oral poets make some of these decisions by judging the audience’s interest. Composition by theme is not, then, dully repetitious.
If the theme is the building block of epic, then the formula is the building block of the theme. A formula is a phrase (sometimes a complete idea; hundreds of them exist in tradition) so useful in expressing essential ideas for that culture, that oral poets use it frequently. Formulas help build lines of poetry since they are framed in the most common metrical units encountered. If a line of epic poetry is typically ten syllables, then various formulas fill four of those syllables and others six; each location of the line could be filled with a formulaic phrase. Thus, the mechanical need to build verse rapidly and the cultural need to express essential ideas are satisfied in the formula. In the Song of Roland, King Charlemagne is often introduced with, “The emperor has risen in the morning:/the king has heard his matins and his mass.” (Harrison trans.). Not only is the phrase a convenient way for the poet to wake up the king, but the essential idea is also important: the king duly observes his religion.
Understand that composition by formula is not simply a matter of memorizing several hundred phrases and then just “dropping them in a slot” to compose lines of poetry. The formulaic phrase has a variety of functions offering options for creative manipulation. We must evaluate oral poetry by observing how inventively the performer uses traditional themes and formulas; such a project is possible only after specialized study of oral folk-art.
As with themes, formulas are what the term suggests – a way to produce phrases according to traditional rules. Some formulas are indeed repetitions, and are called “lexical formulas”: based on specific words repeated often in the tradition, descriptors such as “clever Odysseus.” Other formulas are “generative” (created by a rule), appearing as variations. Consider two examples: “The messenger waved and spoke clearly to the assembly” and “The hero arose and shouted boldly to the company.” The words differ in each formulaic phrase, but the formula is the same, creating limits on word choice and sequence, diagrammed like this: “ The [ character ] [ moves for attention ] and [ speaks ] [ with an adjective that describes the speaking ] to [ a group of associates of family or comrades ].” Since formulas vary within a text, one description or definition will not serve, nor will different language traditions use all of the same kinds of formulas.
Formulas channel deep meaning for the culture; like ritual, they repeat essential cultural ideas before an assembly. Repetition also makes the audience recall past times they heard the formulaic idea – the echo of tradition is larger than any individual poet. The oral poet can creatively exploit audience expectation by introducing an unexpected use. Formulas, therefore, do not mean a loss of creative control, but in an oral epic, the types of creative control are not always the same as we expect from literary poets.
When an epic oral tradition lives on in a society that has recently adopted writing, traditional composition can continue both as oral tradition and in a transitional form combining writing with oral themes and formulas. Henceforth that version of the epic can be transmitted in a written tradition. In scribal participatory transmission, scribes who are recopying manuscripts may change the text to “correct” a perceived imperfection or to “have a say” in the story being recopied. Scribes who know the tradition recompose (edit) in oral style, so the scribal editing may not be distinguishable from the oral original (in cultures with a vague sense of authorial ownership, the editing of manuscripts by scribes would not have the same connotation as it would today, when such an act could be illegal). Studies suggest scribal changes were usually slight. However, in other cases writers imbued in the tradition might write entire epics in oral style; the well-known themes and phrases would come naturally to them. Later scholars may find it difficult or impossible to decide whether the text was an oral performance recorded by a scribe, or a story written down by a poet who knew how to write or edit in traditional style. Once an oral epic is written, it becomes a “fixed text,” thus it will not be a unique performance each time experienced, unlike oral performance. Also changed will be the power of either a “performer” (now a reader aloud) or audience to influence later versions of the story. For the modern scholar, the living social context will be lost, and lost with it any information about why the epic was performed as it was (was a chief or noble in the audience who was paying the poet to sing a praise poem about his family history? Was there a village conflict in progress for which the poet emphasized certain epic themes to subtly comment about the conflict?). While writing does not soon end oral tradition, it introduces some effects that, among other factors, eventually led to the decay of oral epic in some regions.
Poets are trained, usually by a skilled family member, from childhood, listening to other poets and practicing for years before being ready to perform. When ready, poets filled different roles depending on how integrated the tradition was. Fully trained epic poets can have as many functions as the epic since they are the living embodiment of its ideas. In a culture where oral tradition was still paramount, the poet might become part of a chief’s retinue as a spokesperson or ambassador. Another role is as a social conscience. Poets may need to criticize prominent members of the group to move them toward proper action, even a ruler who patronizes the poet. This occurs especially in kinship-based polities such as chiefdoms where rulers do not have totalitarian control and respond to community pressure. Where the role of epic poetry has been reduced by various social factors (values, literacy, political structure), the poet might be an ordinary farmer or tradesperson performing occasionally for family and village entertainment. Still, peasant poets might be invited to sing as entertainment at the houses of the wealthy. Becoming an epic poet could allow a peasant to gain status whether before one’s own villagers or in the halls of a lord.
Epics incorporate several folk genres. In Beowulf we find elements of (1) ancient legend, as the poem opens with a recounting of the eponymous ancestor of the Danes, (2) tribal history of blood feuds, (3) folktales in the hero’s fight with the dragon and the ogres, (4) myth in the short Creation hymn, (5) history in the relations of the Geats and Swedes, (6) gnomic sayings, and (7) practical political observations as Beowulf explains his doubts that a marriage between warring tribes will bring peace. Because epics incorporate such diverse material, they do critical work in society, and trying to summarize plots gives no sense of their content. Let us look at some of the major functions of epic and relate them to general plots.
The Maturation and Social Order Function – Some important functions of epic are shared with folktales in the depicting of maturation and social-cosmological order. Maturation patterns exist in the hero’s struggles, relatable to the maturation struggles of all humans. Folk heroes develop as they meet obstacles and helpers, and use cleverness and bravery to prosper, providing audiences a psychological boost and role model. Cosmological patterns exist in the narrative oppositions in a story: inside (safety, home, community) and outside (threat, outlaws, enemies, monsters). The hero’s strength re-establishes a cosmologically safe and ordered place. Note that in other cases, if the righteous hero is absent from the home or kingdom, the threat can be internal, and the hero must return home to set the community right, as in The Odyssey.
Emulation – Epics are repositories of social rules and have a didactic function as audiences emulate proper behavior and avoid or criticize aberrant behaviors depicted in tradition. In The Wedding of Smailagic Meho (Serbo-Croatian), Meho tells his father of a powerless woman, Fatima, being transported to an unlawful wedding. His father is ready to kill his son for not acting until a comrade finishes the story: Meho did defend Fatima and proposed marriage to her family with proper customs, unlike the evil vizier who had given her away. This epic stresses several values such as the honorable son, loyalty to family, local lord, and sultan, choosing of suitable mates, and the conduct of rituals (such as wooing) according to custom. Narratives in tradition-bound societies where deviations from norms are criticized are testing grounds for a variety of behaviors, but conservative values are shown to be proper and successful as a way of teaching society’s ethics.
Modeling Contemporary Society – Another function is the modeling of contemporary social relations: the epic as history is seen as an explanation for current relations between clans, tribes, etc. Epics may support the current political regime by recounting the deeds of the ancestor of the local lord; when the ancestral hero wins legitimate political power, the epic forms a charter to support the current ruling family. The African epic of Son-Jara/Sun-Juta contains many genealogies showing the inheritance of both occult and political power from its source and trace it to the hero of the epic, who in folk-history also founded the kingdom of Mali. But beyond serving a few powerful people, the epic provides a sense of unity; in modern Mali, the epic of Son-Jara helps promote national unity of Mandekan speakers. Epics from other culture share similar functions.
The Epic Hero – The epic hero is often characterized by various folklore motifs such as a miraculous birth, rearing by foster parents, unusual strength, triumph over powerful enemy or monster, gaining of supernatural knowledge, attainment of lordship, and other traits, although not every folk-hero has the same set of characteristics. The actions of the hero often conform to the ideal standards of behavior of the society, such as generosity, loyalty, and kinship obligations. Yet many epics depict the hero acting beyond social rules. The epics seem to say at once that heroes are useful, special, and dangerous. The Irish hero Cuchulainn goes into a battle rage that threatens friend and enemy alike until he is pacified, while an African proverb says, “The hero is welcome only on troubled days.” The problematic hero is a model of the elite of real society who, as power manipulators, can make decisions that are unpopular; the epics sanction the “anti-social” aspects of leaders. However, the poet can insert into the epic a commentary on such behavior, as when Odysseus and his companions escape the Cyclops. Odysseus taunts the monster, which will only cause more trouble, as his companions complain. The hero’s heat occasionally must be contained or criticized.
Scholarship suggests that the treatment of history in traditional narrative is not 'mirrorlike' or photographic. For instance, the Homeric poems preserve information from at least two different phases of Greek history: the palatial culture of earlier Mycenaean centuries, with a depiction of warfare consistent with the 7th century BC, about when the Homeric epics were composed. Epics do not preserve the kind of history a modern reader may expect, but remember that our own histories can reflect personal and cultural agendas. History was and still is interpreted according to current needs of culture and politics, although oral tradition takes considerable license in shaping the past for use in the present. However, the functions served by story patterns can be more important than the preservation of historical fact. Importantly, epic history is “official history:” a poet patronized by the local chief or feudal lord tends to interpret history to favor the patron’s lineage. We need be wary when we ask epics to serve as history, ethnography, or correlates to archaeology. Oral narratives are not history textbooks but rather stories to aid life in certain historical and cultural settings.
The themes of epic poetry have been shared by other contemporaneous folk genres such as folk tales and legends, and transferred to literary genres that mixed literary and folk material, such as the medieval romance. For these and other reasons, epics are taught most often in literary departments as works of poetic art. As in any narrative art, oral epics develop plots, have a cast of characters, and use metaphorical language, and so can be approached with most of the techniques of literary study. Hopefully the epic will also be taught as a work of oral folklore extracted from a traditional community. As well as being studied as art, epics have inspired literary writers to write epics or other literary works based on epic form. The Roman writer Virgil wrote his Aeneid as a continuation of the Iliad. Other more recent literary epics are Orlando Furioso (Ariosto), The Faerie Queen (Spenser) and Paradise Lost (Milton). These literary epics differ much from the form and content of traditional epic.
Epics could also be assembled from diverse and unrelated manuscripts to give them a ‘literary gloss’ they never had. Since traditional audiences know the stories, epics were performed episodically without seeming fragmented. But if these episodes were recorded in manuscripts, a nontraditional reader could feel that the story was damaged, crude, or incomplete. To produce a continuous story, then, an editor might compile diverse material – possibly from different performers with different styles – and edit the whole to force a completion and episodic selection – as well as other changes – that never existed in reality (Recension II of the Old Irish Táin Bo Cuáilnge and the Finnish Kalevala are examples). At best, compiling by a contemporary native preserves a fairly complete version of the epic so that later readers can see the typical episodes included. At worst, the compiler creates an idiosyncratic version with many personal or nontraditional changes that give later readers a false sense of ancient tradition. Nationalistic movements (such as the Romantic Movement in Europe) have produced such compilations when nations or ethnic groups drafted their folk heritage to provide a sense of pride in a unified past based a perception of ‘noble’ folk-ancestors and their customs. In doing so, sometimes these folk materials were artificially compiled (even invented) and published. Epics continue to be part of nationalist feeling: the Manas epic of Kirghizstan and some African epics have reached the broadcast media in those regions. As ever, the past is manipulated to give meaning to the present, and this gives oral epic poetry continued influence today.
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