When the first Europeans arrived in Australia, they found that the land was inhabited by people who had no written language. Because the Aborigines were preliterate, the settlers assumed that they were also prehistorical. What the new settlers did not realize is that the indigenous peoples did indeed have a rich history as well as a shared system of mythical beliefs, which had been transmitted orally from generation to generation. Though the Aboriginal narratives were poetic in form, they were performance poetry: The stories were sung, danced, or acted out. Because this format was so ephemeral and because the Aborigines were reluctant to admit outsiders to their rituals, many of which were deemed sacred, white Australians had almost no knowledge of Aboriginal writings for the first hundred years that the colony was in existence. Moreover, when collections such as Catherine Langloh Parker’s Australian Legendary Tales (1896) began to appear, even though the stories they contained followed the plot lines of their Aboriginal sources, their form was that of the European folktale.
By the middle of the twentieth century, anthropologists were producing books in which complete Aboriginal narratives, such as song cycles, appeared along with English translations, which reproduced the verbal patterns of the original works as closely as possible. Meanwhile, some Aborigines had begun to write in English, often to protest the treatment of their people. The...
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