How has oral tradition influenced written literature?

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Oral literature flourished in cultures where literacy was uncommon or nonexistent. Because people did not read, storytellers had to rely on memory to transmit important stories, and listeners also had to rely on memory to recall and retell these sagas, which were often important to solidifying group memory, culture, and identity. This need to remember had an important impact on written literature.

Oral cultures relied on repetition, rhyme, and alliteration as memory aids. Important parts of a story were often repeated as refrains. When these stories—told in forms we would recognize today as poetry—were written down, these oral conventions were preserved and passed on. A ballad, for example, might not need a refrain repeated four or five times when transmitted in written form, but the style had become part of a tradition. As poets composed new ballads they included refrains even if the works were first dispersed in written form, as refrains had become a convention of the ballad. Rhyme and alliteration were also preserved as poetic conventions even when they were no longer strictly needed as memory devices. Only in the last century have strict rhyme schemes been largely dispensed with.

Oral traditions have survived the transition to literacy and continue to inform and enrich poetry and other literary forms.

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In Western literary tradition, oral literature played several important parts in unifying all the literary traditions, from Latin and Greek, to the disparate tribal cultures. An excellent examples lies in the Arthurian traditions, influences by Cretien de Troyes, etc., but beginning with The Mabinogion, a Welsh narration of the exploits of the original Arthur and his knights, transformed from the oral traditions into written literature in the Middle Ages. Another example: thousands of oral folk stories that were gathered into Grimm’s Fairy Tales. Folk songs and oral legends of all cultures are incorporated into the written literature of that culture, not only in plot and character, but also in rhythms, in folk idioms, and in cultural mores. On the continent of Africa, a fairly recent effort to consolidate African literature as a special area of study has revealed that, although the lack of a common language may have thwarted written literary development, that lack has been more than made up for by the extremely rich oral traditions of all the African cultures, and several common historical themes, notably colonialism, slavery, and exploitation of natural riches, have unified the modern written literature of Africa which has taken advantage of all the oral literature of the continent.

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