The Singer of Tales Critical Essays

Albert B. Lord


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The introductory chapter provides the necessary definition of terms to be used in the subsequent discussion (for example, the precise meaning of the word “oral”) and a historical survey of Homeric scholarship and the status of “the Homeric Question.” Next, Lord sketches the typical stages of the apprenticeship of a guslar, an oral poet who sings his trochaic pentameters to the accompaniment of a gusle, a one-stringed instrument that has the ambit of five notes. He describes, in addition, the conditions under which a poet usually performs: When a poet has reached his full development, he can shorten or lengthen his song effortlessly to suit the very fluid requirements of his audience and the occasion.

In his remarks on the formula, Lord adopts Parry’s definition: “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea.” He then describes and illustrates the use of the formula by examining the songs of Salih Ugljanin, Avdo Medjedovic, and others. Lord’s discussion of theme follows naturally on his analysis of formula. Here Lord shows how incidents or events are regularly used in the telling of a traditional tale, events such as an assembly of heroes, a wedding party, and the writing of a letter or a decree. He shows how such themes may be expanded (ornamented) and combined with one another to form a complex of themes.

Next Lord stresses the multiformity of the oral song. The oral poet rarely sings the same song twice in the same way. Modes of variation may include elaboration, changing the sequence of events, and even changing the ending of a story. Lord warns his readers to avoid applying to oral poems standards and preconceptions derived from an understanding of written literature. The meaning of “oral” in this context refers not to the recitation of a poem during a performance but rather to the composition of a poem during a performance. There is no “original” poem in the sense that the term is applicable to different versions of a written poem. Each oral poem sung by the poet on a given occasion is itself an “original.”

In the concluding chapter of this part of the book, Lord deals with writing and oral tradition. He believes that the introduction of writing into an illiterate society may for a long time have no effect on oral traditional poetry because oral songs are the product of an old and perfected compositional technique, whereas written poems in a newly literate society tend to show the fumblings of an art in its infancy. Once literacy becomes a real factor in the creation of poems, however, the traditional way of composing oral song—the use of formula and themes as Lord has described it—tends to die out quickly, as it seems to have done in Yugoslavia. Once an oral composition is written down, it begins to be viewed as the single, correct text and becomes fixed in that form, which is then memorized for performance. When poets memorize their texts, they become merely performers, not creators of poems in the traditional oral way.

Throughout his first part, Lord addresses the Homeric Question in passing, referring to it as he observes the practices and products of the Yugoslavian singers. He observes, for example, that Yugoslavian singers rarely use more than one formula for one idea at a given metrical position in a line and that this is a characteristic of individual singers but not of the collected songs of a number of singers. This thriftiness in the use of formulas can be found in Homer’s use of them. Lord concludes that the Homeric poems are the product of a single individual. Not only...

(The entire section is 1486 words.)