Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486
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 does Lord believe that the Iliad and the Odyssey manifest unity of authorship individually, he also thinks that both poems are by the same great poet, Homer. In this regard, Lord is clearly hostile to the analytical view of Homer. On the other hand, Lord is critical of the views of many Unitarians, who he believes have been too ready to praise Homer for subtle beauties which can be of no concern to the oral poet, as in the use of ornamental epithet, for example. In their general conclusions, the Unitarians are correct, Lord thinks, but often for the wrong reasons.
In the second part of the book, Lord applies his findings to Homer and the Homeric poems. Although he does not aim to give a complete account of Homer as an oral poet, he does show how the Yugoslavian material can shed light on Homer’s practices. Lord had observed, for example, that the Yugoslavian poets have trouble in dictating their poems. Because they are accustomed to composing rapidly, they seem to become flustered and confused when asked to slow down for dictation. Once accustomed to this novelty, however, the poets tend, in dictating their poems, to produce longer and better organized poems than they would otherwise. The dictated version of Avdo Medjedovic’s The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, in twelve thousand verses—about the length of the Odyssey—serves Lord as proof of this contention. On the basis of Medjedovic’s performance, Lord thinks that the length, ornamentation, and organization displayed in Homer’s poems show that Homer must have dictated his poems at his leisure in his old age (in Lord’s experience there are no very good oral poets who are also young). If Lord’s conclusions are correct, there may be a good chance that the transcribed texts of the Homeric poems go back to Homer himself, assuming that Homer’s followers were content merely to memorize and reproduce his dictated text.
Throughout the thematic discussion of the Odyssey and the Iliad, Lord acknowledges an obvious handicap: The modern reader must read isolated texts in a tradition. The other poems of Homer’s epic tradition have been lost, and this means a considerable loss of perspective. Here, as Lord notes, Hesiod and fragments of the epic cycle may be of some help in supplying hints of formulaic use and variant thematic treatments. Even Greek tragedy may be of help in reconstructing the epic tradition in which Homer worked, insofar as the tragedians draw on epic themes. Lord also makes use of the late versions of the story of the Trojan War by Dictys of Crete and Dares of Phrygia, even though their versions are the product of a self-conscious literary tradition.
Because of his experience with the way the Yugoslavian poets often conflate variant themes, Lord is able to argue that there was a version of the Odyssey in which Telemachus left Ithaca, met Odysseus, perhaps rescued him, but at any rate returned to Ithaca with him and another version in which Telemachus met his father in Ithaca at Eumaeus’ hut—but only after his return. In the Odyssey, the second version prevails, but Lord thinks that there are vestigial signs of the first version in the poem, and this leads Homer into a certain occasional awkwardness and actual inconsistencies. Again, Homer seems to know and use three different versions of Penelope’s recognition of the ragged beggar as her husband, Odysseus: one in which she recognizes him from the trial of the bow, another in which she recognizes him after he takes a bath, and a third in which she recognizes him from his knowledge of their bed’s construction. Penelope clearly recognizes Odysseus from his knowledge of their bed’s construction, but Homer keeps in his account the trial of the bow and the bath, and this causes a certain strain on the narrative. All this, according to Lord, is in keeping with the manner of the Yugoslavian oral poets when they are elaborating their stories in dictation.
Lord’s treatment of the Iliad is in the same vein. In fact, he says that the essential pattern of the Iliad is the same as that in the Odyssey in that both poems tell the story of an absence that brings trouble to the loved ones of the absentee and of his return to set things right. In addition, Lord sees as common to both stories certain more fundamental and archetypal patterns. Achilles and Odysseus (and Beowulf for that matter) are mythic figures of death and resurrection. Beneath the story of the Trojan War and all stories of bride-stealing and rescue, according to Lord, lies the rape of Persephone as a fertility myth. Lord frequently alludes to these more basic mythic patterns of action in his discussion of the two poems.
The final chapter in this part of the book provides hints for the wide application of the book’s thesis. A brief analysis of Beowulf and other Anglo-Saxon epics shows that they are oral in character. The Song of Roland and the Digenis Akritas epic, though they survive in literary texts, are also based on an oral tradition.
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