The Singer of Tales Critical Context - Essay

Albert B. Lord

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

The Singer of Tales shows how oral composition is possible during an actual performance. The poet relies on traditional formulas and themes; he does not memorize his composition but is able to draw on a large stock of ready-made phrases and themes to compose a new poem every time he performs. Perhaps the best illustration of the oral poet’s technique is the example cited in The Singer of Tales. Avdo Medjedovic, certainly the most accomplished singer in Parry’s and Lord’s experience, was present when another poet, not so accomplished as Medjedovic, performed a poem which Medjedovic had never heard before. After the song was over, he was asked if he could now sing the same song. He immediately proceeded to do so but to a length nearly three times as long as that of the song he had just heard—6,313 lines as compared with 2,294. Medjedovic was relying on his mastery of traditional formulas and on his ability to elaborate using traditional themes.

Since its publication, Lord’s The Singer of Tales has held its position as the fountainhead of research in oral literature of all sorts, not only in epic poetry, for it was the first to show the way, and it continues to do so in this vast field of study. Lord’s method is analogical. He applies his observations of a living oral tradition in Yugoslavia to earlier literature, primarily to the Homeric poems in The Singer of Tales, and thereby illuminates the form and...

(The entire section is 416 words.)