The Singer of Tales

by Albert B. Lord

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Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 416

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 structure of those earlier literatures. Since Lord’s book, scholars may no longer impose on oral literature an often irrelevant model drawn from written literature, with its emphasis on a fixed text and on an “original” and “correct” version. Moreover, scholars now understand more clearly the important relationship between tradition and originality in oral composition. Although the oral poet relies on traditional formulas and themes (that is, on the work of his predecessors), he displays his individual creativity in the actual singing of his song.

Thus, from Beowulf to Xhosa and Zulu oral poetry in South Africa, the research of many scholars progresses following the pattern established by The Singer of Tales. Lord’s own special interests are in Slavic literature, and his research since the publication of his monumental work continues in that area primarily, though he comes back to Homer from time to time. As for The Singer of Tales, it is generally still regarded as the single most important work in the field.

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