Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 570

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The Singer of Tales has its origin in work begun by Albert B. Lord’s teacher Milman Parry. It was Parry’s theory that the language of the Homeric poems is to a large extent a language of traditional formulas, created over a long period of time by poets who composed their songs without the aid of writing. Homer, according to Parry, was an oral poet who composed as he performed, using ready-made and largely inherited phrases varying in length from one or two words to several lines. In the approximately twenty-eight thousand verses that make up the eighth century b.c.e. Iliad and Odyssey, about one-fifth of the verses are repeated word-for-word from one place to another; there are also some twenty-five thousand repeated phrases. It is the repetition of verse or phrases that makes it a formula and marks it as a product of oral poetry.

Between the years 1933 and 1935, Parry made two trips to Yugoslavia to confirm the conclusions he had formed about the Homeric texts by observing a living tradition of epic poetry as practiced by illiterate (for the most part) Serbo-Croatian singers of tales. At the time of his accidental death in 1935, Parry had collected 12,500 texts—some on phonograph records and some taken down during dictation—which form the Milman Parry Collection in the Harvard University library. Parry had been able to publish some of his work, but it was supplemented and carried on by one of his students, Albert Lord, who had accompanied him as an assistant on his second trip. Lord not only was with Parry when he made his collection but also made three later trips to Yugoslavia (in 1935, 1950, and 1951), during which he was able to record the same poets singing the same songs they had sung sixteen years earlier.

At the time of his death, Parry had written the first few pages of a book to be titled The Singer of Tales, which was to deal in a comprehensive way with the material he had collected in Yugoslavia. Beginning afresh, Lord carried on Parry’s projected work as a doctoral dissertation at Harvard in 1949; he later revised it for publication under the same title in 1960.

Lord’s book (309 pages) is divided into two parts. The first part gives an admirable account of exactly how Yugoslavian oral poetry is produced. In five chapters he considers the training and performances of singers, exactly what a formula is and how it works, the themes about which the singers compose their songs, the status of a finished song, and the relationship between tradition and writing.

The second part of the book attempts to apply the knowledge gained from Yugoslavian material to Homer as an oral poet and to the two poems attributed to him, the Odyssey and the Iliad (in that order, though the Iliad is generally considered to have been composed first). The last chapter is devoted to short essays on Beowulf (sixth century c.e.), Chanson de Roland (c. 1100; The Song of Roland), and the Digenis Akritas epic. A series of six appendices offers a comparison of two different poets singing the same song, different versions of the same song performed by the same poet on four different occasions, summaries of a number of “return” and “reurn-rescue” songs, an example of father-son transmission, and the text and translation of the “Song of Milman Parry,” produced by an oral poet at Neesnje in 1933.


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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 70

Finnegan, Ruth. Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance, and Social Context, 1977.

Foley, John Miles. Introduction to Oral Traditional Literature: A Festschrift for Albert Bates Lord, 1981.

Kirk, G.S. The Songs of Homer, 1962.

Parry, Adam, ed. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry, 1971.

Young, Douglas. “Never a Blotted Line? Formula and Premeditation in Homer and Hesiod,” in Essays on Classical Literature Selected from “Arion,” 1972. Edited by Niall Rudd.


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