9. Two Versions of the Theme of the Overnight Visit in The Wedding of Smailagić Meho

I have attempted throughout to define and illustrate the role of the theme, and I wish to pursue this subject further by calling attention to a fully developed theme as seen in two versions in Avdo Međedović's epic song The Wedding of Smailagić Meho. [1] In discussing the theme in Old English in Chapter 6, I remarked that this narrative device in oral traditional poetry should contain a certain degree of verbal correspondence if a theme in oral traditional literature is to be differentiated from one in written nontraditional literature. The oral poet tends to repeat some words or formulas in different singings of the same theme, although he is free to vary his lines as he wishes, and this variation may be significant. To what extent the singer may vary repeated versions of the same theme depends, of course, on the skill of each singer and on how often he uses a particular theme. Short themes frequently employed are likely to exhibit considerable verbal stability.
A means of gauging the amounts of repetition and variation which a highly talented oral poet can display in singing two versions of a theme can be found by comparing two episodes in which Avdo Međedović describes the journey of the Bosnian hero Meho and his companion, Osman, to Buda. They make two overnight stops en route. [2] At the first stop, their host and his wife see the approaching men and in conversation establish their identity. In the first episode the host Vukašin tells his wife that he will go to the {203|204} courtyard to greet their guests and that she should take their rifles. This they do and servants take their horses. In the second episode the host—in this instance, Vujadin—instructs his sons to go down to the courtyard to welcome the young men. They do this, and then Vujadin comes to the courtyard and welcomes Meho and Osman, while the sons walk the visitors' horses and Vujadin's wife takes their rifles.
In the conversation before dinner in the first episode, after Vukašin has inquired after Meho's father and has received news of the Border, Meho tells of the purpose of their journey to Buda and remarks that the vizier in Buda is a good friend. The host, however, warns Meho and Osman that the vizier in Buda is a traitor. Avdo is preparing for the events to come the following day when the young men reach Buda; he is introducing in this casual, realistic way the complications that will shape the action of the rest of the song.
In the second overnight episode the preprandial conversation does not touch on these matters at all, but Vujadin asks after Meho's father and the Border, ending with: "How does it seem to you, Mehmed? Are the old men better, or would you say the young are?" Mehmed replies: "Opinions are divided, but mine shall ever be that the old men are better than the young." This is a favorite subject of Avdo's, because he had one dutiful and one rebellious son, and he sometimes brings this question into his songs. Vujadin replies to Meho: "Bravo! my dear son. If God grants you will be an honor to us." This is a fathers-and-sons conversation in a fathers-and-sons scene.
After dinner in the first episode, the young men's beds are prepared for them by two beautiful girls, after which the maidens leave and Vuk and his wife stand watch all night long as their guests sleep. At dinner in the second episode Vujadin's sons stand ready to serve while host and guests eat, served by the daughters-in-law, and during the night the sons stand watch over Meho and Osman as they sleep.
It is clear that Avdo has varied the contents of the theme and hence reduced the degree of verbal correspondence. Yet the theme is recognizable as a theme, with the main elements of (1) viewing the approaching heroes, 2) conversation determining their identity, (3) the welcoming of the guests, (4) preprandial conversation, (5) tending the horses, (6) dinner, (7) sleeping, and (8) awakening and departure. But verbal correspondence there is. Let us look briefly at the beginning of the texts to verify this point:
First Episode Second Episode

Đe li hi je akšam zateknuo, [3]
U nekako selo Vukašiće,
Pred dvorove kneza Vukašina,
Najboljega njihnog domaćina.
Vukašin se na dvor pridesijo,
I gospoja Vukašinovica.
Koliko su zemlje Bosne prešli,
Do akšama došli đe su rekli, {204|205}
Do dvorova kneza Vujadina.
Knez se beše pridesijo tuna,
I kod njega Vujadinovica,
I dva sina kneza Vujadina.
At nightfall they found themselves in the village of Vukašići before the dwelling of Vukašin, the village elder and their family's best householder. Vukašin and his spouse were both at home. They had covered as much of Bosnia as they said they would before nightfall, for they had come to the house of Vujadin. Vujadin happened to be at home, and with him his wife and their two sons.
The verbal correspondence is clear so far. The heroes reached their destination at evening, at the house of a named elder, and he and his wife, and in the second case also his two sons, are at home. The verbal similarity now disappears, to reappear later, as, for example, in the section describing the tending of the horses. [4] In the first episode the couple sees Meho on his horse, and both horse and rider are described; then Osman on his horse, with accompanying description also. Vukašin and his wife converse about the two newcomers at some length, finally recognizing them and expressing their joy that they are coming to their house. Vukašin then gives instructions as to how they should be received. In the second episode the couple looks from the window and sees the two "imperial dragons." They are described, and then the host's two sons go to the window and are amazed at what they see. They express their amazement to their father, who looks again and recognizes Meho and Osman. He then gives instructions as to how their guests are to be received. This part of the first episode is more than twice the length of the corresponding section of the second episode. [5]
There is, of course, some verbal correspondence between the two episodes, but it is not very extensive because of the difference in content between the two instances of the theme. Yet one notices considerable repetition, for example, in Avdo's treatment of the subtheme describing the {205|206} tending of Meho's and Osman's horses. The following comparison, with similarities in wording underlined, shows how the singer had a fairly stable way of expressing this segment of his story. It is clear, however, that he had not memorized the passages but was composing as he sang.
First Episode Second Episode
Mlađi momci konje provedoše,
Dok him vodu konji pokupiše.
Pa sa konja sedla oboriše,
Svitu cjelu i njihno oružje;
Pa na konje čule navališe,
Da umorni konji ne ozebu.
Pa him sitnu arpu natakoše.
U podrum hi za jasli svežaše,
Kod putalja kneza Vukašina
Dok atovi zobcu izedoše,
Na atove timar navališe,
Te him kao i znoj otrljaše.
Na čaršafe dlake namestiše,
Pa him opet čule navališe.
Dokle momci konje provedoše,
S ćelehana umor povrnuše,
Pa im zlatna sedla oboriše,
Zlatna sedla i zlatne rahtove,
I kalkane sa četiri strane.
Na sunđer him vodu pokupiše,
A na čaršaf dlaku namestiše.
Na pleći him čule navališe,
Arpu daše, pa hi pričekaše,
Dok hajvani arpu pozobaše.
U jaslima seno utakoše,
Pa na podrum vrata zatvoriše.

Then stewards walked their horses, and as they led them, the horses regained their spirits. [6] They stripped them of their saddles, their trappings, and armor. They flung blankets over the horses that the tired steeds should not become chilled, measured out barley for them, and tied them in their stalls beside Vukašin's stallion. When the horses had eaten their barley, the youths groomed them and rubbed the mud and sweat from them, drying their manes with cloth. Finally they replaced the blankets on the horses. In the meantime the young men were walking the heroes' steeds, driving fatigue from them. They took off the golden saddles and trappings and all the girths. Then they sponged the horses and dried their manes with a towel. They covered them with blankets, gave them barley, and waited for the beasts to eat it. Then they put hay into the mangers [and] closed the door of the stable.
These descriptions, if different to some extent, are close to descriptions elsewhere in this song and in others by Avdo. He was trying to vary the {206|207} scene, and his repertory of descriptive formulas was so great that he did not have to repeat himself, if he did not choose to do so. [7]
We can take the individual items in the descriptions and find their counterparts in other poems of Avdo's to note that the sense of textuality belongs to a comparatively small group of lines. For example, in the early description of Meho in episode one above we find the lines (2162-64):
Oko konja njegova dorata
Plaza mu se sablja okovata,
Ka' i guja oko suhog trna.
His forged saber glided over his horse's side
like a serpent around a dry thistle.
This theme, or "subtheme," is found at least twice in Avdo's other long song, Osmanbeg Delibegović i Ρaνi evi Luka, in lines 664-69 and 4897-99:
A alatu čatal podigao.
Kolik alat beše u visinu,
Mača kleta od tri rastegljaja,
Kaako (sic) se plaza oko konja,
Baš k'o ono guja oko trna,
Sve alata po čavlama tuče.
A zlatna se alamanka valja
Oko tanke njihne bedevije,
Bi rekao da je plaza guja.
He had drawn the bay's bridle up tight.
The bay carried itself so tall
that the damned sword, a full three ells long,
which slithered about the horse
like a viper 'round a thorn bush,
kept knocking against the well-shod hooves.
His gilded German sabre fell
about his finely-featured bedouin mare,
one might say, like a viper slithering. [8]
Two of the key words are plaza 'glide' and guja 'snake'.
The next lines in Smailagić Mehopresent another subtheme, lines 2165-67:
Dorat dvije žvale razvalijo.
Da mu bugar-kabanicu baci,
Ne bi konju žvale zatisnula.
The chestnut steed spread his two jaws.
Were you to cast a Bulgarian cloak into
them, it would not fill his gaping jaws.
There are several related passages in Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka, but they do not express exactly the same idea. Here are two of them (lines 638-43 and 6781-83): {207|208}
Pa je dvije žvale ražvalijo,
Pa iz žvala pene prebacuje
Preko sebe i pr'o gazde svoga,
Na olukli sapi dočekuje.
Ko nije vešt pa nije vidijo,
Bi rekao, rađaju se ovce.
Alat skoči nekud na oblake,
Pa razvali žvale obadvije.
Iz noždre mu maven plamen linu.
He was gaping
and blowing out great gobs of foam
onto himself and his master
so plentifully that it was accumulating along his flanks.
Someone unaccustomed to such a spectacle
might have said that ewes were lambing there.
His bay seemed to gambol somewhere aloft amidst the very clouds,
and when it parted its jaws
blue flame shot forth from its muzzle.
Another cluster in the description in the first episode with corresponding clusters in Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka is in lines 2168-70 of Smailagić Meho:
Bi rekao i bi se zakleo,
Da je mušir carev na dorata.
Saltanet mu bolji no muširov.
One would say and swear that it was an
imperial field marshal upon the horse; his
trappings were better than a field marshal's.
Compare the following clusters from Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka, lines 4683-85 and 4624-26:
E, kakav je Ljevak na alata!
Bi rekao da je vezir čarski.
Saltanet mu bolji od vezira.

Taj je dečak baš k'o vezir carski,
Nekud bolji mlogo od vezira.
Saltanet mu viši od vezira.
Oh, how splendid Ljevak was as he sat his bay!
One might have said he was an Imperial Vizier.
But he cut a more majestic figure than any vizier would.

That young fellow was like some Imperial Vizier,
though in some respects he was far better than a vizier.
He cut a more majestic figure than any vizier would.
A larger descriptive theme consists of a collection of such clusters of several lines which I think are the basic "compositional themes" of the oral traditional songs. Of course they correspond to the units we found in oral {208|209} traditional lyric songs, namely, units consisting of a more or less stable core of lines with additions adapted to context.
The two versions of the theme of the overnight visit in The Wedding of Smailagić Meho can be divided into several segments, for each of which the line numbers in the first and second episodes are given in parentheses so that the relative length of the two episodes can readily be determined and the passages located. [9] The theme begins with the viewing of the approaching heroes (1:2152-76 and 2:2677-2700). This is followed by the determining of their identity (1:2177-2254 and 2:2701-29). Avdo takes the opportunity to emphasize the striking appearance of the heroes and the splendid caparisoning of their horses. The guests are then formally welcomed (1:2255-84 and 2:2730-43). They enter the house and refreshment is served (1:2285-2310 and 2:2744-2783). After conversation (1:2311-57 and 2:2784-2824), the first episode launches upon a description of preparation for dinner (2358-80), which is matched slightly later in the theme in the second episode (2837-56), with the account of tending the heroes' horses intervening (1:2381-94 and 2:2825-36).
At line 2395 and continuing through 2467, Avdo in the first episode presents the important conversation in which Vukašin warns Meho and Osman of the treachery of the vizier in Buda. Then follows, still in the first episode (2468-72) a brief treatment of the bounteous feast served in Vukašin's house. As the theme progresses to the sleep of the heroes, the segments of the second episode are greatly curtailed. In the first episode Avdo gives an elaborate account of the beds laid for the heroes (2473-2509), whereas the second episode in its turn devotes only two lines (2857-58) to this segment. The sleeping Meho and Osman are guarded in the first episode by Vukašin and his wife (2510-16), and in the second episode the two sons of Vujadin watch over them (2859-62).
When the young heroes awake, there is a long discussion in the first episode with their host, Vukašin, who is greatly disturbed that the guests cannot be persuaded to lengthen their stay (2517-87), whereas in the second episode Avdo is content merely to state that Vujadin and his two sons tried as best they could to make their guests stay, but to no avail (2863-68). There follows the preparation of the heroes and horses for departure (1:2588-2618 and 2:2869-80). Before leaving, there is a giving of gifts to Vukašin's daughters and to Vujadin's daughters-in-law, and farewells are said to the household (1:2619-65 and 2:2881-92). [10] {209|210}
In both versions Avdo gracefully describes the heroes' departure:
First Episode (2666-74) Second Episode (2893-95)
Then [Meho] applied the spurs and slackened the reins. The chestnut understood, took to his hoofs, and tossed the bit. He would not go through the iron gateway, but cleared the wall and was off over the heath. He cantered playfully across the green plain, behind him Osman on his spotted gray. He flew over the verdant plain even as a star across the sky. Then he rode his chestnut steed to the courtyard gate, Osman behind him on his gray stallion, like a star across a clear sky.
Even this brief account reveals unmistakably how the narrative structure of the theme remains essentially intact from one version to another. The second episode is much briefer than the first, but with the exception of minor shifts in the order of some subthemes, the narrative follows step by step from the first approach of the heroes to their departure. [11] The variations in the scenes of hospitality and the shortened pace of the second episode ensure against tedium in the audience. In only one section ("entering the house, refreshment") is the second episode longer than the matching first episode. In this particular instance, as in others during the course of the two visits, the scene comes alive because it was Avdo's manner to form a mental image of what he was describing. He saw in his mind's eye the master's room in Vujadins house, with all its furnishings. As Avdo explained to me in talking about his singing, he visualized, for example, each piece of the trappings on a horse. From this mental image there flowed the words to describe the scene or the action, so that it became a reflection of what he envisaged in his mind in all its vivid detail.
The two versions of the overnight visit in Avdo's song show nice contrasts and balances. Vukašin had long lived among the Turks and "in their fashion." His relations with his overlord, Smail, in Kanidža were especially warm, but he still kept his Christian faith, as did Vujadin. At one point, Vukašin crossed himself, and once Lady Vukašin prayed in the name of God and all his saints. Lady Vukašin had an important part in the hospitality to the guests. She helped welcome them and later she "pushed back her sleeves and made pies and prepared wheat cakes." She also with her husband watched over the heroes at night. Vujadin's wife had a less prominent role, partly taken over by {210|211} her daughters-in-law. Vukašin had two marriageable daughters, while Vujadin had two sons who were already wed. Vukašin and his household provided lavish hospitality for their guests, but Vujadin's welcome and his concern for the heroes were also unstinting. Although the description of the second visit is greatly shortened, especially in the closing segments of the theme, no step in the episode is omitted.
I have earlier compared the two versions of the theme of the overnight visit in Avdo's song with two visits of Telemachus in the Odyssey. [12] On his journey to consult Menelaus about Odysseus's fate, Telemachus made two overnight stops in Book 3. The first one, in the company of Athena in the guise of Mentor, was at the home of Nestor at Pylos, a visit that the poet elaborated at full length, constituting Book 3. On the second stop, Telemachus, accompanied by Peisistratus, the son of Nestor, stayed at the house of Diocles in Pherae. This second stay is sketched only briefly, Odyssey 3.487-94. The second visit in Avdo's song, in contrast, although much briefer than the first, receives the singer's considerable attention.
By studying Avdo's two versions, the reader is able to judge the possible range of stability and variation within a well-established theme in the repertoire of an accomplished oral traditional singer. The poet is able to expand a part of his theme by effective ornamentation or in another version to curtail the corresponding segment for the sake of narrative economy, or to suit the particular situation. The seasoned oral singer can produce at will a long or short version of a theme according to his assessment of the demands of his narrative.
Even above and beyond the critical interest this theme arouses in its structure, however, is its value in illustrating Avdo's depiction of the ideals of courtesy and hospitality sensitively shared between the young Moslem heroes and their hosts, the Christian kmets 'village head's. In this theme are mirrored the artistry and the humanity of the whole poem.


[ back ] 1. For an account of the life and the songs of Avdo Međedović, see my introduction to Parry, 1974a, 3-34; also A. Lord, 1991, 57-71. For previous discussions of the theme of the overnight visit in Smailagić Meho, see A. Lord, 1951 and 1971. See also A. Lord, 1986, 57-59, with a list of the narrative elements in this theme.
[ back ] 2. For the Serbo-Croatian text and my English translation, see Parry, 1974a, 108-18; and I974b, 115-36.
[ back ] 3. The italicizing of single letters here and throughout indicates abnormal pronunciation.
[ back ] 4. See the next excerpt.
[ back ] 5. [Shannon, 1975, 21, calling attention to Parry's distinction between "good" and "bad" oral poets according to their ability to expand and elaborate on any given theme, is mistaken in arguing: "Were that the case, every typical scene should be fully elaborated in the work of a 'good' oral poet." For the singer 'to ornament' (kititi) a theme did not mean to string out extraneous detail but rather to know how effectively to develop a theme—to caparison a horse, to arm a hero, to gather an assembly. Shannon admires the fact that, in Homer, elaboration and variation are used "with scrupulous selectivity." We should add that the differing length of Avdo's two versions of the theme of the overnight visit shows that he, like Homer, knew when to elaborate and when not to.]
[ back ] 6. The translation of this line, 2382, is an attempt to render a misformed line. The dative him should be accusative. A word such as silu, acc. of sila 'strength' is to be supplied as object of the verb pokupiše 'gather', 'regain'.
[ back ] 7. See Parry, 1974a, 256, n. 60, for a brief account of differences between the versions of the theme under discussion.
[ back ] 8. For the Serbo-Croatian text, see Parry, 1980. [David E. Bynum has kindly supplied translations of the passages cited from Osmanbeg Delibegović i Pavičević Luka]
[ back ] 9. The passages are in Parry, 1974a and 1974b.
[ back ] 10. [In a letter dated November 30, 1992, David Bynum pointed out the thematically prescribed gift giving to the women of the family: "A guest may not 'tip' a patriarchal host, but anything presented to the host's subordinate householders will be gratefully received."]
[ back ] 11. The first episode of the theme extends for 523 lines of verse; the second episode fills 219 lines.
[ back ] 12. A. Lord, 1951.