The Singer Resumes the Tale

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10. The Transitional Text

One of the important differences between an oral traditional singer and a nontraditional one is the fact that the traditional singer does not think in terms of a fixed textuality, whereas the nontraditional singer does. If a traditional singer in the course of a lifetime becomes a nontraditional poet—as, I believe, one could argue in the case of Petar Petrović Njegoš II—at what point does this singer’s sense of fixed textuality develop? [1] Can we pinpoint the moment when he becomes a nontraditional poet? In The Singer of Tales, I phrased the problem somewhat differently by saying that I could not conceive of a singer thinking at one and the same time in terms of both fluidity and fixity. He might go from one mode to the other but could not be in both at the same time. [2]

I have now come to realize, as I have analyzed themes in terms of textuality, that the traditional epic singer, composing characteristically in comparatively short passages—that is, themes—actually does work with a mixture of more or less stable core and optional lines. By “more or less stable lines” I mean that they are not fixed in wording—not irrevocably fixed, that is, although they do tend to stability. Stability does not necessarily mean fixity. This is true, of course, of most of the lines of a traditional song; core lines and optional ones are alike in their lack of fixity. After all, fluidity of wording is the true mark of this style. The core lines are those found in all (or nearly all) the occurrences of a theme; the optional lines may or may not be used in any single instance of it. The latter are of at least two kinds. One {212|213} functions as expansion or ornamentation, the other in adapting a theme to the specific context of a given song.

Singers vary greatly in the comparative stability of the core lines and in the number and character of the optional lines. It would not be accurate, therefore, to say that in composing any instance of a theme a singer is thinking in terms of both fixity and fluidity; for a more or less constant core of lines is ornamented or expanded according to the wishes of the singer at the moment or adapted to fit a particular situation in a particular song. All I am doing is describing in greater detail the fluidity of the traditional style. None of the lines is really fixed and predictable; the number and content of even the core lines is to a degree variable. In short, we can predict, let us say, that two out of a given three core lines may be found in any given instance of a theme, but we cannot predict with certainty which two nor exactly what form they will have. This is not fixity of text, nor does it require a sense of fixed textuality on the part of the singer.

In connection with Calvino’s work, a question arises how one could tell his version of a folktale, his retelling of it, from the “naïve” version of the traditional teller. This is a question that could be applicable to other retellers who are themselves men of letters. Calvino’s work, it must be remembered, is prose tale, but some of the principles involved may be applicable to verse narrative as well. His situation brings to mind that of the Montenegrin poet Petar Petrović Njegoš II, and we shall look too at three stages of Njegoš’s poetic output to see if the middle one may be thought of as transitional.

Calvino came into this discussion first by way of the question whether his retellings of Italian folktales could be considered as transitional texts. Now, Calvino’s retellings are primarily translations of dialect texts into standard Italian. So to the second question, How can you tell Calvino’s retelling from the “naïve” original? the ready answer is that one is in dialect, the other in standard Italian. In one way, then, and very superficially, it is easy to distinguish Calvino from his original. But Calvino did something more than just translate; he also made changes. He himself stated his method in his introduction to Italian Folktales in the section entitled “Criteria for My Work”:

The method of transcribing folktales “from the mouths of the people” was started by the Brothers Grimm and was gradually developed during the second half of the century into “scientific” canons scrupulously faithful to the dialect of the narrator. The Grimms’ approach was not “scientific” in the modern sense of the word, or only halfway so. A study of their manuscripts confirms what is abundantly plain to an experienced eye perusing Kinder- und Hausmärchen, namely that the Grimms (Wilhelm in particular) had added their own personal touch to the tales told by little old women, not only translating a major part from German dialects, but integrating the variants, recasting the story whenever the original was too crude, touching up expressions and images, giving stylistic unity to the discordant voices.

The foregoing serves as an introduction and justification (if I may take refuge behind names so famous and remote) for the hybrid nature of my work, which likewise is only halfway “scientific,” or three-quarters so; as for the final quarter, it is the product of my own judgment. The scientific portion is actually the work of others, of those folklorists who, in the span of one century, patiently set down the texts that served as my raw material. What I did with it is comparable to the second part of the Grimms’ project: I selected from mountains of narratives (always basically the same ones and amounting altogether to some fifty types) the most unusual, beautiful, and original texts. I translated them from the dialects in which they were recorded or when, unfortunately, the only version extant was an Italian translation lacking the {214|215} freshness of authenticity, I assumed the thorny task of recasting it and restoring its lost originality. I enriched the text selected from other versions and whenever possible did so without altering its character or unity, and at the same time filled it out and made it more plastic. I touched up as delicately as possible those portions that were either missing or too sketchy. I preserved, linguistically, a language never too colloquial, yet colorful and as derivative as possible of a dialect, without having recourse to “cultivated” expressions—an Italian sufficiently elastic to incorporate from the dialect images and turns of speech that were the most expressive and unusual …

The term transitional text is a grab bag often used to avoid the stigma of an oral text. We should once and for all eliminate the connotations as well as the tendentious prejudices from both “transitional” and “oral” and establish the facts. Calvino’s example leads us into the “spider’s nest” and is a good one with which to begin, even if, or perhaps precisely because, it is not verse epic but folktale. We are thereby not encumbered with problems of verse, or of formulas.

The first fact that strikes one is that there are comparatively few purely transcribed folktale texts published. We are much of the time proceeding on the basis of modified texts. One comes to realize that many generalities about oral traditional literature stem from doctored texts, from texts that have been “edited,” changed, or “improved,” most commonly by a nontraditional person or, at best, by nontraditional persons who have steeped themselves as well as they can in the traditional material but who often have other axes to grind. They too want to use tradition for their own purposes, which are not necessarily those of tradition. This can be seen in such statements as “I have chosen what is beautiful or what is striking” or “I have tried to eliminate the rough spots.” Yet the tradition includes much that is not so beautiful, much that may be mediocre, many rough spots. It is true that it would be an injustice to the tradition to stress those elements, but in some way we should be made aware of what the whole tradition is like. This is particularly true if we want to talk about “transitional texts.” {215|216}

There is no doubt that Calvino steeped himself in the traditions of the Italian folktale. Although he says that he “plunged into that submarine world totally unequipped, without even a tankful of intellectual enthusiasm for anything spontaneous and primitive,” he soon became completely immersed. His characterization of the “innermost particularities” of that world, “infinite variety and infinite repetition,” captures the essence not only of the folktale but of all oral “literature.” He describes his journey through folklore thus:

How could such a sensitive and impressionable apprentice to the folktale fail to put his own stamp on the stories he retold? In his collection, Calvino has edited, making changes in style and content, oral traditional stories {216|217} written down from traditional storytellers and then retold in nineteenth-century Italian, which Calvino has himself retranslated into twentieth-century Italian. The collectors from whose texts Calvino worked, for example, Antonio De Nino and Domenico Comparetti, [10] were cognizant of variants, as was also Calvino. Let us look at De Nino’s comments:

We have seen what Calvino has said in his introduction about his criteria. We can observe him at work as well through his notes, where, indeed, he tells us what he has done.

The first short paragraph of No. 148 is a translation, but where the Sicilian {218|219} speaks of “the biggest,” “the middle one,” and “the littlest” (la cchiù grànni, la mizzana, and la nica), Calvino calls them “the first,” “the second,” and “the third” (la prima, la seconda, and la terza). It is not clear to me why he made the change.

In the next paragraph Calvino substitutes ragazze ‘girls’ once where Pitrè has figghi ‘children’, perhaps to avoid using figlie ‘daughters’ twice in succession—a stylistic change. The traditional text does not mind the repetition, but the nontraditional editor considers it stylistically unacceptable. Later in the paragraph Calvino adds to walling up the doors con noi dentro ‘with us inside’, which is not in the Pitrè text, but omits cu saluti from Pitrè’s e quannu piaci a Diu nni videmu cu saluti ‘when it please God that we see you in health’. These changes seem arbitrary.

In the third paragraph Pitrè uses Lu patri ‘the father’ and Calvino il mercante ‘the merchant’, perhaps trying (as with the “first,” “second,” and “third” above) to avoid “folktale-ish” diction. A little further along, Pitrè’s tutti li survizza di fora ‘all the services of the market’ becomes in Calvino simply le commissioni ‘the shopping’ or, translated, ‘the errands’. The most striking difference so far, however, occurs at the end of the paragraph (the other differences are minor stylistic ones in the translation from dialect to standard Italian), when the father asks each girl what she wants him to bring her. In Pitrè, Rosa replies, “Tri bell’ abbiti di culuri differenti” ‘Three beautiful dresses of different colors,’ and in Calvino the answer is “Un vestito color del cielo” ‘A dress the color of the sky.’ Giovannina in Pitrè wants “Zoccu voli vassia,” which means, I believe, ‘Whatever your lordship wants,’ but in Calvino she wants “Un vestito color dei diamanti,” ‘A dress the color of diamonds.’ The significant answer, of course, comes from Ninetta, and Calvino’s translation is exact, except for transferring vossignoria ‘your lordship’ (Pitrè vassia) from the second sentence to the first (‘Please bring me, father, a beautiful date-palm branch. If you don’t may your ship move neither forward nor backward’). [17] The changes of colors are perhaps an attempt to heighten the tone of the story, but Calvino’s omission of the obedient daughter’s modest reply is a loss to the modern version of the tale. Whatever the reasons for the changes I have indicated, the purpose of pointing them out has been to illustrate something of the character of Calvino’s editing of the original folktale’s language and style.

Calvino had been asked by those who commissioned his work to do for Italian folktales what the Grimm brothers had done for the German. Compared {219|220} with the Grimms, especially Wilhelm, of course, Calvino was rather conservative. If we turn our attention then to the Kinder- und Hausmärchen and ask whether they are made up of a group of transitional texts, the answer might be in the affirmative, from a quite different point of view, using criteria different from fluidity and fixity of textual sense or even from that of manipulating of texts from a nontraditional set of standards. These texts of the Grimm brothers created a Märchenstil, which was based on oral traditional tale style. This style was itself, however, to be the foundation for several kinds of literary “folktale”; for example, on the one hand the unsophisticated style of the kind of tale told to children and, on the other, the highly developed and self-conscious literary genre, neither being genuine, traditional folktale. It can be argued, I believe, that the Grimms’ texts were transitional in that sense between traditional folktale and purely literary “folktale.” In this sense, Calvino’s texts, made on the model of the German collector-editors, are transitional texts. The case would be better if it turned out that Calvino had created in Italian a literary folktale style. But that consideration leads to another: it is possible that Calvino’s texts might be considered transitional in still another way, namely, within his own writing and in the passage of narrative in his experience from oral traditional (that is, the bona fide folktales from oral tradition which he read and heard) to his own fantasy novels, such as The Baron in the Trees . The chief problem in that approach is that an outsider’s “experiencing” of a folktale by reading or even hearing it, and even when it included many variants, as Calvino’s did, is not the same as the telling, or even writing, of tales in the tradition of an insider. In this case, the base from which Calvino’s transitional texts departed was not firsthand.

It might well be that Old English poems, such as The Phoenix, which were amplified translations or adaptations of Latin originals, for example, De ave phoenice attributed to Lactantius, can be thought of as transitional texts, using the formulaic style and traditional poetic devices of the oral traditional poetry but leading through the Latin influence to a fully developed Old English nontraditional poetry and poetics. Latin originals were translated into Anglo-Saxon poetry, but the Anglo-Saxon poets continued to compose in their traditional style and poetics for a very long period, in spite of their Latin sources. If anything, their style became more markedly and more mechanically formulaic as they lost the art of free oral formulaic composition in performance.

But before we can go much further in trying to define and describe transitional texts, we must be clear about where they are moving from. There is one firm base, I believe, from which we may depart: oral traditional narrative and its style. I may be overestimating the firmness of the base, but I think I can defend the emphasis and describe the style and the process of composition and transmission of oral traditional narrative, be it prose or verse. After all, whichever the form, we are dealing with storytelling, and, except for the use of prose rather than verse, some of the principles of composition and transmission of stories are the same in both forms.

One should bear in mind from the outset that within the tradition the processes of both composition and transmission are by no means static; they are as dynamic as living organisms. De Nino’s description, given above, stressed in its own way how difficult it was to make for an anthology a version of a tale that exists in so many variants even in the mouth of the same teller and when tales are constantly being interwoven in tradition. The problem was to harness untamed horses, to make the dynamic static. It is the dynamic process that we must first understand, a process that the traditional teller and the traditional audience comprehend instinctively.

But if there is movement, it is neither frenetic nor chaotic. There are varying tempos involved, and the mixtures are explicable through association of ideas and, we might add, also of sounds. And directing the flow and the tempo, as it were, are the tellers of tales themselves, men and women of varying talent and from various walks of life. Sometimes this variety of ability is forgotten and the teller is thought of as a passive hander-on of {221|222} tradition. If this creative role is properly understood as the reason why there are so many “variants,” then the inevitability of many different levels of quality of creation and of performance becomes quite clear. Variation and interweaving are creative processes not due to lapses of memory or to confusion or mindless mixing. Such do occur, of course, at times, as does corruption, but less frequently than is imagined. Lapse of memory, after all, implies a fixed something to remember and also a mental attitude that allows of only one way of telling the “same story.”

We have, then, in tradition (1) a dynamic process of composition and transmission of narrative, which produces variants and interweavings; (2) traditional tellers of varying talent who use the process subconsciously and thus create those variants and interweavings that exist only at and during performance and are, between tellings, merely latent potentials; and (3) an aesthetic peculiar to that process and its results, namely, the variants and interweavings. Just as the process is dynamic and creative, so too the aesthetics are caused not by restraints but rather by the possibilities inherent in traditional associations of idea and sound and their overtones established by past usages and shared by all the members of that tradition, both tellers and listeners.

With those elements—a process, tellers, and an aesthetic—in mind, let us look at what “transitional” might mean. One might expect, first, that there would be some kind of change in process; second, that there would be some kind of change in personnel; and third, that there would be a change in aesthetics resulting from the first two changes. As the tellers are, I believe, the key to the process, because they probably originated and surely operate it, and they and the process they operate are the keys to the aesthetics, let us look at the tellers of tales, or other figures who produce texts, who may not be tellers themselves, but mediators.

I have divided those who deal with texts into insiders (that is, members of the traditional group, including singers) and outsiders (that is, those who are not members of the traditional group, who, therefore, approach the text without the assumptions and sense of values that members of the group share with one another). I have further divided all these people into (1) collectors, collector-editors, and editors, (2) retellers, and (3) imitators.

The outsiders, who come to the tradition and have an effect on some texts, are probably the first to try to harness the wild horses. Collectors, collector-editors, and editors deal directly with oral traditional texts, working with someone else’s creations, which they record or modify in some way, Calvino as an editor is in this group. They do not themselves create the primary texts, except insofar as they may put into writing, through dictation, what the creator tells them. There are many kinds of collectors and {222|223} collector-editors. What determines their species is that they write down a text and for the first time bring the idea of the static into the tradition. But most of the time, text in hand, they have left their informant and the tradition behind, in reality practically untouched. Collectors in such cases have frozen an infinitesimal part of tradition and carried it away to study, to enjoy, to show to others. Ideally they have written down their texts exactly as the story tellers have told them. If they have done so, then those texts are oral traditional, dictated texts. These people have, then, some respect for the primary text and either maintain it scrupulously or change it in varying degrees and for a variety of reasons. Their texts constitute the first move in the direction of a written literary text, because they manipulate an oral traditional text with other than traditional criteria and for nontraditional purposes: the text thus produced is intended for a nontraditional audience. It is not a transitional text, but it has moved away from the purely oral traditional one.

Milman Parry is a prime example of an outsider who respected the exact text of the epic singer. He collected some lyric songs and some tales as well and was as scrupulous in regard to their texts as he was with the epic songs. I believe that I myself and David Bynum qualify also as collector-editors. Like Parry’s, our goal in collecting and editing has been to record texts as accurately as possible and to present them in print as exactly as possible.

Another significant group consists of people who retell stories. They may be collectors also. They create their own text, without using any of the “original.” When we are talking about folktale we say that the retellers are telling the story in their own words: that means that they ignore even more {223|224} than some types of editors (and even collectors) the characteristic traits (such as repetition) of the oral traditional text. It is impossible to check the retellers’ text against the “original” because the original, that is, the one or ones they heard, were not set down at the time. The retellers do not produce an oral traditional text, essentially because their style is not the traditional style of the traditional group—to which they do not belong. Are their texts transitional? I honestly do not see how they could be, because they have already made the leap by choosing as their creators nontraditional persons, who bring their own styles to the texts. The tales went into another world to be born again in these new forms. Their creators, being outsiders, had different criteria from those of the tradition. The retellers, as a matter of fact, belong only in the world of the folktale, because retelling in one’s own traditional diction is what we mean by oral traditional composition and transmission.

At this point the question arises—and this might have a bearing on Calvino’s case—Are there not outsiders who have made themselves as familiar with a given tradition as an insider? I am not sure that is entirely possible, but I expect that the answer should be a somewhat, even slightly, qualified, affirmative. Obviously the degree of familiarity would depend on length of stay in the tradition, sensitivity to it, and other personal characteristics. What we are talking about in essence is an outsider becoming an insider.

In addition to the collectors and editors and retellers, there are those who imitate the oral traditional style more or less effectively. If the content of their poems is pseudotraditional, they might be classified as transitional. Their texts may look as if they were oral traditional, but their subjects and stories are not genuine traditional subjects or narratives. If, however, the content of their poems is nontraditional, I would classify them as written literary texts.

Let us now consider the insiders. By insiders I mean members of the traditional community, those who listen to and know the traditional songs and stories. They are the singer’s audience. This group includes, of course, the singer or storyteller. The traditional singer may himself create a new song, a “transitional” text. I am thinking here of such a singer as Filip Višnjić, who made up songs about the Serbian uprising at the request of Karadžić. These were new songs, that is, they were about events that had actually happened. When songs consist of traditional themes, they are traditional even if new and even if never sung by anyone else again. But when Višnjić tried to recount history, departing from the traditional themes (although his style was certainly authentic), he created a nontraditional song. No other singer could learn it and sing it without memorizing it. Was it “transitional”?

Whereas singers like Višnjić never learn to write and never produce new {224|225} songs beyond an occasional tour de force at someone’s request, the traditional singer who becomes a written poet goes all the way. The prime example is Njegoš, to whom I return later.

There is a transitional period in the life of epic in Serbo-Croatian beginning with Andrija Kačić-Miošić’s Razgovor ugodni naroda slovinskoga, “A Pleasant Discourse of the Slavic People,” in 1756 and including Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864), Vuk Vrčević (1811-82), Sima Milutinović-Sarajlija (1791-1847), and Luka Marjanović in the later nineteenth century. Songs were collected, edited, and created. Collecting and editing were done to some extent by all of these figures, even Kačić (1704-60). Karadžić, Vrčević, and Marjanović were primarily collector-editors, not themselves singers or creators, although I am not sure but that Karadžić may have made up some songs, and perhaps Vrčević did also. Milutinović and Njegoš wrote epics of their own, that is, written literary epics, and they also collected traditional songs and created new ones.

After Kačić in particular, although beginning even earlier, it seems that everyone began to make up epic songs. It was a period of great creativity of sorts. From Kačić’s time, the line between oral traditional epic and the new songs in its style became very blurred. The forces behind this thrust were didacticism and nationalism. These two forces met in an interest in history or expressed themselves in a preoccupation with history. Kačić wrote a history of the South Slavs in a medium all could understand, the traditional epic decasyllabics. Milutinović and Njegoš, to say nothing of Karadžić, were also interested in the history of their own people, the Serbs and Montenegrins. The cults of the gusle and of the hero were under way. A tradition of local songs of stealing sheep or wives was rapidly becoming a history of Montenegro. The Serbian uprising was being documented in epic song at the request of Karadžić. The Orthodox South Slavs were rising against the Turks. New things were happening in history and in the culture as well. Modern Serbian and Montenegrin literature was being born. The Middle Ages in Serbia and Montenegro—in fact, in most of the Balkans—had lasted into the eighteenth century. Toward its end, a new cultural spirit was beginning, which was to grow and reach full strength very quickly in the nineteenth. And history meant epic song to these men. They sought to sing and write history as it was known to them and to fill in the gaps with their own creations. The old style was being recreated or remade, sometimes gradually, to suit the new requirements.

The transitional period, then, in the general culture of the area formed the natural background for the creation of several kinds of transitional songs together with the collection of hundreds of authentic oral traditional epics {225|226} from the tellings and singings of traditional singers and poets. As transitional figures, Andrija Kačić-Miošić, the Franciscan monk in the Catholic regions of Dalmatia, Croatia, and among the Catholics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Montenegrin prince-bishop Peter II Petrović Njegoš among the Orthodox Serbs and Montenegrins stand out, although they were not alone.

There are 157 poems in the Razgovor, a few of which are written in symmetrical (4 + 4) octosyllables, but most in asymmetric (4 + 6) epic decasyllables. I have investigated only the decasyllabic poems for this chapter, but I have observed the octosyllabic ones also. Moreover, among the decasyllabic poems I have been particularly interested in those that are like the oral traditional epic songs in content as well as in meter.

Of the first fifteen poems, two (Nos. 2 and 3) are octosyllabic and thirteen {226|227} are decasyllabic. The openings of Nos. 1, 5-15, and possibly 4 are like the openings of oral traditional epics. No. 1 begins:

Knjigu piše od Kotara kneže,
Po imenu starac Radovane,
Ter je šalje pobratimu svomu,
Mjelovanu od gorice crne. [24]
The knez of Kotar wrote a letter,
namely the Old Man Radovan,
and sent it to his blood-brother,
Mjelovan of the Black Mountain.

Though the openings of Kačić’s songs may be oral traditional beyond any doubt, as we proceed we see new nontraditional elements appearing. The second stanza of Kačić No. 1, which has the title Pisma Radovana i Mjelovana, “A Song of Radovan and Mjelovan,” betrays an element foreign to the oral traditional epic, namely, consistent end rhyme:

U knjizi ga lipo pozdravljaše,
ter ovako starac besiđaše:
“Mjelovane, sva je vjeka na te!
probudi se, biće bolje za te!”
In the letter he greeted him well,
and thus the old man said:
“Mjelovan, long life to you!
Wake up, it will be better for you!”

The frame of the song is an exchange of letters. Radovan’s letter to Mjelovan goes from line 7 to line 28; line 29 introduces Mjelovan’s reply in {227|228} the traditional fashion—odpisuje starac Mjelovane: “Old Mjelovan wrote in reply:”—a regular and very familiar formula. Mjelovan’s answer goes from line 30 to line 72, the end of the poem. An exchange of letters is a common theme in traditional epic, but it is generally part of a larger action, not a song in itself.

Moreover, the content of the letters is nontraditional; as a matter of fact, it is a contrived literary conceit. Radovan writes:

“Wake up, Mjelovan! Last year when you travelled in Kotari with your gusle and sang a song of heroes, you glorified some and others you did not mention. Lika, Krbava, Slavonia, Bosnia, all Dalmatia, Romania, and Bulgaria are angry at you, because you left out many knights, specialists in single combat, bans and princes. Watch out or they’ll pull out your beard, because heroes have no sense of humor. Either sing of all the heroes, so that there will be no complaint against you, or give up the gusle and singing and travelling in Kotari!”

Mjelovan answers:

“Don’t be crazy, Radovan! Who can gather the clouds in the sky? Who can sing of all the heroes in the world? If you couldn’t, how can I? It’s not easy to shout to the gusle and to call all the heroes by name! …”

This is not heroic epic. The line is the traditional epic decasyllable with an attempt at consistent rhyming couplets, as illustrated above, or an ababrhyme scheme, as in:

Ali ćeš se prija prestaviti,
kano čvrčak pjevajuć do mraka,
nego li ćeš, pobre, izbrojiti
koliko je na svijetu junaka.
You will die sooner,
like a cricket singing until dusk,
my blood-brother, than count out
how many heroes there are in the world.

There are, of course, a number of traditional formulas or formulaic lines, such as the first seven lines of the poem and line 29, the formulaic introduction to a reply in writing, which constitute the frame of the exchange of letters. All these familiar marks of the traditional style and even theme are there to be sure. But to return to the content of the letters themselves, it is not traditional epic story. Whence does it come?

Kačić’s poem is an imitation of the traditional style, a conscious writing in it, to make the content available, as Kačić himself said, to the larger public, the traditional audience whose style he is imitating. The use of that style was not because there was no other vernacular literary style he could use, as was the case in Anglo-Saxon. The content of the letters themselves actually reminds us that there was another vernacular literary style with a long literary tradition behind it. There was, indeed, known to Kačić a highly developed literature in a richly ornamented style, one that he used in his octosyllabic poems, one in which he had been brought up and which was several centuries old by his time. It had been formed under influences from Italian literature in the aristocratic milieu of the coastal cities. Kačić’s use of the epic decasyllable is really a conscious imitation, not a natural and necessary development from traditional oral usage.

Traditional singers did not take up the singing in rhymed couplets, although there were eventually some poets who wrote and adapted traditional formulaic decasyllable to a consistent rhyme scheme, as did Kačić. In time also some singers occasionally memorized written poems in rhymed couplets, such as some of Kačić’s poems themselves and a later Kosovo song in rhymed couplets which became very popular in Montenegro and Serbia. I last recorded it in the district west of Niš in 1967. The introduction of pervasive rhyme is not a change that would have come from within in the South Slavic tradition. It was brought in from outside; or perhaps it would be more correct to say that the traditional stylistic elements were brought into the literary tradition. Such a poem as Kačić No. 1 in Razgovor seems to me for these very reasons to be literary rather than transitional.

Grabovac preceded Kačić in the literary use of decasyllables in writing history in the early part of the eighteenth century. Grabovac used them in his Cvit razgovora naroda i jezika iliričkoga aliti rvackoga, “An Anthology of the Entertaining Discourse of the Illyrian or Croatian People and Language.” Of his three poems in decasyllables, two are developed-narrative, heroic epics, buthe composed them throughout in rhymed couplets. The content in this case is traditional; the meter of the line is traditional; but the rhymed couplets are not. Although rhymed couplets occur occasionally in oral traditional epic, the songs do not consist solely of them. Their use makes a difference in the formulaic diction. Though the first line of the couplets is usually formulaic, the order of the words in the second line is sometimes changed to accommodate the rhyme, or the wording is forced and nonformulaic. A single example suffices for the moment. The lines

are an accommodation of a very traditional pair of formulaic lines to the nontraditional written literary rhyme. These are traditional lines:

Ne piše je, čim se knjiga piše,
već od krvi iz svoga obraza.

He did not write it with what a letter is written with,
but with blood from his own cheek.

Biše ‘it was’ is awkward and distorts the natural flow of the traditional formulas. One can see in such examples the traditional style changing to a {230|231} literary style before one’s very eyes. Because of the traditional type of content and the many traditional formulaic lines on the one hand and the nontraditional rhymed couplets on the other, one might call these poems by Grabovac transitional. For me, however, I must confess that the rhymed couplets in themselves place the poems in the literary rather than transitional category.

Kačić’s poems were composed in quatrains. This is itself a nontraditional element, but it does not of necessity distort the formulas in the way in which rhyme does. Some quatrains consist of rhymed couplets; in some the rhyming follows an abab pattern, some have only a few rhymed couplets, and some are unrhymed. The quatrains themselves and the rhyming schemes were drawn by Grabovac and Kačić from the literary tradition in which both were brought up. They were, after all, in our terms, outsiders, with a written literary training and style of their own. They chose to use the traditional decasyllabic line and the formulaic style of the oral traditional epic so that what they wrote would be accessible to those for whom those stylistic elements were natural.

Both Grabovac and Kačić were clearly well versed in the oral traditional style. This is so true of Kačić that many of his poems are indistinguishable from pure oral traditional songs. In those, he shows himself as an outsider who has become an insider, or who can compose as one. He has written traditional songs. In the poems in which he uses rhyme in any consistent way, however, we may have imitation and transitional texts. One should be aware of the fact that not all of Kačić’s poems are alike. Poem No. 4 on the four holy namesakes, four Saints Sava, is strongly medieval. The content is not characteristic of oral traditional style; the quatrains contain two rhymed couplets. Kačić praises a hermit Sava in Palestine; then he describes the martyrdom of two other Savas, one a monk martyred by King Atanarik, the other a captain in Rome, whose sufferings are set forth in detail. Kačić finally comes to the Serbian Saint Sava, founder of Hilandar monastery on Mount Athos. Some of the familiar formulas appear, such as in the enumeration of the four saints:

9-10  Jedan biše cvitak kalopere,
          po imenu Savo kaluđere.

           One was a carnation flower
           by name Sava the monk.

(But cvitak kalopere belongs in lyric, not epic.) {231|232}

21-22  Drugi biše Savo kaluđere
           koji suzam svoje lišće pere.

           The second was Sava the monk,
           who washed his face with tears.

(The second line is not traditional epic.)

33-34  Treći biše Sava kapetane
           od vojnika đenerale bane

           The third was Captain Sava
           General commander of the army

61-62  Četvrti je ruža izabrana
           od kolina Nemanić Stipana

The fourth is a choice rose
of the family of Stipan Nemanić

(But with ruža izabrana we are again with flowers and lyrics.)

And other formulaic lines such as the familiar Malo vrime postojalo biše, “A little time had passed” (97), followed in rhyme by the unfamiliar za biskupa Sava učiniše, “[when] they made Sava bishop,” make us realize that the formulaic style is there in the background. To me, this poem is more “written literary” than transitional, although I can understand why some critics might disagree.

There are instances of familiar motifs, or short themes. For example, changing clothes happens from time to time in traditional epic, when the hero prepares himself for departure or battle. Sava in this poem changes in lines 73-74:

Svlači Savo sa zlatom aljine,
Kaluđere oblači mantije.

Sava doffed his golden clothes,
he donned his monk’s cassock.

Or there is a theme associated more with hajduks than with saints:

81-82  zemlja Savi prostirač bijaše,
           a vedrim se nebom pokrivaše {232|233}

           the earth was Sava’s blanket beneath him,
           and he covered himself with the clear sky.

I turn finally to Petar Petrović Njegoš II (1813–51). Unlike either Kačić or Calvino, who, although they were deeply immersed in oral traditional art, were not themselves actual practitioners of it, Njegoš began in his early youth as an oral traditional poet. He had learned to sing epic songs to the gusle, as had his father also.

The Mountain Wreath is about the massacre of Slavic converts to Islam in Montenegro at the end of the eighteenth century, an episode that is not authenticated by historical record. The work is replete with descriptions of the local life, beliefs, struggles, and aspirations of the Montenegrin people. A third work, Šćepan mali “Stephen the Small,” is a historical drama recounting the rule in Montenegro in the late eighteenth century of a charlatan who posed as the legitimate czar of Russia.

Thus the remarkable life and literary career of Njegoš embraced all three stages, the oral traditional, the transitional, and the fully literate styles.

We have now considered various kinds of evidence for the existence of transitional texts. Calvino set out to translate, into modern Italian, folktales that had been collected in dialect from the lips of oral storytellers. His style reflects the directness and vividness of the original tales. Because he scrupulously recorded the collected source for each tale, one is able to compare the “original” with Calvino’s version. It is apparent that he injected his own sense of style into his translation. We have seen, for example, that he elevated the “three beautiful dresses of different colors” to the more highly charged “a dress the color of the sky” and that he changed the modest request of “whatever your lordship wants” to “a dress the color of diamonds.” In his helpful notes he states when he combines in one tale its different variants or when he adds whimsically satiric touches of character, as in the ending of “The Florentine.” He was, therefore, not a mere conveyor of the tales he translated but a writer of texts that are reasonably to be regarded as transitional between their oral originals and a written literary version.

Kačić-Miošić in his Razgovor ugodni narodna slovinskoga not only introduced two songs taken from oral singers, identified as such, but also added many songs of his own, which are highly formulaic in style. Kačić was not himself a singer, but a literate Franciscan monk. It is difficult to distinguish some of Kačić’s songs from oral poems, and some of these may be regarded as transitional in style. Many of his poems, however, reveal signs of the pen, {235|236} namely, the use of rhymed couplets and quatrains. As this usage can be traced to previous learned tradition, it has seemed best to consider such poems as examples of a style that has already passed into the literary and learned, rather than the intermediate, transitional stage, of writing.

In the literary production of Njegoš it has been possible to identify all three stages of composition, the truly oral epics of his earliest youth, the transitional style of some of his “new songs,” and the fully literate style of his masterpieces, The Ray of the Microcosm and The Mountain Wreath .

Our forays into the works of these three writers have shown that there is such an entity as the transitional text. The proof of its existence, however, has depended on an intimate acquaintance with the underlying oral tradition and likewise upon familiarity with the possible learned influences at play in each instance. To judge the bounds of the transitional stage one must have a firm foothold in both the oral and the learned literary traditions.

There is one field, I think, to which the foregoing remarks about transitional texts have less relevance than to others. That is the Homeric poems; for it is clear, I believe, that they are not transitional texts but the work of an oral traditional singer. The world of Homer was a far cry from the world of the Latin-surrounded medieval vernacular poetry or from that of Kačić or Njegoš with their learned traditions. On another level, the Slavic oral traditional literatures, including the Russian byliny, the Ukrainian dumy, as well as the South Slavic, both Serbo-Croatian and Bulgarian heroic songs, as noted down in the past two centuries, have served as a primary source for our knowledge of the way in which still-living traditions function in their societies.

One of the most striking things to note and to emphasize in this connection before I conclude is that the great poets in any of the oral traditional literatures with which I am acquainted—Homer, Avdo Međedović, the Beowulf poet, the poet of the Oxford Roland (and, I should like very much to add, of the Nibelungenlied)—stand out in their traditions because they go beyond such strictures as a rigidly formulaic style. One feels this in Homer, of course; one feels it as one listens to Avdo singing his tremendous songs, the lines of description and narrative pouring forth with an impatient intensity that at times reminds one of Homer; I have felt it, as have others also, in the way in which the Beowulf poet tells his story. These poets were not thinking of style; they were creating it. They were full of their story and completely engaged in the all-consuming task of telling it grandly.

In conclusion, the prospect of further elucidating the processes of the development of vernacular oral traditional literature is exciting as new {236|237} insights are brought to bear on the poetry and prose of the Middle Ages and later times. In spite of the great progress already made, we have still far to go. But the rewards are great; in my mind, perhaps the greatest is simply to become more intimately acquainted with the extraordinarily intricate and variegated literatures themselves.


[ back ] 1. For previous discussions of the transitional text, see A. Lord, 1986; also 1987b, 337-45. For a treatment of the developing poetic style of Njegoš, see A. Lord, 1986, 30-34.

[ back ] 2. See A. Lord, 1960, chap. 6, “Writing and Oral Tradition,” 124-38.

[ back ] 3. Goold, 1977.

[ back ] 4. See Boiling, 1925. [For the editing of repeated passages in the Iliad, see Janko, 1990, esp. 332-34.]

[ back ] 5. For an earlier discussion of this question, see A. Lord, 1987b, under the heading “The Memorizing Oral Poet,” 313-24. See also A. Lord, 1991, “The Influence of a Fixed Text,” 170-85.

[ back ] 6. Discussed below.

[ back ] 7. Calvino, 1980, xix-xxi.

[ back ] 8. Dillon, 1971: “The book therefore gives a true account of oral tradition, such as not to be found in Curtin or Larminie, or indeed, for that matter, in Grimm. The repeated formulae and the runs, which are essential features of the folktale and correspond to the formulae in Homer, are the very flavor of the story and are lost in any summary or ‘literary’ retelling by an editor” (7).

[ back ] 9. Calvino, 1980, xviii.

[ back ] 10. De Nino, 1883; Comparetti, 1875.

[ back ] 11. De Nino, 1883, vii-viii. [I owe this translation from De Nino to the kindness of James Hankins.]

[ back ] 12. Calvino, 1980, 280.

[ back ] 13. See Pitrè, 1875, 410-15.

[ back ] 14. Calvino, 1980, 749.

[ back ] 15. Ibid., 753.

[ back ] 16. Pitrè, 1875, 368-80; Calvino, 1956, 719-25.

[ back ] 17. “Io voglio che vossignoria mi porti un bel ramo di datteri in un vaso d’argento. E se non me lo porta, che il bastimento non possa piú andare né avanti né indietro.”

[ back ] 18. Diamond, 1963; Russom, 1978 and 1987b.

[ back ] 19. A partly comparable situation is noted by Cantilena, 1990, who contrasts the rigidity of written Greek hexameter with the flexibility of oral hexameter: [“The literary hexameter is more rigid than the oral on several grounds: in arrangement of words, in placing of caesuras, in rhythmic variety (the 32 types of hexameter in Homer are reduced to 21 in Callimachus and to nine in Nonnus)” (79).] This is not to suggest that the style of Callimachus is mechanical but that his hexameter versification is under more constraints than that of Homer. Cf. Haymes, 1987, for Middle High German heroic epic.

[ back ] 20. A. Lord, 1987b, 338-39.

[ back ] 21. Buturović, 1976. [For another assessment of Hörmann’s texts, see Bynum, 1993, chap, 4, esp. 587-88 and 600.]

[ back ] 22. A. Lord, 1960, 136; see also 132-33.

[ back ] 23. Spraycar and Dunlap, 1982.

[ back ] 24. Citations from Kačić in this chapter are from Kačić-Miošić, 1942.

[ back ] 25. The text is from Bogišić, 1878, 326.

[ back ] 26. Hektorović, 1951.

[ back ] 27. [Stephen A. Mitchell comments that in Old Norse, although the introduction of the ballad into the region is not usually dated much earlier than the thirteenth century, Egill Skallagrímsson produced an end-rhymed scaldic verse, the Ho̧fuðlausn’, “Head-Ransom,” composed at York in the tenth century.]

[ back ] 28. Ranjin zbornik, 1937.

[ back ] 29. Gundulić, 1938.

[ back ] 30. Grabovac, 1951, 207.

[ back ] 31. See Letopis popa Dukljanina, 1950.

[ back ] 32. A. Lord, 1986, 30-34.

[ back ] 33. Savić-Rebac, 1957, 114.

[ back ] 34. Latković, 1963, 32-38.

[ back ] 35. Njegoš, 1953, 9.

[ back ] 36. Ibid., 38.

[ back ] 37. For the intrusion of nontraditional dating into epic songs, see A. Lord, 1960, 132-33. [See also Buchan’s comments on the use of dating in certain Scottish ballads, cited in the Editor’s Addendum to Chapter 7.]

[ back ] 38. Djilas, 1966, x.

[ back ] 39. Savić-Rebac, 1957, 124-49.