The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 3. The Formula

There came a time in Homeric scholarship when it was not sufficient to speak of the “repetitions” in Homer, of the “stock epithets,” of the “epic clichés” and “stereotyped phrases.” Such terms were either too vague or too restricted. Precision was needed, and the work of Milman Parry was the culmination of that need. The result was a definition of the “formula” as “a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea.” [1] By this definition the ambiguity of “repetitions” was eliminated; we were henceforth to deal with repeated word groups, not with repeated scenes, although Bowra uses the term “formula” still to apply to both. [2] At the same time, Parry’s definition broadens “formula” to include within its scope more than the repeated epithets. Furthermore, the opprobrium attached to “clichés” and “stereotyped” has been removed.

Students of epic have now willingly applied themselves to the study of the repeated phrases by textual analysis, by counting repetitions, classifying similar phrases and thus extracting the technique of composition by formula manipulation. Yet in following this method they tend to treat all texts alike, whether by the same singer or not, whether sung or dictated, whatever, indeed, the circumstances of their collection may have been. Much has been gained from this type of analysis, and from it surely much more remains to be learned concerning the details of the process in any given tradition. Yet it seems to me that in confining ourselves to this method we tend to obscure the dynamic life of the repeated phrases and to lose an awareness of how and why they came into being. Are we not conceiving of the formula as a tool rather than as a living phenomenon of metrical language? In this chapter we shall attempt to look at the formula not only from outside in terms of textual analysis, but also from within, that is, from the point of view of the singer of tales and of the tradition.

At all stages in our musings about oral epic we find it necessary to recreate in our imagination not a general but a specific moment of performance. The singing bard must be our guide; and the singing bard is never a type, but an individual. Whenever we say “the singer does this or that,” we must make it clear that our statement is based on experience with a specific singer, or on the combined experience of various singers. Our method will be to follow the developing career of the young singer, beginning even from the time when he starts to absorb the tradition by much listening to the songs about him and continuing with each advance of his own flight of song.

It may seem strange that we have very few texts from singers in the earliest stage of apprenticeship, as it were, in their art. But collectors seek the best singers, and the best singers are usually the older men. Their reputation is great; they are brought forward by those whom the collector questions. On occasion a younger singer in his twenties or thirties may be suggested, often because he has a good voice or a fine manner of singing, more rarely because he is a narrator of quality. Yet it should surprise us that it has not occurred to anyone to make a special study of the youngest group. It is a commentary, indeed, on the force of the belief that the songs are set and that younger singers have not had time to memorize a song as well as an older man. Perhaps exposing this belief as false will encourage giving more attention to songs of the youngest singers, imperfect though they may be.

Surely the formula has not the same value to the mature singer that it has to the young apprentice; it also has different values to the highly skilled and to the unskilled, less imaginative bard. We may otherwise think of the formula as being ever the same no matter from whose lips it proceeds. Such uniformity is scarcely true of any element of language; for language always bears the stamp of its speaker. The landscape of formula is not a level steppe with a horizon which equalizes all things in view, but rather a panorama of high mountains and deep valleys and of rolling foothills; and we must seek the essence of formula at all points in the landscape. Moreover, with the penetrating eye of the mind we must look for this essence backward through the centuries which formed the mountains and the valleys. For the singing we hear today, like the everyday speech around us, goes back in a direct and long series of singings to a beginning which, no matter how difficult it may be to conceive, we must attempt to grasp, because otherwise we shall miss an integral part of the meaning of the traditional formula.

Or to use another figure, the formula is the offspring of the marriage of thought and sung verse. Whereas thought, in theory at least, may be free, sung verse imposes restrictions, varying in degree of rigidity from culture to culture, that shape the form of thought. Any study of formula must therefore properly begin with a consideration of metrics and music, particularly as confronted by the young singer first becoming aware of the {31|32} demands of his art. Later we shall have to consider the question of why story becomes wedded to song and verse, to ask ourselves what kind of tale finds its expression in these very special methods of presentation. These are not problems that the contemporary singer of tales faces; for he has inherited the answers. The fact of narrative song is around him from birth; the technique of it is the possession of his elders, and he falls heir to it. Yet in a real sense he does recapitulate the experiences of the generations before him stretching back to the distant past. From meter and music he absorbs in his earliest years the rhythms of epic, even as he absorbs the rhythms of speech itself and in a larger sense of the life about him. He learns empirically the length of phrase, the partial cadences, the full stops.

In the months and years of boyhood, not very long indeed after he has learned to speak his own language, the future singer develops a realization that in sung stories the order of words is often not the same as in everyday speech. Verbs may be placed in unusual positions, auxiliaries may be omitted, cases may be used strangely. He is impressed by the special effect which results, and he associates these syntactic peculiarities with the singing of tales. Moreover, the linking of phrases by parallelism, balancing and opposition of word order become familiar to him; the verb, which occurs, for example, just before a syntactic pause, is repeated at the beginning of the next phrase or is balanced by a verb just before the following stop: (The verbs in the passage are italicized.)

Đe sedimo, da se veselimo,
E da bi nas i Bog veselio,
Veselio, pa razgovorio!
Where we sit, let us make merry,
And may God too make us merry,
Make us merry and give us entertainment!

In these pre-singing years, together with a sense of new arrangements of ideas and the words which express them, the boy’s ear records the repetitions {32|33} of the sounds of the words. His instinctive grasp of alliterations and assonances is sharpened. One word begins to suggest another by its very sound; one phrase suggests another not only by reason of idea or by a special ordering of ideas, but also by acoustic value.

Thus even before the boy begins to sing, a number of basic patterns have been assimilated in his experience. Their form may not be precise—the precision will come later—but it can be truly said that in this youth the idea of the formula is in process of becoming. What we shall soon designate as melodic, metric, syntactic, and acoustic patterns are forming in his mind.

The chief reason, of course, that the formula does not take precise shape at this stage, is that only the necessity of singing can produce a full-fledged formula. The phenomenon of which it is a manifestation arises from the exigencies of performance. Only in performance can the formula exist and have clear definition. Besides, not all the singers whom the boy hears in his family or community have the same formulas for a given idea or the same manner of treatment of formulas. There is no rigidity in what he hears.

What has been described so far has been an unconscious process of assimilation. Consciously the boy has been thinking of the stories themselves which are related in this unusual way. But when he begins to sing, the manner of presentation comes for a long time to the fore. Then the formula is born for him and his formula habits are acquired.

One of the first problems for the young singer from the very beginning is to learn to play the instrument which accompanies the song. This is not a really difficult task, since most of the instruments which accompany chant are not intricate. In the Yugoslav case, the boy has to learn to bow a one-stringed instrument, the gusle, the range of which is open string plus four fingers, an ambitus of five notes. The rhythm is primary; the grace notes are ornamental. Some older singer may show him how to finger the instrument, or the boy may simply imitate his elders by himself in private. He may make a small gusle for himself, because the grown-up size is too big for his hands, or his father or mentor may make one for him. He imitates the fingering, the melody, and the manner of his elder. Rade Danilović in Kolašin has told us how his father, Mirko, used to put the boy’s hand on his own as he fingered the string (Parry 6783).

Thus begins the stage in which the rhythmic impressions of the earlier period of listening are fitted to the restrictions of the instrument and of a traditional melodic line. Usually the rhythms and melodies that the youth learns at this period of initial specific application will stay with him the rest of his life. He may acquire others from singers of great reputation or striking manner of performance, but they will be in addition to the earlier ones or, at most, they will only modify, not replace them.

At the same time, the boy is trying to sing words. He remembers the phrases he has heard, sometimes whole lines, sometimes only parts of lines. {33|34} From now on, for a considerable period of time, he will listen to his elders with more attention to the lines and phrases. He will pick them up from any singer whom he hears. As he practices singing by himself he realizes the need for them and he uses them, sometimes adjusting them more or less consciously to his own needs, sometimes unconsciously twisting them. They are not sacred, but they are useful. In this way he acquires the formulas of his elders and establishes his own formula habits. He is doing what all singers before him have done.

The most stable formulas will be those for the most common ideas of the poetry. They will express the names of the actors, the main actions, time, and place. Thus in the line, Vino pije Kraljeviću Marko, ‘Kraljević Marko is drinking wine’, Kraljeviću Мarko presents the hero in a complete second-half-line formula. Kraljević, properly a title, ‘king’s son’, or ‘prince’, is treated as a patronymic. In another line, Sultan Selim rata otvorio, ‘Sultan Selim declared war’, the title ‘Sultan’ makes it possible to name Selim in a four-syllable initial formula. The young singer learns that patronymics, titles, and indications of city of origin, for example, od Qrašca Tale, ‘Tale of Orašac’, are of great use in naming his heroes. Epithets are not so frequent in this tradition because the shortness of the line does not present a need for them that cannot be fulfilled by title or patronymic. They come into usage either when there is no title or because the make-up of the line does not allow a long patronymic, or when the singer wishes to express the actor in a whole line, frequently a vocative, as in Sultan Selim, od svijeta sunce, ‘O Sultan Selim, light [sun] of the world’.

The most frequent actions in the story, the verbs, are often complete formulas in themselves, filling either the first or the second half of the line, as in Govorio Kraljeviću Marko, ‘Kraljević Marko spoke’. If the verb is a syllable short, a conjunction often completes the formula, as in Pa zasede svojega dorata, ‘Then he mounted his brown horse’. The length of the action formula is naturally in part determined by whether the subject is expressed in the same line and by the length of the subject. The singer finds that he can say, ‘Marko said’, in the first half of the line with subject expressed, Marko kaže, or in the second half line, govorio Marko, or in the whole line, govorio Kraljeviću Marko. Obviously here the length of the subject is influenced by the length of the verb. If the subject is not expressed, if the singer wants to say merely, ‘he said’, govorio does very well for the first half of the line; the addition of a conjunction and the personal pronoun come to his aid in the second half line, pa on govorio, as does also very frequently a change of aspect of the verb, pa odgovorio, ‘then he replied’. But in order to accomplish this in a whole line, the singer must repeat the idea in the second half of the line: Govorio, riječ besedaše, ‘He spoke, he uttered a word’. This example illustrates that the object of a verb forms an integral part of the verb formula, and shows as well how and why pleonasm is so common in oral style. Many of the formulas for {34|35} the second half of the line are made up of verb and object: rata otvorio, ‘opened war’; knjigu napisao, ‘wrote a letter’. By a change of tense this last formula is often expressed in the first half of the line as Knjigu piše, ‘writes a letter’. In both cases the other half of the line is left for the subject.

A third common set of formulas indicates time when the action occurs. A typical example, with Homeric overtones, is: Kad je zora krila pomolila, ‘When dawn put forth its wings’, or Kad je zora i bijela dana, ‘When it was dawn and white day’, or Kad je sunce zemlju ogrijalo, ‘When the sun had warmed the earth’.

The singer must learn another category of common formulas indicating the place where an action occurs. ‘In Prilip’, for instance, can be expressed in the first half of the line U Prilipu, in the second half of the line by u Prilipu gradu, and in the whole line by U Prilipu gradu bijelome, ‘In Prilip, that white city’. Similarly, ‘in the tower’ can be expressed in the first half of the line by A na kuli, with the conjunction a as a filler; in the second half line by na bijeloj kuli, ‘in the white tower’, and in the whole line by Na bijeloj od kamena kuli, ‘In the white tower of stone’.

    ⎧ kuli
au⎨ dvoru
    ⎩ kući

Such a substitution system expresses graphically the usefulness and the relationship of a group of formulas.

A style thus systematized by scholars on the foundation of analysis of texts is bound to appear very mechanical. Again we may turn to language itself for a useful parallel. The classical grammar of a language, with its paradigms of tenses and declensions, might give us the idea that language is a mechanical process. The parallel, of course, goes even further. The method of language is like that of oral poetry, substitution in the framework of the grammar. Without the metrical restrictions of the verse, language substitutes one subject for another in the nominative case, keeping the same verb; or keeping the same noun, it substitutes one verb for another. In studying the {35|36} patterns and systems of oral narrative verse we are in reality observing the “grammar” of the poetry, a grammar superimposed, as it were, on the grammar of the language concerned. Or, to alter the image, we find a special grammar within the grammar of the language, necessitated by the versification. The formulas are the phrases and clauses and sentences of this specialized poetic grammar. The speaker of this language, once he has mastered it, does not move any more mechanically within it than we do in ordinary speech.

When we speak a language, our native language, we do not repeat words and phrases that we have memorized consciously, but the words and sentences emerge from habitual usage. This is true of the singer of tales working in his specialized grammar. He does not “memorize” formulas, any more than we as children “memorize” language. He learns them by hearing them in other singers’ songs, and by habitual usage they become part of his singing as well. Memorization is a conscious act of making one’s own, and repeating, something that one regards as fixed and not one’s own. The learning of an oral poetic language follows the same principles as the learning of language itself, not by the conscious schematization of elementary grammars but by the natural oral method.

Any thorough grammar of a language notes exceptions to “rules,” dialectal differences, “irregular” nouns and verbs, idioms—in fact those divergences from the systematized rules that arise in usage and in the normal organic change constantly in operation in a living spoken language. If we analyze oral epic texts that are recorded from actual performance rather than texts taken from dictation and normalized to some extent, we can observe the oral poetic language in its pure state, with its irregularities and abnormalities arising from usage. Then it is clear that the style is not really so mechanical as its systematization seems to imply.

The value to us of drawing up a number of substitution systems is that we immediately begin to see that the singer has not had to learn a large number of separate formulas. The commonest ones which he first uses set a basic pattern, and once he has the basic pattern firmly in his grasp, he needs only to substitute another word for the key one. The actual basic formulas which any given singer may learn first would be practically impossible to determine; it would vary from singer to singer. Probably if the first song learned by the singer concerned Marko Kraljević, Marko’s name and the varieties of it used in making lines would set the basic pattern for similar names, which would fall into a four-syllable plus two-syllable pattern. The fundamental element in constructing lines is the basic formula pattern. There is some justification for saying indeed that the particular formula itself is important to the singer only up to the time when it has planted in his mind its basic mold. When this point is reached, the singer depends less and less on learning formulas and more and more on the process of substituting other words in the formula patterns. {36|37}

Although it may seem that the more important part of the singer’s training is the learning of formulas from other singers, I believe that the really significant element in the process is rather the setting up of various patterns that make adjustment of phrase and creation of phrases by analogy possible. This will be the whole basis of his art. Were he merely to learn the phrases and lines from his predecessors, acquiring thus a stock of them, which he would then shuffle about and mechanically put together in juxtaposition as inviolable, fixed units, he would, I am convinced, never become a singer. He must make his feeling for the patterning of lines, which he has absorbed earlier, specific with actual phrases and lines, and by the necessity of performance learn to adjust what he hears and what he wants to say to these patterns. If he does not learn to do this, no matter how many phrases he may know from his elders, he cannot sing. He does this in performance, not before an audience at first, of course, but by himself. This style has been created and shaped in performance; it has been so with all singers since time immemorial, and it is so with him. The habit of adjustment, the creation of lines in performance, this is acquired from the moment the boy begins to try to sing.

What is meant by “adjustment” can best be comprehended in terms of the establishment of various kinds of patterns and rhythms of expression. These the boy has picked up in his pre-singing years and he now finds his own means of forming them naturally and readily. We may begin again with the melodies of the singing itself. The boy learns that there is a special pattern for the opening of a song, with its own beginning and cadence. There is at least one oft-repeated melodic pattern for sustained narrative. Sometimes in the course of his life the singer acquires from one to three variations of this most important pattern. It is quite possible that he has discovered that by changing the melody he rests his voice. On occasion, but by no means regularly, the melodic pattern shifts for dramatic emphasis. There is a modified version of the singer’s main pattern for stopping before а rest and another somewhat modified version for reprise after a pause. The song also has its concluding cadence. An example of these patterns can be seen in the appendix to Volume I of Serbocroatian Heroic Songs in the musical transcriptions of the “Captivity of Đulić Ibrahim,” sung by Salih Ugljanin in Novi Pazar with music notations from the records by Béla Bartók.

From these musical examples one can see also the rhythmic patterns, generally trochaic. Here the play or “adjustment” between melody and meter can be observed in operation. We note the inadequacy of our texts without music in presenting a picture of epic song. The line is syllabic, or better, syllabo-tonic, a trochaic pentameter with an invariable break after the fourth syllable. It is simple, yet subtlety has entered from the interplay between melody and text. There is a tension between the normal accent and the meter. The accent of the meter does not always fall on the normal prose accent, [6] nor are all five stresses of the same intensity. The ninth syllable {37|38} is the most prominent, has the strongest beat, and is held longest; the seventh and eighth are the weakest. The tenth may be lost entirely, completely swallowed, or hopelessly deformed. It may be carried over to the beginning of the following line, [7] or it may be an ordinary short beat. The first and the fifth syllables tend to be of the same intensity because they are the initial beat in the line and the first after the break; but when a proclitic stands in these positions, as is very common at the beginning of the line and not unusual in the fifth syllable, the first and third feet are sometimes iambs rather than trochees, and the melody follows this rhythm. Occasionally the first foot, sometimes even the second or third foot, is a dactyl in the regular practice of some singers; and they have sets of formulas adjusted to this rhythm. [8] In these cases the extra syllable is often supplied by a word without meaning.

Under the pressure of rapid composition in performance, the singer of tales, it is to be expected, makes occasional errors in the construction of his lines. His text line may be a syllable too long or a syllable too short. This does not trouble him in performance, and his audience scarcely notices these lines, since they have an understanding of the singer’s art and recognize these slight variations as perfectly normal aberrations. The singer himself adjusts his musical line to the text by making a dactyl out of a trochee or by holding one syllable for two rhythmical heats rather than for one.

An additional set of patterns, related to the rhythmic patterns, which the singer must learn to control in these first years, is that of word boundaries, or more properly, length of accentual groups (that is, a word plus proclitics and enclitics). This need is especially important to the singer because the feeling for the mid-line break is very real. An accentual group cannot, and in practice only very rarely does, bridge the fourth and fifth syllables, although neither the melodic nor rhythmic patterns show this. When listening to the song one hears no pause at the break. The end of the line is very clearly marked, and run-on lines are few. In the first half of the line the most common word-boundary patterns are 2–2, 1–3, and 4: vino pije, ‘he {38|39} drinks wine’; pa govori, ‘then he says’; Kraljeviću, or a vodi ga, ‘and he leads him’ (where a is proclitic and ga is enclitic).