The Singer of Tales

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Chapter 4. The Theme

Formulas and groups of formulas, both large and small, serve only one purpose. They provide a means for telling a story in song and verse. The tale’s the thing.

Anyone who reads through a collection of oral epic from any country is soon aware that the same basic incidents and descriptions are met with time and again. This is true in spite of the fact that editors seek diversity of story and actually avoid variants of any one story, relegating them at best to the notes, in spite of the fact also that collections usually contain songs from many singers from many parts of a country. The reader’s impression of repetitions would be closer to the experience of the singer himself and to that of the singer’s audience were he to read first the songs in the repertory of a single singer and then those from singers in the same small district. The arrangement of the texts in the published volumes of the Parry Collection is intended to afford just such an experience.

Incidents of this sort occur in song after song, and from much hearing the pattern of the theme becomes familiar to the youthful bard even before he begins to sing. He listens countless times to the gathering of an army or of a large number of wedding guests (the two are often synonymous). He hears how the chieftain writes letters to other chiefs; he comes to know the names of these leaders of the past and of the places where they dwelt; he knows what preparations are made to receive the assembling host, and how each contingent arrives, what its heroes are wearing and what horses they are riding and in what order they appear. All this and much more is {68|69} impressed upon him as he sits and is enthralled by his elders’ singing of tales. He absorbs a sense of the structure of these themes from his earliest days, just as he absorbs the rhythms and patterns of the formulas, since the two go hand in hand. And we can to some extent reproduce this process of absorption by reading (or even by listening to) as many songs as possible from a given district or group of singers.

Chart IV

Bojičić Alija Rescues the Children of Alibey
Sung by Đemail Zogić

  A (1934) sung