The Singer of Tales

  Use the following persistent identifier:


This book is about Homer. He is our Singer of Tales. Yet, in a larger sense, he represents all singers of tales from time immemorial and unrecorded to the present. Our book is about these other singers as well. Each of them, even the most mediocre, is as much a part of the tradition of oral epic singing as is Homer, its most talented representative. Among the singers of modern times there is none to equal Homer, but he who approaches the master most closely in our experience of epic song is Avdo Međedović of Bijelo Polje, Yugoslavia. He is our present-day Balkan Singer of Tales.

We believe that the epic singers from the dawn of human consciousness have been a deeply significant group and have contributed abundantly to the spiritual and intellectual growth of man. Although only two segments of the Indo-European peoples have been treated here in any detail, namely the Greeks and the Slavs (or more truly the speakers of Serbocroatian and of Bulgarian), it is my hope that the book is not parochial. Narrowness has never been excusable, whether it be ethnic, geographic, religious, social, or even academic, least of all in the space age. Of the epic songs of the past (or of the present for that matter) Homer’s have always been recognized as supreme. When our collecting began in the nineteen-thirties the Yugoslav oral epic was accessible, alive, and distinguished. Russian and central Asiatic oral traditions might have done as well for purposes of comparative study, but for an American professor at that time they were not within easy reach.

This book concentrates on only one aspect of the singers’ art. Our immediate purpose is to comprehend the manner in which they compose, learn, and transmit their epics. It is a study in the processes of composition of oral narrative poetry. Hence the reader must not seek here a survey of oral epics, or a history of oral epic in the Balkans or elsewhere.

This book is dedicated gratefully to my parents, who made it possible for me after my first academic degree to go to Yugoslavia with Milman Parry for fifteen months, and helped with my further education.

My debt to Milman Parry as master and friend can never adequately be expressed. He introduced me to a rich world of thought and fired me with an urge to explore it. But, as a true teacher, he left me free in my explorations and conclusions. Parry’s genius as a scholar lay in a bold and imaginative rigorousness which insisted that a comprehension of oral poetry could {xxxv|xxxvi} come only from an intimate knowledge of the way in which it was produced; that a theory of composition must he based not on another theory but on the facts of the practice of the poetry.

The first form of this book served as a doctoral dissertation in the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard in 1949. To its readers, Sir Cedric Maurice Bowra and Professor John H. Finley, Jr., I am deeply grateful for continued encouragement and most helpful exchange of ideas.

Professor H. T. Levin, who was at that time Chairman of the Department, a devoted admirer of Parry’s achievements and like myself a pupil of Parry’s at Harvard in the thirties, generously agreed to read the manuscript and to write a preface for the present book. I am happy to have this opportunity to express my deep gratitude to him for it and for years of inspiring association and never-failing help.

Thanks also are due to Roman Jakobson, Samuel Hazzard Cross Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Harvard, who has always given unstintingly of his breadth of learning, particularly in the field of folklore and epic poetry. He also read the manuscript and suggested a number of criticisms. I was not able in every case to follow his suggestions, but I have noted them where I could.

Once again I wish to express my warm gratitude to the Department of Comparative Literature for its willingness to include this book in its series, Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, and to the Chairman of that Department, Professor Renato Poggioli, for his kindness in reading the manuscript and encouraging me in its publication.

My wife, Dr. Mary Louise Carlson Lord, has been at my side constantly in the years of endeavor of preparing this book. Without her understanding care it would not have seen the light.


Some of the thoughts for this volume took shape during my years as a Junior Fellow in the Society of Fellows at Harvard from 1937 to 1940; a collecting trip to Albania in the fall of 1937 under the Society’s auspices gave me experience in a part of the Balkans other than Yugoslavia. Further collecting in Yugoslavia was done in the spring of 1950 with a Guggenheim Fellowship, and with aid from the Ministry of Science and Culture of Yugoslavia, the Musicological Institute of the Serbian Academy of Sciences, and the Ministry of Science and Culture for the Republic of Macedonia, all of which also assisted us in the summer of 1951. More recent collecting (briefly in 1958 and more abundantly in 1959) in Bulgaria was made possible by the Inter-University Committee on Travel Grants in New York, the Committee for Friendship and Cultural Relations with Foreign Countries in Sofia, the Institute for Bulgarian Language and the Ethnographic Institute and Museum of the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences. To all these institutions as well as to their directors and staffs I am deeply indebted. {xxxvi|xxxvii} Fuller acknowledgment of assistance in collecting and publishing the materials of the Parry Collection, which form the basis for the research in this book, can be found in the Editor’s Preface and Introduction to Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, Volume One, published by the Harvard University Press and the Serbian Academy of Sciences in 1954.

For technical assistance to assure the accuracy of the music illustrations I wish to thank Dr. Miloš M. Velimirović of the Music Department of Yale University. And I am grateful to Mrs. Patricia Arant of the Graduate School of Radcliffe College for compiling the index. Mrs. Eleanor Kewer of Harvard University Press has taken extraordinary care in the complex business of seeing this work through from manuscript to finished book. The designer and the printer, too, have met its linguistic challenges and the problems of composition and make-up with skill and imagination.

Cambridge, Mass.
November, 1959 {xxxvii|}