The Singer of Tales

  Use the following persistent identifier:


by Harry Levin

The term “literature,” presupposing the use of letters, assumes that verbal works of imagination are transmitted by means of writing and reading. The expression “oral literature” is obviously a contradiction in terms. Yet we live at a time when literacy itself has become so diluted that it can scarcely be invoked as an esthetic criterion. The Word as spoken or sung, together with a visual image of the speaker or singer, has meanwhile been regaining its hold through electrical engineering. A culture based upon the printed book, which has prevailed from the Renaissance until lately, has bequeathed to us—along with its immeasurable riches—snobberies which ought to be cast aside. We ought to take a fresh look at tradition, considered not as the inert acceptance of a fossilized corpus of themes and conventions, but as an organic habit of re-creating what has been received and is handed on. It may be that we ought to re-examine the concept of originality, which is relatively modern as a shibboleth of criticism; there may be other and better ways of being original than that concern for the writer’s own individuality which characterizes so much of our self-conscious fiction. We may even come to believe that, great as some authors have been, their greatness is finally surpassed by that of the craft they have served; hence, whenever we reckon their contributions, we should also remember their obligations; no credit need be lost if some of it is shared anonymously with others trained in the same techniques and imparting the same mythology.

The present study sets forth the considered findings from twenty-five years of collection, transcription, and interpretation in the field of oral literature. These years have been strategic for applying scholarly methods to a subject which first developed amid the enthusiasms of the Romantic Movement; a systematic approach has been made feasible by the more recent development of facilities for intensive travel and phonographic reproduction; and literary history has been empowered to draw upon—and, reciprocally, to illustrate—folklore, anthropology, musicology, linguistics, and other related disciplines. The issue upon which such investigations still converge is all too well known, under its classical aspect, as the Homeric Problem. That problem may have remained unsolved for centuries because it was irrelevantly formulated: because, on the one hand, a single literate author was taken for granted and, on the other, the main alternative was a quasi-mystical belief in communal origins. Those presuppositions have been radically challenged by the sharp insight and the rich documentation {xxxi|xxxii} to which this volume offers a key. Its authority rests on a monumental substructure, Serbocroatian Heroic Songs, the series of texts, translations, and commentaries now being published under the joint auspices of Harvard University Press and the Serbian Academy of Sciences. Here, by way of critical prolegomenon and editorial parergon, the editor sums up what he has learned in bringing together that unique body of epic material.

What is more, and what commands a special interest transcending that material, he concretely discerns and lucidly states the principles he has been watching at work. Moreover, in the second part of the book, he extends their application to the Iliad and the Odyssey, and demonstrates their relevance to Beowulf, the Chanson de Roland, and other epics previously conceived as “literary.” Careful stylistic and thematic analysis of such works has raised questions, and stimulated certain conjectures, as to the form and function of heroic poetry. These hypotheses, through a happy conjunction of opportunity and ingenuity, have been fully tested in a “living laboratory”: the school of nonliterate bards, surviving yet declining in Yugoslavia and other South Slavic regions, has been caught at perhaps the latest possible moment; and its recorded songs provide both a solid basis for comparative studies and a new comprehension of oral technique. Through a wealth of contextual testimony, we are permitted to witness the act of composition—which, as Professor Lord makes abundantly clear, is at once a transmission and a creation. Vividly he communicates to us his personal sense of contact with the singers, as he and his collaborator sought them out or listened to them in Turkish coffeehouses during the nights of the Ramazan. In the mind’s ear, we too are enabled to hear them, improvising out of their fabulous memories, filling in with stock epithets and ornamental formulas, accompanying themselves on their one-stringed fiddle, the gusle. And we are led to realize, more acutely than we could have done before, that the epic is not merely a genre but a way of life.

Formally, it might be described as a dynamic structure. Indeed the whole undertaking might be viewed, from some degree of distance, as an inquiry into the dynamics of poetic construction. The poem is, by this definition, a song; its performer is, at the same time, its composer; whatever he performs, he re-creates; his art of improvisation is firmly grounded upon his control of traditional components; and the tales he tells bear a family resemblance to many sung in other countries under other circumstances. The canons of esthetics, and even those of epistemology, should be at least as well satisfied by that approximation to the artistic event, at the very instant it happens, as they are by the frequent distortions of print or of the personalities behind it. Our conception of Homer, in particular, has not been helped by reinterpretations which cast him in the mold of latter-day authorship. Yet it is greatly enhanced, not undermined, by being approached through a more precise understanding of those patterns which he supremely {xxxii|xxxiii} exemplifies and those standards which he establishes for others working in his medium. Professor Lord appreciates, as perceptively as any critic or commentator, the “subtlety and intricacy” of the Homeric poems. He never loses sight of the qualitative distinction between Homer and Petar Vidić. But since he has heard and talked with Petar Vidić, while Homer himself remains an opaque attribution, the humble guslar has light to throw upon the Ionian epos. More significant than our value-judgments, which we are always free to make as we like, is our knowledge of literature as a process, endlessly multiform and continuous.

Professor Lord’s exposition speaks for itself, with an expert attention to detail which will meet both Hellenists and Slavicists upon their respective grounds. It is not because I would presume to mediate between specialists that I have set down these preliminary impressions, but because I am glad to attest a fortiori what The Singer of Tales can mean to a lay critic or common reader. It was my privilege to study with Milman Parry during the period, so prematurely cut short, when he was teaching Classics in Harvard College. Thus, by sheer good luck, I have been among those who watched his project from its inception, and who—after having feared that his accidental death would terminate it—have rejoiced to see it carried toward this completion. No one who knew Parry is likely to forget his incisive powers of formulation or to underrate the range and depth of his cosmopolitan mind. He has been appropriately hailed, by an eminent archeologist, as the Darwin of oral literature; for if the évolution des genres has been scientifically corroborated, it is largely owing to his discovery. Yet, as he himself would have been the first to admit, it was only a beginning; and he generously acknowledged the prescient counsel of his own teacher, Antoine Meillet. Albert Lord, in his turn, has become much more than the ablest of Parry’s disciples. It should be recognized, in spite of his devoted modesty, that he too has pioneered; he has contributed many ideas and important modifications; his comprehensive mastery of the field has taken him far beyond any of his forerunners; it is he who has turned an exciting aperçu into a convincing argument. The Parry-Lord theory, like the epic itself, is the product of an imaginative collaboration.
Cambridge, Massachusetts
15 May 1959 {xxxiii|}