Thick Corpus, Organic Variation and Textuality in Oral Tradition. Edited by Lauri Honko. Studia Fennica Folkloristica 7. Helsinki: Finnish Literature Society, 2000. xii+675 pp.

Soft (ISBN 951-746-196-8), FIM 180

Available at the Tiedekirja Bookstore,
Kirkkokatu 14, 00170 Helsinki, Finland
(tel.: +358 9 635177; fax: +358 9 635017;
at Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura (Finnish Literature Society)
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Performance context and outlines of the topic

The Folklore Fellows’ (FF) Summer Schools, which have been held in Finland for the past ten years, have begun to play an essential role in international folkloristics; shaping the interests of researchers, introducing new theoretical vistas and topics of discussion. The FF Summer Schools have also been significant social events as the contacts and friendships established there have certainly helped to build up the scholarly network of folklorists that encompasses a large part of the world today. Every summer school has been somehow especial, because the main topics, as well as the participants, have been different. A major innovation was introduced in the year 2000 in Turku, in that most of the lectures to be delivered at the summer school were made available for the participants in preprints. For the first time the proceedings of the summer school were published as a separate volume, the title referring to the keywords of this forum, dedicated to variation and textuality in oral traditions.

The book consists of 28 contributions from 26 authors who represent Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden and the USA. The summer schools have been organized by Finnish folklore institutions, which boast strong folklore programs in several universities and different research centers, so it is no wonder that the majority of the articles come from Finland. However, it is surprising that as many as 12 authors, i.e., almost half of the contributors, represent Turku with its three centers for folkloristic research: Turku University, Åbo Akademi University and the Kalevala Institute. Hence, Turku should be marked as one of the capital cities on the map of global folkloristics. The considerable number of young Finnish researchers among the authors of the present book supports the potentiality of Finnish folkloristics – so essential to preserving the dynamics of the discipline.

Outlining the contents of such a bulky volume in one book-review without exceeding the limits of this minor genre is no easy task. The editor, Lauri Honko, has successfully explained the stresses and pinpointed some trends in theory in his general introduction – so important in understanding the book as a whole. While some articles discuss a variety of topics, others deviate from the main questions, and thus it takes both depth analysis and synthetical skills to show that there is something more than the original performance context – FF Summer School dedicated to a certain topic – holding the book together. Honko’s introduction is a valuable guide for all readers, but especially for those who did not participate in the original interactive performance situation of this inspiring forum, where folklore theory and methodology were processed.

Honko delineates the history of folkloristics by characterizing its three stages of relations with text (how useful is tripartition in our cognitive schemes, just like in folklore!). At the first, pre-textual stage the main interest was in the content of folklore, i.e., oral tradition was seen as a source for studying something else, for example history. The later classics of the Finnish school were antedated by Henrik Gabriel Porthan, a professor at Turku University, who discussed the variation and reconstruction of oral texts at the end of the 18th century. The geographic-historic school saw variation as a problem, as a lack of stability and tried to penetrate these incomplete texts to liquidate this lack, to find out the original text, the ultimate source of variation. Thus the second stage of folkloristics was introduced, when the text became the “king” and the object of thorough research. Several discoveries were made about the basic structural patterns in folklore, symbolic and deep psychological interpretations were introduced. The classical authors of this stage include researchers ranging from Kaarle Krohn to Alan Dundes and many others. At the third stage, folklorists crowned performance as the “king”. The verbal element was seen only as “one part of the text, not necessarily its core.” (p. 13)

I believe that using the word “stage” in this context is most meaningful. Doubts would arise if we interpreted the history of folkloristics as a development from lower to higher level, from the primitive methodological tools of our mental ancestors to the most sophisticated methodology and theory of the 21st century. A stage rather stands for a theater, for a space where something happens, for a folkloristic performance and the varieties of interpretation of folklore texts. Just as at a big rock festival there is more than one stage, and the performers attract different numbers of fans, something similar has happened in international folkloristics. Without the different “music” playing, i.e., variation within folkloristics, the whole field would be endangered by stagnation, strangled by the sinister “master form” of theory and methodology. Even the first stage is not desolate nowadays, in part because the role of folkloristics differs between societies all over the world. Fortunately, the whole volume of “Thick corpus…” proves that folkloristics is not exhausted and can still devise further stages. “What makes scholarly work so charming is the existence of important questions which still remain unanswered” is the optimistic credo formulated by the editor (p. 26).

The theoretical introduction by Lauri Honko is important as it shows the scale of variation in folklore and explains some basic concepts, such as “mental text” and the keywords accentuated in the title. “Textualisation” refers to the many-staged process which starts with the mental text as a “pre-narrative” in the minds of individuals and through the act of performing folklore leads to its documentation, editing and publication. Although folklore is a collective tradition, it becomes manifest in single performances. Folklorists should aim at building up a “thick corpus” of research material, which will become possible thanks to repeated collection from the same tradition-bearers, from cohesive communities, social groups and cohesive regions. Consistence and thoroughness of data-collecting make visible the organic variation of folklore in living tradition systems. Thus folklore theory shifts from postulating the phenomenon of variation as a distinctive feature of oral traditions to the study of real variation, variation in action.

Although it is perhaps unlikely that many readers will have the patience to study the volume in its entirety, they will most likely read the theoretical introduction. Therefore let us proceed by examining the rest of the book.

Varying the theory of variation

If the question “How is variation in oral traditions most effectively discussed?”, was asked, the answer, as proposed by this book, would probably be, “Vary it”. The general topic is rendered in a multiform, rich variety of approaches. John Miles Foley compares Homer with the figure of the legendary singer in South Slavic oral epic and shows that such bardic primogenitors can be interpreted as anthropomorphizations of the tradition. Lauri Harvilahti discusses some theories of the psychology of memory and applies them to Latvian and Finnish songs. He examines the variation of formulaic units in different songs that are semantically related to one another. The article introduces the world of folkloristic ideas in all its richness, offering insights into oral-formulaic theory, into ethnopoetic strategies of singers who are skilled in using various registers, and into a processual approach to oral traditions. Just like some other articles in this volume, Harvilahti’s essay could be expanded into a monograph. Dell Hymes analyzes Native American oral traditions where narrators have applied patterns of two and four or three and five. These numbers have marked gender: five has been associated with men, four with women. Control of such patterning has been a part of the narrative competence of the tellers.

Annikki Kaivola-Bregenhøj makes a historical retrospect on the Finnish school and the works of Kaarle Krohn, who explained variation by psychology of memory factors as an “anomaly that had to be seen through” to find the missing original. She points to the radical changes in understanding variation in later and contemporary folkloristics. Nowadays it is seen as proof of the performer’s competence (“suitable variation is a sign of a good narrator”). Kaivola-Bregenhøj discusses the basic rules of reproduction of folklore, such as the process of learning, memorizing and reproducing, the genre-specific norms, the personal attributes of the narrator and the performing situation. Variation, which is never mechanical, occurs at several levels simultaneously.

Seppo Knuuttila’s attempt to seize the history of mentalities’ scholarship, and the examples of his own research on Finnish folklore provide one more fascinating read. He approaches variation diachronically, examining both the conservative and innovative features in mentalities. Knuuttila’s discussions about “us” and the “others” and the attention that he pays to localities and local identities, add a new dimension to the book: he observes cognitive processes on the level of the tradition-bearing communities, exceeding the individual level of organic variation. Ríonach uí Ógáin writes about the history of collecting Irish folklore, concentrating on the diary of one collector, Michael J. Murphy, and addressing the significance of the concepts of “text”, “context”, and “subtext”. The latter is interpreted as “the silent, undocumented fashion in which the cultural background of the collector is brought to bear on the collecting work” (p. 165). Uí Ógáin stresses the vital role of ongoing collecting of the tradition in order to build up archives rich in contextual data.

Ilkka Pyysiäinen examines variation from the perspective of cognitive sciences. Representing comparative religion, he introduces the cognitive approach of Pascal Boyer, Dan Sperber and others, including the author himself, who is one of the leading Nordic theoreticians in this field. The works of cognitivists support the conclusions of folklorists about the rules of transmission and reproduction in oral tradition. Singers and story-tellers do not use verbatim repetition but rely upon sets of rules, constraints, or schemas, i.e., a mental text or pre-narrative that gets its verbalized, textual form through a performance. Pyysiäinen stresses the importance of imagery in the store of memory, especially in oral genres where one has to move from one situation to another. As paths are much easier to remember than random lists, it is easy to explain why journeys tend to be a dominating pattern in many narratives.

In his article, Anders Salomonsson studies archiving as a process between folklore collecting and research. His main sources are the collections of the Lund University Folklore Archives, but he also reflects on the contemporary work and the problems that the archivists are facing. In a historical retrospect Salomonsson reviews the work of Carl Wilhelm von Sydow, the founder of the archives in Lund, and the further development of collecting techniques. While the pioneering folklorists were influenced by the national romantic idea, nowadays we are influenced by contemporary values and ideologies (p. 210). Viewing the tradition bearers as the “Others” has changed, so that not only the peasants but the whole of society is included under the label of “the folk”. However, the questions about the representativeness of the folklore archives remain. Salomonsson stresses that by documenting, archiving and folkloristic research, history is being produced that requires a great sense of responsibility.

Anna-Leena Siikala approaches variation through the differences between ethnical genres and shows that the domains of variation depend on forms of oral discourse. Inspired by the works of Mikhail Bakhtin and some American folklorists and linguistic anthropologists (such as Charles Briggs, Richard Bauman and William Hanks), she conceptualizes oral genres as folkloric practice and strategy, a form of communicating various meanings. The oral history of the Cook islands is transmitted in the metagenre known as korero, narrated by the specialists of this tradition, tumu koreros. Siikala shows the flexibility of korero both as a form of discourse and as a system of meanings: it can easily be reinterpreted in the changing political situations.

Maria Vasenkari and Armi Pekkala interpret the concept of thick data, as it is produced in field research. They understand a researcher to be an active subject who creates data in encounter situations with field informants: “The data is not somewhere out there (e.g., in the informant’s head) ready to be collected and taken home, but it is rather produced in the very situation where the counterparts meet” (pp. 246–247). Also knowledge and meanings are derived from these dialogic encounters, later analysis and representation of the produced data to the readers is a continuation of the same process that started in the field. (The authors exemplify this dialogic methodology in a sequential article, published in the second part of the volume. They have been interviewing elderly women from Ingria, focussing on their life stories.)

The first part of the book concludes with an article by Ulrika Wolf-Knuts, who examines how comparison has been applied in the works of different folklorists. It is no wonder that variation as a distinctive feature of folklore and comparison as a central method go hand in hand throughout the history of the discipline. However, Wolf-Knuts demonstrates that comparison has been used for many purposes, e.g., in order to stress the difference and connection between ethnical groups (J. O. I. Rancken), in order to study the relics of old races and surviving phenomena of the past (Andrew Lang) or in order to determine the age and birth-place of certain texts (Julius Krohn). Wolf-Knuts traces the continuation of the Finnish school through the works of Walter Anderson, Kaarle Krohn, Anna Birgitta Rooth, Jan-Öjvind Swahn, Matti Kuusi and Inger Lövkrona until Christine Goldberg, who remains faithful to the historic-comparative method but uses it for new purposes: “to discover the meaning of the tale and to reveal the factors that have held the tale together” (p. 279).

Variation in the field, mass media, archives

The second part of the book is slightly more empirically oriented, but several articles provide illuminating theoretical discussions. Thus, the division between the parts is somewhat conventional and is probably drawn for the sake of the reader who may need to pause to take a breath.

Carola Ekrem focuses on functional, structural and thematic variation in the counting-out rhymes among Swedish-speaking children in Finland. John Miles Foley studies return songs of three singers from South Slavic folklore and investigates the plastic morphology of these epic songs that move from the introductory stage of the absence of the hero through devastation, return and retribution to the eventual wedding. The order of narration tends to be nonchronological and it customarily begins in the middle. Foley compares his findings with the Odyssey and sheds new light on the composition of the Homeric epic and its heroes.

Lauri Honko and Anneli Honko study the variation in the repertoire and epic idiolect of one singer, Gopala Naika from South Kanara, South India. The authors deal with the minor variation on the level of formulas and with “big variation”, i.e., constructing the path of composition in performance. Here, mental editing, meditating on the epic between the performances and pondering about interpretations, has a role to play. This process can lead to the changing of the plot and creation of a new mythical frame by linking the past story with present Hinduist cult.

Tuija Hovi introduces her work among the members of evangelical churches and narratives about religious conversion. As she demonstrates, this profound experience changes the individual’s discourse universe but, in being molded into a story, the experience is adjusted to the tradition, thus supporting the narrator’s integration into the community. Barbro Klein studies the miracle in Södertälje, Sweden in 1992, i.e., the events that followed the burial of a Syrian-Orthodox patriarch and their consequences. This fascinating article examines how the mass media communicate a deeply religious culture of an ethnic minority and discusses the powerful role the media plays in influencing belief and shaping attitudes. Lena Marander-Eklund has conducted a series of interviews with women giving birth for the first time: one before the event, the second just after and the third when the child was about a year old. Marander-Eklund utilises the concepts of Taleworld, where the events are told, and Storyrealm, where the actual storytelling takes place. The variation in these narratives takes place on the level of both events and of style and meaning.

Ulrich Marzolph starts his article on Persian story-telling with a discussion of Iranian folk narrative research before and after the revolution of 1979. Folkloristic fieldwork in Iran has not been possible since the revolution so that the researcher has to rely upon printed sources. Marzolph studies variation, stability and meanings in one of the most valuable sources of Iranian oral narrative; tales told by a gifted female story-teller from Teheran in the mid-1940s. Margaret A. Mills investigates different presentations of the same cultural theme (women’s tricks) in the storytelling of men and women in the same province of Afghanistan. Patricia Nyberg, Marjut Huuskonen and Pasi Enges study a pioneer project of interviewing Saami people and collecting their oral traditions between 1967 and 1975. Later developments in folklore theory and methodology allow the authors to review this in-depth project at a distance and add their remarks, although they acknowledge that the results are exceptionally well-documented material available to researchers.

In her second article in this volume, Ríonach uí Ógáin studies recent developments in the Irish-language singing tradition in the west of Ireland. An important article is offered by Jyrki Pöysä, who discusses variation in archived Finnish anecdotes. Although many contemporary folklorists do fieldwork and are thus able to observe organic variation of living tradition, there are others who do not visit the field. (Do they really constitute the majority within the discipline, as noted by Lauri Honko [p. 16]? If so, most of the authors of the present volume belong to the folkloristic minority.) For the folklorists who work with old archived manuscripts, Pöysä’s work is an encouragement to continue their pursuits. Although archival data are often less dense than field records, it makes sense to study the variation of these anecdotes on many levels: agent changes, changes in the level of abstraction, in the social outlook of the narrative and in the degree of personal experience. Some of the collected variants can also form a “thicker” and more cohesive interpretive whole.

Ann Helene Bolstad Skjelbred observes the historical developments of the Norwegian Ethnological Archives, founded in 1946. “From the desire to obtain fragments to complete the picture of the old peasant culture, – – one has arrived at an understanding of the fact that all one can hope to attain is to contribute to understanding small pieces of a complex period of our time” (pp. 609–610). Skjelbred concludes that the archives do not tell one uniform story about any topic, but a multitude of stories.

The article by Senni Timonen is another significant work on archived orality, adding more Achtergewicht to this volume. The enormous collections of songs in the Kalevala meter generally lack density, because it was not common in the 19th century to do in-depth collection focusing on particular areas or individuals. However, one Ingrian singer, Larin Paraske was interviewed with unusual thoroughness and approximately 2,000 texts were recorded from her. Timonen has studied the valuable comments of the singer to her own poems and her evaluations of the songs, noted by another singer, Maija-Liisa Kelo. This enables the author to reconstruct the framework of Paraske’s poetics. While some songs always had to be performed in the same manner, there were others (e.g., laments, wedding and dance songs) that were much more flexible in intermingling and variation. Although Paraske did not claim to compose new poems, her singing self is clearly manifest in the songs.

Päivikki Suojanen has studied the cultural change and confrontation of ethnic traditions in Kenya, where people representing many tribes have migrated from rural areas to city slums in order to find work. Using the method of qualitative theme interviews she sheds light on the acculturation processes in the miserable “waiting-room of life” in the slums of Nairobi.

Summing up

The book ends with several important articles and an afterword by Dell Hymes. While the theoretical introduction by Lauri Honko helps the reader to consider this long book as a thematical whole, the concluding comments by Hymes fulfil the same function, and hold the “Thick corpus…” book together. His remarks on the importance of a philological approach are encouraging for folklorists who prefer to do research on heritage that was long-ago formulated in a written form in cultural settings that are already beyond our reach. From the Ingrian folksongs discussed by Timonen, Hymes leads the reader to Native North American narratives, sometimes recorded in languages that, unfortunately, are no longer spoken. One of the conclusions of the book is that there definitely are more universal laws and regularities to be discovered in folklore, although they can take various forms when folklore is actualized in different cultural settings. Inevitable variation in the processes of textualization is one of the distinctive features of oral traditions everywhere.

I know that many articles in this volume deserve much longer comments and discussions. No doubt feedback will come in future publications from folklorists in several countries and many of the ideas will be developed further. Besides the keyword of variation as the common thread, there are other inspiring lines of thought in the book. As Honko notes: “Since variation does not constitute an independent field of folkloristic research, we must try to seize it in its textual and cultural locations” (p. 4). If variation is seen in relation to other folkloristic paradigms, more ideas and themes emerge. As an example of this we could mention the issues of genre, discussed by some authors. Kaivola-Bregenhøj demonstrates that the tendency toward variation varies from one genre to another. Siikala views genres in action, as strategies for reproducing oral traditions. Timonen examines one singer’s understanding of oral genres and thus presents an emic and culture-specific taxonomy of folklore genres. Variation in connection with other keywords, such as tradition, textuality, folk group, tradition bearer, performance, meaning or context has given other novel insights in the book, which is far from exhausting the topic formulated in its title. Quite a few of the articles could be developed into monographs, and I hope that this will happen in the years to come. The authors are united by their successful attempts to see folklore as a dynamic process of recreation, not as a set of textual objects that have a museumic value.

The cover illustration of the book is an old photo of some neatly dressed Ingrian women and children sitting with fields and farmhouses of a traditional village in the background. It is a mystery that the old photo is not in black-and-white, but in color. The reader probably feels that something similar has happened to the oral traditions, partly introduced for the first time, partly re-examined in the book: it is not only that new theoretical light is shed on them; folklore seems to reveal some of its genuine colors. As the cover illustration is the only picture published here, it attracts attention and allows the reader to meditate. Who are these people and why are they sitting there, as if waiting for something or somebody? Are they expecting to meet folklorists who will come to listen to their songs and stories and interview them in order to find out the rules and irregularities of variation in an attempt to improve their understanding of oral traditions? Or are these people just happy to sit in the warm sunshine, oblivious to the attention of folklorists, the Others? In the latter case there must be other tradition bearers, invisible to us, somewhere in the villages beyond the horizon. “Thick corpus…” is an appeal to folklorists to go on conducting fieldwork, discovering new domains of thought, and re-reading the archives. There is so much work to be done in traditional and non-traditional cultures everywhere.

Ülo Valk
University of Tartu
University of California, Berkeley


I thank Maria Teresa Agozzino from the Folklore Archives, University of California, Berkeley, for improving the English language of this article.

FF Network No. 22
(November): 21-25

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