What is an epic? The Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (ninth edition, 1989) defines it as follows: a “long poem about the deeds of one or more great heroes, or a nation’s past history: Homer’s Iliad is a famous epic.” This definition succinctly makes three important points: (1) the epic proper differs from the rest of epic poetry by its length, (2) it has somewhere a social group or “nation” which approves the epic as a bearer of its cultural identity, (3) Homer’s epic is the model of our (European) concept of epic. Oxford Dictionary does not recognize the word “epos” at all, whereas Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (1984) has the word as a synonym for “epic”, adding an interesting dimension: “a number of poems that treat an epic theme but are not formally united”. Webster’s definition of “epic” (“a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero”) seeks a balance between mythology and history and sees that the term not only denotes an existing epic but also a possible theme or material for an epic (“a series of events or body of legend or tradition thought to form the proper subject of an epic”).
A brief look at our everyday usage of the term “epic” reveals a bundle of problematic, even contradictory statements which are descendants of the Homeric and, later, Romantic research tradition. They may be true or only half-true, but certainly they are bound to European culture which, for the most part at least, lost contact with living oral epics centuries ago. As a young scholar I believed that “epic” was not a folk or oral genre at all and that the compilation of our national epic, the Kalevala, by Elias Lönnrot was a model instance of the creation of an epic out of oral materials. Today I am studying living oral epics in India, a country which, besides an abundance of oral epics, also has a profound tradition of literary and semi-literary epics. By meticulous fieldwork I am trying to establish the origin process of an oral epic in the mind of an illiterate singer and to see its function and meaning in observable contexts of performance. The long journey may well end with the statement that the singer, my friend in Karnataka, and Elias Lönnrot, a student at Turku University, are not very far from each other in their work on a great epic. What I find most interesting in looking at their methods is the process of textualization of an epic, both as a mental text and as a performance product, i.e. a unique oral or written codification.
The study in oral epics surely qualifies as a field in which European scholars badly need an access to the living traditions and intellectual resources of non-European cultures, both folk and academic. The international atmosphere of the Folklore Fellows could be beneficial in bringing together scholars interested in comparing oral epics and creating dialogues between scholars from Europe, Asia, Africa, the Americas and Oceania. Since there may be competent epic scholars who have never heard of the Folklore Fellows or even folkloristics, such a network of scholars would clearly also serve multidisciplinary contacts.
With the approval of my colleagues on the FF Advisory Committee, I intend to create a network of scholars interested in oral and semi-literary epics and willing to exchange their experiences. The purpose of these contacts is to transmit information from one research milieu to another, to bring together scholars who may not know much about each other, to select certain well-defined problem areas for small workshops and to consider various ways of publishing their results. The creation of such a network may take a couple of years. I may try to contact a few scholars to invite their participation and advice, but letters from the readers of these lines are welcome and should be addressed to me at: Folklore Fellows, P.O.Box 14, FIN-20501 Turku, Finland.
As most initiatives build on an existing basis, it may be appropriate to mention that I direct a research group on oral epics with scholars in Finland (Turku and Helsinki Universities) and in India (Mangalore University). This group will arrange annual workshops on oral epic research, mostly during the first half of June, and invite a few scholars from other countries to discuss research problems. Our next workshop will be held on June 3-7, 1993 in Turku on the topic “Epics along the Silk Roads: Problems of Mental Text, Performance, and Written Codification”. It has been planned in conjunction with Unesco’s large umbrella project “Integral Study of the Silk Roads: Roads of Dialogue” which, in turn, constitutes a part of Unesco’s progamme of the World Decade for Cultural Development.
(FFN 6, March 1993: 7)