The study of oral epics is confronted with traditional poetry which differs from other folklore genres through its length, poetic rules and modes of composition. Learning the prosodic, phraseological and thematic rules of epic discourse is, however, only the beginning in seeking to understand the making and performance of oral epics. The variation of content and form is much wider than a scholar bound to the tenets of literary analysis is likely to expect and perceive. What we meet in our materials is in fact a variety of epic idiolects which utilize a more collective epic register in different ways. A closer look reveals the individualities not only of the singers and their repertoires but also the epics themselves. Yet even when the singer and the epic remain the same, the variation between different performances may be great. There is, for example, no “right” size for an epic; it may be told in a number of formats, long and short.
In this situation the quality of our textual base becomes a crucial factor. Facing the difficulty of a “full documentation” of an oral epic, scholars have from time to time compromised the creation of their sources in various ways. It may be asked how well the texts they have produced actually reflect the original oral discourse in question.
The paradox of the long epic is that it is practically never performed in its totality. Such factors as situational context, mode of performance and performative style greatly direct and limit the possibility of linear, continuous singing. In our field study on the South Indian Siri epic we soon learned that only parts of the epic could be heard in natural performance contexts such as possession rituals and agricultural work with paddy seedlings. The only way to document the epic from beginning to end in a fully developed form was to induce a natural context devoid of collateral action and let the singer do his poetic work without any disturbance from an audience consisting of three scholars using video- and taperecorders.
The reason for the incomplete telling of the epic in ritual contexts proved to be not only its size but the difference between the linear or “epic” discourse and three ritual discourses. The discourse resembling the epic one was used mainly in the introductory, pre-possession phase of the ritual. It disappeared when the ritual time was introduced with the appearance of mythic personages from the epic possessing the singer and the Siri-women. After that no linear telling was possible, monologic recitations ceased and a dialogic dramatization of the four generations in the Siri-family took over through the participants possessed by epic figures. It became clear to us that without an empirical penetration into the singing events themselves the world of textual variation was impossible to grasp.
In this situation it was necessary to conceive a new term, “mental text”, to denote the narrative which was never heard in its poetic totality but which was known to all participants of the ritual. Most important is the mental text of the singer, not a written-like text or a text-to-be-memorized but a pool of tradition consisting of plot structure, necessary and optional episodes, stock descriptions of key events, repeatable images, formulas, phrases, in short: an idiolectal and particular-epic-oriented system of elements chosen from the traditional epic register. On the basis of it the singer is able to tell, over and over again, in short or long, partial or comprehensive forms, his own version of a narrative also known and told by others but never in exactly the same form. We need not visualize this hypothetical mental text as something stable. Rather, the singer seems to “edit” it during his performance career.
This is a report on textualization, one among many to be heard at the next conference of Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics to be held on June 27-29, 1996 in Turku, Finland. Some 30 scholars from ten countries had registered by October 15th. The interest will be global, historically and geographically: from the textualization of Homeric and Sanskrit epics to living oral epics in America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific.
The following scholars have joined the FFOE (cf. the member list in FF Network No. 9, pp. 6-7):
Dr. Idris O. O. Amali, University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri, Nigeria
Prof. Daniel P. Biebuyck, University of South Florida, Tampa, Florida, U.S.A.
Prof. Alf Hiltebeitel, The George Washington University, Washington D.C., U.S.A.
Dr. Frank J. Korom, Museum of New Mexico, Santa Fe, New Mexico, U.S.A.
Prof. S. D. Lourdu, St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, India
Dr. M. K. Mishra, Bhubaneswar, Orissa, India
Dr. N. Ramachandran, St. Xavier’s College, Palayamkottai, Tamil Nadu, India
Prof. Bruce A. Rosenberg, Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, U.S.A.
Dr. Pulikonda Subbachary, University of Hyderabad, Hyderabad, India
(FFN 11, October 1995: 11)