The oral text will be the object of intensive hunting at the meeting of Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics in Turku during the last week of June. The fact that there is no master version for the oral epic makes the quest for text something of a paradox. The consequences are not always clearly seen by scholars all too prone to slip back to their own culture, i.e. a culture of written texts, even when they know that they are dealing with oral materials. A good example is the old comparative geographic-historic method, which advocates the model of textual criticism and strives to construct stemma-like lines of progeny between the variants of oral song. It is doubtful, however, whether such a lineage-model is adequate at all in describing the relations between different performance products of ostensibly one and the same topic. It is possible to challenge both concepts, “song” and “variant”, and postulate a theory of a “pool of tradition” where not so much the songs or tales as such but their basic elements, such as multiforms, themes and formulas reside within an internalized tradition system (of a singer, group, or region) to be activated in a particular situation of performance. Such a “pool” is governed by generic rules, storylines, mental images of epic events, linguistically preprocessed descriptions of repeatable scenes, sets of established terms and attributes, phrases and formulas. One may speak of a “mental text” consisting of such elements loosely organized around a larger topic. Being a kind of general storyline with a store of obligatory, alternative and optional textual possibilities to be accepted or rejected by the singer at the moment of performance, it is not a text in the conventional sense. Only performed and documented (“dead”) oral texts give the appearance of “text” proper, whereas mental texts are open systems without final fixity.
Both singers and scholars experience the problem of textualization, but in different ways. That is why we must speak of performance strategies and strategies of documentation, transcription, translation, editing and publication. The singer’s world is oriented toward future performances while the scholar’s world mostly consists of past tellings of a story. Performance strategy absorbs such factors as time-frame, situation of performance, mode of performance, performative styles, type of audience, collateral action (work, ritual, etc.), audience reaction, artistic and/or religious gratification, and so on.
The scholar’s strategy is governed by his specific goals (e.g. “a long epic”), mode of documentation (sung, recited, dictated, acted out), the technical facilities available (scribe, audio, video), the nature of the context (natural, induced, interview, etc.), the time-frame (normal, extended, multi-session, etc.), the audience (inspiring, not disturbing, minimal) and the motivating and guiding of the singer. Sometimes performance and documentation strategies intertwine: the singer moulds his act to suit the recording and expressed goals of collaboration. Publication also requires a strategy: how to go about transcription, translation and interpretation of an oral epic suddenly epitomized and petrified through scholarly documentation. Big decisions have to be made, and the fate of the original oral discourse is all too often to become compromised in the process. The absence of music, gesture and transformal meaning changes the traditional concept of an “epic” into something else, not likely to be recognized by the performers.
There are several research-historical layers in our conceptualization of the oral text, none of which is completely extinct. Early collectors paid attention to folklore mainly because of its content: for them, folk songs, tales and legends were a source of historical and mythological information. Its textual form was unimportant. The founders of folkloristics and comparative methodology established an interest in texts mainly because textual variation gave clues to dissemination and development of particular songs and tales. The text was the thing. The second wave of interest for the oral text was dominated by its context and performance: the customary concept of text was challenged and replaced by “performance record”, a highly complicated notation of both verbal and nonlinguistic phenomena present at the moment of performance, to be supplemented by a “performance report”, an account on contextual information not included in the notation. The number of texts produced in this manner remained, however, small, and the method’s impact is yet to be seen.
The third wave of textual interest might well consist of harmonizing the ends and means. Just as “performance” relativized “text”, we may now relativize “performance”. Its accurate documentation remains important but must be set in relation to the problem to be solved. Living oral epics may serve as a good field of experimentation because of the myriad of alternative formats, performance contexts and performative styles they offer. They are able to stretch our scholarly imagination to its limits simply by challenging us to textualize what we think may be an epic. Consequently, the tales about “how epics became books” are quite perplexing. They will be told in Turku.
(FFN 12, June 1996: 1, 6)