Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics Conference in Turku, June 27-29, 1996

Numerous great epics of world literature have their roots, in one way or another, in oral tradition. This is partly due to the fact that their preferred performance (or the performance of the materials on which they were based) was oral, not written, long after they had been committed to script. What became committed to script, why, how and when, are the key questions of textualization, which in the case of long epics seem to be even more problematic than in other genres. This is mainly because their structural frame is so large and complex that it may seem impossible to command it by oral composition only.

The study of the textualization of such great partly oral, partly tradition-based (oral-compromised-into-written) epics as the Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, Chanson de Roland, Nibelungenlied, Edda and Kalevala is vitally important in view of the impact they have made on European literature and the various cultural identities within it. We want to hear the singer’s voice from behind the written text. His/her vision combines art, history and myth in a most meaningful way by exemplifying the possibilities of human endeavour on a much larger scale and with a greater potency than is possible for man today. By encapsulating creation miracles and heroic action into an epic poem the singer in fact creates our past and links us to the formation of human community. For each great epic there must be a community somewhere, which hails the work as a symbol of its identity.

In such a horizon of expectation, epic scholars should be experts who possess accurate knowledge about how a particular epic came into being and who are able to offer balanced views on the sources and cultural background of the epic. The task is formidable, firstly, because the source materials and early performance contexts of epics are mostly very poorly known, especially as regards European epics, and secondly, because the textualization histories of different epics are really different and sweeping generalizations therefore become a risky business. Questions concerning the “singer” (one or more?) or the “editor(s)” (accurate or not?) of an epic are able to throw most experts into uncertainty. The only way out of this dilemma seems to be more and better empirical studies on living oral epic traditions, a careful comparison of the results and their cautious application to other epics whose performance contexts will always remain poorly known but may be elucidated with the help of comparisons.

In Europe, Karelia and Bosnia were probably among the last strongholds of oral epic traditions, but even there the singing has died out or is at great risk of doing so. Thus European epic studies long ago turned to the latter part of the textualization process, namely, the surviving manuscripts and the editing and publication histories of great epics. This is also an important chapter in the case of living oral epics, because what the singer actually sings may not survive the editing process.

Hunting the text of a long oral epic

The word power of oral epics, to use John Foley’s expression, is drumming in the texts of tradition-based book epics. Without it, these book epics would not have the form they have. That is why scholars are so eager to reach the oral sources of epic singing and to see, at least once in close detail, what happens to a long oral epic before and after it is performed, and furthermore, what happens when someone decides to document it and make a book out of it. For this curiosity, no geographical distance is too long and no cultural or linguistic boundary too high. An epic scholar is prepared to go far and work hard, if there is the promise of a rich oral epic poetry and the existence of a superstory which by its size and cultural significance excels in the local narrative tradition.

But where to go? The survival areas of long oral epics are scattered around the globe: certain Arabic countries, western Africa, India, Central Asia, eastern Siberia, the Philippines, parts of Polynesia, and so on. Although the epic traditions are quite different, all these areas offer the scholar a chance to begin everything from the very beginning. He/she may listen to oral singing, begin to learn the poetic language, meet a good singer, document a long epic from him/her, make a phonetic transcription of it in the original poetic idiolect, translate the text into a better known language and eventually publish the epic, perhaps for the first time ever.

The dream of a complete, long oral epic has driven collectors from Vuk Karadzic, Elias Lönnrot and Wilhelm Radloff to contemporary folklorists, philologists and anthropologists to seek the well-hidden oral text in the minds of individual singers. What has been found has not always been the expected thing, but every field-discovery has added something to our understanding of poetic cultures so alien to our book-ridden minds.

The Folklore Fellows in Oral Epics, about 30 of them present in Turku at the three-day conference in June, set it as their task to assess the multifaceted difficulties faced by scholars trying to reach the epic through oral performance or written text. Two parties emerged, fieldworkers and manuscript analysts.

Textualization as a problem

was the topic of Lauri Honko’s introductory lecture. According to him, both singers and scholars experience the problem of textualization, but in different ways. The singer’s world is oriented toward future performances, while the scholar’s world mostly consists of past tellings of a story. That is why one must speak of performance strategies and documentation strategies. Performance strategy absorbs such factors as the situation of performance, time frame, mode of performance, performative styles, type of audience, collateral action (work, ritual, etc.), audience reaction, artistic and/or religious gratification, and so on. Each performance frame is thus unique and that is why there are hardly ever two completely identical textualizations of an oral narrative.

Every professional singer of epics possesses an individual “pool of tradition”, a freely moving stock of multiforms, themes and formulas, some of which may become prearranged around an epic plot into “mental texts” which the singer edits in his mind between performances throughout his career. Every performance constitutes a new act of textualization. Narrative competence may be divided into thematic and performative competences, both manifest in the epic idiolect of the singer in performance.

The scholar’s strategy of documentation may influence the textualization quite dramatically. Preferably multiple audiovisual documentation of performance lends accuracy to our research, but modes of documentation (“sung”, “recited” or “dictated” rendering of the epic) and documentation contexts (“natural”, “induced” or “laboratory” context) deeply affect the emerging oral text. Interestingly, full epics are practically never sung in natural contexts.

Publication strategy may alter the document created in the field. Keen phonetic transcription of the singer’s discourse becomes the cornerstone of all analysis and should be published alongside the translation, which may follow in detail the poetic means, word choice and syntax of the original language. Books are, however, just compromises at best, needed for our academic circles but very far from the singer’s concept of oral epic as an interplay of verbal and non-verbal expression, music, dance and ritual.

The keynote speaker of the conference was Dell Hymes from Pennsylvania University, who chose “Sung epic and Native American ethnopoetics” as the arena where his analysis of poetic form, exemplified in linguistic detail, opened new vistas on “spoken narrative as poetry”. By employing the term “measured” as an alternative to “metric”, by organizing oral “prose” into lines and by looking at grouping, sequencing and repeating as compositional rules, Dell Hymes was able to rediscover the original poetic form, often muddled in the field notes. His examples spanned Native American, Finnish, Russian, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian epic and tale genres as he went on to establish “a conception of oral tradition in which the spoken as well as the sung is understood as organized form, as a kind of poetry”.

European epics

were introduced by John Foley from Missouri University on the example of “The textualization of South Slavic oral epic and its implications for oral-derived epics”. His analysis of how South Slavic epic was textualized concentrated on the two most prominent teams of investigators involved in its collection: first, the Serbian scholar Vuk Karadzic and his network of amanuenses; and second, the North American scholars Milman Parry and Albert Lord, with the important participation of their native assistant Nikola Vujnovic, who was himself an epic singer. Foley proceeded by posing three basic questions which must be asked in every case of textualization: What gets recorded? What gets published? What gets received? He showed how the difference in the answers in the two cases depended on the historical situation and prevalent theories of the time of collecting. He also partly rehabilitated the dependability of Vuk Karadzic, who did not save his original notes; yet some of them survived by chance and elucidate his method of editing. Foley also exemplified the applicability of certain findings in the research on the Serbo-Croatian oral epics to manuscript-based epics such as Homer (the phonetic role of hiatus bridges in performance) and Beowulf (the role of traditional referentiality in epic composition and reception).

Homeric epics are the classic model and frustration in comparative studies on epics, a model because of their superb form at a very early stage of literature, and a frustration mainly because their source materials and manuscript history are poorly known. Minna Skafte Jensen from Odense University pointed out that the likelihood that the epics were taken down for later reading has grown less in the light of recent research. The purpose of writing was perhaps “the patron’s wish to materialize an otherwise abstract work of art” which made it possible for him “to refer to it even when the singer was not at hand, such as we know that the Athenians actually did in various political controversies”. As regards their performance context, the epics were utilized in singing contests at the Panathenaic festivals by alternating singers according to a rule introduced by either Solon or Pisistratus’ son Hipparchus.

In the other papers on European epics John Harris from Harvard University dealt with the “Performance, textualization, and textuality of ‘elegy’ in Old Norse”, while Boris Putilov from the St. Petersburg Kunstkamera of the Russian Academy of Sciences gave glimpses into his experiences in the textualization of Russian oral epics and David E. Gay from Bloomington, Indiana, characterized the impact which Macpherson’s Poems of Ossian had made on F. R. Kreutzwald, the creator of the Kalevipoeg, and perhaps on Elias Lönnrot, too.

Turkic/Central Asian epics

were taken up by Karl Reichl from Bonn University in his paper on “Silencing the voice of the singer: problems and strategies in the editing of Turkic oral epics”. On the example of a Karakalpak singer’s renderings of the Qoblan epic, Reichl saw the need to relativize performance, i.e. the need to evaluate the performed text as “an individual realization of a work of poetry (as mental or Platonic “text”), controlled and limited by time, place and circumstance”. This implies, Reichl said, “that we define the objective of an adequate edition not as complete documentation but as critical selection”, which, however, does not mean a return to textcritical thinking not fitting for oral texts.

“Historic-ethnographical aspects of the textualizational research of the Manas epic”, especially in view of their misrepresentation in the editorial processes, were presented by Imel Moldobaev from the Bischkec Institute of History, Kirgiztan, and commented on by Lauri Harvilahti from Helsinki University.

Arabic epics

were exemplified by Dwight F. Reynolds from the University of California, Santa Barbara, through his documentation and textualization of the Sîrat Banî Hilal epic on the basis of a 54-hour rendering by an experienced singer who also became Reynolds’ teacher in epic singing. The performance took place in an induced natural context and the singer could correct and complete his presentation during the process, well aware of its purpose of becoming translated into English. When planning the publication, Reynolds is facing typical editorial problems: how to denote audience reaction, how to register observed variation by the same and other singers, how to go about cultural explanations (scholarly and folk!), etc. Translation is a processual, co-operative issue; the placement of transcription is a problem, the denotation of music another, and the solving of problems creates a string of compromises.

A broader survey on the history of Arabic epics was given by Monim Haddad from Alboqai’a, Israel, and comments on both papers were presented by Micheline Galley from C.N.R.S., Paris, and Heikki Palva from Helsinki University.

African epics

were analyzed from the point of view of textualization by a powerful trio: John W. Johnson from Indiana University, Bloomington, spoke on the “Authenticity and oral performance: textualizing the epics of Africa for Western audiences”, Dan Ben-Amos from Pennsylvania University, Philadelphia, had “The narrator as an editor” as his topic and Jan Knappert from London surveyed “The textualization of Swahili epics”. All three were commented on by Stephen Belcher from Pennsylvania State University, who also presented a full bibliography on African oral epics research.

This session dwelt upon fieldwork experiences in Africa and the subsequent textual work with transcription, translation, cultural notes and the editing of the epic for publication. The authors were able to create a realistic picture of the difficulties of “textual ethnography” and they were fairly unanimous in their assessment of the required methodology. Detailed examples measured the depth of their experience.

Indian epics

came to the fore from the South Indian (Dravidian) angle in the presentations of Lauri and Anneli Honko from Turku University, commented on by Viveka Rai from Mangalore University, and from the classical angle in the paper on “The textualization of the Sanskrit epics” by John Brockington from the University of Edinburgh. He concluded that in the period beginning in the first century AD the originally separate epic traditions of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana were coalescing and being committed to writing. Formulicity is not necessarily an indicator of orality, whereas certain structural and stylistic features are.

The Dravidian part concerned Tulu epics, especially the documentation of the Siri epic as a fieldwork process, illuminated through a video-film on the sacred and profane performance contexts of the epic. The most “authentic” ritual contexts are not very useful for the textualization of the epic, because possession ritual introduces a time concept which does not favour linear singing.

Epics of East Asia and the Pacific

were introduced by Arthur T. Hatto, the grand old man of epic studies from London, under the title “Textology and epic texts from Siberia and beyond” with a detailed history of research, and by two fieldworkers from Helsinki University with interesting case studies on textualization: Juha Pentikäinen, speaking on Nanay shamanic epic and Anna-Leena Siikala, also an expert on Siberian shamanism but speaking this time on “Epic narration on Mauke, a Southern Polynesian island”. Comments were presented by John Alphonso Karkala from S.U.N.Y. College at New Paltz, N.Y. and Kristen Thisted from the University of Copenhagen.

Lively discussions ensued at all the sessions, showing that the topic of the conference was timely and inspiring. A selection of the papers is being retextualized for publication.

Lauri Honko

(FFN 13, November 1996: 2-3, 7-8)

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