The Singer of Tales.
In 1949 Albert Bates Lord defended a dissertation entitled "The Singer of Tales" before the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. The title came from the few surviving pages of a study planned by his mentor Milman Parry before the latter's untimely death in 1935, but the result was a significant extension of that blueprint. Although it would still be eleven years before the thesis saw print in 1960, it sparked the introduction of the so-called "Oral Theory" of Parry and steered Lord to Old English poetry via a 1953 article entitled "The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry" authored by one of Lord's dissertation advisors, Francis P. Magoun, Jr.
This is but one example (as far as I know the earliest) of the prodigious influence exerted on world literature studies by The Singer of Tales, which by any measure must be recognized as one of the twentieth century's most enduring works of research and scholarship in the humanities. The initiative began with Parry's groundbreaking analyses of the texts of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and with his deduction that their repetitive, formulaic phraseology was symptomatic of their traditional heritage and their transmission by a long series of bards over many centuries. His hypothesis of traditional heritage soon evolved into a double hypothesis of tradition linked with oral performance, as Parry began to re-create what he believed to be not just the character but the actual presentational medium of the Iliad and Odyssey.
Not content with these bold but textually derived hypotheses, Parry then sought to prove them by analogy in the living laboratory of South Slavic oral epic, to which his own mentor Antoine Meillet and the Slavic philologist Matija Murko had alerted him. The next step entailed a fieldwork project in the former Yugoslavia, undertaken with the assistance of Lord and Nikola Vujnovic in the mid-1930's, during which they recorded acoustically and by dictation dozens of mostly preliterate guslari (bards) who sang epics that often reached thousands of lines in length. Parry and Lord returned from the former Yugoslavia in 1935 with a "half-ton of epic" on large aluminum disks and in notebooks, an invaluable and unmatched cache of oral epic that became the basis of the Milman Parry Collection of Oral Literature (MPCOL) at Harvard as well as the prima materia for the comparative development of the Oral Theory. Lord was to return to the field in the 1950's and 1960's to augment that already rich archive of living oral epic. Before the end of the century, Lord's masterwork, Singer, was to stimulate activity in more than 150 separate language areas as well as across a wide spectrum of disciplines--anthropology, folklore, history, linguistics, literary studies, music, philosophy, psychology, and religious studies, to name only the most prominent ones.
Now Singer enters the new millennium in a modernized edition complete with a superb, focused introduction by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy and an audio-video CD that opens a window to the excitement and immediacy of Lord's comparative method. The new edition promises to broaden and deepen the already remarkable interdisciplinary effect of this book among scholars, as well as to make its contents even more intriguing for both undergraduate and graduate students. I do not make this assessment of its pedagogical value lightly. One of the major contributions of Singer has been its long reign as a mainstay of folklore, literature, and numerous other courses across the United States and abroad. A national survey of college and university offerings on oral tradition, completed in 1997, established its centrality in widely divergent curricula (see Lynn C. Lewis and Lori Peterson, "The National Curriculum and the Teaching of Oral Traditions" and "Course Descriptions and Syllabi," in Teaching Oral Traditions, ed. John Miles Foley [New York: Modern Language Association, 1998], pp. 403-22, 445-64). Now scholars, instructors, and students alike can actually listen to the guslari sing the selections of South Slavic epic quoted in Singer, and even watch Avdo Medjedovic, the most Homeric of guslari, perform. It should be emphasized that the CD included with the new edition will play on any audio CD device, and the video sections are similarly easy to access (Windows/PC or PowerMac, in either case with 32 MB RAM and 600 x 480 video resolution). The overall presentation is both creative and genuinely thoughtful.
The Introduction to the Second Edition by Mitchell and Nagy is likewise a tour de force that will enormously benefit the many different sectors of Singer's audience, again no mean feat. The editors succinctly frame the core issues from the initial discoveries onward, with particular attention to the discussion that has ensued since Lord's first edition of 1960. Especially helpful in understanding the genesis and early stages of the Oral Theory are their quotations from heretofore unpublished documents, such as Parry's project reports on the fieldwork (pages ix-x, x-xi, xxii) and Lord's typewritten manuscript preserved in the MPCOL (xii-xiii). They cite a judicious sample of the voluminous related research and scholarship on dozens of traditions, work that builds on Singer and the Oral Theory. Indeed, it is perhaps Lord's most important and durable legacy that this book has inspired pathbreaking studies in French, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Chinese, Japanese, and literally dozens more traditions, not to mention religious studies and a plethora of African and Indian languages. From the ancient world through the medieval period and on into modern traditions, with a deep and lasting effect on verbal art from six continents, Singer has had a truly revolutionary effect. If this reviewer has one regret about the Introduction, it is only that widely available writings on the origin and development of the Parry-Lord theory (Foley, The Theory of Oral Composition: History and Methodology [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1988, rpt. 1992]) and on the South Slavic oral tradition itself (Foley, Traditional Oral Epic: The Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990, rpt. 1993]; Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991]; The Singer of Tales in Performance [Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995]; and Homer's Traditional Art [University Park: Penn State University Press, 1999]) go unmentioned.
Thanks are thus due to Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, and to the producers and programmers of the CD--Matthew Kay, Thomas Jenkins, Ivan Andouin, and Alexander Parker--for a heroic new performance of a well known and much-cherished scholarly song. Singer 2000 makes it ever more evident that Lord's book lies at the epicenter of the still-expanding field of studies in oral tradition. We may, and we should, continue to evolve newer and better methods for such studies, and inevitably such progress will lead to revision or perhaps outright dismissal of earlier theories and practices. That is the nature of a healthy field of intellectual inquiry. Indeed, we see some of this evolution in Lord's own later books: Epic Singers and Oral Tradition (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991) and The Singer Resumes the Tale, edited by Mary Louise Lord (Ithaca: Cornell United Press, 1995); for a listing of all his writings through 1990, see "Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991)," Journal of American Folklore, 105 (1992):61-5. But Singer will always remain a cornerstone of whatever edifice we seek to erect. As the guslari whom Albert Lord knew so well and respected so deeply said of another hero so accomplished that we couldn't just do without him, "Tamo bez njeg' hoda neimade," "There's just no journey there without him."
JOHN MILES FOLEY
University of Missouri, U.S.A.
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|Author:||Foley, John Miles|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2000|
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