Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.12.20


John Miles Foley, The Singer of Tales in Performance. Bloomingon: Indiana University Press, 1995. Pp. xvi + 235. $14.95. ISBN 0-253-20931-5 (pb).


Reviewed by William Merritt Sale, Washington University (St. Louis).

This book (hereinafter STP) is the last work in a trilogy that begins with Traditional Oral Epic (Berkeley: California 1990), hereinafter TOE, and continues with Immanent Art (Bloomington: Indiana 1991), hereinafter IA; the trilogy's Prologue is the final chapter of The Theory of Oral Composition (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana 1988), hereinafter TOC. Probably this third volume can be read on its own, but it has (and needs) so many cross-references to virtually every page of its two predecessors that it cannot possibly be evaluated on its own; and so I shall review the entire trilogy.

In TOC 109-111 F. sets out preliminaries for the future study of the subject: all comparisons should take into account text-dependence (whether a text is oral, oral-derived -- that is, writing has entered into the compositional process -- literary, etc.), genre-dependence (whether we have oral epic, oral praise poetry, oral lyric, etc.) and tradition-dependence (whether it was composed in Greek, South-Slavic, Anglo-Saxon etc., different languages with different poetic meters and prosodies). TOE quite naturally goes on to set forth the different prosodies and traditional rules for epic poetry composed in the three languages just specified, and shows how (because these rules are different for each tradition) the formulae, themes, and story patterns -- called collectively phrases, integers or "words" as the trilogy proceeds -- differ from one tradition to another. Actually, the phrases, themes and story-patterns of Greek and South-Slavic turn out to be quite similar in nature; but Anglo-Saxon differs significantly both in prosody and traditional rules, as well as in phraseology. The former languages preserve the Indo-European features of syllabic count, caesura and right-justification (less flexibility at the end of the line of verse), while the latter introduces a stress-based meter with alliteration. All three, however, lay heavy emphasis for their phraseology upon the localization of words and word-types in the line of verse, and this fact is one of TOE's most exciting contributions.

IA concentrates on the development of an aesthetics -- mostly a method of interpretation -- suitable to oral and oral-derived epic poetry; it takes up Iser's and Jauss' Receptionalism into the Oral Theory, identifying thereby an implied audience, one that is steeped in a given tradition and is trained to fill in the gaps necessarily left by any given performance (or oral-derived text); it finds that the formulae, themes and story-patterns in any given work are synecdoches for their counterparts in the tradition, so that to recognize the traditional referents of these metonyms is to fill in the gaps. As a result, the phrase "swift-footed Achilles" reaches beyond the referent of a given line in the Iliad, and beyond the swiftness of Achilles' feet, in order to invoke the traditional Achilles, his "identity in all its magnificent entirety" (IA 143); the Feast theme in Iliad 24 calls to mind the traditional Feast and its function as a harmonious conclusion to episodes of tension and struggle; and the details of any Return song arouse expectations based on our awareness of the entire traditional Return pattern. Such an aesthetics obviously will not work without the concept of a tradition and a listener or reader trained in it: we must be able to recognize a formula, theme or pattern. At one or two points we may therefore become a little uneasy. We have been impressed by the discussion in TOE of how the Anglo-Saxon formulae differ greatly from the Serbo-Croatian and Greek, and now F. invites us to use the latter formulae to guide us in Anglo-Saxon (IA 195, 197). But this remains a theoretical uneasiness as we follow with pleasure F.'s discussion of mæg Hygelaces, thæt wæs god cyning et al. The differences between Anglo-Saxon formulae and the others may be less than we thought; at least they are not so great as to weaken the interpretive analogy among the traditions.

STP seeks to generalize further, by setting the Oral Theory as wedded to Immanent Art into the context of Dennis Tedlock's and Dell Hymes' Ethnopoetics and Richard Bauman's Ethnography of Speaking. These are disciplines dedicated to the recording and analysis of entire speech acts, including gestures, intonations, and so forth; they single out especially those speech acts we call performances. Any performance has an arena, a place where it occurs, but more importantly a set of assumptions and expectations created by such a place; a register, a particular language game (including appropriate paralinguistic features as well as words) belonging to a particular arena; and communicative economy, the ability to speak swiftly and elliptically to an audience that knows the register and is familiar with the arena, without the need of words and stage-directions that a written text would require. To assist this further generalization F. now goes beyond oral epic, to include Serbian charm-songs, the Homeric Hymns, and an Anglo-Saxon translation of the life of St. Andrew. He locates their varying arenas, registers and economy while continuing to call attention to how their structures, their "words," are metonyms for their various traditional referents. He sums up his procedure in a proverb: his subject is word-power, which "derives from the enabling event of performance and the enabling referent of tradition" (STP 213 et al.)

The whole process is worked out with such elegance and such powerful logic that it is almost impossible to find fault with it on its own terms; to have brought so much material together with such a positive result is a magnificent achievement. We are being offered an interpretive tool that rests on a carefully worked out philological foundation, and that is highly sensitive to certain realities often overlooked: the differences between one tradition and another, one genre and another, one performance arena and register and another, and between oral, oral-derived and written texts. Interpretation must, F. argues, take account of all these differences, or it is irresponsible. Interestingly, F. feels this irresponsibility much more keenly when interpretation sees too little meaning in oral-derived texts than when it sees too much; the text-bound literary criticism that he contrasts with his own interpretations falls short much more often than it goes too far. This is good strategy for F, since in the long run there is little danger from over-readings: they usually simply fail to persuade and are forgotten, while if a work is under-read, there is a terrible loss. F. is consistently, and admirably, pushing us to see more, not less. He has shown how oral poetry can be complex, and heard as complex, in its own performance arena, and not merely in the scholar's study.

Interpreters of Homer and Beowulf especially will welcome this result; the oral poetics of Albert Lord and others have seemed to impose unacceptable strait-jackets upon scholars who were offering interpretations that were actually far from extravagant. Indeed Walter Ong told me recently that F. had led him to see much more opportunity for deep interpretation of oral epic poetry than he had previous thought possible. Especially rich is F.'s reading of Iliad 24, already singled out for lengthy discussion by Charles Beye in his review of IA for these pages. I had always accepted the old view that Achilles was angry with Priam for shattering a previous harmony between them: they had reached a deep sense of common humanity symbolized by the Myth of the Urns and reflected in the love between father and son; now Priam suddenly cries, "Take this ransom, that is what you value," and an out-dated and more impoverished view of their relationship intrudes violently; naturally Achilles is badly upset, and for an Achilles, even now, upset is translated into anger. In the course of making several interesting observations, F. says that Achilles is angry because Priam is rejecting a future harmony, the peace of the Feast, the first step of which is Achilles' offer of a chair. We know this because, as an audience prepared for this performance, we are familiar with the Feast as a traditional theme. The two interpretations are different; but they resonate well, and we want both.

It is true that many of F.'s interpretations, even of previously unfamiliar texts (such as the Serbian charm-songs or the Andreas), seemed to carry me no further than I had got by reading the cited passages with alert and questioning literary-critical attention that was familiar with oral and religious traditions. This by no means led to disappointment; all readers are surely gratified when our readings are supported by the conviction that audiences in far away places or the distant past must have been hearing what we hear. And some of F.'s readings are very hard to arrive at through literary criticism alone (see IA 244-46). Whether it adds to our sense of a text, or simply confirms it, F.'s reconstruction of audiences, real or imagined, carries immense conviction, as he lets us see these listeners bringing their awareness of traditional registers to bear upon performances. At times we may want more than F. gives us, but we never want less.

Two groups of readers will remain critical of some aspects of Foley's edifice. Some radical Scripsists require for the poet a learned and leisurely mode of composition that appears to defy analogy to the singing of tales. They may long for more complexity of interpretation than F. gives us, and feel that only the assumption of a fully literate poet can justify it; they will want to divorce the texts of Homer and Beowulf from the performance arena altogether. And there are Parry-Lord Conservatives who may feel that Foley has gone too far beyond the founding fathers in certain places. Some of these, indeed, may find F.'s interpretations too complex, though I suspect that most of them, when they demur, will do so over technical questions concerning how the poems were composed. The more thoughtful members of these groups might argue that F.'s thinking appears to rest on certain axioms that could be called into question.

Axiom 1. The closing statement of STP speaks of a "spectrum model for oral traditional works, from the now rare situations in which writing has played no part whatsoever through the myriad intermediate cases where oral tradition and literacy intertwine in fascinating ways and on to the works composed by literate authors that nonetheless owe some debt to an originative oral tradition" (STP 211). This seems to imply an axiom, that the entire spectrum of oral-derived texts can be interpreted as performances in some sense. How, then, do we criticize Virgil, Apollonius, or especially Quintus of Smyrna? All three can imitate Homer well when they want to, and indeed Quintus' students find it very hard to distinguish his style from Homer's. Clearly these poets "owe some debt to an originative oral tradition." Indeed we might reasonably speak of Virgil's Aeneas Anchisiades or Quintus' Tudeos huios as invoking the traditional characters in all their magnificent entirety, to echo F.'s language. And yet the epic registers of these poets, their formulae and themes, have as their traditional referents not an oral tradition but the written texts of a number of authors, especially Homer himself. In fact Quintus' ironic eummelies Agamemnon seems actually to reject the traditional character -- even as it acknowledges the Homeric source for character and epithet separately. And what of pius Aeneas? Does the adjective not move us away from the traditional complex character, and concentrate us upon his pietas, even as we recognize that here we have a frequently-employed, a "regular," formula, an imitation of the very device that -- used as frequently as Homer uses it -- is our best evidence that Homer was an oral composer and not merely a superb imitator of the oral style? Meanwhile Turnus, the Italian, but the more romantic hero, lacks formulae almost entirely.

The Parry-Lord Conservatives and Scripsists might here agree that F.'s statement at the end of STP should be slightly modified, and the P-L Conservatives, at least, might suggest that criticism of poets at the far end of the spectrum could fruitfully borrow from F.'s oral-traditional aesthetics without identifying these poets as singers of tales in performance. F. in personal communication indicates that in fact he did not intend this identification, and that a modified form of oral-traditional aesthetics is indeed appropriate here.

Axiom 2. The discussion of phraseology throughout TOE implies that formulae are derived from the traditional rules particular to each tradition, and may differ considerably from one tradition to another. This is an exciting proposition, representing a real break from Parry-Lord Conservatism, which continues to hold that Parry's definition of the formula, though based on Greek and South-Slavic, "still stands, for any poetry that uses words and has some form of 'metrical conditions'" (A.B. Lord, The Singer Resumes the Tale [Ithaca: Cornell 1995] 130). Greek and South-Slavic prosody are not only very close to each other, but are not far from mediaeval French, so that the Parry definition works well for the chansons de geste; it also works excellently for the Cantar de Mio Cid, even though the Cid's prosody is still largely a mystery to us; and it appears to work equally well for pre-Islamic Arabic, the Arabic Sira, and Khazak oral epic, with their highly varied prosodies. F. argues that it works less well for Anglo-Saxon, whose traditional rules are quite different from the South-Slavic and Greek. This makes excellent sense, and may well be right, though a Parry-Lord Conservative might wonder whether, in arguing this, Foley has taken into account all the many modifications in the concept of the formula that Hainsworth, Lord in his last writings, and others have brought about. Reading through F.'s formulaic analysis of Beowulf 702b-730a (TOE 207-233) and sticking to noun-phrases (noun-verb as well as noun-epithet), I found that almost everything F. calls a formula or formulaic system would be counted as a formula by my own modified Parry-Lord-Hainsworth criteria, and never would I call formulaic a phrase that he does not. Our analyses often part company; our results coincide. But

the P-L Conservative cannot use this as an argument against F. We are a long way from knowing why the Parry-Lord-Hainsworth definitions work -- when they do -- across traditions, across cultures, and across at least some prosodies; and until we do we should not impose those definitions upon traditions where experts are uncomfortable with them. The P-L Conservative can make a different point with suitable modesty. I do not think that any of F.'s interpretations in the second two books of the trilogy really depends upon our attitude toward this axiom. The concept of traditional referentiality, as F. employs it, requires that there be formulae in the tradition as well as the individual poem; but it does not require a specific theory of their origin. Albert Lord might have resisted F.'s interpretations, but he would have needed grounds other than his disagreement with axiom 2.

Axiom 3. The radical Scripsists might well ask how we know that Beowulf, e.g., is oral-derived; F. answers that it has oral-traditional characteristics: it demonstrates "a formulaic phraseology, an inventory of typical scenes, and so on" (TOE4). The underlying axiom here appears to be that a tradition that abounds in formulae and themes is necessarily oral-traditional, and its poetry necessarily oral or oral-derived. But now the Scripsists could point to Quintus. Here is a poet rich in formulae, seemingly as rich as the South-Slavic poets, yet quite divorced from oral tradition. We can call him "oral-derived" in only a very special sense: he does not recreate an oral performance, but merely imitates the style of a text that happens to be the work of an oral poet. How do we know that Beowulf was not produced by such an imitator (of a now lost work)? Here the Parry-Lord Conservative can offer the use of comparative statistics; but those statistics are based on the assumption that Anglo-Saxon formulae are Parry-Lord formulae such as we find in Greek and South-Slavic; and this appears to contradict axiom 2.

All this may remind us of the only really valuable point made by Jeff Opland in his unfairly negative review of TOE, (Comparative Literature 45.4 [1993] 370). Opland speaks of F.'s "inward-thrusting complexity" as "suffocatingly claustrophobic"; a strange metaphor, since we expect "agoraphobic," but he means that F. makes him, Opland, feel claustrophobic: he is complaining that F.'s "panacea of fundamental traditional rules" (369) vary from one tradition to another and thus isolate the traditions from one another: they preclude the cross-cultural comparisons that enable us to identify a style as oral. He goes on to maintain that Foley is in fact applying his techniques to literate texts, for such is the Old-English Andreas (370). Opland is presenting us with much muddle and injustice here, some of which F. implicitly and successfully answers in his analysis of the Andreas as oral-derived in STP; but there is a real problem as well. If the concept of the formula really is tradition-dependent (axiom 2), then in theory the presence of formulae in one tradition, known to be oral -- the South-Slavic, for instance -- is no argument for the orality of another tradition -- the Anglo-Saxon, say -- however many formulae of its own kind the latter may possess. If axiom 2 is right, should we accept axiom 3? When Lord and Magoun first claimed that Anglo-Saxon poetry was oral, they were using the Parry-Lord concept of the formula, the same concept that Benson used when arguing against them. If these scholars are mistaken, if Anglo-Saxon formulae really are that different, then we seem to need some other argument to back the assertion of Anglo-Saxon orality.

I think that F. would say here, first, that he does not consider Anglo-Saxon formulae entirely different from the others: out of a "tradition-dependent background of traditional rules" there emerges a phraseology that permits a "broadly comparative concept of formulaic structure" (TOE 239). My results concerning the formulae in Beowulf mentioned under axiom 2 certainly bear this out. Since F. sees formulae as the product of traditional rules, he naturally adds that a basis in oral tradition is ultimately ascribed to these rules (personal communication, and see axiom 4 below). And he would no doubt argue that the dynamics of Beowulf's language involves traditional referentiality so deeply that we cannot speak of a mere imitator, an Anglo-Saxon Quintus (see axiom 5 below). But axioms 2 and 3 will continue to be debated, either by disappointed Parry-Lord Conservatives such as Opland, or by determined Scripsists among Anglo-Saxon scholars.

Axiom 4. The traditional rules that F. uncovers throughout TOE are rules of oral-traditional poetry; this is axiomatic for him, since he does not offer comparative analyses of strictly literate poems. But his critics may well ask here, "What if Virgil etc. also follow these very rules? And especially -- what if Lucan or Statius follow them? Is it not possible that F. is simply uncovering rules for composing epic -- oral or oral-derived or written -- in a given language?" If it should turn out that a Lucan slavishly obeys the same traditional rules as Homer, but without producing or employing formulae in the ordinary sense, we seem to be thrown back on the formula-argument if we want to show that a given composer can be called oral or oral-derived. In any case, we need to know whether strictly literate writers follow the same rules.

Axiom 5. In response to the "what-ifs" just evoked, F. might respond with another axiom: the dynamics of traditional (metonymic) referentiality as set out in IA and STP characterize oral-traditional and not strictly literate art. Since we are able to interpret Beowulf in the same way as we interpret Homer and the South-Slavs, we can be confident that that they are oral-traditional in approximately the same sense. F. does not give us extended analyses of fully literate works here, to show us that traditional referentiality will not work; but the points I made under axiom 1, if developed more fully, will move to confirm his view. That is, as we apply F.'s aesthetics to Virgil and feel at once the need for modification, we are acknowledging the validity of axiom 5; so marked is the difference, indeed, that we may be able to speak no longer of an axiom, but an established principle.

Axiom 6. In IA, F. asserts that "formulaic density is not a reliable measure of orality" (14n.30). It is not clear to me how important this axiom is to F.'s overall position; certainly our acceptance or rejection will not affect our appreciation of his interpretations in IA and STP. But it would not be accepted by the Parry-Lord Conservative: in deciding that the Roland was oral, for example, Joseph Duggan (The Song of Roland [Berkeley: California 1973]) compared its density to other poems in its own tradition, and found it much more formulaic than poems known to be literate. He then applied the results cross-culturally, arguing that because the Cantar de Mio Cid showed about the same formularity as the Roland, it should be considered orally composed (Joseph Duggan, The Cantar de Mio Cid [Cambridge 1989] 136-39). Lord's Harvard seminar applied, over the years, statistical measurements of formulaic density to medieval poetry with interesting results, including the likelihood that Beowulf was marginal between oral and literate -- it was distinctly less formulaic than Havelok the Dane or King Horn, thought to be oral, but more formulaic than formulaic texts known to be literate (Oral Tradition 1.3 [1986] 479). Lord considered formulaic density a "necessary criterion, a fundamental characteristic of orality," though he conceded that its evidence "alone may not be sufficient to determine orality" (ibid. 481, emphasis added) and should be augmented by studying larger syntactic and semantic units. My own statistical analyses are considerably more sophisticated than the formula-density test, but they certainly bear out Duggan's results; I have not applied them to Lord's.

Density tests and other statistical approaches are intended to tell us something about how poems were composed, and thus about history; they do not speak directly to poetic criticism, but reach it only through poetic biography. If we accept F.'s assurances that the poetry he interprets is orally composed or oral-derived and close to the oral roots, we need no tests to support his interpretations. We might, of course, want to argue that since some if not all of the oral-derived texts F. discusses entailed the use of writing in composition, we should feel free to add to F.'s analyses any techniques of literary interpretation that we might hesitate to apply to oral performances; and we might feel happier doing this if a statistical test assured us that a given text did indeed entail writing by the composer. We could then go on to see whether statistics can be of any assistance in establishing the whole spectrum referred to in #1 above, from the strictly oral poets to literate authors whose debt to oral tradition is pretty well confined to imitations of written texts. We have already suggested that interpretations at the far end from the oral will be somewhat different; also, measurements of just how closely the thoroughly literate poets imitated their oral predecessors can shed light on how they want their readers to use these predecessors.

There are a few omissions of less moment that nonetheless deserve mention. During the middle years of this century especially, there was an impasse between oral poetics and literary criticism, and some scholars have embraced Scripsism only because they thought oral poetics too confining. It is one of the most gratifying features of F.'s work that his criticism does not confine, but expands; still, he is so anxious to show what traditional-oral aesthetics adds to our interpretive possibilities that I was left unclear on the question of how much a literary-critical interpretation of a definitely oral work is free to add in turn. F. indicates in personal communication that a very full literary interpretation, e.g., of the character of Tale in Avdo's Wedding of Meho, Son of Smail is a welcome complement to the portrait that he draws from tradition on pp. 32-41 of STP; but in future work it would be useful to have him take a passage from an oral poem and show where the limits of interpretation might be be reached. At what point will he say, "No performance-audience could ever have heard that meaning"? (A propos of Tale, let me in passing express my regret that Foley did not discuss Georg Danek's very helpful article, "Polumetis Odusseus und Tale Budalina," in Wiener Studien 104 [1991] 23-47.) I wish, too, that F. had said explicitly whether an entire poem in every tiny part of its fabric can be part of the traditional referent -- not just its formulae and themes and story-pattern, its familiar techniques and openings and closings, but each word. Suppose I (as a reader) know that version A of a certain poem is later than version B, and I note that (though the structure, characters, events and details of the action remain the same) its wording differs somewhat from B's, at this point and at that. Put the matter this way: suppose a singer says that he sang the song exactly as he always did, that versions A (later) and B (earlier) are the same, but we in the audience notice certain verbal differences. Can we say that B is part of the traditional referent, that the difference in wording, not merely the wording of A itself, is part of the interpretant of A?

Let me leave this list of omissions on a puzzled rather than a critical note. From the point of view of a literary historian and critic, given to close reading and to supporting historical judgments and literary interpretations with poetic biography reinforced by statistics, F.'s books are forcefully argued, learned, and enjoyable to read, well-suited to the delight and instruction of humankind. The proverb of his third volume is that word-power derives from the enabling event of performance and the enabling referent of tradition. The proverb of the second is that the integers of the register, the formulae, themes, and story patterns, work metonymically, so that each occurrence of any integer recalls the total meaning established by all its occurrences. The proverb of the first, I venture to say, is that these integers are produced by prosodic rules that are particular to a given tradition, a given genre, and even a given text depending upon its location on the spectrum from oral performance to literate imitation of a written oral or oral-derived text. The whole trilogy aims at its last sentence: "Most fundamentally, the singer of tales in performance selects and uses a 'way of speaking' not metri causa but artis causa." An astonishing aim, given that the founder of the theory rested so much of his case for the orality of Homer on the premise that the formulae existed for ease in versification (The Making of Homeric Verse [Oxford 1971] 35, 317, et al). Perhaps the founder's views need not be abandoned; but they certainly needed to be supplemented by just such an account as F. has given us.