Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.02.35

John D. Niles, Homo Narrans.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.  Pp. 272.  ISBN 0-8122-3504-5.  $45.00.  

Reviewed by William F. Wyatt
Word count: 1478 words

The book is difficult for a classicist to review, partly because of the material treated -- Old English and more modern balladry; and also because this classicist at least is of a positivistic cast of mind and finds discursive (and more or less lyrical) essays, though enjoyable enough, difficult to assess. N is not so much interested in the details and methods of oral delivery as he is in the place of oral presentation and presenters in society, particularly in a literate society. By so situating his work he leaves the Homerist in the lurch, since literacy is precisely one of the major Homeric questions; and Homeric society is either unknowable or the subject of intense dispute. N. also overreaches in endeavoring -- tentatively -- to date the first appearance of his Homo Narrans, a development he dates to some 45,000 years ago.

Before registering a few further reservations about the book, let me detail some of the things I found useful in it. The first is N.'s obvious fascination with his subject that has led him to examine oral presentations of all sorts in many unlikely places. From his encounters with contemporary singers in Scotland he has thought himself into the mind-set of the "Tinks," (more or less) itinerant Scots singers. These people are no longer so migratory, and are not Gypsies, but do have a number of Gypsy-like characteristics, including occupation and general scorn of and by the populace at large. They are not a guild, but are a society of people who preserve and sing songs learned from many sources, including the written.

From his association N. holds that for a living oral tradition to thrive there is needed a "strong bearer" of the tradition; and also a group of other singers/performers who can learn from and feed the "strong bearer." Homer clearly will have been such a "strong bearer," and by implication there will have been other less strong bearers who supported the tradition at the same time as Homer and strong bearers before his time and in the same tradition. The members of the class of "Tinks" in Scotland form a group or clan that is self-reinforcing, thus allowing for the preservation and creation of songs. They are outside society but interpret society both for themselves and for members of the society. N. states oracularly (66): "Oral poetic praxis consists in creative acts whereby a mental order is produced or reaffirmed or one order is substituted for another." In other words oral poetic practice is firmly situated in the society within which it is produced and which, to some extent, it either validates or queries. N. is also helpful (53) on the role of the audience, and (57) on poetic inspiration.

The other major contribution to our understanding -- and most Homerists have wrestled with the issue -- is his discussion of the writing down of oral poems, particularly in his case, Beowulf. He points out correctly and helpfully that neither the Homeric poems nor Beowulf are truly oral poems because they lack "those pauses, coughs, false starts, instrumental interludes, bursts of laughter or applause from the audience, and other audible features that are likely to be features of actual performance" (117).1 At best the texts we have are incomplete oral performances and may be edited ones. They are "folklore acts" that transpire in "an artificial context, as opposed to the natural context that prevails either when no collector is present or when the collector successfully disguises his identity or purpose" (102). His chapter four: "Oral Poetry Acts" is important.

His questions concerning Beowulf are: who wrote down the poem (91)? And who would read such a book as Beowulf (115)? To the first question he responds with three possibilities: 1) intervention by an outsider, 2) intervention by an insider, 3) literary imitation. For Homer 3) is out of the question, but the consequences of the other two possibilities are important. For (1) recording a poem in writing transmutes the medium of presentation and can also transmute the resulting text itself. In other words, a written (e.g.) Homer may be an edited or improved -- either by Homer or by someone else -- representation of Homeric performance: dictation answers the how, but does not answer the question of the resulting what. We should not assume that the entire Iliad was dictated as is by Homer and should allow for the possibility that he or another was able to correct or improve his text or even alter it considerably (as may be the case with the folio and quarto versions of Hamlet's "to be or not to be" speech). Cf. de Vet (TAPA 126 [1996] 43-76). (2) would seem ruled out in the case of Homer, unless one assumes that Homer -- or the impersonal Homeric tradition -- continued long after the introduction of writing in Greece. Otherwise motive would seem lacking. My own view is that Homer caused his poems to be written down because other singers had begun to sing his songs and steal his fame (and hence livelihood). That would be motive enough, one would think. The important thing is that a singer must be motivated to write down his own songs, songs which under ordinary circumstances would vary and change shape in accordance with those circumstances.

The second question is as important for Homerists as it is for scholars of Old English. Most scholars of Beowulf hold that the audience for that poem would have been "either a monastery with lax discipline or one with a special connection to the secular nobility" (115). N. plumps for the court of King Alfred, hence a date later than that usually assumed for the poem, a dating he argues elsewhere in the book. We cannot answer the question for Homer, though for him it would seem that the target audience would have been the Greek peoples at large. And that brings the further question: why would the Greeks at large be appealed to? And: who would be causing the appeal to be made? A guess might be that an attack from outside Greece, perhaps from (people like) the Cimmerians might have induced Greek fears of Orientals and necessitated unity in the face of barbarian attack. Whatever the reason, N.'s questions are of importance.

Neutrally on N. He is clearly arguing a hobby horse, or rather two: the dating of Beowulf and with it the importance of Old English literature; and the relevance and importance of Scots Border Ballads. English departments are in general hostile to such subjects, preferring to keep their heads in the clouds of literary theory. Some of the book is thus a quiet polemic against colleagues. N. also allows his enthusiasms to run away with him, and he presents (very interesting) accounts and pictures of individual singers and his encounters with them. The book has a charm quite independent of its intent and is more of an essay than a study.

This essay or speculative quality is one of the negatives of the book: one cannot really come to grips with any one issue and is left having to infer things rather than conclude them. N. is entranced with his "Homo Narrans," and wonders when this creature first arose. Quite apart from that question he maintains that the "cosmoplastic power" of narrative is both unique to humans and has brought humankind to its present state of development -- he seems to approve (31): "... orally performed narratives help to make us fully human." He might, though, observe that narrative -- as opposed in this regard to science or mathematics -- has negative results as well. Some stories -- e.g. about the life of slaves in America -- are not told; while other stories -- e.g., about heroic Serbian resistance to the Ottomans in Kosovo -- have led otherwise sensible people to destructive actions.

Equally serious in my view is the broad definition N. gives (1-2): "By oral narrative I mean to denote people's use of the elements of speech to evoke action in a temporal sequence." I take this to mean story-telling, but am not sure. Whatever it means, it includes a vast array of human activity, and it might be difficult to locate a human utterance that did not in some way fall under this rubric. He later limits the statement to poetry (19): "poetry as a voiced social transaction is one of the foundational elements of the art of Homo narrans."

Few classicists will be moved to read the book. I would recommend that Homerists at least do so, or at least skim it, perhaps skipping sections on dating Beowulf and on Scots balladeers. It is a pleasant encounter with oral performance and, though not directly or conclusively concerned with Homer, asks questions of later materials that we all ask or should ask of the Homeric texts.


1.   Though the Odyssey seems to hold, perhaps optimistically, that bards were able to perform their poems free of interruption and that the audience was attentive. Performances could be interrupted, to be sure, as in Odyssey 8.536ff., but the hoped for picture is that of Odyssey 13.1-3 where the audience sits entranced; and 1.325-6 where the suitors listen in silence.

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