Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2019.10.09 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2019.10.09

Albert Bates Lord, David F. Elmer, The Singer of Tales. 3rd Edition. Publications of the Milman Parry collection of oral literature, 4.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 2019.  Pp. xlv, 338.  ISBN 9780674975736.  $24.50.  

Reviewed by Minna Skafte Jensen, University of Southern Denmark and Copenhagen University (

This is the third edition of a monograph originally published 1960, an unusual fact in a time in which libraries are reduced in favour of digitized versions for online reading. What is so special about exactly this book?

The answer is, of course, that Lord’s Singer of Tales is a modern classic. Milman Parry’s sensational research which combined careful, even pedantic, studies of the Homeric poems with fieldwork investigation of oral epic in Yugoslavia was known to scholars working with archaic Greek poetry, but relatively unknown elsewhere. Had it not been for Lord’s book the situation might have remained like that. The Singer of Tales first describes the theory constructed from the fieldwork and next suggests how this theory changes our understanding of Homer. Lord was a charismatic author, and the enthusiasm emanating from every page makes his book a great read. It was received with admiration, and with it the ambitious project of defining the general characteristics of oral poetry became deeply influential not only in Homeric studies but in related fields as well, such as the philologies concerned with early poetry from other parts of the world, anthropology, folklore, and psychology, to mention only the most obvious. “The oral-formulaic theory” or simply “Parry and Lord” became discussed and tested in a broad spectrum of humanistic research, and the central concept of “composition in performance” well known far outside Homeric scholarship. Classicists could enjoy the feeling of being at the centre of the humanities in a way not experienced since Karl Lachmann and the other great German philologists developed the theory of textual criticism in the second half of the nineteenth century, which became paradigmatic for related disciplines.

The second edition of The Singer of Tales was published in 2000 as a celebration of the book’s fortieth anniversary. Since it was not reviewed in BMCR, some remarks about this work seem called for. It was edited by the two curators of The Milman Parry Collection at Harvard (MPCOL), Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy, who added a compact disc containing the audio recordings of the passages quoted by Lord and other materials from the collection. This important feature greatly enhanced the usefulness of Lord’s book and was, of course, a natural continuation of Parry and Lord’s pioneering use of the technology of sound recording.

Mitchell and Nagy also added a new introduction (pp. xi-xxxviii). Here they give a brief survey of Parry’s fieldwork 1933-5, his cooperation with Lord, and Lord’s own work when he returned to Yugoslavia after the Second World War. They underscore the coherence of Parry’s and Lord’s work as against the way Adam Parry described it in his introduction to his father’s collected works.1 They mention Lord’s important role for the development of folklore as a university discipline in the USA, and sketch the intellectual context of the book on its original appearance. While they say next to nothing about the first part of Parry’s research, his analysis of Homeric formulas, their main concern is to tell the history of the fieldwork that ended up as MPCOL.

Especially interesting is a passage quoted from Parry’s “Project for a Study of Jugoslavian Popular Oral Poetry”, hitherto unpublished. The precise date and context is not stated, but it seems to be part of an application for support directed at foundations and/or the university authorities, written after a first preparatory voyage to Yugoslavia during the summer of 1933. Here Parry describes with remarkable precision his purpose, listing eight questions he hopes to find answers to, all concerned with the singers’ techniques and the flexibility of the tradition. Impressive is also his ambition and self- assurance when he declares: “When I shall have enough suitable material of this sort I propose to make from [it] a book illustrating the process of traditional oral poetry. Such a book, I believe, will be indispensable to anyone who pretends to deal with any of the early literatures” (pp. xiv-xv). Milman Parry was prevented from writing this book by his untimely death, but many years later Lord’s Singer of Tales fulfilled the project and did, indeed, become indispensable.

The editor of the third edition is David F. Elmer, assistant curator of MPCOL. In his brief introduction he points out two changes compared to the second edition, that the index has been expanded and the accompanying CD-Rom disc omitted. The index has, in fact, not only been expanded, but thoroughly changed; quite a few former items have been left out, the titles of some of the songs have been altered, and while Lord’s original index consisted mainly of names, the new one is more concerned with ideas and literary terms.

Much more important is, however, that the disc is of no use any longer; instead, the reader is invited to the Milman Parry Collection website. Parry’s collection of more than 12,500 texts, most of them in written form, but also many sound recordings on more than 3,500 aluminium discs is being digitized. About one sixth is currently accessible, but it is the goal of the curators to make all of this rich collection available electronically. Originally, Lord planned a grandiose edition with English translations expected to contain over 20 volumes (p. 303, n. 2), of which the first four materialised. David E. Bynum, who had co-edited vol. 4, published two further volumes, nos. 6 and 14, but since 1980 the edition has remained unfulfilled.2 Now the digitizing of the collection is taking over with all the advantages the electronic medium offers.

With this welcome third edition The Singer of Tales may be read as an introduction to MPCOL, as well as a celebration of it.


1.   Parry, Milman. The Making of Homeric Verse. The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Edited by Adam Parry. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971.
2.   Parry, Milman, Albert B. Lord & David E. Bynum (edd.). Serbo-Croatian Heroic Songs. Voll. 1-4 collected by M.P. and A.B.L., edited and translated by A.B.L. Vols. 6 and 14 collected by M.P., A.B.L. and D.E.B., edited by D.E.B. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1953-80.

Read comments on this review or add a comment on the BMCR blog

Read Latest
About BMCR
Review for BMCR
Support BMCR

BMCR, Bryn Mawr College, 101 N. Merion Ave., Bryn Mawr, PA 19010