BMCR 1991.02.08

Traditional Oral Epic

, Traditional Oral Epic: the Odyssey, Beowulf, and the Serbo-Croatian Return Song. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990. xi, 424 pages. ISBN 0520064097.

With the publication of this book John Foley has made a significant beginning on a large task leading to a study of aesthetics in traditional oral epic. The present study is written as a preliminary work in which Foley explores the basic elements of structure in ancient Greek, Serbo-Croatian, and Old English epic (Beowulf), focusing on prosody, phraseology, and narrative pattern. The book is clearly divided into the three sections: prosody, phraseology, and thematic structure, each discussed separately in regard to the three chosen literary traditions. There is a final close study of “The Return Song” in Serbo-Croatian narrative.

It is important to Foley to maintain each tradition’s individuality. The first chapter outlines a careful series of principles to be employed in approaching an oral or oral-derived text; using these principles it is possible to define with some precision the nature of the document which is to be analysed and to appreciate the special considerations which must be constantly applied. The principles identify the nature of the “text”, the distinction between oral and oral-derived epics, the influence from various genres on the final epic, the degree of dependence on tradition, and the mutual reinforcement of synchronic and diachronic contexts. Foley then carefully separates works from the different literary traditions on the basis of this program to show the individual nature of each.

Obviously orderly procedure is a characteristic of this book. In his discussion of prosody it is clear that Foley is at home with the modes of structuring the line. His analysis of methods of metrical composition is crisp and clear. Then when he continues to describe and contrast phraseology, the breadth of his concern and the keenness of his understanding of the poetic line’s dynamics become clear. Typical of his continual drive to produce a comparison of traditions which both acknowledges the individuality of a text as well as strives for accuracy is this quote: “If we can restore this natural quality to traditional diction by understanding it not as a patchwork of remnants but as a highly complex weave accomplished by blending many different colors and textures according to fundamental rules of order and pattern, then we re-admit the possibility—even the necessity—of oral poetic art in its archetypal sense: the individual poiesis of tradition” (p. 200). His goal through this analysis of phraseology is avowedly to recomplicate poetic composition by showing that it is susceptible to the same processes as language; the poet is a speaker of a native poetic idiom.

This is a book which does not take up separate topics; it evolves from one topic to the next. Thus a clearer understanding of rules underlying the formation of phrases allows a look at deeper levels when Foley discusses thematic structure. He argues throughout for the multiformity of thematic scenes—like the bath, the greeting theme, and the feast theme. Definitions of such scenes which are too narrow or too rigid deny the subtlety of the individual passage to a critic—and undercut the possibility of further aesthetic investigation.

It should by now be evident that this book is difficult to encapsulate in an easy summary. Foley proposes a reevaluation of the Parry-Lord theory which will identify certain areas which need modification—but he insists that most of the earlier research stands firm. His principles for criticism will class him as conservative in his approach, yet he is stubborn in his insistence that there is no primary formation—rather a series of multiforms at all various levels of structure. He “ends” this book by looking ahead to the construction of a faithful poetics.

And this poetic dimension is called for in view of the narrowness which is carefully imposed on the discussion in this book. As long as a reader accepts the author’s statement that he is going to discuss only elements of structure—saving aesthetic judgments for a second step, then some passages can be left for broader judgment later. But his constant focus on oral theory and the almost total dominance of Parry-Lord terminology will seem to create a warping of some of the conclusions. For example, it is disappointing to see Foley study feasting scenes throughout the Odyssey solely from the tight perspective of their individualized structure without noting that in Book l there are two juxtaposed feasting scenes (136-52). Surely it is important to understand the structural multiform beneath each feasting scene, but the interpretation even of the existing words on the page will require some acknowledgment that the two scenes are meant to contrast in some way. The promised book on aesthetics is required to fulfill and justify this beginning study on oral epic structures.