BMCR 2022.04.05

The oral epic from performance to interpretation

, The oral epic from performance to interpretation. Routledge studies in medieval literature and culture. Abington; New York: Routledge, 2021. Pp. 282. ISBN 9780367761318. $170.00.

The author compares the performative contexts of oral epic poetry in several Turkic-speaking societies in Siberia and Central Asia and considers the implications of this recent eyewitness evidence for understanding the texts of ancient and medieval epic poems or heroic lays that have come down to us in manuscript form. The book thus continues the study of oral and oral-derived epic traditions begun by Milman Parry and Albert Lord in the former Yugoslavia in the 20th century. Lord’s classic presentation of this “oral-formulaic theory” has been recently updated by David F. Elmer in a third edition of The Singer of Tales (Harvard UP, 2019), which has already been fruitfully expanded with much valuable comparanda by folklorists, ethnologists and classicists like Minna Skafte Jensen in Writing Homer: A Study Based on Results from Modern Fieldwork (Copenhagen: Det Kongelige Danske Videnskabernes Selskab, 2011). Reichl widens the breadth of such comparative studies yet further, a project which has also continued apace in the online journal Oral Tradition since 1986.

Reichl’s survey is divided into three categories of cross-cultural comparison: (1) the settings in which oral epics are performed from Africa to Uzbekistan, including native classifications of the kinds of singers and songs sung, the process by which one becomes an epic singer, the tension between received tradition and an individual performer’s talent, and the technology of transmission and textualization of oral poetry in written, audio or video form; (2) the styles of performance itself: (a) verbal narrating, singing, ventriloquizing voices; and (b) gesturing, miming, use of musical instruments, stage props or other dramatic effects; and (3) the meaning of oral epic to participants in its performance, the nature of their experience emotionally and intellectually, the relationship established between singer and audience, and the kinds of identification cultivated between listeners and the characters in the tales. Appendices supply information on oral epic traditions in Sub-Saharan and North Africa, India and Southeast Asia, the Far East and Pacific islands, as well as those recorded in Slavic, Finno-Ugrian, Turkic, Mongolian, Tungusic and Tibetan languages. There is a glossary of musical terms and of different kinds of non-Western musical instruments, in addition to eight audio or video links to recordings of live performances, and a section on discography archives.

Reichl’s key argument is well demonstrated by the individual examples he has chosen to describe and unimpeachable in its general thrust, that is, that the experiential context of oral epic poetry in live performance in the original languages is crucial to understanding the full power of its art and impact upon participants who have long since been acculturated to its formal poetic and stylistic features, its system of verbal formulae, genres and narratological conventions. This is a point made thirty years ago by John Miles Foley in Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (Indiana UP, 1991). Foley argued that any individual performance of oral-traditional epic poetry—even one truncated, disrupted or inferior in quality or audibility—provokes a whole world of prior experience in the sensibility of an audience, a synthesized recollection of all the earlier performances participants have heard, thus making the totality of a tradition immediately “immanent” or present to their minds and memories with even the slightest prompting. The effect of a live performance is thus far greater than the sum of its parts on any particular occasion, an effect lost on outsiders or newcomers to the tradition, even if they have learned the language of narration. How much more of this primary experience of oral-traditional art has been lost in our response to the remnants of ancient and medieval epic poetry surviving in manuscript form?

In his conclusion, Reichl goes further than Foley to stress the importance of nonverbal components in epic narration and their effect on an audience’s reception of the singer’s art, especially participants’ emotional response to rhythmic, vocal or musical mood-setting, the power of its improvisational but familiar “score,” or visual illustrations of characters and events in accompanying scrolls, paintings or other kinds of pictorial imagery. The loss of these audio and visual dimensions of epic performances from earlier ages seriously impairs our ability to interpret their artistic and thematic effects in context, much as if we were trying to analyze the meaning of a modern opera to its audience with only a damaged, abbreviated or dubiously accurate libretto, an unknown score, absent singers and orchestra, and only the vaguest impression of possible costuming and stage sets. “With preservation comes loss,” Reichl concludes (218), and we have lost a lot. Even the “canonization” of oral epic songs as classic written texts is as much about forgetting as remembering past art, even when the dominance of its musical dimension is not the same in all traditions.

As a measure of what has been lost, Reichl expands his sense of the term “interpretation” in his title to include the “experience” of oral epic in live performance:

In the case of oral epics, interpretation can mean text interpretation when it is applied to a textualized epic, but it can also mean the interpretation of a communicative event when it is directed toward the performance of an epic. Interpretation – or understanding, to use a term originally introduced into hermeneutics by Wilhelm Dilthey – is here directed to two different objects, a text and an event. Part of the event is what becomes textualized and can be interpreted as text; part of the event is also what can be interpreted as music, miming, dance or whatever else can be isolated as an interpretable aspect of the ‘message’. The event as event, however, is a type of communicative practice and not a text, and it calls for an interpretation from the point of view of social, cultural, and linguistic anthropology. While the interpretation of the event is based on the performance context, the interpretation of the text lacks this context; the text is, as it were, de-contextualized. (217–18)

I will leave it to others to ponder whether a participant’s “experience” of an oral epic performance can rightly be called an “interpretation” of it, but the value of a participant enjoying such an experience and reflecting on its meaning afterwards is beyond doubt. There is certainly an emotional and intellectual, probably also what we would call a moral, social or political “take-away” from such an experience that cannot easily be replicated by studying laboriously the surviving texts of old decontextualized traditions in written form, even if their performative contexts can be partially reconstructed from internal dramatizations. As Reichl points out, a good few of these survivals offer depictions of epic performance within the extant text, such as Phemius and Demodocus in the Odyssey or Hrothgar’s scop in Beowulf.

So the question remains: to what extent are we capable of “understanding” the “message” of Beowulf or the Odyssey to the original audiences who heard oral versions or “multiforms” of these textual records? Reichl answers with reference to one of his own major contributions to the study of oral literature, namely his edition and translation of Edige, a Karakalpak heroic narrative performed by Jamabay Bazarov (Helsinki: Folklore Fellows, 1993):

The difference between Beowulf and Edige lies in the fact that the singer’s voice is a conjecture in the former case and a reality in the latter. In both cases, however, the interpretation rests on the text (or texts, if more than one version has been preserved in writing). In both cases performance features have to be re-imagined, on the basis of ‘signs of orality’ for Beowulf, and on the basis of an extra-textual commentary (notations, pictures, audio and video files) for Edige. As interpretations of medieval ‘oral-derived’ poetry have shown, a consideration of ‘inscribed vocality’ can adjust our vision, one-dimensionally focused on reading literature composed in writing, and in this way deepen our understanding of poetry composed for performance and possibly in performance. (225)

But that “understanding” will, of course, be an imaginative reconstruction on the part of the reader, since all epic narratives, even in their “original” oral performances, are an inherently ephemeral form of art—durable through time in the transmission of certain formal features perhaps, but malleable in content, fragile and exiguous in meaning, both to individual singers and to their audiences. Even the experience of oral epic has to be imaginatively recreated or recalled in the memory of participants if they later choose to contemplate the meaning of that experience to them. And with remembering, too, comes loss.

All oral epics project issues of intense current interest onto the past, where they are dignified and transformed by that distancing effect. These story-songs always have an immediate, edgy, exploratory thrust to engage their listeners. They are a way of thinking hard in narrative form about human life on earth—how we came to be as we are now—through a tale of long ago. These epic performances seem solid, confident, sometimes even monumental, but are porous, slippery and deeply insecure. They pose as many questions as they answer. They are the very place where an oral culture thinks hardest about its deepest fears, identities and ideals. And they can disappear overnight, along with those who once told and heard them. The tone of Reichl’s exposition is thus elegiac, but not in the end despairing: “Despite the precarious situation in a number of traditions, the oral epic is, however, still alive in some parts of the world. The time for dirges has happily not yet arrived” (225).

On which point, this reviewer, a Beowulf scholar, wishes that the author had addressed more directly one further question about the preservation of decontextualized oral-inspired epics. These texts often represent the creation of longer, more expansive and ambitious works of narrative art than may have been possible in any particular oral performance. If oral epics are inherently ephemeral, leaving only traces of their performance in the ears, hearts and minds of their recipients, they can be rescued for future generations, if only in part, by staged mediation of one sort or another. This “damage control” may indeed be selective and distorting, but not deleterious or impoverishing in every way. Skafte Jensen, too, appreciates the multi-dimensional dynamism of oral epic poetry. Epic poems “are so sophisticated,” she argues in Writing Homer, “because they were orally composed” (my emphasis, 213). They reflect the efforts of multiple minds over many years to engage myriad other minds through countless performances of thoughtful narratives with memorable but ever-evolving protagonists. There is a depth of collective intellectual effort in the creation of traditional epics—a complexity of thought, feeling and moral reflection—that is unmatched even by the genius of early authors writing in their own studies from their own limited perspectives. Such communally generated thought over time, Skafte Jensen argues, is even more profound than the work of a single poet such as Homer himself was imagined to be in antiquity. The figure of Homer personifies innumerable such performers thinking aloud in story form in front of live audiences year after year, at festival after festival, competing with other poets and interacting face-to-face with diverse gatherings of people on whom they depended for mutual understanding and appreciative response. But even that complexity of thought and expression would have been chaff in the wind without a purposeful intervention, a process which Skafte Jensen demonstrates is the case in virtually every other record of oral tradition in modern times as well, including Reichl’s own Edige. In other words, textualization is a special “performance” of oral epic, one not only more deliberate and durable, but also frequently expanded, polished and “curated” to achieve a form that is eminently “interpretable” in both the senses that Reichl has articulated: (1) as a text to be read for its “message” or meaning, and (2) as an imaginatively recreated experience of the lost world of oral tradition—a revival, however incomplete, of Foley’s “immanent art.” The quiet reader of Homer or of Beowulf can still listen in the silence of the written word to the voiceless singer of tales.