The Singer of Tales.

Author:Foley, John Miles
Position:Book review

The Singer of Tales. By Albert B. Lord. Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature, vol. 24. 2nd ed. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2000. Pp. xxxvii + 307, CD including audio and video recordings, introduction by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy)

In 1949 Albert Bates Lord defended a dissertation entitled "The Singer of Tales" before the Department of Comparative Literature at Harvard University. The title came from the few surviving pages of a study planned by his mentor Milman Parry before the latter's untimely death in 1935, but the result was a significant extension of that blueprint. Although it would still be eleven years before the thesis saw print in 1960, it sparked the introduction of the so-called "Oral Theory" of Parry and steered Lord to Old English poetry via a 1953 article entitled "The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry" authored by one of Lord's dissertation advisors, Francis P. Magoun, Jr.

This is but one example (as far as I know the earliest) of the prodigious influence exerted on world literature studies by The Singer of Tales, which by any measure must be recognized as one of the twentieth century's most enduring works of research and scholarship in the humanities. The initiative began with Parry's groundbreaking analyses of the texts of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and with his deduction that their repetitive, formulaic phraseology was symptomatic of their traditional heritage and their transmission by a long series of bards over many centuries. His hypothesis of traditional heritage soon evolved into a double hypothesis of tradition linked with oral performance, as Parry began to re-create what he believed to be not just the character but the actual presentational medium of the Iliad and Odyssey.

Not content with these bold but textually derived hypotheses, Parry then sought to prove them by analogy in the living laboratory of South Slavic oral epic, to which his own mentor Antoine Meillet and the Slavic philologist Matija Murko had alerted him. The next step entailed a fieldwork project in the former Yugoslavia, undertaken with the assistance of Lord and Nikola Vujnovic in the mid-1930's, during which they recorded acoustically and by dictation dozens of mostly preliterate guslari (bards) who sang epics that often reached thousands of lines in length. Parry and Lord returned from the former Yugoslavia in 1935 with a "half-ton of epic" on large aluminum disks and in notebooks, an...

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