Man, Muse, and Story: Psychohistorical Patterns in Oral Epic Poetry
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Early studies of oral epic literature, that is, of epic literature composed without the aid of writing within a continuous tradition of some antiquity, focused quite logically and understandably on the somewhat mysterious mechanics of a totally unfamiliar process. Scholars strained at the intellectual bit in an effort to explain how this only quasi-literary phenomenon of letterless composition--which seemed even to defy the etymology of "literature" from Latin littera or letter--could have come about, how this practice of oral poem-making could have been carried on throughout the long and unremitting Dark Ages before the advent of alphabets and writing materials. Fieldwork in Yugoslavia and elsewhere has provided some notion of the mechanics involved, and analytical techniques have exposed aspects of particular kinds of structures we have come to know as "oral." Much more and more careful analysis is yet to be done as we begin to understand that oral literature is, if anything, more complex and varied than its written heir, so that the romantic notion of two entirely discrete worlds--the primitive "oral" and the sophisticated "lettered" --is every day less accurate. What is more, we are starting to absorb the remarkable truth that not just some but all literary traditions begin with an oral phase that customarily dwarfs the written phase in its longevity.
Oral Tradition, 2/1 (1987): 91-107.
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