Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry

Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry

Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry

Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry

Synopsis

Oral epic poetry is still performed by Turkic singers in Central Asia. On trips to the region, Karl Reichl collected heroic poems from the Uzbek, Kazakh, and Karakalpak oral traditions. Through a close analysis of these Turkic works, he shows that they are typologically similar to heroic poetry in Old English, Old High German, and Old French and that they can offer scholars new insights into the oral background of these medieval texts. Reichl draws on his research in Central Asia to discuss questions regarding performance as well as the singers' training, role in society, and repertoire. He asserts that heroic poetry and epic are primarily concerned with the interpretation of the past in song: the courageous deeds of ancestors, the search for tribal and societal roots, and the definition and transmission of cultural values. Reichl finds that in these traditions the heroic epic is part of a generic system that includes historical and eulogistic poetry as well as heroic lays, a view that has diachronic implications for medieval poetry. Singing the Past reminds readers that because much medieval poetry was composed for oral recitation, both the Turkic and the medieval heroic poems must always be appreciated as poetry in performance, as sound listened to, as words spoken or sung.

Excerpt

Gregory Nagy

Karl Reichl's Singing the Past: Turkic and Medieval Heroic Poetry forces a radical reassessment of the history of literature in medieval Europe. This book compares European poetic forms, as preserved in medieval manuscripts, with a dazzling variety of corresponding poetic forms surviving in the living oral traditions of the Kirghiz, Kazakhs, Karakalpaks, Uzbeks, Uighurs, and other Turkic peoples of Central Asia. Reichl's detailed comparisons add up to an inevitable overall argument: the genres of medieval European literature, including forms of “high art” conventionally linked with Classical epic poetry, derive from vernacular oral traditions as well as post-Classical literary traditions.

Reichl's argumentation, combining internal analysis with comparative methodology, continues where Milman Parry and Albert Lord left off. Parry analyzed the ancient text of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey as evidence for a pre- existing poetic system, which he then compared with the living poetic systems of the South Slavic oral traditions in the former Yugoslavia, collecting more than 12,500 texts of live performances from 1933 to 1935. After Parry's premature death in 1935, the continuation of his comparative work was left to his student Albert Lord, who went on to write a definitive account in The Singer of Tales (Harvard University Press, 1960; 2000 edition, with new introduction by Stephen Mitchell and Gregory Nagy). Lord's book lays down a fundamental challenge to all readers of European literature when he announces, at the very beginning of his Foreword: “This book is about Homer. He is our Singer of Tales. Yet in a larger sense, he represents all singers of tales from time immemorial and unrecorded to the present. Our book is about these other singers as well.”

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