Textualization of Oral Epics

Textualization of Oral Epics

Textualization of Oral Epics

Textualization of Oral Epics


The book will focus on the textualization process of long oral epics, found today mainly outside Europe, especially on their oral composition, documentation, codification in writing, editing and publication. Interesting fieldwork-based studies on living oral epics are able to inform us about the problems of textualization in a way which will also interest scholars studying long-dead epic traditions such as Homer, Beowulf, Nibelungenlied, Edda, etc. The problem of textualization has been vividly discussed in recent years in anthropology, folkloristics, literary studies, philology and linguistics. The book will open an ethnographic angle on the discussion on how long epics are composed and used in a variety of cultural contexts.


The task of textualizing oral epics in writing is a mission impossible. Oral performance cannot be captured in letters and words. Too many essential features are simply left aside in the written codification of a speech event which normally employs a wide array of paralinguistic means of expression from gesture to music. Even the most meticulous notation of all dimensions of the original oral performance does not reflect the intertextual construc- tion of meaning, the core process of reception, manifest before the eyes of the outside observer but not seen by him because of a lack of traditional knowledge. The potential of the oral epic performance to open up several channels of communication simultaneously and mould the shared tradition into a novel experience packed with relevance for the participants has been largely underestimated or neglected.

The written codification of oral expression creates a kind of epic different from that experienced by the original audience. The route from an “incom- plete and unfinished” oral epic manifest in performance to a complete written codification of its story manifest in a book does not, however, represent a process of decay but an intersemiotic translation. The focus on oral verbali- zation may be said to liberate the oral form in an important dimension, namely, the language. What we get is a new coherence of the story, a full exploitation of the local epic register through the vision of preferably one singer utilizing his/her epic idiolect and interpretive skill. The miracle of the process is that what we experience as literary value or beauty is there in the original oral textualization and is merely magnified, not created, in the written codification. The linguistic power of the oral genre becomes accen- tuated in the new non-oral form capable of living on as a piece of literature proper.

These facts have dawned on epic scholars only recently. The present vol- ume reflects the awakening among top epic scholars, a process of new under- standing taking place slowly along converging routes and with slightly dif- ferent emphases. The days are past when a scholar sought for a “master form” by combining elements from different singers of epics, sometimes from different regions and eras, too. Such composite texts were in danger of gliding outside the local poetic system. Their connection to sung performance was lost or skewed. The reaction of modern scholarship has been to stay as close to the oral rendition of an “epic text” as possible and to listen carefully to the poet’s voice. In practice, this has led to an emphasis on the singer’s vision as a unifying force in the sequencing of traditional elements and his/her con- struction of meaning for the epic.

The new demands for accuracy and open reporting on methods in field documentation are a corollary of the source-critical concern, especially when . . .

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