Fables of the Ancients?: Folklore in the Qur'an. By Alan Dundee. (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2003. Pp. xiv + 89, preface, acknowledgments, bibliography, index. $19.95 paper)
In "Form and Matter in the Publication of Research," R. B. McKerrow (1877-1940) speculated on "whether the fate of 'English studies' may not eventually be to be smothered in a kind of woolly and impenetrable fog of wordiness that few or none will be bothered to penetrate" (116). For the humanities, which accompanied "English studies" into the fog, McKerrow's prediction has long since come to pass. Among folklorists, practitioners of Harvard's tribal religion of Oral Formulaicism write mystifying prose. Under these circumstances, those of us who struggled to learn English as adults will find the late Alan Dundes's clear, concise, and intelligent prose in an essay that addresses oral-formulaic theory a pleasure to read. Naturally, we may disagree with his views, but all would agree that he has a remarkable ability to present complex issues lucidly and with elegance without losing any of their intricacy in the process. Fables of the Ancients ?: Folklore in the Qur'an, bears the unmistakable mark of his erudition and style.
Appearing on the heels of his Holy Writ as Oral Lit (1999), which considered folklore in the Bible, Dundes's Fables of the Ancients'? is devoted to the study of folklore in the Qur'an. The introductory chapter explains to the uninitiated what the Qur'an is and presents a brief but useful history of Islam's sacred text and of Muslims' account of its revelation and compilation into a coherent whole. The second chapter, "Oral-Formulaic Theory," introduces the reader to the well-traveled theory of oral composition and suggests that it may be profitably applied to the Qur'an. (This is the most uneven chapter of the book, and I shall return to it below.) Chapter three, "Oral Formulas in the Qur'an," lists many examples of formulaic expression in Islam's holy book. Dundes justifies his having drawn these from an English concordance to the Qur'an rather than from the Arabic text by pointing out that the Qur'anic formulas can survive not only translation from Arabic into English, but also different translators' approaches and styles (24). In this he is correct, though the text in its original Arabic would have provided a richer body of material. In the fourth chapter, "Folktales in the Qur'an," Dundes points out the presence in the Qur'an of A-T 766, "The Seven Sleepers," (55-58), and of 759, "God's Justice Vindicated" (59- 62). He also suggests that the Qur'anic passage in which an ant advises his fellows to hide in their formicary lest they be trampled by Solomon's soldiers (27:16-19), may have its source in A-T 670, "The Animal Language." (In making this suggestion, however, my learned mentor is no longer reasoning but free associating. The three criteria of "identity," as set forth by Krohn in chapter 15 of his Folklore Methodology [130-131], are far more stringent than what Dundes applies here.)
To return to the problematic discussion of oral formulaics in chapter two: Dundes, who gives an excellent summary of what this theory is, is correct about the existence of formulaic repetitions in the Qur'an. But his claim that "oral-formulaic theory could be usefully applied to any genre, oral or, for that matter, even written, in which identifiable formulas are found" (20) is unreasonable, casting such a wide net as to make the very notion meaningless. I agree that one may engage in studies of formulaic discourse in such written genres as "book reviews, obituary notices, personal want ads, and various types of letters, such as letters of condolence and letters of recommendation" (20), but that would be researching "formulaic discourse," not "oral formulas." Oral formulas facilitate the work of an oral poet who recomposes his traditional narrative under pressure to produce quickly during performance. But those who work with pen and paper are not constrained by time and immediacy. …