Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature

By Nagy, Joseph Falaky | Western Folklore, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature


Nagy, Joseph Falaky, Western Folklore


Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature. By John D. Niles. (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999. Pp. 280, photographs, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00 cloth)

Young scholars of folklore planning to undertake academic careers would do well to look to this book for a useful example of how it is possible to ply the folkloristic craft while contributing to firmly entrenched academic disciplines that offer employment even in lean times. In Homo Narrans Niles, currently a Professor of English at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, deftly fortifies his reputation as a triple threat, engaging in literary criticism, folkloristics, and medieval studies (specifically, the study of Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon culture). The thesis of the work, consisting to a significant degree of previously published material, is that the study of living storytellers and their traditions (such as Niles's work on and with Duncan Williamson and other Scottish storytellers and singers) not only has intrinsic worth, but also can give Anglo-Saxonists as well as students of other early and medieval literatures unique insights into old texts that are indebted to, even if not actually derived from, oral tradition. As Niles readily admits, this is hardly news to folklorists or even to literary scholars familiar with the epochal work of Parry, Lord, and their successors. The thesis, however, is argued here so enthusiastically and elegantly that the reader, no matter how jaded, is likely to emerge reinvigorated by that enthusiasm, and with confidence restored in a battery of tried and true ideas to apply and test the next time Beowulf, Homer, or some other venerable classic of supposedly literary tradition comes into view.

The first chapter, "Making Connections," argues for the intellectual value of alternating Scottish travellers with Anglo-Saxon poets, oral tradition as studied by folklorists with the written heritage left by medieval cultures, and poetics (identifying the principles underlying stylized verbal communication) with anthropology (determining the social functions of such communication). "My aim," Niles proclaims, "is to ask what form oral narrative takes, and what work it does in the world, and how" (30). The following chapter, "Somatic Communication," speaks of stories as fundamental to the human condition-as providing "the houses we live in" (64)-and of storytelling in terms of performance, ritual, and relation. Chapter Three, "Poetry as Social Praxis," turns its attention primarily to an analysis of what purposes the Old English poem Beowulf, as an act of storytelling, might have served for its Anglo-Saxon audience and/or readership. The functions adumbrated include the ludic, sapiential, normative, constitutive, socially cohesive, and adaptive. The ambiguously titled fourth chapter, "Oral Poetry Acts" deals primarily with the act of committing some semblance of oral tradition to writing, and with the cultural reasons that probably lay behind Anglo-Saxon scribes' acting oral, or performers' acting literary. Chapter Five, "Beowulf as Ritualized Discourse," continues along these lines, making the case for a relatively late date (the tenth century) for the composition and textualization of the poem. …

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