The genre of epic storytelling in a pretextual society tends to focus on heroes and quests and glory. The “Homeric World” is an era before literacy: “The world where bards sing the fame of heroes and celebrate the actions of war is not a literate world—and the dichotomy between cultural education through heroic songs and the cultivation of civilized literacy is not accidental. Epic poems have nothing to do with poetry in the literary, or written, sense. They have everything to do with a closely knit band of people trying to preserve their spirit by passing on songs of idealized heroic action” (Heim 52).
The system of production in oral storytelling is one that has only recently been understood: previously, it was easier to generalize and assume that stories of that era were masterminded efforts of genius creators in the same way literary texts are understood as being produced. However, classical studies has revealed the existence of a fundamental system beneath these works as they looked for an explanation for great similarities between the works of Homer and the works of other less acknowledged storytellers. A new understanding has been reached: “We now know that densely plotted, encyclopedic works like the Illiad and the Odyssey were produced not by a single creative genius but by the collective effort of an oral storytelling culture that employed a highly formulaic narrative system…which relies on what we in a literate era devalue as repetition, redundancy, and cliché, devices for patterning languages into units that make it easier for bards to memorize and recall” (Murray 188). In essence, these works rely on a system of rules, clichés, and precedents that all individual storytellers and creators are working within their own production process.
Why is this model so troubling to a student of literature in a traditional context? Murray documents this resentment on the part of critics: “In the 1930s, Greek scholars were distressed when literary analysis revealed that Homer (and other epic preliterate poets) created through a process that involved fitting stock phrases and formulaic narrative units together. Critics at that time resisted the thought that the great artist Homer was not original in the same way that modern print-based writers are expected to be” (Murray 153). In large part the difficulty arises from the literary model of “The Author,” a figure of imposing intellect and genius who is behind the production process of every creative text. In works in the oral tradition, it is easy to try and assign the role of author to a perceived primary speaker. However, speech does not exist for all practical purposes without an audience: “…in speech we tend to react to each situation that occurs, reacting in tone and gesture even to our own act of speaking. But writing tends to be a kind of separate or specialist action in which there is little opportunity or call for reaction. The literate man or society develops the tremendous power of acting in any matter with considerable detachment from the feelings or emotional involvement that a nonliterate man or society would experience” (McLuhan 79). Works of writing are thus more easily understood as the process of the lone genius, whereas works of speech can only be experienced as part of a collective—feedback and participation are built into the model. They must be understood as part of a group dynamic and tradition. These are stories for consumption and public participatory gatherings, not stories meant to be consumed while sitting alone by the fireplace. There is similarly no expectation of originality: the speaker is drawing upon established tradition and reproducing it to fit his audience and context.
Understanding the rules that govern the oral tradition requires first acknowledging the rule of the ear. What is spoken must be memorable to be powerful. Familiar mythical frameworks and cliché offer the oral tradition the objects for manipulation. Everything is planned for recall: “In the state of mind of an orally based culture, significant language is memorable language, and memorable language is characterized by highly emphatic acoustic shapes, by clearly etched and simple images, by a style of (nonliterate) composition that employs music for the ear and parallels for mnemonic recall” (Heim 53). Thus, stories will by necessity take a certain form, the hero will go on his journey, the same gods and epic monsters will wreak havoc on his path, the same message of victory and loyalty and the return home will be echoed over and over again. Can these stories be seen as both rules governed and original?
Heim, Michael. Electric Language: A Philosophical Study of Word Processing. Yale University Press: New Haven, 1987.
McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA, 1964.
Murray, Janet H. Hamlet on the Holodeck, The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace. The Free Press: New York, 1997.