Craig Davis, Smith College

title.none: Clark, Theme in Oral Epic

identifier.other: baj9928.9611.014 96.11.14

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Craig Davis, Smith College,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 1996

identifier.citation: Clark, Francelia Mason. Theme in Oral Epic and in Beowulf. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995. Pp. xxxvi, 252. $75. ISBN: ISBN 0-8153-1874-x.

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: Bryn Mawr Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 96.11.14

Clark, Francelia Mason. Theme in Oral Epic and in Beowulf. New York & London: Garland Publishing Inc., 1995. Pp. xxxvi, 252. $75. ISBN: ISBN 0-8153-1874-x.

Reviewed by:

Craig Davis, Smith College

Milman Parry, whose studies are gathered in The Making of Homeric Verse (1971), and Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales (1960), proposed an influential theory of the oral-formulaic composition of traditional epics based upon their recording and analysis of South Slavic Muslim heroic poetry. John M. Foley, as editor of the journal Oral Tradition and the author of many studies of his own, has assumed leadership in the field and encouraged application of the theory to the study of many other oral traditions beyond the original triumvirate of Homeric, Serbo-Croatian and Old English epic (primarily Beowulf). Foley's recent contribution, Immanent Art: From Structure to Meaning in Traditional Oral Epic (1991), assesses the current state of oral-traditional studies and suggests a change of emphasis in future work from the formal structures of oral composition to the reception of these structures in performative context. This reader, who honors the work of these important scholars, was grateful to learn some details of the sad loss of Milman Parry at the age of 33, often alluded to in the works of others. Clark, however, tells this story with a puzzling defensiveness: "The Balkans of that time, somewhat as today, were known to be dangerous lands. In 1935, as he was packing for another collecting trip, Parry suffered a fatal accident when his pistol, essential equipment, discharged and killed him" (xi). Albert Lord, founder of the series to which Clark's study belongs and its particular dedicatee, is explicitly heroicized:

"Gazija" is a South Slavic Arabic term for leader, / connoting hero.... It is worth remembering that to tell / Albert Lord's story is to tell of one who studied the / poetic making of "gazije" and was himself a kind of / "gazija", in his life and work. (xii)

Further, in 36 pages of introductory formatting, the editors and author frame, one might even say "traditionalize," the substance of Clark's 1978 University of Michigan doctoral dissertation, Theme in Beowulf and in the Oral Epic The Song of Bagdad, according to the paradigms of scholarly hagiography and conversion narrative. Clark's own place in this worthy lineage is presented as a prodigal's return. Her dissertation, she says, was intended as a hostile critique of Lord's definition of theme in oral epic and an attempt "to disprove Lord's theory that Beowulf contained themes similar to those of South Slavic epic and was thus orally composed" (xii). But Lord took a friendly interest in Clark's critique and, after many years of communication with him before his death, she offers the present study as a "reconception" of her original argument and a homeward return to "theme as Lord saw it": "elusive as Lord's definition of theme is, the sound concept of it gives the greatest access to traditional narratives I have found" (xii). In addition, Clark has now shifted her concern from demonstrating that Beowulf could not have been orally composed according to Lord's criteria to something like the reverse: that it could have been so composed as long as we move to a concept of oral theme as Lord was developing it. Lord himself, we are assured, was still in the process of revising his thinking on this subject and it is the spirit of that revision, rather than its letter, that Clark wishes to invoke. Then, after this long introduction, the study itself is set off, rather unusually, by a second, separate title page. It is as if we are entering the precincts of an ancient thesis with a thoroughly revised guidebook, one now anxious to make us see very differently what we might have thought we saw before.

I will admit to some uneasiness at this point in my reading and I paused to formulate several questions to myself before I finally ducked my head and went in. (1) What does Clark consider the "sound concept" of oral theme to be and is it really consistent with Lord's own definition? (2) What unparalleled understanding and appreciation of traditional narratives (what I gather Clark means by "greatest access") is afforded by the firm grasp of this elusive concept? And (3) how does this new understanding of theme make the oral composition of Beowulf a good possibility?

Even in his latest, posthumously published work, The Singer Resumes the Tale (1995), Lord still insisted, as Clark notes, that some verbal repetition is necessary for the reproduction of an oral theme (xxxiv), though what constitutes verbal repetition has been loosened from precise formulaic phrasing common to the Homeric and Serbo-Croatian poems to the more subtle resonance of certain verbal roots in the Old English. Clark seems at first to accept, but clearly does not completely relish, even this loosened verbal stricture, being far more interested in the way recurrent narrative patterns are used with fresh meaning in different contexts. For Clark, similarities of structure are interesting precisely because their presence reveals, ever the more sharply, the contextual variation of meaning:

Forms repeat, but meanings change continually. ...Scenes / may reappear, containing repeating structures of many / kinds....[T]his repetition is used--to show / sameness in some degree and change in other degrees. / ...Meaning, however, is consistently elusive, even within / the art of one culture. We can get meaning in sight as we / explore context ever more closely, but still it moves on / just ahead of us. ...If we have close context and the / benefit of insiders, then analysis by theme can help us / look toward where meaning may lie. It can do so by / aligning similar narrative contexts, actions, results, and / changes. ...We can see the pattern and see the changes but / cannot definitively conclude what those changes mean. / (Clark's emphasis, 215-16)

The great value of Lord's theory of theme, then, is "heuristic." It "must be extrapolated, as Lord himself came to illustrate. His insistence on the term 'repeated' for what he found in Beowulf finally drops away in importance beside what his concept can show" (224). The movement of Lord's thought as he attempted to accommodate the practice of different traditions is the principle which Clark appreciates: it gives us "the latitude to look for what does recur in epics at narrative level," even though "[n]ot all oral epic narratives base upon [verbal] repetition" (her emphasis, 224). In short, the "sound concept" of oral theme for Clark is simply that certain narrative forms repeat themselves, but always for new purposes and with different effects. For Clark, the very fact that a pattern is noticed is good enough to mark it as a theme whose value, in any case, is to signal departure from the perceived norm, that difference being the springboard to the intimation of fresh meaning. And while Lord's other disciple, John Foley, sees the function of the repetition, both verbal and structural, to be profoundly conservative-- the very means by which the whole moral and aesthetic universe of the tradition is reified and made imminent in the sensibility of the participant (as the title of his recent book suggests)--Clark sees the function of the repetition to be far more dynamic, progressive and indeterminate, a constant adaptation and manipulation of traditional forms for complex purposes and effects. The old vessels are not brimming with vintage, they are overflowing with new wine. In terms of the framing narrative of this study, then, we can see that Foley is still the good son of Lord, Clark still the prodigal daughter, one who may have come home to visit, but did not come home to stay. Her pietas is sincere, but also equivocal and cooptive: a fond appreciation, not a true reconciliation.

Does her extrapolated concept of Lord's theme provide the superlative access to traditional narratives promised? It is certainly an important principle to bear in mind, as long as one realizes that Clark also sees it as the key to the apperception of life in general:

We might remember that repetition, after all, is a / principle basic to human understanding as we know it in / our own culture. We see it in earliest learning, in / cognition, in coherence; we know it in religious ceremony. / Repetition and its echoes in recurrence inform our / perception of fine arts: visual design, painting, dance, / music, theater performance. Aesthetic pleasure in the new / and in the superior stem from it. Perhaps we should not / be surprised to find it so regularly informing the art of / epic narrative. It is Fijian epic, with the aid of / insiders, that brings our own repetitions and our trances / to mind. (215)

This latter point is a reference to a discussion on pages 193-200 of repetitive structures in Fijian oral epic, used as a demonstration of the fact that such repetition is not just a phenomenon of European epics or of western cultural forms and expectations. What Clark means by "our trances" eludes me. In fact, one wonders whether such general observations are really all that necessary or useful, which consideration raises a more pressing question: why have Lord and other oralists been so reluctant to relinquish precise and demonstrable verbal resonance in the reproduction of oral theme? Why do they think it matters so? I suspect it is because some sort of verbal formulism as a principle of oral composition and reception is the only thing that really distinguishes oral theme from any other kind of theme, particularly the literary allusion. Narrative motifs and type-scenes penetrate virtually every barrier imaginable: oral/literary, verse/prose, myth/ritual, plastic/verbal, those between registers of social prestige, between languages, between cultures. Specialized metrical patterning, poetic diction and precise phrasal formulism are perhaps the only features of an oral tradition which give it its particularity and distinctiveness, although it is not impossible to imagine that even such verbal forms could be grasped and imitated by a literate, writing poet, as is still sometimes argued with regard to Beowulf.

The third question I brought to my reading of Clark's study, then, is why she is now happy to contemplate Beowulf as an oral poem. This one is easy. If we no longer insist upon precise verbal repetition as an indication of orality, the presence or absence of such repetition becomes irrelevant to the identification of oral theme. Beowulf can now be oral because it can now be anything, whether purely literary, merely imitative of oral-traditional style, the transcript of a special dictation, or any other permutation we might want to imagine. This is why Lord and others have held out so long for some verbal component in the recurrent story-pattern: without it, the oral/literary frontier upon which they have based so much of their work evaporates. The comprehensive, resonant, holistic universe of the immanent oral tradition falls into the fragmented secular world of individuated authorship, complex audience response and interpretive contingency. Clark's extrapolation of Lord's oral theme collapses the cognitive and aesthetic divide so assiduously cultivated by loyal oralists. Is she wrong to do so? Well, there are such things as oral traditions, though they are almost unrecoverable in their pure form since the very circumstances of recording have a serious impact on the way in which the tradition is preserved. There is such a thing as literary invention, though oralists sometimes seem to forget that authorial creativity almost always occurs in its own highly coded artistic tradition with its own generative forms. Clearly there are distances between oral tradition and literary authorship, but perhaps no impermeable frontiers. These troubled border-lands are still being mapped and, in that effort, the oral-traditionalists have nobly taken the lead. For those of us who have always valued their contributions, but have also sometimes felt unclear about the claims made for the special world of oral tradition--and who have especially disliked invidious or unfair distinctions between the oral and the literary coming from both camps--Clark's study is refreshing. She is right to honor her scholarly heroes, right to challenge their conclusions. The weakness of her study is that she now wants to obscure rather than clarify the significance of that challenge.