The men of Britain are stymied. Having crossed over the Irish Sea to rescue their king’s sister and to punish the Irish for having treated her cruelly, the British expedition, led by their gigantic king Bendigeidfran (“Blessed Raven”), finds that the Irish have retreated across an unnavigable river over which there are no bridges. The Britons ask Bendigeidfran (translated in Ford 1977:67; Middle Welsh text in Thomson 1961:11):
“What do you advise for a bridge?” “Nothing, except that he who is chief shall be a bridge.” Then was first uttered that saying, and it has become proverbial. And then after he had lain down across the river, planks were placed across him, and his hosts went over-across him.
I propose that this episode from the twelfth-century Welsh prose composition known as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (specifically, from the Second Branch) gives us much to think about as we undertake the pleasurable task of paying tribute to a pioneer in the study of oral tradition— and not just because John and his reputation, like Bendigeidfran, are so much larger than life. (I hope that in comparing him to a Welsh nemesis of the Irish I am not offending John’s Gaelic ancestors.)
This passage exemplifies a trait of authors working in a milieu highly attuned to the performative background of an evolving literary tradition—the kind of milieu that produced compositions such as the Four Branches of the Mabinogi (a point made by Sioned Davies in her important 1992 contribution to Oral Tradition). Such authors are often very eager to trace the history of traditionally stabilized items, such as proverbs, back to a primal moment when they “happened” for the first time. Running on the mythological fuel of the character who says it, Bendigeidfran’s verbal reaction to an unusual circumstance fast-forwards into the present as a set expression that people living and speaking long after the time of Bendigeidfran still quote and apply to a variety of quotidian contexts. The fortunate audience of the Second Branch are imaginatively ushered by its composer back to the “there” of a primeval world where giants ruled, and where it is possible to listen in as a proverb is coined and achieves currency. (Stefan Zimmer’s 2003 study further explores the pedigree of this “leader as bridge” metaphor.)
Following traditional forms back to the world of their originating mothers and fathers happens to be a reflexive preoccupation not only of the early and medieval literary traditions that self-consciously grew out of and alongside oral tradition. The desire to recover that primal conception still informing an ongoing process also underlies the efforts of folklorists and other toilers in the field of oral tradition studies. With his pioneering historical and bibliographical work John has set out for posterity the fruits of these studies in all their diversity and richness, making it all the more possible for us to appreciate both the deep roots in the past and the expanding future of scholarship on oral composition, performance, and transmission.
On another front, we have gained immeasurably from the comparative work John has done on the authorizing strategy familiar to us from pre-modern literatures and fieldwork reports—the syndrome whereby a tradition attributes a text, or a storyteller or performer attributes all part or part of his/her repertoire, to a spatially or temporally distant mentor. As a Celticist, I cannot resist mentioning in this regard the scenario attested in both medieval Irish literature and conversations collectors have had with Gaelic storytellers whereby the aged shanachie expresses regret that the scholar in search of traditional material had not come to interview him before his memory had grown rusty, or in time to speak with another tradition-bearer, even more knowledgeable than the shanachie, but no longer alive.
Having invoked one kind of deferral topos, I now resort to another, the application of which John’s unusual productivity amply justifies. Where can one start to account for all that he has done for oral tradition studies? Like the overarching Bendigeidfran, John has overcome disciplinary and linguistic boundaries and led us into previously unknown territory, dramatically...