restricted access Introduction and Tabula Gratulatoria
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Introduction and Tabula Gratulatoria

Tamo bez njeg’ hoda ne imade.

Our journey there is impossible without him.

adapted from The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey (Foley 2004:line 412)

For John Miles Foley, oral tradition has always been about the journey—for scholars and teachers as well as for verbal artists and their audiences—and as he himself puts it in Immanent Art, “long journeys are also the most pleasant and the most rewarding” (1991:ix). The important role of such travel is perhaps referred to most explicitly in his recent work, The Pathways Project, which through its very title explores the “thought technologies” of oral tradition and electronic communication as complex navigation systems with infinitely variable routes; however, the metaphor of a journey to conceptualize scholarly work and even the verbal arts we study—never static, always in motion—has characterized his work for decades. Scholarship itself a journey, Milman Parry’s and Albert Lord’s influential work was described as “pathbreaking” (Foley 1995:xiv), and John Foley’s earliest goals for extending this path were cast in terms of a road for travel: “I hope to have succeeded in telling the tale pravo (straightforwardly) and not krivo (crookedly, falsely), as the South Slavic guslari would say” (1988:xiv). Later, as part of his unceasing effort to pave the way for oral traditions to be studied more readily in the classroom, he envisioned his edited Teaching Oral Traditions volume as “an avenue into the study of oral traditions” (1998b:1). And, of course, even the storytellers themselves can be understood in terms of their narrative voyage, such as is the case for the ancient Greek bard who “navigates through the maze of traditional story” (1998a:20).

In honor of John’s 65th birthday and his recent retirement (though a retirement largely in name only), the current surprise special issue of Oral Tradition celebrates and continues this journey among the world’s widely diverse oral traditions through a series of essays contributed entirely by his former and current students. Collectively, the essays that follow explore ancient Greek, Old English, Middle English, Latin, South Slavic, Old Irish, modern Irish, Old Norse, and Hungarian traditions as well as issues related to Biblical Studies, modern media, rhetoric, folk speech, occupational humor, pedagogy, ethnopoetics, and eighteenth-century British literature. Seldom do the students of any given scholar work in such a wide array of fields, and one might well wonder how a single mentor could inspire and influence research across such a diverse range of subjects. But as a starting point for understanding this phenomenon, it seems best to begin by turning toward a pair of traditions held most dear by John himself.

First, we have the South Slavic proverb that appears above as an epigraph to this introduction. Taken from The Wedding of Mustajbey’s Son Bećirbey, a traditional Moslem oral epic performed by Halil Bajgorić in 1935 and then translated by Foley as part of his award-winning edition in 2004, this proverb is spoken by the character Mustajbey and works to anticipate the essential role that Tale of Orašac will play in the requisite military campaign leading up to the wedding of Bećirbey to Zlata.1 As a “larger-than-life trickster figure” (Foley 2004:40), Tale is revered as a hero despite—and, to a certain extent, because of—his unconventional and unpredictable ways of presenting himself and handling challenging situations. Whereas his horsemen wear sterling silver and gold, Tale himself spurns impractical grandiosity, dressing in goatskin trousers and employing as his weapon of choice a simple “nail-studded walking stick” (line 693). The horses of more conventional warriors may carry grand and stately weaponry themselves, but Tale’s dun-colored horse is more accustomed to carrying flour-meal on his back. And as the perfect witness to Tale’s defiance of any easy stereotype, his standard-bearer aptly rides backward and carries an upside-down standard. Yet in spite of Tale’s seemingly counter-heroic behavior and demeanor, he is still recognized upon his arrival as a hero (junak, line 457). Indeed it is...