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Challenges in Comparative Oral Epic
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Introduction (by Chao Gejin, November 2012)

The present paper was composed by the late John Miles Foley and myself more than ten years ago, during the time I held a postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Missouri granted by the Ford Foundation. We met frequently on campus, discussing issues covering a wide range of topics, especially oral epic traditions. During these conversations, we recognized the need to write something in response to significant challenges in epic studies that would illustrate the richness and diversity of epic traditions in particular. With these goals in mind, we started to work on this piece together two or three afternoons each week throughout the summer of 2001, sitting side by side, composing paragraph by paragraph, and incorporating examples and scholarship from our respective experiences and backgrounds. We moved forward steadily and eventually fulfilled our plan. A Chinese version of this article appeared in 2003 in a collection of papers focusing especially on Oriental Literature.1 At the time, it provoked reflections on basic dimensions of epic poetry and, furthermore, facilitated multiple ways of understanding epic, moving beyond a purely Homeric criterion of epic poetry.

At a personal level as well as professional, I highly regard this paper because it reflects both our long-term friendship and our common interests. John made his first trip to China soon after I returned to Beijing. He delivered lectures in our institute, conducted field trips to Inner Mongolia, and visited a number of scholars working on related research. As a result of these early collaborations, his own compositions began to include additional Mongolian examples, such as the singers Choibang and Losor, among others. From then on, he visited China regularly. He was the first speaker to initiate the yearly “IEL International Seminar Series on Epic Studies and Oral Tradition Research,” and he held appointments within the Institute of Ethnic Literature, most notably as chief advisor of the “Center for Oral Tradition Research.”

It was a great misfortune that our newly designed program on oral tradition and the Internet with partners in Missouri, Helsinki, and Beijing was interrupted by John’s unexpected absence. Still, the blueprint of this international program will be followed and fulfilled without a doubt. His cutting-edge thoughts will continue to shed light on our explorations. In Mongolian epic tradition a true Baatar (“hero”) would never truly pass away. John is, by any measure, just such a Baatar, and he, too, shall be with us forever.

An Overview of the Study

In this paper we propose to examine some fundamental issues in comparative oral epic. Our investigation will proceed across four epic traditions widely separated in space and time. Two of them, the Mongolian and South Slavic epic, are or were recently still living and therefore observable by fieldworkers. The other two, the ancient Greek and Old English epic traditions, are preserved only in manuscript form. Although no comparative treatment can ever claim to be exhaustive or universal, we feel that these four witnesses represent considerable diversity and collectively offer a chance to forge a suitably nuanced model for oral epic. We welcome responses from scholars in other fields, especially Africanists, as we all search for ways to understand the international phenomenon of oral epic.2

In order to provide a clear path through this complex subject, we propose a five-section structure, with each section keyed by a question that reflects an issue of contemporary importance. Thus the paper will begin by asking “What is a poem in oral epic tradition?” Scholars have argued from many different perspectives about the large-scale organization of oral epic; are the smaller tales integral parts of a single whole, facets of a single gemstone, or simply individual narratives that collectors have assembled into “anthologies” based on a literary model? On a slightly smaller scale, we will then consider the question of “What is a typical scene or theme in oral epic tradition?” The focus here will be on those recurrent passages, such as the arming of a hero or the boast before battle, that epic bards use as “large words” in their tale-telling vocabulary. How are they configured in each tradition and what kinds of flexibility...


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