- The Silent Debate Over the Igor Tale
The Igor Tale, or Slovo o polku Igoreve, is the only epic tale of its kind to reach us from the Kievan period. It celebrates a military campaign undertaken in 1185 by a minor Russian prince, Igor Sviatoslavich, against the Polovtsy, or Kumans, the perennial steppe foe of Rus’ at that time. Igor was defeated and captured, but he later managed to escape and return home. The tale survived in a single manuscript that evidently dated from the sixteenth century. It was published in 1800, about a decade after it was discovered, but the manuscript itself was destroyed during the Napoleonic occupation of Moscow in 1812.1 A number of details in the tale suggest that it was written down in the thirteenth century (Mann 2005:98-112).
For two centuries the Igor Tale has been treated as a poem that was composed by a literate writer.2 Only a few dissenters have argued that the Igor Tale was originally an oral epic song, and the question has not attracted much attention among specialists in early Russian culture. It is, however, worthwhile to reexamine some of the arguments formulated by the leading twentieth-century scholar in the study of Old Russian literature, Dmitrii S. Likhachev. His ideas went far to shape the views of scholars throughout the world, yet certain aspects of his argumentation have been ignored by his followers. When one takes a closer look at Likhachev’s line of reasoning, it becomes clear that the hypothesis of a literate poet who penned the Igor Tale, accepted as axiomatic by many students and scholars, stands on extremely shaky ground.
The evidence for an oral epic tradition of court songs in the Kievan era includes the Igor Tale itself (regardless of whether it is the text of an epic song or a writer’s stylization of an oral epic) and its allusions to the court singers Boyan and Khodyna. The Hypatian Chronicle mentions “the famous singer Mitusa” who refused to serve Prince Daniil Romanovich of Galich in the first half of the thirteenth century.3 The Pskov Apostol of 1307 contains what appears to be a brief excerpt from an oral epic about princes’ feuds in the early fourteenth century4
The question of oral composition in the Igor Tale is of immense importance for the study of early Russian culture. If the Igor Tale was an oral composition, then the oral epic tradition of Kievan Rus’ was much different than many have imagined. The chronicles’ relation to oral sources is different than most scholars have assumed. If the Igor Tale was an oral epic song, then later works commemorating the 1380 victory over the Tatar horde would appear to draw from oral tales to a degree that few have suspected. In brief, the role of oral composition in the Igor Tale is an issue that has great significance for our understanding of the Kievan oral tradition and of many early Russian literary works from the Kievan period and later.
Although Likhachev was the leading proponent of the Igor Tale’s composition by an ingenious writer, it is a little known fact that he nevertheless admitted the possibility that the tale was originally an epic song. In response to the theory of L. V. Kulakovskii, one of the rare scholars who argues that the Slovo was a song, Likhachev wrote (1986:28):
Мне представляется, что «Слово» написано или записано одним автором. Если даже «Слово» и произносилось на каком-то этапе своего существования устно, то окончательную отделку оно получило в письменном виде под пером одного гениального автора.5
It seems to me that the Slovo was written or recorded by a single author. Even if the Slovo were performed orally at some stage in its history, it was the pen of a single ingenious writer that gave the tale its final, polished form in writing.6
Here Likhachev does not concede that the Igor Tale was in fact an oral composition, but this statement nonetheless reflects a certain wavering in his stance. He concedes the possibility that the written Slovo might derive from an oral Igor Tale. In the same period, Likhachev wrote (1985:20):
Это книжное произведение, возникшее на основе устного. В «Слове» органически слиты фольклорные элементы с книжными.
Характерно при этом следующее. Больше всего книжные элементы сказываются в начале «Слова». Как будто бы автор, начав писать, не мог еще освободиться от способов и приемов литературы. Он недостаточно еще оторвался от письменной традиции. Но по мере того как он писал, он все более и более увлекался устной формой. С середины он уже не пишет, а как бы записывает некое устное произведение. Последние части «Слова», особенно «плач Ярославны», почти лишены книжных элементов.
[The Slovo] is a written literary work that arose on the foundation of an oral composition. Folkloric elements organically coalesce with bookish ones in the Slovo.