Hildegard L.C. Tristram, New Methods in the Research of Epic / Neue Methoden der Epenforschung (ScriptOralia 107). Tübingen: Gunter Narr Verlag, 1998. Pp. 334, including an index of personal names. ISBN 3-8233- 5417-5. DM138.00
Department of Modern and Classical Languages, University of Cape Town
The Special Research Project on Interfaces between Orality and Literacy ('Sonderforschungsbereich: Spannungsfelder und Übergänge zwischen Mündlichkeit und Schriftlichkeit', to give it its full title), based at the University of Freiburg, has over the past 10 years published more than 100 volumes of the ScriptOralia series. The preface to the present volume sounds an elegiac note, announcing that this is one of the last in the series, and referring to the closing-down of the project in 1996. (And indeed the preface does convey a sense that most of what can fruitfully be said about the orality-literacy interface has, perhaps, now been said. The piling-up of distinctions here--between 'in-scripturation', 'in-scripturalisation', 'scripturality', 'vocality', literarisation', 'in-oralisation', 'de- scripturation', 'de-scripturalisation' and so on (pp. 12f.)--suggests the final stages of Scholasticism.)
The book presents the revised papers from a colloquium held in the last year of the research project's existence. Its double-barreled German- English title reflects the contents: a preface and six papers in English, and an 'Einleitung' and eleven papers in German. (A half-page English summary is included for each of the German pieces.) Only four of the papers deal with Greek or Roman subjects; the rest cover ancient Indian, medieval Irish, Germanic, Anglo Saxon, and Iranian epics, plus Derek Walcott's contemporary Omeros. The papers describe a particular type of critical-theoretical approach to epic or, in some cases, apply such an approach to the study of a specific topic in a specific epic, or do both. After outlining the contents of the papers, the introduction warns us (I translate): 'it should be noted that epics, of course, also serve to entertain. This function could not specifically be discussed at the colloquium' (p. 24).
Since Scholia reviews are aimed primarily at classicists, I shall concentrate on those papers likely to be of interest to a classical readership. The editor's Introduction (pp. 17-24) gives a quick but informed survey of research into epic from the early 19th century to the present. Tristram points out how the emphasis has moved from quasi-biological studies of the 'growth' of the epic text, through studies of oral elements, inspired by Parry and Lord, to contemporary interest in the context of performance, audiences, their expectations, and how these are catered for by the producers of epics.
The two papers that follow both deal with Homer: Edzard Visser's 'Formale Typologien im Schiffskatalog der Ilias' (pp. 25-44), and Michael Reichel's 'Narratologische Methoden in der Homerforschung' (pp. 45-61). Arguing that the 'Catalogue of Ships' has most often been examined from an archaeological or historical perspective, Visser gives a close formal- philological analysis of the 'Catalogue'. He concludes that catalogue-poetry was already well- established in Greek oral poetry before Homer, and guesses that the Iliadic catalogue goes back to Mycenean times, being connected, possibly, with booty-raids. His cautious overall conclusion is: 'Dass dem homerischen Mythos von der mykenischen Belagerung [sc. von Troia] ein historischer Kern zugrunde liegt, ist jedenfalls denkbar; der Schiffskatalog spricht dabei eher dafür als dagegen' (p. 44).
Reichel's paper surveys the narratological work done on Homer, trying to uncover whether analysis of narrative structures will allow conclusions about the way in which the poems were composed. He takes the unfashionable view (but one which I share) that the Homeric epics as we have them were not composed orally, but with the use of writing. Reichel regards the epic-length South Slavic oral poem recorded by Parry and eventually edited and translated by Lord, The Wedding of Smailagic Meho, as a paradigm of simple, one-strand, narrative epic; while 'Homers Ilias unterscheidet sich von der Erzählweise dieses mündlichen Epos nicht nur graduell, sondern prinzipiell . . . ' (p. 50). He believes that the constant changes of scene in the Iliad provide a powerful argument for the poem's having been composed in writing. After surveying in detail the multiple cross-references within each of the Homeric epics, Reichel argues that one of their important functions is to clarify the narrative for a listening audience; but that this means the epics were orally composed he regards as 'höchst unwahrscheinlich' (p. 55). I found this one of the most interesting and thought-provoking pieces in the book.
By contrast, Francis Cairns's paper 'Orality, Writing and Reoralisation: Some Departures and Arrivals in Homer and Apollonius Rhodius' (pp. 63-84), displays this author's usual off-beat ingenuity, but fails to persuade. Cairns argues that Apollonius, although he did not conceive of Homer as 'oral', nevertheless took note of the repeated, formulaic elements in the Iliad and Odyssey, and imitated and reworked these in the Argonautica, so that we can speak of a 'reoralisation' of his text: 'The creation of a "written orality" was Apollonius' novel way of imitating Homer . . . ' (p. 65). Cairns examines various speeches made on departure and arrival in the Homeric and Apollonian epics, tendentiously labelling them 'propemptikon', 'syntaktikon', 'prosphonetikon' and so on. He makes the extraordinary assertion that Apollonius uses more such 'genres' in connection with the Argonauts' departure from Greece, and that his text is therefore in this respect 'hyper-oral' (p. 71) compared with that of Homer. What is convincing in this paper--that Apollonius worked with Homeric prototypes--is hardly new. What is new--that 'Homeric' in the Argonautica equals 'oral'--is not convincing.
The last of the papers on a purely classical theme is Reinhold Glei's 'Der interepische poetologische Diskurs: zum Verhältnis von Metamorphosen und Aeneis' (pp. 85-104). The author rapidly surveys to what extent Homeric, Hellenistic, and early Roman epics contain a 'poetological discourse', i.e., to what extent they reveal, directly or indirectly, their own and their predecessors' aims and methods. He then turns to his chief subject: 'inwieweit Ovid mit Vergil in einen poetologischen Diskurs getreten ist und mit welchen sprachlichen, inhaltlichen und strukturellen Mitteln er zu seinem Vorgänger Stellung genommen hat' (p. 89). Glei narrows this down to a contrast of Aeneid and Metamorphoses. Citing Galinsky, he makes the reasonable point that, although the luxuriant, chaotic structure of the Metamorphoses is clearly very different from the more orderly structure of the Aeneid, this does not mean that Ovid was antiVergilian, only that he was unVergilian (p. 91). But, in Glei's view, Ovid is antiAugustan and antiVergilian when he portrays the Augustan period as just one historical episode among others, and not as the culmination of history which it represents for Vergil. The paper concludes with a detailed look at the Arachne episode of Met. 6 and the 'Little Aeneid' of Met. 13. Glei reasonably takes the contrasting tapestry-styles of Arachne and Athena to represent contrasting styles of poetry; but his argument that the weaving of Athena specifically evokes the Aeneid seems forced and unpersuasive. So too does his view that Ovid's 'Little Aeneid' is, in its deliberate avoidance of material narrated by Vergil, a 'Provokation' (p. 100) and a 'Bagatellisierung der vergilischen Aeneis' (p. 101).
I shall merely indicate the contents of most of the remaining papers, with some additional comment where a particular contribution is of interest beyond its special field. Renate Söhnen-Thieme's 'Rahmungsstrukturen in der altindischen Epik: Valmiki und das Ramayana' (pp. 105-23) looks at problems in the composition of the Ramayana, pointing out that the way in which the epic presents itself to its audience is conceived in strictly oral terms. Another paper on Indian epic, Thomas Oberlies' 'Die Ratschläge des Sehers Narada: Ritual an und unter der Oberfläche des Mahabharata' (pp. 125-41), argues that 'theologians' had a strong influence on the final redaction of the Mahabharata, working into it Vedic rituals, which they converted into epic narrative. Two papers on medieval Irish saga follow, 'Der Schein, der trügt: die irischse Heldensage als kirkenpolitische Aussage' (pp. 143-51), by Pádraig Ó Riain, who argues that the prose saga, Táin Bó Cuailnge, is shaped by the internal politics of the Church; and Dáibhí Ó Cróinín's 'Prosopographical Analysis of Táin Bó Cuailnge in a Historical Setting' (pp. 153-59), the title of which clearly signals its contents.
The title of the paper by James Earl, 'Freud on Epic: the Poet as Hero' (pp. 161-71), promises rather more than it delivers. As the author notes in his first sentence, 'Freud scarcely mentions epic as such' (p. 161). The psychologist's few utterances on the genre are made to bear a heavy load of interpretation, to the effect that 'according to Freud the epic hero is an ideal with whom the members of the audience identify in a specialized sense, as an 'ego ideal' they hold in common. Importantly, the epic hero, unlike God, is not an idealized father. Quite the opposite, he is a brother--a brother who alone has freed himself from the father's domination (p. 165); and 'The royal road to understanding epic . . . is understanding how the poet and his culture together have idealized oral tradition according to their unconscious needs and desires' (p. 168).
Two interesting papers focus on Beowulf: 'Epik und Stil: Überlegungen zu einer analytischen Kategorie' (pp. 173-83), by Ursula Schaefer, and Paul Goetsch's 'Der koloniale Diskurs in Beowulf' (pp. 185-200). Schaefer questions the usefulness--for the interpretation of anonymous medieval texts like Beowulf--of such categories as 'style' and 'rhetoric', with (what she sees as) their New Critical, neo-liberal assumption of an 'individual author'. She believes that with 'oral-derived' texts (John Foley's term), we need to look at the tradition as a whole rather than at the individual author. Goetsch examines the ways in which the text of Beowulf makes Grendel and his mother into alien, monstrous beings, and to what effect. In his view they function as 'Doppelgänger' of the heroes, and as a projection of negative aspects of Germanic society. What he writes about Beowulf himself makes one think, mutatis mutandis,of the Greek heroes (especially Heracles): 'Beowulfs Kämpfe mit Grendel und dessen Mutter enthüllen die Doppelnatur des epischen Helden. Er ist nicht nur zivilisierter Anführer der Gautenschar, sondern auch primitiver Kämpfer, der allen anderen Männer weit überlegen ist. Als barbarischer Krieger kann er die "Ungeheuer" besiegen, stellt aber zugleich eine potentielle Gefahr für die politisch-gesellschaftliche Ordnung dar' (p. 195).
Three further papers on medieval Germanic epic follow. Joachim Heinzle, 'Zur Funktionsanalyse heroischer Überlieferung: das Beispiel Nibelungensage' (pp. 201-21), discusses the interplay between oral and written versions of the Nibelungen legend, and the formative role that this legend had in shaping local and national identities. The content of Theodor Nolte's piece, ' . . . Weibliche Rollenbilder des "Kudrunepos" im Vergleich mit hagiographischen und höfischen Frauenentwurfen' (pp. 223-49), is clearly indicated by its title. Alois Wolf, 'Zur Rolle des Epischen im mittelalterlichen Norden' (pp. 251-70), argues that epic conceptions embodied in works such as the Nibelungenlied, when imported into Iceland, had a formative influence on the sagas and the historical consciousness of the people.
Early Iranian epic provides the subject of Olga Davidson's 'Epic as a Frame for Speech-acts: Ritual Boasting in the Shâhnâma of Ferdowsi' (pp. 271-85). The author touches briefly on boasting in Homeric epic; then, after quoting extensively from the quarrel of the heroes Rostam and Esfandiyâr, proposes that their boasts 'are not just poetic words: they are the performance of a verbal duel framed within the performance of the epic Shâhnâma' (p. 284, her italics). The paper as a whole seems somewhat inconclusive.
Concluding the volume come two papers both drawing on the theories of Bakhtin. Dallas Miller, 'Bakhtin and the Epic Today' (pp. 287-304), raises a series of questions which he does not really answer. What he succeeds in demonstrating is the uncomfortable truth that Bakhtin was not interested in epic for its own sake, but only as a foil to the novel; epic, for him, had to be univocal, traditional, authoritarian, elitist, so that it could be contrasted with the many-voiced, experimental, carnivalistic, popular, novel. But epics such as those of Homer and Vergil-- which certainly allow competing, and even questioning voices to be heard--do not fit into this straitjacket. In the piece that follows, 'Bakhtinian Novelization, Postcolonial Theory and the Epic: Derek Walcott's Caribbean Epic Omeros' (pp. 305-23), Natascha Pesch rightly terms the Russian theorist's view of the epic 'very abstract and undifferentiated' (p. 322). She shows, however, that Bakhtin's characterization of the novel as a hybrid, fluid, genre resonates with descriptions of postcolonial culture as being similarly 'bastardized' and open- ended. Pesch analyses Walcott's long poem as a work which conforms much more closely to Bakhtin's view of the novel than to his view of epic. For her Omeros is a 'postcolonial, novelized epic, it seems logical that the epic as a genre could not reappear on the postcolonial literary scene in another form' (p. 323, her italics).
As is almost inevitable with a volume of 'Proceedings', bringing together the contributions of numerous scholars writing on disparate themes, the quality of this book is uneven. Nevertheless, it is worth buying for university libraries.