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Orality and sagnaskemmtun, rough draft part 1

Jason Schroeder

alchemist

The Kitchen is the center of the universe. All that is, seen and unseen, has its beginning in the Kitchen. All things are drawn to the Kitchen, from which all good, tasty things are made. Amen

Orality and sagnaskemmtun, rough draft part 1

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alchemist
This is a crappy first draft for a seminar paper. I post for comments, questions and critiques.

Prose has been a neglected part of oral studies – most research has focused on oral poetry, though for some very good reasons. Oral poetry and especially epic poetry exists in a human context of tradition and culture. An oral poet is active performer of ideas within a broader tradition, constrained from literate ideas by necessity to conform to audience expectations and by his reliance on memory to form long poems. Because of the limits of formal structure of poetry, certain formulas will be used across a tradition, which are easily noticed. Moreover, certain semantic themes will exist across the oral poems in particular tradition. Poets will tell the same poem many times: each version will be the same story but each version may vary in length, detail and exact wording. Each multiform (not variant or version – terms that suggest a “master” copy that all others vary from) is the story in different and equivalent forms. These constraints seem to suggest that the oral poet was a slave to meter, but this view is overly simplistic. The affective expressions of oral poetry allow the poet to change a poem greatly.



Prose stories and epics do not have the formal structural constraints of poetry that oral theorist can easily use to identify it as oral. But even poems designated as oral can be debated. Another complicating factor is that all poems and prose that might be designated as oral are written. Homeric epic, eddic verse and the sagas all come to us as written documents. There are no voice recordings of these texts as performance or even composition. History is silent – the dead are quiet. We cannot ask questions to them directly. We are left to question their artifacts – their material culture (which we do not understand) for answers to which we seek.

Prose stories, especially stories as complicated as Icelandic sagas are more difficult to identify as oral. While short stories can be identified as oral more easily – fairy stories have stock motifs and a formulaic structure that can be identified, as Vladimir Propp found in his study of Russian fairy tales (though even his study was of printed texts), texts such as the sagas are extremely complicated and identifying them as oral is problematic. The sagas do have simple overarching six part structure, as Theodore M. Anderson found, but the inner structure is complicated. The enormous genealogies, numerous digressions and characters and the narrative stranding make the sagas difficult to keep straight for the modern reader. It is difficult to imagine a saga teller orally composing and performing such complicated tale, even with the weight of tradition behind him.

The sagas can never be proven to be oral, though we can suspect that they are orally derived. But they were written down for an audience. What audience was this? What was the audience’s relationship to the sagas? There has been an accepted notion that the sagas were read out loud (performed) in place of orally composed tales in farmhouses.

What evidence exists for storytelling events or sagnaskemmtun in the Icelandic sagas is scanty at best. What evidence does exist does not stress the storytelling but the actions of powerful individuals. From this fact several conclusions maybe drawn: that the authors of the sagas were not concerned with ideas of storytelling and orality, that the nature of saga audience is difficult to define and discuss and that

Carol Clover in The Medieval Saga suggests that while the style of the sagas is likely to have oral tradition behind it, the complex structure is literary in nature and that the hearing audience may not be able to follow the complex structure well. The sagas are intended more for a reader than for the hearer. Gisli Sigurdsson, in The Medieval Icelandic Saga and Oral Tradition does not entirely agree, proposing that the sagas existed in a context that allowed listeners and readers to know the tradition and thus be able to understand and follow the narrative. He sees this especially in instances in the sagas where a fairly important character is introduced, performs his function and then disappears from the narrative with little explanation. These lacunae are most easily explainable by reference to an oral tradition known by audience and author to fill the gap
  • That makes think about blogging. I know blogging doesn't have to do with what you are talking about in this paper, but I wonder if blogs will be studied and analyzed by folklore students in the year 3000.

    • Actually, there are a few beleagured folklorist who are working with stuff like that in the year 2008. The web has a fascinating set of verbal art and cultural expression. I am working on a presentation about web communication and orality for next year. I don't think the idea of specific forms such as blogs are considered much in discussion of orality and literacy - blogs seemed to be left to communication (rhetoric) people, who are looking for "big" stuff and not seeing it as a cultural expression. They want to talk about blogs and politics, and not about blogs and art and culture. Same thing with youtube, which is really dumb - look at what the most popular youtube videos are about - not politicians in general! When politician videos are popular, it is not generally the politician and her rhetoric that is the interest, but the cultural commentary - think about the recent interview of Sarah Palin at the turkey farm.
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