The art of the oral epic has long suffered generalizations from the literary academe, which once assumed that the cultures from which oral epics came possessed a verbatim memory similar to their own. Such assumptions ceased when the conditions of a primarily oral culture were made known, as initiated by epic poetry scholar Milman Parry. His doctoral dissertation showed that the oral epics of ancient Greece possess the same basic elements in theme and verse, suggesting that great works such as Homer’s The Iliad were not as creatively brilliant as the academic world had then believed. In fact, the epic verse seemed to fit into a consistent pattern: each line is strictly hexametrical and made up of reoccurring phrases. Parry posited that a formula was used to compose epic poems.
Parry’s theory prompted him and his successor Albert Lord to test it in a living (but already disappearing) oral culture during the 1930s-1950s – former Yugoslavia, which possessed a rich male-dominated tradition in the oral epic. The South Slavic poets at this time, the majority of whom were illiterate, helped to validate Parry’s theory: the South Slavic oral epic proved to contain themes and phrases that reoccur, and each line of verse is metrical. However, in light of these studies, the South Slavic oral epic (and the oral epic in general) may also be deemed uncreative: the same formulas are used to compose the same verses; the same themes are used to create the same plots. John Miles Foley claims that such observations caused scholars to quarrel over “whether the demonstration of the compositional role of formulas and themes makes the poet a prisoner of his compositional idiom and thus turns great poems into mechanical tours-de-force.” The question at hand stands thus: if the oral epic is “fixed,” if it possesses formula, is it, therefore, an act of mechanical composition rather than true creative art?
All oral epic traditions, no matter the culture from whence it came, share this in common: they retain the tradition and give back to the culture which gave to them. However, as the people of primarily oral cultures cannot rely on their memories alone to recall all traditional themes, they require the tool of formula to compose these themes with as little need for memory as possible. Formulas are therefore the backbone of the oral epic – if an oral epic poet has the traditional formulas, he can use them to alter the verse of traditional themes, and will consequently create a traditional story. It is beneficial that formula is fixed in verse. In this sense, the formula may be considered fixed; however, we must consider that the formulaic line, with all of its fixed elements, has been intentionally formed this way – has been formed in order to preserve the tradition as much as possible.
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