General considerations regarding the passage from orality to literacy

Posté par Michael Peyron le 15 avril 2010

Orality to literacy 

General considerations regarding the passage from orality to literacy 



Students of oral literature should not allow themselves to be discouraged by suggestions that folk-lore is fake lore.1 This stems from a snotty attitude vis-à-vis oral tradition, rather like equating country folk with “country bumpkins”. Rather, modern literate man should regret that the marvellous faculty of memorisation or oral retention of a rich heritage, has, with time, become atrophied because of the overriding need to acquire full literacy. 2 


One of the chief characteristics of an oral tale is its changing silhouette. While remaining, to all intents and purposes, a faithful copy of the original, oral discourse is often considered to indulge in “weaving and stitching”,3 so that the numerous re-tellings result in embellishments and modifications; it “gets changed, shaped, altered by omissions; overloaded with additions, and embroidered with detail as it is handed along from generation to generation and from place to place.”4 This has happened to texts at various times and to varying degrees throughout the history of oral transmission, till they were at last enshrined in writing. There are instances, however, of oral transmission hardly altering with time, as in the case of Middle Atlas Berber tale “Ali Woullouban”, of which this writer has found a version, collected by Arsène Roux in the late 1920s, which bears a 90% resemblance to a later version gathered in the 1995. Thus, after 70 years had a tale undergone little or no transformation.5 In the end, of course, this material gets recorded in writing, this being the last stage of the passage to literacy. 




Chains of transmission




The transition from orality to literacy, however, is usually a lengthy, protracted process. This is certainly the case with early heroic tales such as “Gilgamesh” and “Beowulf”. The former, probably the world’s most ancient epic, after existing in purely oral form, was composed on clay tablets in the Sumerian age and then vanished from sight, only reappearing in the 20th century thanks to the archaeological endeavours of Campbell Thomson and Samuel Kramer.6 The latter, typical of the dragon-slaying theme, though the hero ultimately passes away, is “the first large poem in English to survive this transplanting from an oral to a literary mode”,7 and probably started life in oral form among 5th or 6th century Anglo-Saxons prior to their invasion of the British Isles, although the events it describes take place in southern Scandinavia.. 


Other attempts to ennoble oral literature have resulted in some stirring stuff. There immediately comes to mind the controversial manner in which, in the second half of the 18th century, James MacPherson re-visited the Ossian (Oisin) epic, the roots of which go back to the legends of Fionn MacCool in the pre-Christian days of Hibernia.8 Admittedly, MacPherson took such liberties with the original material, dressing it up with all the fine phrases and miscellaneous devices of the Romantic Period that he has been branded a forger by certain critics. His merit, however, lies in making these texts available to so many scholars of the period ; “le cycle de Finn, ou des Fenians, exploité et défiguré par McPherson, allait devenir le livre de chevet des grands romantiques. Par là, la tradition des anciens bardes rejoignait quand même Châteaubriand.”9 In this context, the way Fitzgerald translated  and adapted the quatrains of Omar Khayyam according to the canons of contemporary English poetry provides a striking parallel.10 



A similar process had no doubt occurred at a much earlier period to the oral material that was later arranged into the Iliad and Odyssey, with some 500 years elapsing between the original recitals of heroic poems and their eventual stitching together into overall epics. “The entire language of the Homeric poems (was) not an overlaying of several texts but a language generated over the years by epic poets using old set expressions which they preserved and/or reworked largely for metrical purposes.”11 




In the course of time and in a classic case of oral diffusion, the Homeric material travelled north-eastwards, surfacing in Ulster around the 1st century AD as the “Cattle-raid of Cooley” (Táin Bó Cualnge), often referred to as the “Iliad of the Gael”.12 Hardly less praiseworthy, though essentially local in inspiration and initially oral in form, are the Icelandic sagas of the early Middle Ages, which tell of a harsh, simple, feud-ridden life in that sub-Arctic land peopled by Norwegian and Irish immigrants.13 



The “matter of Britain”



Strangely enough, of all those who have played a significant role at the cross-roads between orality and literacy, none are more deserving than the bards of Wales, Cornwall and Brittany, who, during the Dark Ages (circa 500-750 AD) and well beyond, were able to maintain in circulation a corpus of oral tales, a curious mix of “myth, folklore, history and pseudo-history of Celtic Britain (…) creating a dreamlike atmosphere by telescoping Saxon- and Norman-dominated present into misty Celtic past of has been and never was.”14 This material, common to the Welsh and Bretons, known to scholars as la matière de Bretagne, broadcast far and wide through medieval France by Breton minstrels,15 retold and embellished by Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth in his mythological History of the Kings of Britain, was to nurture the Arthurian epic which, after formal treatment at the hands of Chrétien de Troyes,16 finally took shape in written form in England and Wales during the 12th century. The legends of King Arthur eventually acquired the proportions of a national myth, with the emphasis on chivalrous values of bravery, steadfastness, purity and succouring the weak that (strangely) was to serve as an ideal for the English during the Hundred Years’ War, whereas they had their origins in an obscure Celtic past.17 Here it must be repeated that certain famous episodes of this cycle, such as the deeply romantic “Tristan and Isolde” and the all-important Grail legend, undoubtedly have Welsh origins – respectively “How Trystan won Esyllt”18 and “Peredur son of Evrag”.19 However, other Welsh tales (and some Irish ones for that matter), can be traced back to Greece, attesting to ancient trade-links between the Celts and the Mediterranean region.20 




Christian/Muslim interaction




Simultaneously, their French opponents derived equal chivalric and spiritual inspiration from the “Song of Roland”,21 “Huon of Bordeaux”, “Ogier the Dane”, and many other Frankish legends, initially attributed to Bishop Turpin, but elaborated some two centuries later, usually focussing on earlier heroic battles against the Saracens in Spain, and surrounding an idealised Charlemagne.22 These famous chansons de geste, of course, were part of a plan to uplift the mind of the crude, loutish Frank knights, and would later help bolster them during their ill-fated crusading interlude in the Holy Land. 


Likewise, as a result of Christian and Muslim being at each others’ throats for so long, a rival, oral-derived literature had sprouted on the southern shore of the Mediterranean. This time, however, the villain of the piece is the Christian, as in “Sidna Aelqman” and the “Poem of the Young Camel” (ahellel n-ubaεr, in Tamazight), of which the present writer has both Arabic and Berber versions in his possession. Interestingly, in the former, the elderly warrior Aelqman is the exact counter-part of Charlemagne. Just as the Frankish monarch marries Bramidoine, widow of Marsile, the defeated Moorish king of Saragossa at the close of the Chanson de Roland,23 so does Aelqman take for bride the Christian Shoumisha, whose husband he has just killed in single combat.24 




Such situations are merely symptomatic of exchange between cultures, which, when it does not occur at sword-point, allows a considerable fund of oral lore to change hands. This undoubtedly occurred through the medium of Muslim Spain, whose Jewish and Moorish musicians used to visit regularly what is now south-west France. The Fin’ Amor tradition of Provence, which is no doubt largely native in inspiration, also owes much to Moorish love poetry with its insistence on courteous treatment of damsels, and/or to the influence of Plato and Ibn-Rochd.25 Some of this would have arrived from the Maghrib, many Imazighen having settled in Spain, given that the survival to this very day of Berber courtly love, at any rate in Morocco, and in oral form, has been amply documented.26 Much of this, also, came from the east (Baghdad), via al-Andalus, where this poetic material was being imitated.27 



Saving classical learning from oblivion



At this point, it appears relevant to raise a parallel problem. Among both Oriental and Western academics28 there is a certain school of thought which contends that, had it not been for the Arabs, who translated the material, the sum total of Latin and Greek thought would never have reached the west, before and at the time of the Renaissance. Now, to the present writer, this statement appears too sweepingly categorical to be taken at face value. 



That Europe is indebted to those Arab scholars, who took the trouble to read Plato, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, for the translations that were thus made available, there is little doubt. To claim, however, that following the barbarian invasions of Europe nothing had been saved of the rich classical heritage of Ancient Greece and Rome is to downplay, nay, to ignore completely, the contribution of Irish bards and monks. This is a comparatively little-known phenomenon. Towards the end of the Roman Empire, with barbarians knocking at the gates, there occurred a forced emigration of Gaulish scholars to Ireland. They brought with them “a learning that was still to the full extent the best tradition of scholarship in Latin Grammar, Oratory and Poetry, together with a certain knowledge of Greek – in fact the full classical lore of the 4th century.”29 They found there a challenging state of intellectual ferment with “traditional oral schools”30 that continued to flourish side-by-side with monasteries whose Irish monks, also products of the native oral learning, but fluent in Latin, were committing to writing important oral works, and painstakingly copying in long-hand the bible and great philosophical works, for they were among the few left in Europe also to have a command of Greek. Thanks to this injection of knowledge and unbridled intellectual activity, there came about a fusion of classical and vernacular literature, unique in Europe, that produced some priceless master-pieces, such as the beautifully illuminated Book of Kells, and was ultimately to have lasting effects on the British Isles in general and English literature in particular, in terms of enrichment, freshness, inspiration and refinement of thought. This “Golden Age” of enlightenment and literature was to last some 400 years, until unfortunately snuffed out by the Viking invasions of the 9th century, mostly from Norway which is referred to in oral tradition as “Lochlann”,31 when many monasteries were sacked by Norse raiders, although some of the written material and nearly all the oral material has survived. Thus to claim that the Arabs alone saved classical learning for the west falls somewhat short of the truth; in fact, a recent book by Thomas Cahill brings convincing evidence of a somewhat different version – How the Irish saved Civilization.32 




Motifs of oral tradition: anathema to the literary process




Before committing an oral text to writing, let us see what we are losing. Indeed, for the sake of belles lettres we have to throw overboard the very devices that characterise orality, such as tedious repetitions, redundancy.  “In oral delivery, though a pause may be effective, hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something, artfully if possible, rather than simply stop speaking while fishing for the next idea.”33  In order to stay focussed and maintain momentum and rhythm, it is sometimes helpful to move one’s arm or body, as does the Kirghiz bard reciting an epic poem belonging to the genre known as manas


Oral cultures grant relative attention to plants and animals, but only to those that are useful; the rest are catalogued as “unimportant generalised background”.34 Hence for Moroccan Atlas Berbers, the term agdid n-waman (‘water bird’) will apply just as well to a Sandpiper as to a Dipper; when showed photos of the Great Spotted and Green Woodpecker, a Berber who lived at the foot of a cedar-covered hill was unable to give this writer separate names for the two birds. This shying away from concrete definitions is fairly typical of people in a region of massive residual orality, whereas hard and cast definitions are precisely one of the hallmarks of literacy. 



Metamorphosis, also referred to as transmigration or shape-shifting, is present in most tales of witch-craft and magic in the Maghrib and Celtic regions.35 As is the notion of the life-token, such as a loving plant springing from the lovers’ grave, a widespread motif with examples in Deirdre (Ireland), kan ya makan (Morocco), etc.36 



Another typical trait is the name taboo,37 which involves addressing people in a certain way, especially formidable characters such as giants and ogres; in Berber tales, for example, flattery is of the essence. Also you should greet an ogre before he greets you; otherwise he will be entitled to devour you on the spot… 



All this is based on the memory, a faculty that oral persons keep alive through constant exercise. However, the moment they embark on the road to literacy, they begin to lose their previous skill, for writing destroys the memory as it precludes need for effort of memorisation 



From the above we may infer that both orality and literacy contain inherent yet incompatible skills. What we consider today as literacy, perceived as a cause for pride in the modern world, is the end-result of a long-drawn-out process with continual interplay between the spoken and written word. While deriving satisfaction from the state of literacy, we should never look down on those who still thrive in an oral society. We should envy them for their skill at memorisation and recital, allowing as it does so many gems of orality to survive. 



 © Michael PEYRON 








1 K.M. Briggs, A Sampler of  British Folk-tales (1977), p.3. 


2 S. Marshall,  English Folk-tales (1981),  p.11. 


3 J. Ong, Orality & Literacy (1982), p.13. 


4  S. Marshall, op. cit., p.25. 


5 Cf. Roux archive, file 56.3.5., H. Stroomer & M. Peyron, Catalogue des archives berbères du « Fonds Arsène Roux », Köln : Rüdiger Köppe Verlag, (2003), p.60. 


6 N.K. Sandars (ed.), The Epic of Gilgamesh, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1985); cf. also Y. Blanc, Enquête sur la mort de Gilgamesh, Paris : Éds. du Félin (1991). 


7 M. Alexander (ed.), Beowulf, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1986); cf. also H.A. Guerber, Middle Ages: myths & legends,
London: Senate (1994), pp.1-17. 


8 J. Jacobs, Celtic Fairy Tales (1962), p.244; J. Markale, Les Celtes et la civilisation celtique, Paris: Payot (1981), p.191; T.V. Rolleston,  The illustrated guide to Celtic Mythology,
London: BCA (1993), pp.75-89. 


9 J. Markale, op.cit., (1981), p.192. 


10 C. Grolleau, Les Quatrains d’Omar Khayyam, Paris: Ivrea (1996), pp.22-23. 


11 J. Ong, op. cit., p.19. 


12 K. H. Jackson, A Celtic Miscellany, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1980), pp.30-48; N. Chadwick, The Celts, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1981), pp.266-270; cf. also T.W. Rolleston, op. cit., pp.55-73. 


13 The best-known of these Icelandic hero-tales are “Egil’s Saga”, “Njall’s Saga”, “Laxdaela Saga”, and “The Saga of Grettir the Strong”; all are available in Penguin’s paper-back. 


14 J. Gantz, The Mabinogion, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1981), p.10. 


15 Y. Brekilien, La Mythologie celtique, Marabout université (1981); G. Jones, Welsh Legends & Folk-Tales, OUP: Puffin’s (1982); J. Markale, L’Épopée celtique en Bretagne, Paris: Payot (1982); R. Barber, The Arthurian Legends, Woodbridge & Rochester (NY): The Boydell Press (1991), p.45. 


16 A. Hoog (ed.), Perceval ou le Roman du Graal, Paris : Gallimard (1974); J.-P. Foucher (ed.), Romans de la Table Ronde, Paris : Gallimard (1975); Chrétien de Troyes, Arthurian Romances, (trans. D.D.R. Owen), London &
Melbourne: Everyman  (1987). 


17 Cf. P.M. Matarasso, The Quest of the Holy Grail, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1975) & J. Cable, The Death of King Arthur, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1982); J. Markale, Le Graal, Alençon: Retz-Poche (1989); A. Hopkins, The Chronicles of King Arthur, London: BCA (1993); M. Godwin, The Holy Grail: its origins, secrets, & meaning revealed, London: BCA (1994). 


18 G. Jones, op. cit., p.134-137. 


19 J. Gantz, op. cit., pp.217-257; J. Markale, op. cit. (1982), pp.182-210. 


20 In particular “How Kulwhch won Olwen”, which is an embellished Welsh re-telling of “Jason & the Golden Fleece” and also one of the distant sources of the Grail lengend; G. Jones, op. cit. pp.85-133; J. Gantz, op cit., pp.134-176; J. Markale, op. cit. (1985), pp.137-151; T.W. Rolleston, op. cit.,122-125. The fabled Brendan voyage is no doubt inspired by Odysseus and his wanderings after the fall of Troy; cf. G.O. Simms, Brendan the Navigator,
Dublin: O’Brien Press (1989). 


21 J. Bédier, La Chanson de Roland, Paris : Union Générale d’Éditions (1982). 


22 T. Bulfinch, Mythology, N.Y.: The Modern Library (1863), pp.595-778; H.A. Guerber, op. cit., pp.162-240. 


23 J. Bedier, op. cit., p.331. 


24 For a Tamazight version, cf. A. Roux, Proverbes, contes & légendes des Beni Mtir, Rabat, 1942. 


25 R. Nelli, Troubadours & trouvères, Paris : Hachette (1979), pp.15 & 27. 


26 M. Peyron, 1° Isaffen Ghbanin/ Rivières profondes, Casablanca: Wallada (1993); 2° “Further research  on timawayin from Central Morocco”, The Journal of North African Studies, vol.2, n°1, (summer 1997) pp.72-80. 


27 W. Montgomery Watt, A History of Islamic Spain, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press (1967), p.72. 


28 Among these are De Lacy O’Leary, How Greek Science passed to the Arabs, available on:- 


& Barbara Buehner, “Transmission of texts: from Greek and Roman through Arabic”, Neh Institute,


Univ. of Michigan, July 7, 2002, available on:-


29 A.P. Graves, “Anglo-Irish literature”, in The Cambridge History of English Literature, (A.W. Ward & A.R. Waller, eds.), Cambridge: University Press (1932), p.302. 


30 T.G.E. Powell, The Celts, N.Y.: Praeger (1958), p.61. 


31 Cf. story “The High King of Lochlann and the Fenians of Erin”, in H. Glassie, Irish Folk-Tales, Harmondsworth: Penguin’s (1987), pp.245-255. 


32 T. Cahill, How the Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to Medieval Europe, N.Y.: Nan A. Talese/Doubleday (2005); cf. 


33 J. Ong, op. cit., p.40. 


34 Ibid., p.52. 


35 Wimberly, op. cit., p.34 


36 Ibid., pp.42-43. 


37 Ibid., p.88. For example, among the Imazighen, it is unsuitable to mention the word uššen (‘jackal’) in the morning; you should say war iberdan (lit. ‘he who has no paths’). 

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