ON THE IMPORTANCE OF ICELANDIC LITERATURE
The world owes a debt to Icelandic culture, not merely for the vast body of early mediaeval writings that have their own intrinsic literary worth, but also for the historical information they have preserved in this literature. They have also preserved much knowledge of pre-Christian Heathen beliefs. The stories on the "At Saga's Stream" C.D. cannot hope to even begin to represent a cross section of this body of literature, but hopefully will encourage listeners to read for themselves more of the myths, sagas and folktales of the Icelanders. To set the stories in context I will attempt a brief synopsis of the development of Icelandic literature.
The mythological stories, such as "The Necklace Brisingamen" and "The Mead of Inspiration", are taken from the Poetic, or Elder, Edda (and also from Snorri Sturluson's Prose Edda, of which more later). The Poetic Edda is divided into mythological and heroic poems. These poems were originally the product of a purely oral culture; they were composed in the poet's mind, without the use of writing and recited, transmitted and preserved by the spoken word alone. There is linguistic and literary evidence that the poems originated at a time before the settlement of Iceland. The earliest surviving Edda manuscript is the Codex Regius, probably written down about 1270, though the scholar Finnur Jonsson believed an almost complete collection to have been in existence as early as 1200 .
Some scholars (Mohr in 1938 and Kuhn in 1939) have claimed much of the Edda for Lower Germany and Denmark, maintaining that the Edda is influenced by ballads in forms older than those in which we now know them. Ballads were known in Iceland as early as the C12th and the later poems may have been influenced by these ballads as a few of the later Eddaic poems have something of the romance associated with popular ballads . The poems might be about heroes who came from countries other than Iceland, for example the "Helgikvitha" stories come from Denmark and "Volundarkvitha" from Germany, however, the poems in their current form are Norse creations. Moreover, whilst there are heroic poems from mainland Europe, for example the Old High German "Lay of Hildebrand", the subject matter of which can be compared to the Icelandic heroic lays, there is nothing comparable with the mythological lays. Although one could assume that the ancient Germans composed poetry about their gods (and Tacitus does mention German traditional songs which celebrate the birth of an earth-born god called Tuisto ), there is nothing to show that poems comparable to the Eddas were known, or that the mythological poems we have today came from anywhere else other than Norway and Iceland.
One Eddaic poem, the "Voluspa" has been shown to have influenced Arnorr Jarlaskald's memorial lay in honour of the Earl of Orkney, Thorfinnr, who is known to have died in 1064. Voluspa must therefore have been composed before 1064. The imagery of the poem, with its earth sinking in the sea, its high leaping fire, its fierce steam (v.57) and its sundered crags (v.52), suggests one who knew Iceland's eruptions but the poet's description of mistletoe as a tree rising high on a plain (v.32)  suggests one who did not know the woods of Scandinavia . Iceland then, that had long been dependent on Norway for timber supplies, would seem to be the home of this particular poet.
The poems were composed according to prosodic rules. The Anglo-Saxons and Germans had one type of poetic metre for their narrative poems but the Eddaic poems have three, more complex metres (the complexity was mainly the introduction of rules governing the number of syllables each line could have). The metres were called "Fornyrthislag" ("Old Metre"), "Malahattr" ("Speech Metre") and "Ljothahattr" ("(Magic) Song Metre"). It is in this latter metre that I have attempted to render my poem to Saga, Othinn's daughter, the Goddess of Storytelling.
A Ljothahattr verse comprises a first line divided by a "caesura" or pause into two half-lines. Each half-line has two accented initial syllables. Either or both of the first half-line's accented syllables may alliterate with each other, but one of them must alliterate with the first accented syllable of the second half-line. (These are the standard accentual and alliterative rules for the Anglo-Saxon line  and for all lines of the other two Eddaic metres). The second line has no pause, three accented syllables and any two, sometimes three, of them alliterating.
All vowels and "j" alliterate with each other, so "singer" can alliterate with "Sokkvabekk". Combinations of "s" and a consonant are kept distinct so, although they do in my poem, "Saga" cannot strictly alliterate with "stories", but "spree" can alliterate with "spin"; "sv", pronounced "sw" in Old Norse, is treated as "s" followed by a vowel, so "sway" could alliterate with "sing".
The first and second half-lines both had ideally two, sometimes three, rarely four, unaccented syllables, meaning a full line could have a total of between eight and twelve syllables. (These are the syllabic rules for all Fornyrthislag lines.) The second line had no limitation as to the number of syllables. All the above rules for the first and second lines were then repeated for the third and fourth. (A Malahattr half-line had ideally three, sometimes four, rarely five unaccented syllables, so a full line could have between ten and fourteen syllables.) The Anglo-Saxon alliterative line had no syllabic limitations and so is easier to render into modern English. For the Norse poets, with their highly inflected language, these syllabic constraints were not as onerous as they are to a composer in modern English, a language which has lost many of its old inflections and relies instead on the use of subsidiary words. The lines of the Saga poem therefore fall a little short of the syllabic ideal.
Writing came to Iceland after the formal adoption of Christianity in 1000. In the first three decades of the C11th there were probably only foreign clerical teachers. However, as soon as Iceland produced its own educated men, chieftains preferred their sons to be educated by these men who had both a clerical, European education and an appreciation of their own traditions.
The southern Icelanders were the first to adopt the learned culture of Europe, founding three schools at Skalaholt, Haukdalr and Oddi. The most famous scholars of these three schools were Isleifr, Teitr, Ari and Saemundr Sigfusson. The latter was the first scholastic historian in Iceland and by C17th people believed he had written the Edda and in folklore Saemundr the Wise had become a magician! Because of their European connections they could combine foreign learning with the traditional culture of their own people. Importantly then "Foreign learning and foreign letters helped them to preserve ancient memories and to express traditional thoughts" . In many of the religious works of Europe, theology had given way to story and legend. As such texts were more entertaining they became very popular in Iceland, particularly the Acts of the Apostles. From these, Icelanders learnt how biographies and wonder tales could be written in books. "It is unlikely that the sagas of kings and of Icelanders, or even the sagas of ancient heroes, would have developed as they did unless several generations of Icelanders had been trained in hagiographic narrative." .
In the C12th, monks of Thingeyrar, such as Gunnlaugr Leifsson (d.1218), began to write sagas of Norwegian kings and Icelandic bishops to show the moral worth of their heroes. Prior to this works such as the "Landnamabok" and Ari the Learned's "Islendingabok" had been written, telling in a very straightforward manner of the settlement of Iceland. If Ari's work was worthy but dull, the monks' works were too overly fanciful to be convincing. Gunnlaugr even translated Geoffrey of Monmouth's "The Prophecies of Merlin" into Icelandic verse. Soon, however, Icelandic literature was to develop in a modern way; Karl Jonsson, Abbot of Thingeyrar, (d.1215) wrote the saga of King Sverrir, whom Karl knew personally. Previously, sagas had been written about people long dead who were idealised, their enemies demonised. Karl admired his friend but knew him as a human personality; he could describe him accurately - he was a fine figure when sat, nobly dressed, on the high seat but standing was clearly short in the leg. Similarly, later chapters of "Orkneyinga saga" (the saga covers several generations) were based on eye witness accounts. It is important to understand that the form of these sagas was a literary one; aside from the verses the characters often speak, which like the Edda's verse, have been preserved from (or at worst, some are an imitation of) an oral tradition, these stories were written down in a very different manner to that in which they would have been told orally. They show a conscious literate style in structure, characterisation and plot.
Of great relevance here is the action taken in 1190 by Archbishop Eirikr of Trondheim in Norway to separate the church from the state in Iceland; he forbade Icelandic bishops from conferring holy orders upon Icelandic chieftains, or "gothar", unless the gothi first gave up his secular title. Educated gothar than began to turn their literary attentions away from mainland European culture and towards their own traditions.
Not least amongst these was Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241) who wrote many different kinds of work. Unlike previous sagas of St. Olaf, his Olaf is not just a saint but an ambitious warlord. He understands and sympathises with the motives of Olaf's enemies. He omitted the fantastical elements of previous sagas about Olaf, for example Olaf's killing of a mermaid revered by Heathens, and rationalised others, for example when Olaf and his men are trapped aboard ship, earlier sagas tell they escape by prayers answered by an isthmus miraculously opening through which they can then sail; Snorri has his Olaf make his men dig a channel through it. His "Heimskringla", on the kings of Norway, corrects the contradictions of previous histories by means of his personal judgement.
His Prose Edda is still a work in print down to this day. Designed to preserve the techniques of skaldic verse and an understanding of the poetic circumlocutions, or "kennings", it employed, he preserved much poetry and retold many stories of the old gods (and showed himself to be a fine storyteller in the process) which add greatly to our knowledge of old myths and legends.
In looking now in more detail at the great Family Sagas of the Icelanders, the polished prose outcome of generations of literary composition, we must first look to its opposite, the oral and, to modern minds, highly artificial verse of the skalds, the Norse poets. The skalds practised a different kind of poetry to that found in the Poetic Edda. If the Eddaic poetry could be described as the anonymous oral equivalent of folk art, then skaldic poetry is the self-conscious, highly wrought fine art of the professional.
Its origins go back to the C10th, or possibly the C9th. Iceland, though not the richest of lands agriculturally, provided fertile ground for poetry; with little readily available materials for the visual arts, creativity seems to have become focused on the spoken word. Here skaldic verse would thrive when it had been forgotten elsewhere. As Eddaic verse was narrative poetry, so skaldic verse was descriptive. Metres abounded, there was endless experimentation. The prosody was even more complex. In the best known skaldic metre, "Drottkvaett" ("Court Metre"), often used for praising lords, not only were lines accentual, bound by alliteration and syllabic limitations (each line had six syllables, three stressed, three unstressed, more were permissible if the syllables were short, less if they were long) but also alternate lines could employ firstly internal rhyme, or "athalhending" (gram reki bond af londum), secondly consonance, or "skothending" (sva skyldi goth gjalda), that is to say syllables with different vowels but the syllables' terminal consonants are the same). Moreover, each line had to end with a "trochee", a word with a long stressed initial syllable and a terminal short unstressed syllable. Snorri's Edda is a handbook for skaldic verse .
One of the ways of ensuring that your thoughts in a purely oral culture are remembered is to think and express memorable thoughts . Thoughts expressed in skaldic verse are memorable for the craftsmanship alone that they show. A verse, spoken at a dramatic moment, would fix that event in the folk memory. The first speaking of such a verse could later be inserted into a saga at the appropriate point.
In the C11th ever more conscious efforts were made to remember family sagas. In the C13th they were written down in a revised literate manner. Some of the verses in sagas will have been composed contemporaneously with the events they concern, others must have been composed at a later date, either orally or when the saga was written.
The written Family Sagas originated under the influence of the Kings' Sagas, just as the Kings' Sagas had originated under the influence of the hagiographies. Saga writers could draw upon written records; earlier sagas, whether of Icelanders, kings or saints; oral prose and verse; lists of genealogies; law books; works on foreign history; Landnamabok and Islendingabok, some of which, or versions of which, are now lost. (There is also a collection of sagas known as the "Sturlunga Sagas" that, though dealing mainly with quarrels and feuds like the Family Sagas, are concerned only with the most powerful gothar. They were all written contemporaneously with the events described and are therefore thought to contain reliable, albeit often subjectively reported information .)
"Brennu-Njals saga", written in the C13th, shows signs of many of the above influences, foreign and Icelandic. What we learn of Njal's nature is probably true of the writer and of the Family Sagas in general. They are traditional in values and in taste but with sometimes foreign influences discernible - in Njal's Saga forgiveness wins out over the traditional virtue of revenge. Whatever its value as history, the author's purpose was primarily literary, for what is before us today is a historical theme used to create an epic in prose.
The historicity of sagas, however, is dubious. Of one, "Hrafnkels saga Freysgotha", it was previously thought to most accurately represent historical fact. Furthermore, that it had been little altered when written down. Yet the scholar Sigurth Nordal has shown that many of its leading characters never existed . It was written late in the C13th and is perhaps then the first historical novel. It must have been due to its convincing realism that many thought it factual. It was in the C13th saga that the Icelanders showed what they were capable of and, as important as their poetry was, their greatest achievement was a prose style unsurpassed in mediaeval Europe.
I cannot hope to adequately represent this large body of saga-writing on a recording. The one saga I chose to take one series of episodes from is "Egils saga Skalla-Grimssonar". It is known that it was written in Borg, the dark hero's birthplace and also where Snorri Sturluson later lived for five or six years. Turville-Petre says in his book that the saga "appears to have been written during the best years of Snorri's life and it is hard to see who but Snorri could have been its author" . However, I think it is hard to see simply because we will never know how many people there were capable of writing the saga of whom we have no record.
The saga has a great deal of information packed into it and has the stark realism and crisp, telegraphic style typical of the sagas. No other saga is so rich in poetry. The poem recited in the final saga episode of the recording shows Egil's poetic craftsmanship; it is based on Fornyrthislag but with a smoother and stricter metre . What is so unusual is that it has rhyming end-lines. Egil may have heard rhyming Latin hymns whilst at the court of Aethelstan of Wessex. Whatever prompted this, he was an adaptive and innovative skald. The poem came to be known as the "Hofuthlausn", "Head-ransom". Though conventional in its expression, it is a fine poem of its type and lacks nothing - save sincerity! Another long poem in the saga, is "Sonatorrek", "Loss of Sons", which gives an at times startling modern depiction, in expression if not in form, of grief; chapter 85's verses do the same for his feelings on old age .
Egil's C10th skaldic verse was never surpassed. Icelanders came to dominate as the court poets of Scandinavia but by the C12th they are seen to be using the simpler Eddaic verse-forms. This implies that they enjoyed and studied the Eddaic poems but perhaps also that rulers and their courtiers were beginning to find it harder to appreciate the metrical complexity and abstruse euphuisms of the Icelandic skalds. Einarr Skulason, a descendant of Skalla-Grimr, composed a poem against King Sveinn Svithandi (d.1157) of Denmark because of non-payment for a poem. In it he states that the king would rather listen to pipes and fiddles than skaldic verse . Jeff Opland shows how the skalds in Scandinavia suffered the same competition from "low brow" travelling entertainers in the C12th that Anglo-Saxon scopas in England suffered in the C8th . The influence of minstrelsy was waxing, that of skaldic verse waning. Skaldic verse could survive fundamental changes of ethos for it enjoyed a brief swan song when its poets turned to Christian themes.
Some Icelandic literature of the C13th is published in English today. However, the end of the C19th was a high point in Victorian interest in Vikings. William Morris in collaboration with Eirikr Magnusson, produced their "Saga Library" and did much to put Icelandic literature before the English speaking world.
It is from an earlier publication  that I have retold a story taken from a C14th manuscript, "Sorla thattr". Gary Aho, in his introduction to the 1996 edition of the book  makes it clear that though the style of the works are Morris's, there would have been no Saga Library without Magnusson. He also informs us that a biographer's bibliography of Magnusson's work runs to fourteen pages of twelve categories of articles in four languages; he was an expert on Icelandic verse forms and he translated "Pilgrim's Progress" and "The Tempest" into Icelandic. He was also an associate of the leading agitators for Icelandic independence. On their trip together to Iceland in 1871 he displayed to Morris his knowledge of the contemporary and saga-age significance of every site visited, the importance and history of every farm.
I have purposefully omitted the events depicted in the final chapter of "The Tale of Hethinn and Hogni" (which I have called "The Never-ending Battle") where a Christian warrior, Ivar Gleam-bright, brings an end to the 143 year struggle. As I see it this is a Christian gloss on an essentially Heathen tale, evidenced by no reference appearing to it in Snorri's synopsis in "Skaldskarpamal" ch.50 . I prefer Skaldskarparmal's ending, given as a note to the story in the Morris and Magnusson translation: "And so it is said in songs, that in this wise shall the Host of Hedinn abide the Doom of the Gods."
The folktales of Iceland remained an oral tradition until the systematic collection of them began in the C19th after the publication by the Brothers Grimm of "Kinder und Hausmarchen" between 1812-15. Though prior to this, in the C17th, the likes of Jon Gudmundsson and Arni Magnusson had collected some folktales. In 1852, Jon Arnason and Magnus Grimsson published "Islenzk aefintyri". Arnason continued collecting until his death in 1888. His entire collection ran to six volumes . The folktales were written down as they were told, in a plain straightforward manner by ordinary people without literary pretensions.
1. The Origins of Drama in Scandinavia, Terry Gunnel, D.S. Brewer, Cambridge 1995.
2. The Origins of Icelandic Literature, G. Turville-Petre, Oxford Clarendon Press 1953.
3. The Agricola and the Germania, Tacitus, trans. Mattingly & Handford, Penguin Classics 1970.
4. The Poetic Edda, trans. H.A. Bellows, New York 1923.
5. Traditional Oral Epic, J.M. Foley, University of California Press 1990.
6. Edda, Snorri Sturluson, trans. Anthony Faulkes, Everyman Classics 1987.
7. Orality and Literacy, Walter J. Ong, Routledge, London & New York 1993.
8. Viking Age Iceland, Jesse Byock, Penguin Books 2001.
9. Egil's Saga, trans. Hermann Palsson & Paul Edwards, Penguin Classics 1976.
10. Anglo-Saxon Oral Poetry, Jeff Opland, Yale University Press, New Haven & London 1980.
11. Three Northern Love Stories, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson, Ellis & White, London 1875.
12. Three Northern Love Stories, William Morris & Eirikr Magnusson, Thoemmes Press 1996.
13. Icelandic Folk and Fairy Tales, Trans. M. & H. Hallmundsson, Iceland Review Library, Reykjavik 1987.
Other works consulted:
Hrafnkel's Saga, trans. Hermann Palsson, Penguin Classics 1971.
Njal's Saga, trans. Hermann Palsson & Magnus Magnusson, Penguin Classics 1960.
Spellcraft - Old English Heroic Legends, Kathleen Herbert, Anglo-Saxon Books 1993.
“ORALITY AND LITERACY – THE TECHNOLOGIZING OF THE WORD” BY WALTER J. ONG. ROUTLEDGE. LONDON & NEW YORK 1993. ISBN 0-415-02796-9.
One of Odhinn’s greatest quests is his ordeal hanging from the World Tree Yggdrasil. This results in his seeing the shapes of the Runes but we are not told he hears their sounds. The sounds would, however, not have constituted a revelation to Odhinn as the sounds were, to a god of language and oral poetry, already familiar to him. Thus we see a god of consciousness crucially involved in a reification of the “shapes of sounds”, an alphabet, the Futhark. Historically, the runes’ antecedents may have been in part the alphabets of southern European peoples, but the changes in consciousness literacy brings, which are the concern of this book, were experienced by Germanic peoples as a manifestation and gift of the High God.
This book will be of interest to readers of this magazine as it looks at the changes in ways of thinking, in social structures and in the management of knowledge caused by the invention of writing and then the further changes caused by the invention of printing. In order to do this, an examination of the ways of thought in purely oral cultures is made.
It early makes the point that the thought and expression of literature, philosophy, science and even oral discussion amongst literate people are not directly native to human existence; that of mankind’s posited 50,000 years’ existence, scripts have only been in existence for the last 6,000 years. Writing made available resources of consciousness previously unknown. For example abstract, sequential, classificatory and explanatory thought and even the nature of study itself, have all come about as a result of the development of writing.
As literate people, it is fascinating to have this book show you the literate bias of our modern world view, which sees orality as only an inferior variant of literacy, resulting in the contradiction in terms of phrases such as “Oral Literature”, used by academics to describe the creations of purely oral poets and storytellers. Indeed, such is the extent of this bias that we tend to conceptualise and see words as print rather than as sounds. Yet articulated sound is still paramount. Gesture, sign language and writing, however rich, are dependent upon, and substitutes for, speech. Written texts still have to be related to sound, either in the mind or out loud. Though orality can exist without literacy, literacy cannot exist without orality. Yet words used to describe orality, such as “preliterate” are perjorative and define orality only in terms of what followed it.
In chapter 2, an attempt is made to reconstruct preliterate consciousness, partly through a review of the scholarly awakening to the orality of speech, discussing in particular “The Homeric Question”: Apparently, even the classical Greeks saw the Iliad and the Odyssey as different from other Greek poetry. The Roman orator Cicero (106 – 43 B.C.E.) saw the poems as a revision by the Athenian Pisistratus (600 – 527 B.C.E.?) of Homer’s original works, which however, he still saw as written works. Such preconceptions continued, though as early as the C18th Robert Wood, an English diplomat and antiquarian posited that Homer was not literate and that his poems were popular, not learned.
Then came the seminal work of the American scholar Milman Parry (1902 – ’35), the fundamental axiom of which was that virtually every distinctive feature of Homeric poetry was the result of the prosodic constraints of composition in the oral hexameter line. These constraints tended to cause the use of particular words, word-forms and word groups to express certain ideas or themes over and over again. Parry showed that Homer used formula after formula, that he had a kind of phrase book in his memory upon which he repeatedly drew.
This runs contrary to the modern notion of what a poet should be. Since the early C18th poetry had to be original. The Romantics of the late C18th, with their emphasis on, amongst other things, individuality, demanded that the better a poet the less predictable would be his poetry. Until Parry, Homer was seen as a consummate poet, now he appeared to have been using what to modern sensibilities was a battery of clichés! How could clichéd poetry be so good? Precisely because oral noetic thought depended on formulas and the formulas would of course have to be effective. Formulas had to be constantly repeated in oral cultures or they would be forgotten, only effective formulas would survive. When writing comes to a culture, its earliest literature is still of an oral, formulaic character.
The work of Jack Goody (“The Domestication of the Savage Mind”, Cambridge University Press 1977) has since shown how shifts of thought, such as from magic to science, prelogical to rational, savage to domesticated, can be reduced to the contrasts between deeply interiorised literacy and residual orality. Julian Jaynes’ work (“The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind”, 1977) is also discussed; in primitive consciousness the right hemisphere of the brain’s “voices”, attributed to the gods, began to lose effectiveness about 1,500 B.C.E. with the rising use of alphabets. The Iliad shows more bicamerality in its unselfconscious characters when compared to the hero of the Odyssey, who is wilier, more self-conscious, who still hears “voices” but is not under their sway. I am sure readers at this point will see parallels between Odysseus and Odhinn in terms of evolving (Self) consciousness.
Jaynes’ description of the mind-set of the bicameral psyche fits in well with the mind-set of oral cultures; lack of introspectivity, of analysis, of individual will, of a sense of a difference between past and present.
Chapter 3 points up these contrasts more fully: In a primary oral culture (with no writing), words have power simply because power is exerted in uttering them. Sound is only heard as long as some energy creates it or there is silence. There is no sound equivalent of immobility; you can observe a sleeping bison, or a painting of one but you can only hear a sound as the wave passes; an oscillogram makes no noise. To a chirographic (literate) culture, names are tags, labels, but to an oral culture names give understanding of, and some power over, the named.
In a chirographic culture, anything from philosophy to mindless drivel can be set down and preserved. In an oral culture, how can a verbalisation be recalled? The answer is, think memorable thoughts. This means not only that the idea has to be worthy of the effort of memorisation but also that the mode of thought will be easier to remember if it has rhythm, assonance and alliteration, in short, formulaic poetry!
Another aspect of “memorable thought” is oral tradition’s heroic emphasis, partly due to oral cultures’ agonistic lifestyle but also due to the needs of oral noetic processes. Oral memory works best with persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and public. Characters tend to be “larger than life”, having extreme characteristics of whatever type – extremely brave, dangerous, innocent, wise or wicked. As writing and print erode old oral noetic structures, characters can become more ordinary until a novel’s primary character can be dull, boring and inactive.
Further expounded differences of orality are:
1. Additive not surbordinative: A modern narrative will prefer a series of clauses to be introduced by subordinating conjunctions (for example, if; though; because; while; then), which vary the simple oral additive formula of a series of clauses introduced by “and”.
2. Aggregative rather than analytic: A reliance on formulas to sustain memory produce clusters or aggregates of word units. These can still be found in our culture, not just in folktales (where an oak is always “a sturdy oak”, a princess is always “a beautiful princess”) but in political discourse where a fascist is always “a fascist bastard”, a war-monger is always “a capitalist war-monger” and the 4th July is always “the Glorious 4th July”.
3. Redundant or “copious”: Distraction from a written text can always be remedied by re-reading the ever available text; spoken words are not available in this way, they are gone, so constant reminders of what has just been said are used to keep what has just been said close to the listeners’ attention. Repetition of the just-said helps speaker and listener to keep track and if a listener misses one phrase, he or she may catch the next. A speaker also gets a moment to consider what is coming next. This seems redundant and pointless to the linear, analytic, literate mind.
4. Conservative or traditionalist: Knowledge not repeated out loud for others to learn soon vanishes. This establishes a traditionalist concern to conserve what has been learnt arduously over ages. The wise elders who know so much are valued in oral cultures whereas chiro- or typographic cultures favour the young discoverers of novelty. Oral cultures will have innovation and variation but always of traditional material in traditional modes of expression with themes and formulas adapting to new situations. For example, Hrothgar’s thane in Beowulf compares the hero’s action to Sigemund’s dragon-slaying and contrasts it with the ignoble crimes of Heremod.
5. Close to the human life world: Literate cultures can have complex, analytic categorisation dependent on writing that can put thought into a purely abstract level. Even lists of kings or presidents dehumanises them. This can be contrasted with, for example, the genealogical lists of Saxon kings; the list of names is not neutral and abstract but personal to the king at whose court it would, in its original context, have been recited.
6. Agonistically toned: Written abstractions further disengage knowledge from human struggle. This goes beyond merely a pre-occupation with bloodthirsty description of battles; it can encourage struggle between speakers; one’s verbal utterance can provoke another to display an articulate response. A riddle should be countered with a poetic answer, a proverb with another more appropriate or even contradictory proverb (“Great minds think alike.” – “Ah, but fools run in the same channels”), an insult with a wittier put-down, a boast with a better one. Word-duels or “slanging matches” are enshrined in poems such as “Loki’s Flyting”, they are contests of knowledge and wit.
7. Empathetic and participatory: In oral cultures, knowing means empathising with the known. Writing is not a performance, it sets up conditions for objectivity. Oral performance encourages both the speaker and the audience to identify with the hero and share his anger, grief and triumphs.
8. Homeostatic: Words have only their present meaning, a meaning that may include gesture and facial expression and the human, existential setting in which the word always occurs. Oral cultures have no dictionaries defining words by other words that give older, redundant meanings and etymologies. Archaic forms may survive in the written texts of old poems and children’s games but in epic oral poetry, the meaning of some words may be changed or just lost. It seems that oral traditions reflect a society’s present values rather than curiosity about its past. Genealogies that are no longer required disappear from memory.
9. Situational rather than abstract: Luria, in a book called “Cognitive Development” (1976), records work done with Uzbekistanis of varying degrees of literacy in the early 1930’s. Asked which was the odd one out in the series – hammer, saw, log, hatchet, the primarily oral interviewees would reply that they were all alike. Told that a log was not a tool, one man replied, “Yes, but even if we have tools, we still need wood - otherwise we would not build anything.” He would not categorise a log as separate to a situation to which a log was vital.
Oral memorisation is shown to be usually fundamentally different to what a literate person would assume it to be. Instead of the verbatim memorisation of a set text, many oral poets will never deliver verbatim repetitions of the same story. Such poets have huge repertories of formulised phrases for characters or themes in traditional stories (examples of themes are Feasting, Bathing, Fighting). These phrases are metrically correct and can be strung together to form lines of (for Homeric verse) dactylic hexameter (ten syllables, six stresses). These can be shifted around without spoiling the storyline or the tone. From Lord’s “The Singer of Tales” 1960, we know that Yugoslavian tale singers learn their craft by listening all their lives to others who never tell a narrative the same way twice but who use over and over again standard formulas for standard themes.
Recently, some researchers have found practitioners who do use exact repetition; the Cuma, from the Panama Coast, Somalian classical poets and in Japan, where the use of musical accompaniment perhaps tends to fix the words. Interestingly, the Yugoslavian poets maintain the belief that their renditions are “word for word”, though the tape collections show this is just not so. This is because to them, a “word” may be what to us is a “word-cluster”.
Oral memorisation also has a high somatic component, that is, bodily action, whether using beads, gestures, dance, stringed instruments or drums, fostering personality structures that are communal and externalised. Reading and writing are solitary activities that throw the mind back on itself.
The interiority of sound is also explained, how sight situates the observer outside what he views, whereas sound pours into a hearer. You can be immersed in sound in a way that cannot be done with sight. Oral cultures’ sound dominated verbal economy tends toward harmonisation rather than the analytic, dissecting tendencies of typographic cultures centred around impersonal things.
The restructuring of consciousness by writing is looked at in chapter 4: Writing creates context-free language that cannot be directly contested. The only oral equivalent to such autonomous discourse is fixed ritual liturgies and the utterings of prophets, who are not the cause of their prophecies, only the medium of a higher power.
Plato’s objections to writing interestingly parallel modern criticisms of the computer; that it weakens the mind and memory. Printing also received similar criticism in the C15th; that it further eroded the wisdom of the elders in favour of pocket compendiums. The irony of course is that “the message is the medium”; writing and print were criticised in writing and print. At a deeper level, Plato’s very development of a critique was a consequence of the changes in thought that writing enabled. His ideas are part of the voiceless, fixed world of intellectual thought, divorced from the fluid, “personally interactive world of oral culture”.
The author does not have an axe to grind about writing and print (a published academic hardly could have!); the at first simple technologies of writing (quills, parchment, ink) helped humanity achieve its potential and the raising of its awareness. He points up the paradox that artificiality is natural to human beings.
A brief history of writing is given; the earliest script was Sumerian cuneiform from 3,500 B.C.E.; Egyptian hieroglyphs, 3,000 B.C.E.; Mayan, 50 C.E.; Aztec, 1400 C.E. The first and only alphabet was Semitic, which developed from cuneiform but had no vowels. The Greeks introduced vowels. Readers of Semitic had to know the language to supply the missing vowels, but the Greeks perfected the alphabet; now it could be used to read words in different languages.
An alphabet has lost all connection with things; a pictograph of a bird does not render “bird”, or “Vogel”, or “oiseau”; it does not reduce sound to paper; a phonogram (or “rebus”), which represents the sound of one word by a pictograph of another (for example, a drawing of a rock could represent the verb “to rock”), is still a pictograph. Alphabets represent sounds themselves as things, not what those sounds mean.
Numerous examples are given of the onset of literacy in a culture being restricted to certain sectors of society (usually priests, wizards or scribes). Even amongst them though, oral habits of thought died hard, habits such a thinking aloud. This encouraged dictation to scribes. Even when writing by himself, Eadmer of St. Albans in the C11th described the act of writing as dictating to himself. Poets would write by imagined performance to an audience. Only later did people in northern Europe write words to consciously compose a written text. A genealogy is clearly a written record but of an oral sensibility, not a straight forward list. “A begat B, B begat C…” shows the oral drive to use formulas, to exploit the mnemonic effect of balanced repetition (subject, verb, object; subject, verb, object) to narrate rather than list. The names are doing something here, begetting. The formula of high redundancy, discussed earlier, is at work here, each name is repeated twice, as subject and as object.
In the C11th, documents, even in legal proceedings, were not trusted (with good reason, as abbots were constantly forging false grants of land by long dead kings!). A document could not be questioned in court but a group of witnesses would recall what they remembered happening or what their forebears told them had happened regarding a grant of land.
Jack Goody in “The Domestication of the Savage Mind” “shows in detail how when anthropologists display on printed surfaces lists of various items found in oral myths (clans, regions of the earth, kinds of wind) they deform the mental world in which myths have their own existence. The satisfaction that myths provide is essentially not “coherent” in a tabular way.”
The growth in left sphere dominance, it is suggested, governed the drift in early Greek writing from left to right, to “boustrophedon” movement, that is, “ox-ploughing”; right to left on one line, followed by left to right on the next, sometimes with the letters inverted, to stoichedon style, vertical lines (these last two stages are evidenced in runic inscriptions) and finally to left to right on a horizontal line.
Early philosophical writing was presented in dialogue form, then later in objection and response form. Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, allows the reader to imagine he is being told the stories as one of the pilgrims in the “frame story”. It was a long time before C19th novelists felt the unease of their position and those of their readers with their frequent “dear reader”. Such self-consciousness produces an ever-expanding irony.
In any country, there would originally be many spoken dialects. Whichever group came to use writing the most came to see, or rather hear, its dialect become the national language (upper class London English, southern highland German, Tuscan Italian). These developed a vocabulary from non-dialectal sources, that became “grapholects” or perhaps more properly, “printed languages”. With the arrival of dictionaries, the speaker of a grapholect gains huge resources, resources lacking in the restricted vocabulary of any other dialect in that language.
Rhetoric, public speaking, was valued by the Greeks and continued to be valued by classically influenced Europe. A vast body of literature was produced throughout the centuries on rhetoric. Being in essence an oral art form, it retained the oral feeling for agonistic and formulaic expression. So from ancient Greece onwards the importance of rhetoric in academic life gave a highly agonistic pitch in literate style.
The other interaction between orality and literacy was Learned Latin. By 700 C.E., Latin could not be understood by speakers of Romance languages (French, Italian, Spanish) that had grown from it. Also, with so many languages and dialects in Europe, most never written down at all, Latin as a common language between diplomats, students and clergymen was only practical. This would have been an international language in writing only, being pronounced very differently in say, Russia and Spain.
Much oral residue survived in western European literary styles. For example, Tudor English and beyond made much use of epithets, balance, antithesis and formulary structures. Still later in the C19th, elocution contests involved memorising texts verbatim and reciting them to sound like extempore oral productions. Dickens’ on stage readings of his novels were very popular. In America, “McGuffey’s Readers”, published between 1836 and 1920, specialised in “sound-conscious” literature of great heroes, complete with pronunciation guides and breathing drills!
Chapter 5 looks at the shift from hearing dominance to sight dominance. The original auditing of accounts meant being checked by being read aloud. Early title pages were visually pleasing but inconsequential words were set in huge type faces because people still were not seeing text but hearing it, either aloud or in the imagination, so the size of the text was a matter of visual aesthetics not textual sensibility. But the greater legibility of print allows for the development of fast and silent reading. Material becomes immediately retrievable through visual organisation. Over time, books became less like recorded utterance and more like a thing which contained information. Pre-print manuscripts had no titles and were known by their “incipit” (“it begins”), as with repetitions of the Lord’s Prayer being referred to as “Our Fathers”, evincing a residual orality. Manuscripts were often introduced by an observation to the reader (“here you have a book written by…when he…”). This is because oral cultures’ ways of referring to stories are not label-like.
With print exact, reproducible drawings could be used with complex language describing them, reaching their height in the Industrial Revolution. Oral verbalisation tends to focus on action rather than descriptions of appearances. This affected literature as well as science. No pre-romantic prose contains circumstantial descriptions of landscapes. Print created a sense of the ownership of words by authors. The Stationers’ Company from 1557 oversaw authors’, printers’ and publishers’ rights until the advent of C18th copyright laws. Though a person in an oral culture may have proprietary status as the originator of a poem, anyone could learn it and the status was eroded by the common formulas, themes, lore and kennings the poet used along with everyone else.
The electronic age’s “secondary orality” of “talking books”, television, film and radio, in common with primary orality, fosters a sense of communal participation in the immediate present, as opposed to the “set in print”, isolated, private, silent world of printed book readerships. Secondary orality however still relies on print.
There is a world of difference between the agonistic, lengthy rhetoric of old and the political televised debates of today; the latter are short, without any open show of antagonism and their apparent spontaneity is rehearsed.
Chapter 6 discusses differences in narrative; the literate narrative plot has ascending action, building tension to a climax often bringing about a reversal of action, followed by a denouement. Long oral narrative tends to plunge the hearer straight into the action and only later explain how it came to pass; events are not in chronological order. For example, in Beowulf, we first hear of Scyld Scefing and only much later of his ignoble predecessor Heremod. This is because oral cultures cannot construct a plot in the relentlessly climactic way expected by literate cultures, albeit only in the last 200 years. Having heard many different poems on the Trojan War, Homer had a repertory of episodes to string together but without writing he had no way to organise them into strict chronological order. However, up until the 1840’s (with the first detective novel, “The Murder in the Rue Morgue” by Edgar Allan Poe), novels were also just a series of episodes. Why? The answer lies in the dynamics of the orality-literacy shift. Of course there is an oral storyline. The situation at the end of an oral poem, song or story is different to that at the beginning but oral memory has little to do with the strict linear presentation of events. An oral poet remembers not a verbatim “text” but the themes and formulas that he has heard from other poets since childhood. An author, however, can read others’ stories, work from notes, and outline a plot before writing a word of the story. The very slowness of writing encourages the growth of consciousness out of unconsciousness, particularly of conscious reflection upon a matter.
Early women novelists worked outside of the residual oral tradition not having been educated in a grammar or public school where oratory and rhetoric were still studied, albeit from texts. They helped to make the modern novel more like a conversation than a platform performance.
Chapter 7 deals with literary theories. The interiorisation of literacy and text-bound thinking finds its later development in the 1930’s with the “New Criticism”, which insists on the autonomy from any context of a literary work and regards a text as a “verbal icon”. This phrase is in itself revealing, as an icon is a visual, not an aural metaphor. The Russian Formalists held a similar position with emphasis on regarding poetry as “foregounded language” by looking at words themselves in relation to each other within the poem’s closed, autonomous world. They are not concerned with a poem’s message, history, sources or relevance to the author’s life, only with the poem’s internal aesthetics. This is founded in the Romantic quest for “pure” poetry, above real-life concerns, that only becomes possible in the unquestionable statement of writing and the closed world of print. The Romantics were bound to the new technology. Contrast this with the oral poet’s work: It exists only in relation to a real, immediate audience at a particular social event. Aesthetics follow from the oral poet’s other aims of celebration, education and preserving lore and group identity. New Critics and Formalists are dealing with the textual world and their concerns show a swing away from the preceding academic literary over-concern with an author’s life and psychology to the neglect of the texts themselves.
However, Marxist criticism of the New Critics shows that a text is never closed off from the world, that a reader still has to read it, that the meaning sought by the New Critics comes from something beyond the text, namely the sensibilities, sophistication and wit of a middle class aspiring to the traditional aesthetic of the upper classes.
New Criticism implies an old criticism, however, there was no old criticism. Criticism of vernacular English literature before World War One was non-academic and amateur. Early academic study of literature was of Latin and Greek with a rhetorical grounding.
Structuralism, Textualism, Deconstructionism, speech-act and ready-response theories are all reviewed with the common observation that these theories do not take account of primary or secondary orality. Logic and philosophy grew out of the ways of thought made possible by writing but have never addressed orality studies. Neither has history. What is to be made of works of history, such as those of Livy, that were written but with the understanding they would be read aloud? Biblical studies, although aware of the oral origins of the texts, still see orality as merely a text awaiting “setting down” in writing.
Since Hegel, awareness that consciousness evolves has been growing. Though anyone saying “I” has an acute sense of self, reflectiveness and articulation about the self takes time. Narrative in the West, whether in a novel or in Jungian works such as Neumann’s “The Origins and History of Consciousness” (1954), moves to an ever greater concern with inner, personal, articulate self-consciousness. Writing intensifies the sense of self and raises consciousness.