10-1 literary2

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A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis

10.1 (Winter 2010)




courtesy of artrenewal.org


Neither Fish Nor Fowl: The Narrative Middle Ground Between Oral and Literate (With Special Reference to the Irish Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando)

Part One

John R. Harris

I.  Cultural profiles: the oral, the transitional, and the literate

     The seventeenth-century Irish Adventure of Melóra and Orlando (Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando) did not belong to the Age of Newton at all except circumstantially, having been set to paper in the late 1600s.  I published an English translation of this text in the previous issue of Praesidium as faithful to its original Gaelic idiom as comprehensibility (and perhaps more than taste) would allow.  In the present essay, I shall return to the Eachtra by means of my eccentrically literal rendition in order to argue that such a thing as a “transitional text” truly exists and has several distinguishing characteristics.

     Naturally, a transition of any sort presupposes a point of departure and a point of arrival.  For the purposes of this discussion, the place left behind would be that purely or predominantly oral-traditional environment where all human cultures, if traced back to their birth, first created techniques for communicating long narratives held to be worth preserving.  The eventual destination would—from our privileged position—obviously be literacy, characterized by qualities which generally appeal less to the ear and to memory’s love of pattern, favoring instead the demands of precise description and profound analysis.  Yet we should always take into consideration that nobody who embarks upon this cultural journey could possibly be aware that the written or printed page is its endpoint—not unless the culture has already made contact with another far more “advanced” in this regard.

     Indeed, the ultimate objective of my discussion is to suggest that members of transitional cultures need not have imagined themselves anywhere other than where they were to be considered stable by us—that they were not inherently lacking because they always had one more step to take.  This is the retrospective presumption of our time, and it is unjustified.  Not only had such cultures managed to use their incipient writing skills to preserve (and in some cases enhance) the stylistic effects of oral performance; their attitudes, ethics, and general value system also worked out a middle way between the tribesman’s and the bibliophile’s which shows every sign of being indefinitely self-sustaining.  Viewed impartially, their morality “makes sense”—or as much sense as ours.  It certainly evinces no tendency to collapse if that succession of next little steps toward full literacy should stall.  To designate this range of values with the term “transitional” is therefore clearly invidious and somewhat unfortunate, though also inevitable.  To be sure, the “transitional mind” was on its way from orality to literacy in several historical respects.  Yet I contend that we should not see it as obliged to make any journey at all in search of a coherent, feasible, and tolerably humane sense of beauty, justice, and duty.

     First of all, what exactly are scholars talking about when they speak of an oral technique, a literate ethic, and so forth?  Below I have provided three “profiles” of the cultural stages at issue (though, again, the word “stage” implies that transitional culture is bound to decay—a notion I intend to challenge later).  I have used versions of these profiles to create a framework for World Literature classes for several years now.  I flatter myself that they have been refined to the point where the embedded contrasts have risen to the surface, so I shall offer few supplementary comments.[1]

Profile of Oral-Traditional Culture

Formularity     Applies at all levels, from stock phrases (Homer’s “swift-footed Achilles” lounging about his tent) to type-scenes (feasts, prayers, combats); clichés are made necessary by oral delivery (no time for performer to find new words, no way for posterity to remember highly unusual expressions), but also made convincing by the prominence of natural (solar, seasonal) cycles in societies with little technology, since the perceived universe really is repetitive.

Rambling, Episodic Plot     Because oral traditions are simply tales beside or within tales (like a system of pipes), they do not build suspense well and include much matter without direct bearing on the particular story being told; adult audience also fully familiar with all major tales and does NOT listen for “surprises”.  From a literate perspective, stories may hence fall prey to digression and irrelevance.

“Flat” Characters     Tendency even for major characters in stories to seem stereotypically heroic, strong, villainous, seductive, etc., like figures in a cartoon.  Since most of these tales are elaborating an ancient myth or ritual and since the internal human world of hidden motivation has not yet been much explored, such simplicity is inevitable.

Indefinite Networking     No clear beginning or end to any tale, all stories interrelated.  Poet must start in medias res, with many characters appearing to fulfill only minor roles and many events receiving only passing mention; audience brings experience of the complete mythic cycle to performance which one written text cannot supply.

Homeostasis     Tendency literally to “stand in the same place”: stories adjust to new political or technological realities (e.g., changes in ruling elite or techniques of warfare) without betraying any awareness in either audience or performer.  New and old are artfully spliced into one (e.g., guns in African Epic of Sonjara appear to be as old as spears).  The culture assumes all tales to have been handed down unaltered for time immemorial.

Atavism     Worshipful regard for the past; early in time, divinely descended heroes ruled world and established bounds within which later generations must live.  No one can ever reach such heroic heights again, and the attempt to reach these heights in decadent later ages spells disaster.

Proverbs     Virtually all important decisions are reached by adopting a course of action in line with the living wisdom of the ancients, or proverbs; rather than examine the proverbs’ content critically, disputants tend to make superficial associations (e.g., “might makes right” would be quoted to counsel accepting of rulers’ will rather than challenging of rulers’ moral foundation).

Agonistic, Extroverted     Very weak concept of inner life and of self/other division causes feelings to be projected directly into objective world; e.g., anxieties about crop failure or disease may be portrayed as a harsh god’s wrath or a struggle with a nightmarish monster.

Cyclical Concept of Time     Like Nature, human life moves in circles: “What has been is what will be… there is nothing new under the sun” (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Thus the wisdom of forefathers remains forever reliable.

Paradox of Historical Decline     Though history is cyclical, it also spirals downward; Golden Age of heroes is forever gone, and each new generation is a little farther from it.  Many oral cultures (Hindu, Nordic, Five Ages in Hesiod’s Works and Days) foresee the world’s eventual annihilation when the age of advanced decadence is reached.

Naturalistic Concept of Gods     Since oral culture has little technology and lives close to Nature, natural phenomena (seasonal changes, storms, droughts) are a source of many anxieties; gods personify these irresistible forces, often through brutal, heedless passions strictly condemned in human society.  In other words, Nature’s violence is anthropomorphized into lawless immortals with human-like petulance.

Communally Centered     With little technology, society only survives through cooperation among its members.  Also, speech is necessarily a public medium, joining self with others.  Reigning concepts of right seldom distinguish between communal will and personal feelings of duty (if these latter ever actually exist apart from the general will).

Static, Simple Class Structure     Hunter-gatherers, the purest example of oral-traditional culture, have no classes.  More often, classes have become rigidly structured in a “hierarchy” (lit., “holy order”) leading down from priests to soldiers to farmers (but recording of sacred laws by priestly class is often the first act of literacy, and emergence of markets for stored grain also tends to create records: so transition is implicit, even here).

N.B.:  Note that oral culture emphasizes a “spiral” or “funnel” view of history whose high, broad end connects proto-humans (heroes) to the gods and whose lower, narrowing end prophesies a decadent twilight.  This particular facet of the oral outlook is diametrically opposed to literacy’s progressive view of history, which insists that life will improve as people build upon their gathering wealth of knowledge.  In other respects, such as its emphasis upon community, oral culture inspires a certain nostalgia in literate culture, whose moralists are often poignantly aware that the cost of enhanced individualism has been a strength and vibrancy of neighborly ties.

Profile of Transitional Culture

Disrupted Plot, Less Episodic But Not Yet Suspenseful     Such scribal adaptations as are discussed above tend to stretch the original plot out of shape, not by digressing but by describing and annotating.  The episodic nature of oral story-telling becomes easily stalled when packed with new details and explanations.

More Complex and Rigid Class Divisions     The hierarchy of oral cultures is enhanced as literacy “hides” certain kinds of knowledge from the public domain (e.g., in sacred texts).  The increased commerce and more structured urbanization which almost always accompany literacy also favor greater social division.

Confusion over Mythic Allusions     The indefinite networking of oral traditions always leaves loose ends in any given text.  The literate scribes who pass along these texts sometimes handle such allusions very awkwardly in their ignorance of the complete ancient tradition, even when they don’t try to “explain” it allegorically (below).  

Tentative Allegorization     To the traditional mind, every object has links to the supernatural; to the literate mind, matter and metaphysics have split apart.  The transitional mind seeks to find in inherited myths some degree of allegory which keeps hard reality bound to mystery.  An ancient tale’s dragon may be viewed as representing the devouring passion of envy or lust.  Such explanations often do not fit well, since they were wholly unintended in the original stories.

Increased Detail     Literacy allows fuller description—dress, furnishings, facial expressions, etc.—to creep into texts as scribes embellish inherited traditions.  The process is gradual: the more literate the text, the more detail it features.  Transitional texts do NOT use detail effectively to foreshadow, hint at motive, or accomplish other highly literate ends.

Disrupted Plot, Less Episodic But Not Yet Taut     Such scribal adaptations as are discussed above tend to stretch the original plot out of shape, not by digressing into appended episodes but by describing and annotating isolated details within episodes.  The fluidly episodic nature of oral story-telling becomes easily stalled when packed with arbitrary minutiae about clothing, editorial rambles about destiny, etc., though the live performer would no doubt have introduced precisely such embellishments if he were able.

Stylistic Hypertrophy     As suggested immediately above, the traditionalist with writing at his disposal will often lard his text (which he now reads rather than memorizes) with alliteration, florid description of arms and pageantry, and other effects only modestly attainable for his illiterate brethren.  Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has both intricate alliterations and relentless portrayals of finery.  The author of the Welsh Dream of Rhonabwy actually mocks pre-literate tellers for not being able to replicate his details of coloration. 

More Complex and Rigid Class Divisions     The hierarchy of oral cultures is enhanced as literacy “hides” certain kinds of knowledge from the public domain (e.g., in sacred texts).  The increased commerce and more structured urbanization which almost always accompany literacy also favor greater social division.  The sense of fraternity binding entire tribe suffers.

Emergence of Folklore     Folklore is impossible to define clearly, but enhanced class divisions favor a new awareness of “the little guy”.  Ancient stories are often recast in distinctly social terms to dramatize friction between these newly rigid classes (e.g., Aesop’s Fables and Pancatantra).  Ethic of “survival at all costs” endorsed over the mythic hero’s sacrifice to the community for glory’s sake.

ADVANCED STAGE                                               

Emergence of Sexual Love as Theme     As ancient social structures and traditions slowly dissolve, people seek reassurance in the smallest, “safest” possible interpersonal units, such as sexual relationships.  Also, the spread of literacy enhances the sense of an inner life apart from social existence, which allows such relationships to be based on “feeling” rather than decorum.

Emergence of Romance as a Genre     Known most widely as the literary expression of sexual love, romance more accurately provides escape to exotic settings and happy endings after long ordeals.  Its emphasis on successful encounters with “otherness” reflects the opening frontiers of a growing economy, while making heroes more human and their “prize” more internal (e.g., a loving soulmate) also suggests a shift to more literate values.

Heightened Awareness of Other Cultures     This is not a direct causal relationship—but semi-literate culture invariably makes other technological advances (in agriculture, transportation, warfare) which enhance the chances of mingling with alien cultures (e.g., through trade and/or war).  Rising uncertainty about one’s native traditions also creates an interest in the culture of outsiders.

Polytheism Verging on Monotheism     Paradoxically, the number of gods a culture worships usually does not shrink until it reaches one: it expands, through allegorization, until every moral abstraction is deified (e.g., the Roman temples to Intellect, Piety, Manly Virtue, and Faithfulness mentioned in Cicero’s Laws 2.11.28).  All of these abstractions are then synthesized into the idea of a supreme moral being.

N.B.:  The “advanced stage” is that which I shall argue in this essay to be a stabilized plain for culture.  The earlier characteristics indeed leave the impression of a recently oral culture which has begun to grope about for its identity.  It is entirely possible that this diffident groping deserves to be reckoned a stage—a true stage, a period of instability—in its own right.  I am particularly intrigued by the phenomenon of folklore, which such scholars as G. S. Kirk refuse even to distinguish from myth at an evolutionary level.[2]  Yet folktales display the very apparent difference in moral tenor from myth that I describe above.  Clearly a more complicated class structure drives the tensions within the typical folktale in a manner rarely (I would argue never) observable in any myth.

     I shall have more to say of folklore in the final section, for its chacun pour soi creed is the antithesis of the guiding moral vision I see emerging as a culture truly distinct from the oral takes shape.  Hence there is a genuine paradox waiting to be unmasked.  Were folktales, perhaps, told in the humble domiciles of those simple people who had not made the passage to a more literate cultural stage and whose once-comfortable communities were now beleaguered pockets of backwardness?  I think this very likely.

Profile of Literate Culture

Analytical Approach to Reality     Since alphabetic writing requires words to be divided into basic sounds represented by letters, and since writings are made up of words, sentences, chapters, etc. (e.g., all chapters in the Homeric epics were imposed later by librarians), readers develop a habit of cutting the whole into component parts.

Attention to the Unique     This follows from analysis; as parts are examined more closely, their differences change from general irrelevance (oral) to extreme relevance, since they may hold the key to the special nature of an unexplored phenomenon.  Stories now contain fine description whose unique elements may hold vital clues about character, motive, etc.

“Round” Characters Integrated into Plot     Unlike the “flat” (i.e., stereotypical) characters of oral tradition, literate characters are complex, both because the new concept of man acknowledges his “inner being” and because motive becomes an important part of literary plot.

Emphasis of Author’s Subjectivity     Differs from one text to another, but authors are generally much more aware of their perspective’s limits and biases; the first-person point of view proliferates, letters and essays are born.

Introverted, “Self/Other” Perspective     The analytical mind, reflecting on itself, sees inner and outer selves as essential (often clashing) components (e.g., spirit/body, conscience/custom); other people share remoteness and mystery of outside since their feelings/beliefs less knowable than one’s own (where “one” is author and/or main character).

Progressive View of History     As thinkers analyze reality, they discover (or so they believe) ability to reduce chances of failure and enhance those of success.  (At advanced stage, even natural history is seen as reflecting a process of gradual change for the better; like individuals and governments, species and eco-systems constantly work to achieve higher levels of stability and efficiency.)

Pyramidal Plot of Rising Suspense     Since truth is now viewed as linear rather than cyclical, and since all wholes are viewed as produced by their parts, the good story is seen as a sequence of changes driven by a “conspiracy” of common elements; plot is a closed system with Aristotle’s beginning, middle, and end (i.e., a problem, complications, and climax).

Parody     Due to author’s growing awareness of power over text, once-revered tales of gods and heroes, which seem quite impossible to vouch for on the basis of any author’s personal experience, are now often treated as outrageous deceptions practiced on gullible minds.  An ironic gap develops between narrative and “truth” which certain witty authors exploit.

Deracination/Alienation     Only now a major theme in literature: as old-fashioned story-telling becomes the object of parody, so traditional beliefs generally become more and more inadequate to handle the new conditions and pressures of the literate world.  People pass through a stage of feeling uprooted and lost in a world where their fathers’ truths no longer make sense and where they themselves are seen as responsible for their lives.

Paradoxical Rise in Both Secularism and Mysticism     The competition of literacy with tradition dramatizes a broader competition of new ways and old.  The seeming irrelevance or inadequacy of old ways leads some to believe only in immediate realities, while others flirt with magic and the supernatural to revive the power of old belief systems.  This process continues well into the advanced literate phase.


Class Divisions Thrown Into Confusion     The hierarchy of transitional cultures slowly slackens as literacy spreads and knowledge trickles into the public domain (a very slow process before the printing press).  Even the illiterate may profit materially from the increased trade which often occurs for reasons related to the rise of literacy.

Rise of Empiricism and Science     Empiricism (testing the truth of things through sense experience: “trust only what you see and touch”) emerges amid skepticism about traditional beliefs; this, coupled with a new regard for the logic of how pieces compose wholes, eventually leads to science.

Unprecedented Socio-Economic Mobility     Literacy puts unlimited knowledge within reach of anyone literate, a new respect for the individual creates more liberal social legislation, the rise of science generates new technology, the valuing of creativity erases traditional obstacles, etc.  All adds up to more fluid social and economic environment, with classes based on the ability to compete in the marketplace rather than on inherited resources.

Reformist View of Society     Fixed forms of government (primarily monarchy) yield to more flexible forms allowing for continual improvement, the belief in which reflects a literate confidence that things can be analyzed and changed for better.

Right Conduct Based on Conscience     Conduct either imitates outside example or obeys an inner feeling of compulsion.  The inner voice (conscience) is increasingly viewed as more authoritative and the only source of truly good conduct, since the inner being is closer to the true self and the spirit.

Developed Concept of Individualism     Since parts hold the secret of whole and since conscience is man’s only lawful ruler, society’s purpose is to develop strong individuals with an active, honest consciences; individuals must not be turned into the cogs of an impersonal social machine.

Valuing of Creativity Over Conformity     Similar to above: both artistically and morally, more credit is given to breaking with tradition and asserting personal talent, insight, belief, interpretation, etc..  Bias toward newness is now favorable rather than (as in the oral mind) dismissive.

Monotheism Based on Morality     The law of conscience found within the individual self is saved from arbitrary selfish impulse by the concept of spirituality.  The god of literacy is a private voice of goodness joining all reasonable people together in a sense of higher, super-material purpose (a latent contradiction with growing empiricism).

N. B.:  Worth stressing is the number of tensions implicit in this triumphant “arrival”.  The achievement of high literacy, in other words, offers us no compelling reason to suppose it the end of the line.  Very literate cultures can be both deeply spiritual and immovably materialist, both profoundly introverted and zealous for daring social experiments, both mawkishly sentimental over the lost simplicity of the “natural” life and deliriously euphoric over the prospect of an artificially constructed paradise in the future.  (Individuals within these cultures, too—if observations of our own hold true generally—may themselves harbor such contradictory attitudes at the same time!)  Some of these tug-of-wars must surely produce winners and losers sooner or later.  The resulting profile of culture’s next phase might suggest a return to a quasi-oral primitivism after the fashion so flamboyantly etched out by Marshall McLuhan a few decades ago… or it might involve a fusion of humans with robotic technology, or some other scenario that strikes us presently as science-fiction.  At any rate, none of the profiles above features tensions of a more dynamic and explosive nature straining within it; so my own judgment (not without much regret, given the kinds of possible “next step” I have identified) is that the equation of literacy with evolutionary terminus must be rejected. 

II.  Oral Technique in the Eachtra Mhélora

a)       narrative style

     The Eachtra could easily have been read aloud to an audience that would imagine itself (but for the obvious presence of a paper text and the resulting constriction of the reader’s movements) listening to an oral performance of the highest caliber.  The rhetorical strategies which abound in the narrative are those to which speakers have a clear predisposition.  Writing has not weaned the Irish romancier from oral technique; on the contrary, it has probably permitted him or her to inject more oral flourish into the narration than would have been possible when mere memory is put on the spot within a circle of unblinking eyes.

     Alain Renoir appears to have received this “hypertrophic oralism” (my phrase) of the polished transitional author rather differently, if I understand him.  Of the Nibelungenlied, for instance, he writes, “we must be permitted to doubt that the author… would have intentionally composed that epic in such a manner that only readers and listeners steeped in those older forms could have interpreted the work and appreciated the narrative mastery which had gone into its composition.”  I believe Renoir to be needlessly assuming that the oral performance is an acquired taste soon lost as texts start to be written down.  Nonetheless, he concedes that “the Nibelungenlied might reflect the oral-formulaic style of earlier texts which the poet had studied without necessarily knowing anything about oral-formulaic composition.”[3]  Why would this knowledge be so cryptic?  Its thrust was largely to create a narrative with engaging phonetic effects and with various kinds of repetition to assist the bard’s chore of memorizing.  The phonetic effects would remain popular if the literate text was read aloud (as it surely was in most medieval settings); while the mnemonic strategies, though no longer necessary, would retain a kind of charm in a culture which had not yet left the oral world fully behind and did not (like ours) see tedium in all recurrence.

     That a deep appreciation for oral aesthetics abided both in authors and their audiences is indeed the inescapable conclusion when we find works like the Eachtra Mhélora exploiting the written word to arrange alliteration and assonance—often through strings of like-sounding synonyms—far in excess of what most live performers could have managed.  Of these self-echoing chains, the text offers dozens, mostly having to do with arms or combat (the same situations where they crop up in later, ampler texts of the ancient Táin Bo Cúalgne).  The three most sustained and artful cases occur in the battle between the Africans and the Babylonians, in the subsequent single combat between the African king and the Blue Knight, and in the description of the ship’s surreptitious launch with the shanghaied King of Narsinga.  I will reproduce only the last of these: “he heard the groaning and sad gurgling of the grieving, keening, guttering waves upon the hollow flanks of the wide vessel, and the struggle and straining rustle of the speeding, ever-shrieking winds in the sleek, snug-spun canvas, and the knife-sided light-nosed advancing prow of the ship a-splitting and a-sundering the hasty hill-faced waves.”  I must not be prolix, so I ask readers to accept that the Irish is at least as dense with assonance and alliteration as I have represented it (such effects are always a great challenge to mimic in translation).  The passage is the more remarkable in that it does not have anything to do with battle: i.e., the romancier has imported an oral technique to a type of scene seldom employed in the oral tradition.  A fifteenth-century text of the Cath Fintrágha (Battle of Ventry) offers something similar in portraying the approach of the invading Norman fleet.[4]

     As for formulas, those seemingly otiose repetitions which Milman Parry made famous (or infamous) in his study of Homeric verse, the Eachtra seems no more bashful about using them than Renoir found the Nibelungenlied to be.  The most frequent were the phrases ciodh trachta (which I finally translated “whatever’s to be said”) and gidh eadh (“though it were so”), along with a great many bland idioms used in speech (“if it’s so…”, “O King and Lord…”, “what’s to be done is…”, etc.).  Of course, such repetitions are found even in the most literate speech, and they are clearly not being employed as a technique to render the material memorable.  Perhaps this is what Renoir means when claiming that medieval composers do not understand the strategies they vaguely imitate.  Were we to suppose as much, however, we would simply be conceding that the neo-literate story-teller was attached to the perceived effect of oral style—even so apparently lackluster an effect as formularity.

     To help in the cataloguing of several techniques or effects which plainly rely on the speaker-listener (as opposed to the writer-reader) relation, I have had recourse to the Roman rhetorical treatise Ad Herennium.  Once thought to have been penned by Cicero, now consigned to the list of works whose authors we shall never be sure of, this remarkable handbook for aspiring orators is a veritable index of all strategies and tropes known to and named by the ancients, Greeks as well as Romans.  I can think of no better way to emphasize the Eachtra Mhélora’s resoundingly oral style than borrowing some of the rubrics in this tract’s fourth book.  I have used Greek names below, however, since they are generally more familiar to rhetoricians.

     anadiplosis: probably a poor choice for the feature of the Eachtra which I wish to highlight here, but I can find no better term; properly the repetition of a significant word to add ringing emphasis (e.g., “You knew the victim, you knew his routine, you knew of his wealth…”).  Occurs in the Eachtra exclusively during speeches to identify the speaker, as in, “… so she said, ‘Sir Mador,’ said she…”.  No apparent need to stress the speaker in most of these cases; clearly the adoption of an oral habit very common in our own informal usage (e.g., “So I said to him, ‘Billy,’ I said…”).  

     asyndeton: the absence of conjunctions (lit. “untied’); can be used in very literate circumstances to slow down rhythm of text (e.g., “he was perplexed, disoriented, mildly frightened) or in oral narratives—often with alliteration—to concentrate an effect (e.g., “the sun rose big, bright, beautiful, beaming”).  Descriptions in the Eachtra abound in the latter kind of congeries.  Cf. the two steeds upon which the African king and the Blue Knight ride into combat: “a horse high-headed, heavy-winded, wide-sided, ebony-hued beneath him” and “a horse braided, blue-maned, mad-rageous, unrestrained beneath him”. 

     catachresis: similar to the mixed metaphor and the transferred epithet.  The Ad Herennium gives these examples, among others: “Man’s vigor [i.e., life] is brief,” and, “long wisdom in a man” (4. 33).  Even the best writers sometimes garble their words thus: the oral performer is apt to do so routinely, and with a certain gay abandon.  Consider the delightful phrase, “people of music and amusement” (lucht ciúil agus oifide).  In many cases, my translation cannot capture connotations of words in the Eachtra that might strain propriety (especially since I sought to duplicate alliterative effects); but minor strains are fairly common, and seldom without the charm of vagueness (though the Ad Herennium’s author has no use for imprecision).

     enargeia: a term referring a description or narration made lively—not necessarily by shifting tense to the “historic present”; yet the Ad Herennium does include frequent tense shifts in its illustration (4. 55), and several such shifts occur in the Eachtra, almost always with “come” or “go”.  E.g., “the Knight of the Blue Arms comes into the cave, and he drew the carbuncle out of his bosom….”  Common even in our own conversation today (e.g., “So I called out, and he turns to me…”)  

     hendiadys: the splitting of one object, quality, or idea into two (a species of synonymy): e.g., “wrack and ruin”.  Possibly gives an oral performer an extra second to ponder his next words, but more likely a bid for a copious grandeur of style that magnifies the subject (which is how the Ad Herennium’s author understands it).  In the Eachtra, examples include mo grádh agus mo shecréit (both meaning “my darling”) and suain agus codlata (synonyms for sleep).  

     hyperbole: exaggeration—everybody does it; yet oral culture uses this device in a distinctly inflated, simple manner wholly lacking in self-consciousness: e.g., Christy Mahon’s “I’m destroyed walking” in The Playboy of the Western World (Synge’s literal translation of a common expression in Irish).  In the Eachtra, such exaggerations are largely confined to battle scenes.  When the Blue Knight relieves the King of Babylon in this passage, an alliterated synonymous doublet is followed by a simile, whereupon the sentence falls apart (metanoia—see below) to be hastily rebuilt around a grand formulation of slightly strained logic: “he came to his aid and assistance like a long-leaping lion a-coming under a mad fit of wrath upon herds of brutish beasts—thunder it was that struck through him and in him, the way it seemed not killed was anyone all about the battlefield before that but those killed by the Knight of the Blue Arms around the King of Babylon in that place.”

     litotes: familiar to us as “understatement”, and naturally not exclusive to oral rhetoric; yet oral poetry has a strange affinity with this device, especially in circumstances of combat (where it collaborates in a grim species of battleground humor).  Ou mên isên g’eteisen, says Sophocles’s Oedipus of the stranger he slew at the crossroads: “It was no equal payback he gave me.”  In the Eachtra, the convergence of the African and Babylonian forces for a great battle is inaugurated by a good example: “the two hosts set their faces either against the other, and not the encounter of friends was that encounter….”

     metanoia: lit. “afterthought”; the Ad Herennium suggests (under correctio, 4. 36) that audibly replacing one word with a better may rivet attention on the new word.  In oral circumstances (including those of casual conversation today), occurrences are seldom so artful—certainly not in the Eachtra.  Cf. the King of Babylon’s rather uninspired stumble, “the other treasures which you treat of—as to say, the oil of the boar of Tús and the carbuncle—no deed is more difficult than to obtain them.”

     onomatopoeia: dearer to some traditional poets than others—thought to hold no attractions for Homer (but cf. chalcopod’ hippo for a trotting pair of horses).  Loses appeal as works more often read silently; even the Ad Herennium recommends limited use in speeches (hoc genere rare est utendum, 4. 31).  The Eachtra’s glorious description of the ship setting sail with the King of Narsinga abounds in these effects: e.g., the glug-glug of gearán agus golghuire as the king hears the waters and the sibilants in siubhlaighe síorchaintighe as the sails fill.

     parataxis: not actually discussed in Ad Herennium as a rhetorical strategy, but well known to students of oral tradition as the preferred manner of joining clauses in traditional matter.  The “and… and… and…” structure of the Eachtra is indeed so jarring to modern taste that I was tempted in translating to suppress some of its exuberance.  The oral mind tends to arrange events side by side without closely examining their logical connection through subordination (or hypotaxis).  “The king’s son, by whom our adversary was slain, approached us,” may well emerge as, “Our adversary was slain, and it was the king’s son who slew him, and he approached us.”

     simile: like hyperbole, a trope known to artistic expression of all stages yet enjoying a distinctive character at the traditional stage.  Similes in oral works could not be passed along through generations of bards if minutely particularized.  They are therefore quite general and brief, as a rule (“roared like a lion cornered by hunting dogs”, “ran like a young stallion escaped from the stable yard”).  The great crack created when the Blue Knight rives the stone holding Orlando prisoner stirs a simile of this sort: “it was like unto a thin, fragile-rimmed bladder full of air after breaking apart, or a heavy-sodded plot of earth after being lightning-struck….”  The terms are lively and effective but not at all rare, ironic, or multi-faceted.

     synonymy: already discussed under “hendiadys”; oral tales may sometimes string together three or even four synonyms or near synonyms: e.g., the Eachtra’s opening description of Orlando: “to the utmost strong and skillful and skirmish-savvy, of face and form and fine manners best among all men young or old the wide world round.”  Elements of longer congeries often will not be quite synonymous, but shades of difference are negligible.  Worth stressing is that the members of many such lists are alliterated: gaile agus gaisgidh (both denoting skill at arms), catha no comhlainn (combat), uamhann agus eagla (fear—the initial “a” would be the prominent vowel sound beginning both words).  As attention is being directed away from a fine reading of individual descriptors, it is simultaneously being courted by audible rhythms and repetitions

     To this list might be added an oddity for which no formal designation exists, to my knowledge: the curious recasting of conjunctions as disjunctions.  I have in mind such passages as, “she sought news of him, what land was this or what had made of it a wilderness,” and, “the king sought news of him, who was he or what land was his.”  The hint of prolepsis here (i.e., the “I know thee who thou art” construction) is not the target of my query, though it is also highly characteristic of oral practice (being very close to metanoia).  What puzzles me, rather, is the employment of “or” rather than “and” to distinguish between two alternatives essentially indistinguishable—not to be distinguished, at any rate, by a clear “either/or” choice.  Perhaps to identify one’s land is not precisely the same as identifying oneself, though place of origin would be considered a vital part of personal identity in pre- or proto-literate times.  Surely to explain the cause of a land’s devastation is not a substitute for actually naming the land.

     It is worth remarking that the Odyssey features this same inquisitive redundancy when strangers are asked their identity.  Tis pothen eis andrôn, pothi toi polis êde tokêes, asks Telemachus of the disguised Athena in book 1: “Who of men are you, what your city and your parents?”  To have answered one of these questions would verge upon answering all three for an ancient Hellene.  The disjunctive presentation is not in evidence here; but the copious style, making many things out of few, most certainly characterizes oral habits.

     No doubt, I have overlooked several other traits that might have been cited to the same effect.  The cumulative impact of the evidence moves us irresistibly to the conclusion that this text, though written down by an author rather than dictated to a scribe, almost indubitably, continues to throb with the techniques of the oral composer.  To argue that the possession of literacy would quickly disaffect any narrator or creator with those techniques—that they would suddenly have grown childish or awkward to him—would be to blind oneself to the plain truth illustrated in texts like the Eachtra Mhélora.

b)       conjunction of material

     To continue our review of the Eachtra’s residual oral qualities, we must note that its method of composition reflects the quilt-work construction of a bard who has inherited scores or even hundreds of tales from which to assemble tonight’s story—not the out-of-the-blue inspiration of the literate novelist seeking never-yet-expressed truth.  Indeed, if Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso has shed any light of influence at all upon the Eachtra, it is far dimmer than the many clear rays beaming thereupon from native myth and folklore.  Like a composer of the old school, the romancier shows utterly no self-consciousness about pilfering matter from these sources, which themselves had borrowed it from an immeasurable antiquity.  The only criterion for finely (or roughly) adjusting an oft-used stone and slipping it into the narrative wall seems to be whether or not it fits the surrounding story—not the appropriateness of its source to the genre, the audience’s likely familiarity with the source, etc.

     One example out of myriad possibilities will suffice.  I remarked in note 5 of my translation that Orlando’s ill-fated journey to the Forest of Wonders resonates with a tale collected by scholar Séamus Ó Duilearga some time between 1930 and 1943 in County Clare.   Ó Duilearga’s primary source was Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, a man of very advanced years (he was born in 1858), recently stricken with blindness, and most probably not literate in any language.   Stiofáin was just the kind of figure who would have grown up hearing oral recitations of matter centuries old (and perhaps, at its roots, even older).  It is scarcely surprising, then, that the long tale which Ó Duilearga would entitle “Seacht Sléite an Óir” (“The Seven Roads of Gold”) echoes ancient mythology, medieval literature, and the repertoire of other more-or-less contemporary raconteurs at various points.[5]  The only child of an old couple sets out to try his fortune in the world.  He comes to an enchanted house which appears to be deserted by all human life, but in which a sumptuous supper is suddenly laid before him (68-69).  After eating, he is asked by a cat if he would prefer that she assume human form by night or by day.  He chooses night, cryptically explaining that they will have light by day (69).  (Does the talking cat, perhaps, frighten him?)  The cat warns him finally never to speak a word throughout the night, no matter what happens, and then sends him off to bed.  She herself follows later—but there is no suggestion of a sexual encounter in Stiofáin’s very proper narrative, and indeed the woman of mystery eludes the young man every time he strikes a flint in the hope of glimpsing her features.

     In any case, three successive nights turn out to be passed in an activity far from amorous.  Three strangers stalk into the house and demand that the boy make a fourth to their card game, then—the next night—that he supplement a two-against-two fighting match, and at last—on the third night—that he participate in a two-on-two football scrimmage (70-72).  Though never having uttered a word before, the boy cries out indignantly when fouled during the football contest.  Next morning, the cat transforms herself into the most beautiful woman he has ever seen and informs him that he has broken the cruel spell laid upon her and that the two of them are free forever more to share a connubial life in the lap of luxury (72).  Of course, the hero accepts.

     With a little adjustment, this scenario is the Eachtra’s.  The lonely journey, the enchanted space without human company, the miraculously laid feast, the prohibition of speech, the three feats whose completion is required to break the spell, the eventual happy union… all appear in both tales, though of course the adventurous boy is not paralyzed as his lady-love unravels the enchantments (except in their death-like bed) and the hellish guardian’s role is, in an almost complete turnaround, now the lady’s.  (The cat, as was noted, preserves a hint of the sinister.)  So much for Orlando and Mélora… but Stiofáin’s story is far from ended.  His impetuous young man takes leave of his lady to visit his parents, being endowed by her at parting with a magical ring that will grant his every wish.  He must only take care, he is warned, not to make the object of any wish his lovely wife or any occupant of their house (which is now attended by a swarm of dutiful servants).  The young man Seán (Stiofáin finally names him for us) uses the ring’s magic to speed his passage to his parents and then to lodge them in a mansion (73-74).  All is well until a meddlesome priest induces him to share a few glasses of porter.  The serving girl, decides the priest, is the most perfect specimen of her sex on earth.  No, no, retorts Seán: the least handsome servant of his lady’s palace is yet more beautiful.  Naturally, he invokes a servant’s instant presence with the aid of his ring; and then, as the stakes in the frivolous dispute rise higher, his wife herself, the fairest of them all (75-77).  The wife gives no immediate hint of vexation, but steals away that night with her ring, leaving behind a note (in a fascinating bit of homeostasis which infuses this oral world with universal literacy) to explain that Seán will never see her again unless he can find her in the Seven Roads of Gold (77-78).

     For medievalists with a Celtic interest, this part of the tale pulses with literary suggestion.  The otherworldly lover’s prohibiting her beau from revealing her existence lies at the center of Marie de France’s lay Lanval; and Marie, of course, insisted that she drew the matter from her native Brittany, where it had no doubt been worked into many a tale.  The hero’s return to an earlier narrative setting to set things straight, his violating a strict taboo soon after arrival, and his being forced to surrender an entrusted ring by way of signifying divorce from his mystical partner are all vital elements in the Welsh Mabinogion’s romance Owein (which Chrétien would render Yvain in his version of the same matter).  To suppose that Stiofáin had heard the text of the Eachtra Mhélora would be needless and somewhat naïve; to suppose further that he would have (or could have) had direct contact with these medieval tales in the literate form through which we know them would court absurdity.  Rather, literary records are obviously telling us from several directions that local story-tellers like Stiofáin were still fishing in the narrative lakes—well into the twentieth century—from which Celtic narrative had reeled in material for at least a millennium.

     The oldest resonance yet is that which the tale next offers.  Seán at once begins his quest of the Golden Rose (the name which Stiofáin confers in English, also rather belatedly, upon his princess).  He vows never to eat or sleep two nights running in the same place until he has found his lady.  A brief adventure has him outsmarting three thieves, whose magical clothing of concealment and escape he is able to purloin by playing naïve (79-82).  Thereafter he comes to a helpful old man who possesses the power to call together all the animals of the earth and ask them if any has seen or heard of the Seven Roads of Gold.  No luck… but the old master gives Seán a special ball which, if repeatedly smacked, will eventually take the lad to the sage’s brother (84).  This second wise man calls together all the fish of the sea, yet they are also unable to identify the Seven Roads of Gold.  Another ball to follow… and Seán is led to a third wise brother, the master of all the birds in the sky.  Though the feathered tribe appears just as ignorant as its predecessors, a great eagle arrives late.  It had farther to fly—all the way from the Seven Roads of Gold (88)!

     The trickster of tricksters theme which we see in the interlude of the thieves is universal in folklore.  Rarer and more significant is the hero’s pursuit of the ball.  This motif appears in Irish literature as early as the Táin Bó Cúalnge.  Those versions of the great epic containing the Macgnímrada, or Youthful Deeds, of Cú Chulainn represent the wunderkind as setting out on a playful jaunt which involves hitting his silver ball as far as possible with his hurley stick and then catching it along with his other equipment (flung after the ball).[6]  The orb, it is true, does not seem to reveal to little Cú a particular path which he must follow; the ball has obviously come to assume a mystical character with the passage of time.   In a tale collected by Holger Pedersen in 1895 while visiting the Aran Islands, the ball role is usurped by a series of horses as fast as the wind.  Pedersen’s scéalaí was one Mártín Neile Ó Conghaile, an old man very much like Stiofáin in his marginal literacy, his life of manual labor from which story-telling was mere respite, and his general immersion in traditional ways.  The tale which Pedersen would dub “Iníon Ridire an Chaisleáin Ghlais” (“The Daughter of the Knight of the Gray Castle”) plainly shares some of the same narrative molds as produced Stiofáin’s episodes.[7]  A young man flees an unpromising home to seek his fortune, he vows not to eat or sleep in the same place until having fulfilled his charge to find a mysterious princess, he is received by six supernaturally wise figures—three sisters, then three brothers—who send him along his way (the latter three with horses, not balls), the final brother commands all birds of the air to assemble and tell what they know of the Gray Castle, the late-arriving eagle is alone in recognizing the castle (from which it has just come)… and the two tales proceed to their conclusion almost step for step.  In both, the eagle takes the adventurer upon its back and conveys him to the far-off land (being fed by the passenger periodically with raw meat taken aboard).  The princess is pleased to see her beau (for the second time, in Seán’s case) and takes the initiative in securing (or affirming) a marriage by using her wits to resolve a menacing situation.  Then a return and lasting happiness…

     The ball has now bounced pretty far from Cú Chulainn.  And so it would—for I am trying to illustrate the essential point that compositions like the Eachtra Mhélora cannot be viewed as having flowed directly from a particular source.  In her introduction, Mac an tSaoi shows herself well aware that the Eachtra’s themes and motifs crop up in places like Chrétien de Troyes’s romances and the tales of the Mabinogion.  She adds several early Irish sources, as well, such as the Eachtra Airt Mac Cuind (where she finds a precedent for the disembodied hands that amaze Orlando in Merlin’s enchanted cave).[8]  Yet her the thesis, like mine, is that our text evolved from a promiscuous absorption of material highly reminiscent of an oral tale’s, it remains somewhat understated.  Originally Mac an tSaoi appears to approve the argument of Robin Flower, formidable scholar and quondam curator of the British Museum, which she summarizes thus: “that not only was a translation into English of the Orlando Furioso made in Elizabeth’s time, but that the translator, Sir John Harrington, while visiting this country [Ireland], bestowed a copy of his work upon a son of the O’Neill and that the earl himself took pleasure in it.  His [Flower’s] conjecture that here lies the first link in the chain that would grow to be our Eachtra Mhélora need not concern us.”[9]

     On the contrary, I think we should be very concerned about this conjecture; for the correct response to it is both “yes” and “no” in broad terms, however wrong Flower might have been about the specific text he chose to foreground.  To accept only a “yes” or a “no” in these matters of provenance—or even a “maybe”—would be to misapprehend the nature of a transitional work.  Authors of this sort may be comparatively well read without having imbibed the literate notion of the discrete text, created almost ex nihilo and verbally fixed once and for all by a single intelligence whose personal name thereafter “owns” the literary “property”.  Rather, printed matter is just more pottage in the pot.  One stirs it with the other contents, which may include fragments of ancient myth, largely intact local legends, and grossly misremembered remnants of imported traditions; and one dishes out whatever comes to the surface in the ladle.  Under such circumstances, it would be virtually impossible to prove that Harrington’s translation of Ariosto did not play some infinitesimal role in our Eachtra Mhélora—but not at all difficult to debunk the proposition that it was the tale’s nucleus.  Indeed, why not suppose that Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which most certainly pilfered from Ariosto’s Orlando in a time-honored literate way, somehow influenced the conception of the “Merlin’s cave” episode in the Eachtra?  Mac an tSaoi alludes to the proposed Spenserian influence with more skepticism than conviction (ix); but copies of Spenser’s allegorical epic would have been infinitely more abundant and accessible in late sixteenth-century Ireland than Harrington’s translation.

     The long and the short of it is that no evidence can decide such claims, since the very nature of transitional style is to worry away the edges even of the most influential material into something that appears “stock”; in other words, to continue the universal borrowing and resistance to subtle reference that we observe in oral style.  Frankly, I find it somewhat perverse that scholars tend to dismiss yet more direct patterns of influence in these cases.  Why might the Eachtra not have culled a few particles of matter straight from Ariosto’s text in Italian?  Irish soldiers-of-fortune had strayed all over Europe by this time, and European wrecks were also constantly washing up on Ireland’s western shores (as did a few ships of the Spanish Armada and, much later, the Lusitania).  Not all of the Irishmen who thus made contact with the Mediterranean’s more literate heritage would have been fluent in all the requisite languages, to be sure—but the consequent problems of cross-cultural transmission are much exaggerated.  A semi-literate Irish sailor might have heard parts of a text read or recited in Italian and then returned to his native village with what little he understood and recalled of the performance.  A fisherman might have given to the local priest a book recovered from a chest along the strand, and the priest might have rendered whatever contents remained legible tant bien que mal in Irish during a long winter night’s cuartaíocht.[10]  

     Such a scenario would account for the extreme sketchiness and brevity of what possible literary borrowings tend to occur in transitional works.  Had the compiler of the medieval Irish adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, the Merugud Uilix (Homecoming of Ulysses), ever read or heard anything approaching the complete epic?  Perhaps so… but the only episodes he could recall with any degree of clarity were those involving Aeolus and the Cyclops.[11]  Is there any scintilla of a hint that the Eachtra Mhélora’s author had a similarly fragmentary recall of Ariosto’s Italian original?  The names of the characters may offer a hint.  The non-Celtic “Mélora” hardly approximates “Bradamante”—but it comes much closer to the moniker of Ariosto’s other redoubtable virgin-warrior, Marfisa (muddled in memory, just maybe, with the original Orlando’s love interest, Angelica).  Orlando himself has retained nothing but his name in Irish, having been utterly transformed both in manners and appearance: the Boiardo/Ariosto version is somewhat tongue-tied, socially awkward, hirsute, and gigantic.  The villainous Sir Mador, however, is almost surely Angelica’s lover Medoro—the slip of a boy who steals Angelica away from Orlando in Ariosto’s romance, and does so in Spain!  The chain of transmission upon which the Irishman has drawn apparently begrudges Medoro his success at the hero’s expense.  Now he is a cad, defamed and execrated by a posterity far beyond the pale of his creator’s culture rather as was Odysseus by the Romans for conceiving the Trojan Horse–and as was Aeneas himself by medieval raconteurs for deserting Dido.

     I suggested in my translation (see n. 13) that Mélora’s mare during her fight with the King of Africa may possibly represent a dim memory of the hippogryph (half horse, half griffin) briefly acquired by Ariosto’s Bradamante.  Our author almost makes the light-footed steed take flight: “the likeness of a squirrel leaping between trees was that mare.”  Furthermore, we are told in the next sentence that the Knight of the Blue Arms’ shield bears the image of a “wingèd griffin”.  Besides these unarguably tenuous associations, the Irish tale produces several other dim echoes of Orlando Furioso 3-4.  The wicked Pinabello tricks Bradamante into a plunge which lands her within a wondrously ornate cave, home to the tomb of none other than Merlin; and the deceased yet still prophetic seer is served by a priestess (not in the least diabolical, but Sibylline in her disheveled hair and loose garb) who introduces the brave bellatrix to her unborn progeny.  The Irish Orlando’s entrapment in Merlin’s cave, while inverting these scenes in many ways, nevertheless recalls them.  Of course, the lady saves her knight in Ariosto as in the Eachtra—not by returning to Merlin’s cave, to be sure, but by breaking the enchantment of a stupendous mountaintop palace built by the sorcerer Atlante.  Employing both guile and force of arms, Bradamante ends up not only with her Ruggiero, but also—temporarily—with the hippogryph ridden by the magician.[12]

All of this may seem the mere idea of a plot line running from (or contorted through) Italian to Irish: the barest of skeletons without a trace of flesh or hair.  The resulting connection between cantos 3 and 4 and the Eachtra offers scarcely more of a lifeline that what exists between “Medoro” and “Mador”.[13]  Yet if our author took nothing from Ariosto more than a few garbled names, a sense of one misnamed character’s unworthiness, and the broadest blueprint of a story from two ill-remembered chapters, he nonetheless took something.  He preserved the memory of someone else’s memory of a partial, weak translation.  The transitional author, like the performing bard, is always open to suggestion, never sensitive to “intellectual property”.

     We have not proved, then, that the Eachtra Mhélora’s author had no contact with the Orlando Furioso when we merely remark the flimsy connections between the two; we have adduced evidence, rather, that his authorial techniques of borrowing were pre-literate.  One tale that the celebrated Peig Sayers, a story-teller of Ireland’s far-western Blasket Islands most active in the early twentieth century, used to recount was dimly reminiscent of a vignette from Boccaccio.  After conferring with another collector of local lore, scholar James Stewart was able to trace the narrative echo back to a printed copy of the Decameron stashed away on the premises of one of the main island’s few inhabitants literate in English.

When, some time later, I met George Thomson and we were discussing the presence of these Boccaccian tales on the island, he recalled how in the mid-twenties he himself had heard either Mícheál Ó Gaoithín or his mother Peig tell an exotic-sounding tale involving a love-lorn man who was shut out in the snow by a heartless lady: the Seventh Story of the Eight Day, as it must be, one of the longest in the Decameron [sic].  When subsequently I asked George Thomson if he could recall any circumstances that might explain this knowledge of Boccaccio on the island, he wrote: “Some time later [i.e. after hearing the story in question] when I was in Maurice’s house (Tigh na Leacan), he turned out the contents of a little cupboard in the wall, and among them I found a tattered copy of an English edition of the Decameron.”[14]


To be exact, Stewart’s conclusion is not that old Muiris (or Maurice) had read the book to Peig.  Knowing that printed or written matter was typically shared in these communities among those who could read it, he hypothesizes thus: “as she [Peig] was unable to read English with ease it may be assumed that she heard the story from her translator-son.”[15]  Yet there is no reason whatever to suppose that another may not have read the tale in her presence—and even less to suppose that someone who had attended such a reading repeated elements of the story in her hearing; for her own version of it (to judge from sketchy reports) was largely a matter of following a plot line with little more detail—when we consider the Orlando’s vastness beside one story of Boccaccio’s—than the Eachtra Mhélora’s author had borrowed.

     The scholar who deals in “literate literature” tends to insist upon clear and sustained references between two works before he or she will allow that one has influenced the other.  At most, a single connection between a pair of works may be defended as long as the author intends a subtle, probably ironic allusion (for instance, T. S. Eliot’s snitching a line from Baudelaire).  Specialists have known for some while—not since the time of Robin Flower, perhaps, but certainly since Milman Parry began to extrapolate from traditional Slavic songs to Homer in the thirties of the past century—that patterns of influence in oral cultures are such as I have described them above.  Even Mac an tSaoi (whose edition was first published in 1946) astutely senses that the  Eachtra Mhélora more resembles a grab-bag of Celtic folklore than a poorly recalled version of one or two of Ariosto’s cantos.  I will allow Albert Lord to pose the obvious and essential question, which he does about halfway through his Singer of Tales:

It is worthy of emphasis that the question we have asked ourselves is whether there can be such a thing as a transitional text; not a period of transition between oral and written style, or between illiteracy and literacy, but a text, product of the creative brain of a single individual.  When this emphasis is clear, it becomes possible to turn the question into whether there can be a single individual who in composing an epic would think now in one way now in another, or, perhaps, in a manner that is a combination of two techniques.  I believe that the answer must be in the negative, because the two techniques are, I submit, contradictory and mutually exclusive.[16]   

Lord (a friend and colleague of the short-lived Parry) had preceded this passage in his great work with an eloquent description of how the performing poet’s habits of thought would be undermined as soon as a scribbler sat down beside him to take dictation.  The images are powerful and possess a certain common sense.  Once the rhythm and flow of chanting were disrupted so that the bothersome scribe might keep up, the performer would become more composer.  He would use the annoying lacunae in his presentation to ponder the next line more carefully… and the finesse, the attention to detail, the regard for relevance—many of the initial qualities of literate thinking—would be born, even though the poet himself might not be able to translate a single one of the scribe’s marks into sound.

     All true, no doubt: a poet with prolonged exposure to such sessions—and a literate performer a fortiori, who would swat up on handwritten notes before a live show—would surely develop a keener eye for detail and a keener sense of how one far-flung element of the plot might foreshadow or ironically compromise another.  Yet would such dawning awareness of the minute, the intricate, and the interdependent bring down the entire oral house of cards?  Lord backed away from this proposition later in his career, and a great many works from the European Middle Ages belie it.  Jongleurs and raconteurs who enjoyed almost routine exposure to written texts continued to perform with instruments in their hands or by the dimmest firelight.  Texts provided reference points which might or might not be remembered completely.  If they were texts from foreign shores or exotic cultures—if they were even printed texts transported from the Renaissance world into pockets of “backwardness”—their contents would nonetheless be kneaded into an oft-told tale as if the narrative had never known any other form.  In my translation of the Eachtra Mhélora, I indeed conjectured at two points that the author might have had some small familiarity with the Greek and Roman classics (see nn. 20 and 21).   Mélora’s successful attempt to conceal her tears from her father might contain a debt to Odysseus’s similar struggle in the court of Alcinous (Odyssey 8), while the heroic Blue Knight’s exposing the hellish hag who guards Orlando to the light of day resonates with Hercules’s unearthing of the wicked Cacus in Aeneid 8.

     The resemblances here are few and tenuous, to be sure, just as were those suggested above between the Eachtra and the Orlando… and this, once again, is precisely my point.  The Irish romancier is obviously quite literate in that he or she can write fluidly and very descriptively.  Such literacy—most certainly not acquired only in Irish, which would have been a practical impossibility at the time—gives instant access to reading matter; and whatever this author did read, he or she indubitably might have read Latin and English classics (which were the staple of a lettered education), along with a smattering of the Greek canon.  Such classics could hardly have been avoided during this era if one pursued lettered studies with any measure of formality.  Yet the Eachtra bears no unmistakable reference to anything of the kind, nor to any Irish or Celtic stories as discrete texts.  A considerable degree of literacy has not shaken this person from the oral style of prosody and allusion one perceptible iota.

     I might add briefly (for here is not the place to rebut Lord’s original thesis in detail, were that rebuttal necessary) that the Ad Herennium on which I relied in the previous section is itself a running testimony that oral and literate can fuse rather tightly.  The treatise’s unknown author is a storehouse of information about Greek and Roman rhetorical teachings and about various speeches delivered in court or at the senate.  Yet for the very reason that his tract seeks to impart oratorical skill, it offers stratagems whose effect appeals purely to the ear along with others designed to satisfy the finely reasoning mind.  Speech and writing, far from being “contradictory and mutually exclusive” in the ancient world, are often mutually supportive.  To say that all of antiquity’s masterpieces are transitional would be overreaching: Lord was correct, in fact, to imply that a transition cannot be static, and to this extent our having inevitably to use such a term as “transitional” is unfortunate.  What is no longer A and not yet C is not necessarily B by default as it makes its passage.  Both in antiquity and in the Middle Ages, however, and even more spectacularly in certain Eastern cultures—in short, everywhere in time that literacy has become the stable monopoly of an elite few for want of any technique of wide, quick, affordable diffusion (like the printing press)—we find that the written word enjoys long spells of simply helping speakers with their speeches, singers with their songs, and merchants with their inventory.

     What, then, is the critical point which we may define as B along the spectrum of transition: i.e., when does writing become more than a mnemonic technology that reinforces traditional ways—when does it also encourage new ways without yet undermining the old?  This point is not to be found at the surface, which remains largely as it has always been: formulaic, crackling with sound effects, ringing with the resonance of immemorably old tales.  A Bedouin doesn’t cease to be a nomad when given a wristwatch and a transistor radio.  We must peer beneath the surface to find that part of the transitional profile which justifies its not being dismissed as late orality or proto-literacy.  If every nomad has a wristwatch, and if all the wristwatches work, then something subtle but profound may very well change the Bedouin’s culture.  In the case of the Eachtra Mhélora, we shall find this change mostly in the characters’ psychology and in the system of values implied by their acts.


[1] To document my sources for every item of each profile would consume vastly more space than I have at my disposal.  Allow me, then, to recommend a few of the most recognized sources, in order of the utility which I personally have found in them: Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word (New York: Routledge, 1989); Eric Havelock, Preface to Plato (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1963), and The Muse Learns to Write (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1986); Alain Renoir, A Key to Old Poems: The Oral-Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988); Albert Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1960); Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse (London and New York: Oxford UP, 1987); John Miles Foley, The Theory of Oral Composition (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1988); Aleksandr Luria, Cognitive Development: Its Social and Cultural Foundations (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard UP, 1976); Ruth Finnegan, Oral Poetry (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1992); Mircea Eliade, The Myth of the Eternal Return (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1991).  See also the biennial journal Oral Tradition, ed. J. M. Foley, first published in January 1986 (Columbus, OH: Slavica).

[2] Cf. G. S. Kirk, Myth: Its Meaning and Functions in Ancient and Other Cultures (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Cambridge UP/U of California P, 1973), 41: “Folktales… tend to reflect simple social situations; they play on ordinary fears and desires as well as on men’s appreciation of neat and ingenious solutions; and they introduce fantastic subjects more to widen the range of adventure and acumen than through any imaginative or introspective urge.”  In short, Kirk sees folklore simply as the product of the mythopoeic mind at a more relaxed moment—a view which I find naively negligent of social circumstances.

[3] Alain Renoir, A Key to Old Poems: The Oral-Formulaic Approach to the Interpretation of West-Germanic Verse (University Park and London: Pennsylvania State UP, 1988), 165-166.

[4] As rare as sailing scenes are in comparison to combat scenes, furthermore, the Irish tradition may have lavished alliteration and synonymy upon the former with special fondness.  Cf. the voyage of Conall Gulaban described by one traditional raconteur during the twentieth century’s first half in Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, ed. Séamus Ó Duilearga (Dublin: Comhairle Béaloideas Éirinn, 1981), 31.

[5] See Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire, ed. Séamus Ó Duilearga (ibid.), 68-92.  Subsequent page references to the tale refer to this volume.

[6] See Cecile O’Rahilly’s edition of the TBC from the Book of Leinster (Dublin: Institute for Advanced Studies, 1970), ll. 759-766 (Irish) and p. 158-159 (English translation).

[7] Scéalta Mártín Neile, ed. Ole Munch-Pedersen (Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin: Comhairle Bhéaloideas Éireann, 1994), 81-102.

[8] See the introduction (in Irish) of Dhá Sgéal Artúraíochta, ed. Máire Mhac an tSaoi (Baile Átha Cliatha/Dublin: Institiúid Ard-Léinn, 1984 [first published 1946]), ix.  The editor directs us to the journal Ériu, v. 3, p. 156, where she presumably happened upon this suggestion of influence.

[9] Ibid., viii.  The translation from Irish is mine.

[10] In his autobiographical novel An Gleann agus a Raibh Ann (Baile Átha Cliath/Dublin: An Clóchomhar Tta, 1974), Séamus Ó Maolchathaigh devotes his eighteenth chapter, “Ag Cuartaíocht I dTeach Shiadhaile” (99-112), to describing the institution of cuartaíocht (lit. “visiting”).  Villagers would converge upon certain houses known for their residents’ joke- and story-telling ability to wile away the long night hours.  It bears emphasis that the author, who matured in the late nineteenth century, testifies to several cases where the most entertaining hosts would draw their material from books or newspapers which they had lately read. 

[11] Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire most certainly did not read or speak Greek—yet he inserts a detailed version of the Polyphemus episode in his garbled account of Fionn MacCumhail’s youthful deeds, wherein the poet Fionn Éigeas from whom Fionn steals the Salmon of Knowledge becomes An Gaiscíoch Leath-Chaoch Rua (The Red Half-Blind Warrior”).  The tail includes Fionn’s slipping through the blinded giant’s grasp under the belly of a goat!  See Leabhar Stiofáin Uí Ealaoire (op. cit.), 18-21.

[12] Again, the connection has obviously been turned upside-down, if it exists at all, for the lady-knight’s adversary is employing the flying steed against her; and the King of Africa, besides, is a long way from the enchanted cave.  Such unlikely alterations suggest distinctly the stunning transformations of an orally communicated tale rather than the minor lapses of literate transmission.

[13] The disguised female fighting for her man is not unknown in Eastern folklore (cf. “The Red Lotus of Chastity” from the Kathasaritsagara), and warrior-queens are strangers neither to the history nor the myth of the Celtic world (cf. Bodicca and the Ulster Cycle’s Scáthach); yet I know of no instances where these latter are represented as sacrificing themselves for mate or consort.  It is not ludicrous, therefore, to bestow upon this “plot suggestion” some little importance as an influence. 

[14] From the introduction (ix-xxii) of Boccaccio in the Blaskets, ed. James Stewart (Galway: Officina Typographica, 1988), x-xi.

[15] Ibid., xx.

[16] Albert B. Lord, The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, Mass., and London: Harvard UP, 1960), 129.

Dr. John Harris is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.  His translation of the early-modern Irish Eachtra Mhelóra agus Orlando appeared in the previous edition of Praesidium.