Mudcat Café message #2279603 The Mudcat Café TM
Thread #109111   Message #2279603
Posted By: Don Firth
04-Mar-08 - 04:53 PM
Thread Name: Folk terminology
Subject: RE: Folk terminology
Miscellaneous ramblings:

True, Nerd, that "A Geste of Robin Hood" runs considerably less than 800 verses, but as I said, that's what I had been told, and I hadn't actually counted them.

There are a number of ballads found in the Child collection—and elsewhere, but still meeting Child's definition—that were assumed to be only literary in character and not actually sung. However, a fair number of them were later discovered to have been of folk origin (or at least, run through the folk process) before being "tidied up" and written down by some poet.

One of my English professors at the University of Washington, the late David C. Fowler (Piers Plowman : In Search of an Author, 1961; and A Literary History of the Popular Ballad, 1970), used an interesting expression, "essence of ink-pot," to refer to a number of ballads in the Child collection. He used this in reference to ballads that he suspected of being either originally authored by or, more frequently, "tampered with" by poets and writers such as Sir Walter Scott, Robert Burns, and others. Sometimes this raised questions as to a ballad's actual origin. Or the actual authorship of poems attributed to some known writer.

Cases in point:

"MacPherson's Farewell." Some say it was written by Jamie MacPherson on the night before he was hanged. I find that a very "romantic" sort of concept that tends to stretch the willing suspension of disbelief quite a bit. But should one assert this as fact, one will get loud arguments from avid Robert Burns fans, many of whom insist that it was written by Burns. I tend to think there is a third alternative.

Or "Lochinvar," which I first encountered in school as a poem by Sir Walter Scott. I have since heard a song called "Lochnagar," sung by Cynthia Gooding on the "Young Man and a Maid" album with Theodore Bikel. The words are a little different, but it tells exactly the same story. I don't have the record, so I can't check the liner notes for info (assuming there is any). Where did she get the song? Is it "folk processed" Scott? Or is it a prior version—that Scott got it from?

Now, as to whether "A Geste of Robin Hood" was a literary ballad ("a product of the printing press") and not sung early on, you may be right. But not necessarily. There is considerable evidence that could very well be a compilation of several Robin Hood ballads, which were recited or sung.

And as to the Iliad, you are also right about the duration of time it covers. It deals with the final year of the ten year siege of Troy. I'm afraid I was thinking of the whole story, which is encompassed in what is known as the "Epic Cycle," a fragmentary collection of poems that includes such things as Paris's abduction of Helen, which precipitated the Trojan War.

The Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Homer's Iliad runs some 704 pages. Granted, some of those pages are given over to scholarly commentary, nevertheless, the epic poem itself contains 24 "books" (more like chapters :   The Iliad on line), it and runs a total of some 15,693 lines. Just picking a novel at random off my bookshelves, I count 42 lines per page. Using all my fingers and toes, I calculate that if the 15,693 lines of the Iliad were printed out the way most poetry books are printed these days, it would run to 374 pages.   Sounds like "novel length" to me. . . .

Repetition of lines, or sometimes several lines (not unlike a chorus or refrain), is one of the reasons some scholars feel that epic poetry such as the Iliad was often chanted, with listeners possibly joining in on the repeated lines. It is established that this practice was not at all uncommon in those times.

Meter, rhyme, and melody, many scholars agree, were initially used as aids to memorization in pre-literate societies (and still are, even in literate societies). The precursor of the bard or minstrel who recited or chanted stories to a group of listeners, was an honored position, especially in pre-literate times. As to how widespread literacy itself was, it is known that, due to the excellent educational system in Athens a few hundred years after Homer's time, the rate of literacy among Athenian citizens was quite high. But the state of widespread literacy in Homer's time is not all that well known.

I would not suggest that the entire work would be recited or chanted in a single evening's entertainment, but the ancient Greeks were fairly avid theater-goers, and I've heard tell that some Greek plays would run for a number of evenings in a row (think "mini-series"), so such performances, even on a smaller scale, were not unknown.

I recommend reading the following:    The Iliad as Oral Tradition.

I recall an evening when I was sixteen years old, at Camp Parsons, a Boy Scout summer camp on Washington State's Hood Canal, when the director of the camp, an older man with a real flare for storytelling, held several hundred energetic and antsy Boy Scouts totally enthralled, silent and goggle-eyed, for nearly an hour at the evening campfire gathering. He told the story as if it were a personal experience, but I later learned that he had "personalized" and expanded a story by O. Henry. So, often the attention span, even of a group of teen-aged boys sitting quietly and listening to an old man talk, depends largely on the material presented.

Nor, I might mention, am I (or even, can I?) confining my comments to "folk songs." There was an immense amount of cross-fertilization between folk material and literary material, each borrowing from the other. Scott was an avid collector of Scottish border ballads, and many themes and stories popular in such ballads found their way into his writings. The Bride of Lammermoor has a plot that's almost a dead-ringer for several ballads I can think of. For example "Anachie Gordon." Gaetano Donizetti based the libretto for his opera Lucia di Lammermoor on Scott's novel. Interesting (slightly bizarre) to see people wandering around on stage in kilts—and singing in Italian!

Regarding Helen of Troy, here is an interesting tidbit:    inspired by the line, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships?" from Marlowe's play The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, Isaac Asimov coined the unit "millihelen" to refer to the amount of beauty that it would require to launch one ship.

Don Firth