Sat on these notes for over a month. Time to let it go.

Narrative Without Inscription

Most humans who have lived have been illiterate. They/we still told stories, a very small sample of which have been fossilized for observation today. These transcriptions and translations have kept the shape of those spoken specimens, but some of the connective tissue is missing- let alone the ecosystem that gave them the form that they had at fossilization.

Fossilized specimens are not alive. Beowulf the text is an instantiation of a Beowulf story that was told by memory, mnemonics, formula, personal style, and audience feedback- a living story that evolved and adapted across tellings, possibly highly variant like the weather but with some common salient features that drifted much more slowly, like climate.

In a recent re-reading of the Iliad that I rediscovered that the Trojan Horse wasn’t in the Iliad at all! The poem ends before the war ends- instead, the pseudo-sequel transcription of The Odyssey feeds that to us as mid-story flashback. One could imagine in a later Iliad retelling, maybe not long before or after the version we got, Homer actually went a bit further in his Iliad retelling and did indeed tell his audience about the Trojan Horse within the frame of A Poem About Ilium. It wasn’t a well-defined Intellectual Property- Homer didn’t own the story, and the boundaries of the story were probably often in flux.

The author of Before Literature: Narrative without the written word is interested in the study of Preliterature in order to pull us out of the water that we all swim in- the literate culture we presumably share, since you’re reading this. There are innumerate preliterate cultures with their unique stories, but there are common cheap tricks and forced moves that we ought to expect in the oral form, and this is the focus of her book.

Common Features of Pre-lit Epics

In his recent Mark Twain Award acceptance speech, Dave Chapelle talks about his mother’s suggestion that he should be a ‘griot’ [sic] (see 5:00-5:45)

Human brains are extremely lossy and have limited bandwidth, so the challenges of what to pass down and how to pass it down must be significant. Some of the considerations I’m about to list, especially the first few, are obvious, but some of them I think are under-considered when we think about why these stories are shaped the way they are.

Some resulting common themes I want to emphasize:

What’s next

As I get to it, muses permitting, I want to re-apply these notes to the concerns I will bring up in the immediate next post. I’d like to read more on them to present them as notes rather than random musings but there’s a shape of things that I think are interesting.