Words and Music: Oral and Literary

Joseph C. Allard
2002 Folklore  
Most scholarly and critical work concerning medieval Icelandic literature over the past one hundred and fifty years has assumed that the eleventh and twelfth centuries witnessed a shift in the practice and mode of learning in Iceland from an oral tradition, what Walter Ong terms 'primary orality' (Ong 1982: 13), to a mainly literate and literary one. The argument goes that with the invention and development of a method of writing Old Norse/Icelandic after the advent of Christianity, Icelanders
more » ... ianity, Icelanders with the new technology gradually became the dominant voice in a culture that previously had been almost purely oral, runic inscription being the exception. My contention in this essay is that the oral and literary traditions at their extremes are different in kind: the oral being essentially a performance art, the literary a text specific one. Away from the extremes, however, there is a regular and fruitful interface between the oral and the literary that should always be borne in mind when considering the origins of the literature that we have today. During the years in question, and for a long time after, the oral and literary traditions happily co-existed. Since the seventeenth century the study of Old Icelandic literature and culture has focused upon the written, later printed, word. From the philological developments of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the twentieth century 'bookprose' arguments of the Icelandic School, which consider the sagas to be authored texts, most of our approaches to the past have been governed by the written record and our interpretations of it. The proponents of the so-called 'freeprose' theories, who maintain that the sagas as we have them are the result of the inscriptions of oral traditions, were fighting a losing battle in the last century. The 'bookprose' theorists don't deny the vigour and importance of an oral tradition but, since their business is about words on the page, they find it difficult to say very much about orality in practice. I believe that to approach the creation of the literature as either/or, 'freeprose'/'bookprose', misrepresents what actually happened, rather than clarifies anything. It has been too
doi:10.7592/fejf2002.20.literary fatcat:jg2tahc4yndrlaxr4phyibck3q