The oral tradition of a culture comprises myths, poetry and folk tales that have been passed on by word of mouth. Author and date of origin of traditional stories can no longer be traced. Often they have become accessible to us because they have been written down at some point in the past. In the process of transmission oral traditions were likely to undergo alterations and slight distortions.
The art of story-telling existed before men knew how to read or write, when human languages were still unwritten languages. Its development has accompanied that of mankind. Already far back in the past men must have felt the need to hand down information to following generations. Most important of all was the knowledge of how to survive, and with the emergence of crafts and civilization, the knowledge of skills essential for producing goods. Almost simultaneously the need arose to pass down the knowledge of things that went beyond mere subsistence: tales of the past, and explanations of things that were incomprehensible to men at the time. Myths were born which explained the beginnings of life on earth; often these involved the invention of deities.
A myth is usually part of a mythology; a whole set of traditional stories, e. g. the systematic mythology of ancient Greek deities. They serve to explain things that the members of a particular culture have not been able to explain within the scope of their knowledge. Often a mythology provides the rules by which a culture lives: its customs and its rituals. Probably two of the best-known European examples showing how far back oral traditions go are the The Iliad and The Odyssey: heroic epics which consist of a network of traditional myths, stories and legends, compiled and written down by the Greek poet HOMER during the 10th or 9th century B.C.
With the spread of literacy facts and events could be recorded for future generations. Also, in the beginning, written literature could be produced and read only by a privileged few. Written literature and oral tradition developed side by side.
The best-known example of English oral tradition is the folk epic Beowulf, which is said to be the first ever English epic. It is an epic poem about the Danish King Hrothgar and Beowulf, the brave Geat (Gote) who becomes King of the Geats and finally dies an heroic death fighting against a dragon. Like all Anglo-Saxon literature, Beowulf was meant to be performed and not to be read. It was sung or recited by a scop (minstrel, singer) at festive gatherings, either as areminder of the heroic past, or in order to kindle the audience's sense of bravery and determination in times of hardship. The epic had been orally transmitted since the 7th or 8th century until it was finally written down as a manuscript (= text written by hand) around 1000 A.D. :
There is good reason to believe that, in the process of becoming a written document, all traditional epics have been simplified, both as far as their language and as far as their contents are concerned. The language they had orginally been communicated in were the dialects in which they had been created. Manuscripts of the time around 1000 A.D., however, show a great similarity in language and metre. It is this similarity that makes it hard to track down the date and origin of Old English literature.
Ballads represent a common traditional form of poetry. Much shorter than verse epics, they also tell stories of historical events or of human interest. Often they came to be written down from recitation and were printed in collections of ballads, such as THOMAS PERCY's Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765) or F. J. CHILD's English and Scottish Popular Ballads (Boston, 1882–98). An example is the Irish street ballad Finnegan´s Wake of the mid-nineteenth century, which JAMES JOYCE used in 1939 together with other ballads and songs in the eponymous novel:
The ballad continues the tale of the raucous fight that arose during the wake and eventually wakes Finnegan, who had only been unconscious.
WILLIAM WORDSWORTH and SAMUEL TAYLOR COLERIDGE tried to introduce new elements into poetry by imitating the structure and language of folk ballads in their Lyrical Ballads (1798); the subject matters chosen for the Lyrical Ballads have been taken from ordinary life. By writing about the fate of normal characters or social outsiders (e. g. The Female Vagrant, The Mad Mother, The Convict) rather than idealized or heroic men and women, the authors wanted to draw attention to the “worth and dignity of individual man”. They intended their language to be as simple and down-to-earth as that of the rural and uneducated population.
Folk tales include fables, fairy tales and tales of heroes which were transmitted orally. Close similarities have been discovered between tales from Europe, Africa and the Orient. Points of similarity are either archetypal plot, themes or characters, or recurrent motifs which transcend time and place. In The Canterbury Tales (1387) GEOFFREY CHAUCER embodied English, but also oriental, folk tales. A collection of oriental folktales known all over the world is A Thousand and One Nights.
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