Mirjana DetelićInstitute for Balkan Studies, Belgrade (Serbia)ORAL EPIC FORMULA AND THE STRUCTURING OF EPIC HEROIf there was a need to sum up the present main stream in oral formula studies,there would in fact have to be two of them: Russian and American.Although Russia, to my best knowledge, has never had anything like a school inthat field
, the distinguished figure of Georgij Ivanovič Maljcev (tragically deceased inhis prime) made all the difference with his “tip of an iceberg” theory of formula.
Thistheory suggests that one single text/poem/variant gets connected with all others by thedeep connotative meanings of chosen formulas. Here, formula is seen as a vehicle of condensed, formerly mythical substance or ritual practice, transformed into a clichécapable of triggering a chain of important poetic events. In that case, “the iceberg” would be that primary syncretic basis common to all participants in traditional culture, and its“tip” the actual text which makes the use of it.
This also means that a work of oralliterary art is seen as a closed system able to correspond and interconnect with other of the kind, within the broader systems of oral literature, folklore, and traditional cultureitself.The most promising analytical method in this context is borrowed from thegeneral theory of models. Its key-point is discovering the criteria for choosing what
Russian scholars (Vesselovsky, Potebnya, later also Propp) showed some interest in oral formula at aboutthe same time the Van Gennep works first appeared, but they saw it as fraseology, a part of linguistics.
G. I. Maljcev was killed in a traffic accident right after his first and only book (his PhD thesis, in fact) was published. Its full title is: Г. И. Малыцев,
Традиционные формулы русской народной необрядовой лирики
, [ Traditional Formulas of Russian Popular Non-Ritual Lyric Poetry] Ленинград 1989.
“More than anything else, tradition is a rational, evaluative category. In a way, the formulas studied hereare like a tip of an iceberg. The “underwater” part is most substantial and meaningful, but it cannot beexpressed directly in texts. It reveals itself in very special ways. [...] The deep level of tradition has its own parameters, tendencies, and relations. It can be discussed as a complex and potentially inexhaustible center which “irradiates” meaning. Tradition is a generic category, and formulas appear as a canonized fixation of certain zones of traditional semantics. At one hand, it gives them a relative autonomy and, at the other, itoffers them a chance to make multiple connections with tradition (in texts it shows as a potential score of “compositional associations”).” (
, 68, 69)