The Kalevala, Folk Traditions, and Metalepsis

November 16, 2006 at 6:03 pm (kalevala, oral tradition)

I’m delighted in reading the Kalevala for the first time. I don’t know what to make of it, exactly, but it’s fun. I think one of the reasons that I like it is that I come from a family who tells stories. On my mother’s side, the side that actually gets together and eats food and talks regularly, we circulate stories about Uncle Billy who’s been dead since 1962, and about the erstwhile neighbor in the late 70s who peed on his tomato plants every day out of unshakeable faith that this helped them grow straight, strong, plump, and worm-free. Every time my grandmother is asked a story about her mother, the emphasis changes — it’s almost a compressed sort of folk transmission in action, a lightning-swift assessment of rhetorical context which she then deploys for best effect (in her case, usually didactic). Every time my uncle tells a story about Uncle Billy, the inventory of Uncle Billy’s car’s passenger-side floor shifts slightly to provide the best props for the evening’s focus. It’s as “true” as anything ever was, but the stock phrases are the same.

On my father’s side, where there isn’t as much talking, there’s music. Most of the immediate family plays an instrument or two or three, and when I was a child I learned about twenty of the countless verses to a folk song called Shady Grove.

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove I say
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go away

Cheeks as red as a blooming rose
And eyes are the prettiest brown
She’s the darling of my heart
Sweetest girl in town

When I was older and figured out that a lot of communication was happening on these music nights and I didn’t want to miss it, I brought along my fiddle and listened to the new verses my father had added to those he’d learned from Doc Watson and whomever else. He changed the story — he put marital unhappiness and willing separation into this song which is traditionally about unwilling separation and all the charm of “first love.” He sang a Shady Grove “ten years later.”

Every day when I get home
My wife I try to please her
There ain’t no sadness when I’m gone
One day I’m going to leave her

Shady Grove, my little love
Shady Grove I say
Shady Grove, my little love
I’m bound to go away

The refrain, formerly “about” the way work-life obligations interfere with the pastoral pleasures of hearth, home, and the good woman waiting, are altered, perhaps forever, once you hear my father’s version. The stock phrases are the same, the chorus is the same, the notes are the same — but he’s put something into the spirit of this song that was never there before, at least in a small circle of his own kin as they sit around the fire, sing, play, and tell true lies. The players work references to their personal lives into impromptu verses that by rights belong to a song about the Audobon Zoo, or Mardi Gras. They’re no longer just about the Audobon Zoo, or Mardi Gras. An entire conversation about someone’s latest girlfriend can happen in the space of three verses. The musician in me is delighted, but the student of folklore and literature is appalled that it is not being recorded.

One of the most striking things to me about the Kalevela, aside from the almost belligerent use of stock phrases, is its use of tense. (I’m reading Bosley’s translation in the Oxford World’s Classic series.) Canto I switches tense within the same verse — within the same sentence, even — frequently. Stock phrases abound, yet there are moments that are almost “modern” in their reach for an essence both referential and original, both dependent on prior knowledge of convention for allusion but demanding a “reach” from their audience for the full impact. This sort of metalepsis is fascinating me as I read.

Instances of narrative “intrusion” or instability are everywhere in the first five Cantos, but two sites got my attention particularly. Canto I opens with one narrative framework, in which the audience, already two steps removed from the oral performance in this case, via transcription and then translation, hears the poets talk about the performance of poetry, as the “words unfreeze” and the “phrases [tumble],” “scramble,” and even “scatter” out of the container of the body via the mouth (I:1-10). The reanimated words leave the storage of the poet’s mind or body and take on an agency of their own after the “word-chest” is unlocked (I:86-87). After the poet makes reference to his own reception of the tales in lines 103-104, he begins the tale of the Air-daughter in the past tense. His switch to present tense in 123 calls attention to the immediacy of the performance and suggests it transcendence over time, its continued existence into the present (a tactic we also tend to employ when writing about recorded narratives in academia).

When the narrative switches from describing the past occurrence of scaup’s eggs breaking to the present-tense statement that “The eggs don’t fall in the mud” (I:228), the narrator and audience are spanning (at least) two levels of narrative at the same time. This perhaps prepares the audience for a more attentive reception of the narrator’s shift from observer of eggs at a moment in time to observer of vast expanses of time in lines 245-249: “The ages go on / the years beyond that / … still the water-mother swims…” There’s some sort of threshold of time and pace here, I think – it’s a delightful instance of audience awareness that, satisfyingly, works on the page too.

The second instance is in “The Drowned Maid,” where a similar sort of temporal playfulness combines with a metacritical comment about the nature of oral transmission. The narrator, telling of the death of Aino, switches to present tense to open the stanza that spans lines 373-410. At this point there are no characters “on stage,” and the perspective must come from the omniscient narrator. The poet says, “Who now will carry the news / will tell it by word of mouth / to the maid’s famous / home, to the fair farm?” Here the news is portrayed as a discrete item or object, to be temporarily contained in the body and related through the opening of the mouth. The following lines underscore the fragility of the message when it’s entrusted to a container, and by a shift from present to past tense within a single line, the poet opens a space for the listener or reader to receive the metacritical possibilities of the message: “But the bear does not: it was / lost among a herd of cows.” As with the wolf lost among the sheep and the fox lost among the geese, the outside forces that threaten the message by means of diverting its container can, in large enough concentrations, threaten oral transmission at large. Even the rabbit, the sly one who manages to carry the message to the farm, risks getting cooked for dinner before he can relay the news. A message contained in a body can be lost to death or otherwise silenced; a message contained in a locked word-chest can be lost if the key is lost, be it language or performative context. And the message committed to the pages of a book can’t ever really reproduce the same sort of narrative immediacy of the oral performance – in the speech act, these tense switches are probably hardly noticeable as such, serving to increase the suspense and immediacy of the story, but on the page they stand out and might draw attention to themselves with unintended consequences for an audience they were never really intended for in the first place.

I think my father’s band of tale-tellers might like it.


1 Comment

  1. Eileen Joy said,

    The great authority on this kind of thing in Old English studies is probably John Niles, who, in addition to writing on Old English poetry, has also written on the transmission of contemporary oral compositions. You probably already know this, but if you don’t, check out his book:

    “Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature”

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