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Prizes From the Borderlands

John D. Niles

Oral Tradition, Volume 18, Number 2

What is “the state of the art” as regards the study of literature and oral tradition?That question will have as many answers as there are people to respond. The point most worth making may be that though the battle was lost, the war has been won. By “the battle,” what I mean is the heroic attempt made by Milman Parry, Albert B. Lord, and many other scholars during the mid-twentieth century to determine the mode of composition, whether oral or written, of the Homeric epics, Beowulf, and works of a similar character deriving from the ancient or medieval world. By “the war,” what I mean is the general effort to understand such works as
examples of a kind of literary production that, while differing markedly from what most people in English departments are accustomed to thinking of as literature, has much in common with texts from various parts of the world that have been recorded through literate persons’ interventions into the ongoing practices of an oral tradition.

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