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The ten thousand things and the one true only.

by Kip Manley

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Things to keep in mind:
The secret of heroism.

The ancient poetries of Europe—Greek, Saxon, Welsh, Irish, Norse, and German—have lately been studied together as common examples of heroic poetry, and certainly no reader can help being struck by the fact that all these poetries have chiefly to do with the prowesses of men of strength and courage, whom the poets believed to have lived in a more or less distant past when human powers were greater, and whom they called by a special term which we translate as “hero.” It is wrong, however, to go on and suppose that heroic poetry (in this sense of the term) is due to any law in the growth of literature. The poetry is heroic only because it is created by people who are living in a certain way and so have a certain outlook on life, and our understanding of the heroic will come only as we learn what that way of living is, and grasp that outlook. We find, for example, that cattle-lifting is a common theme in the ancient European poetries, but it is found there because of no law of poetry, but because these peoples happened to live in a way which led them to the stealing of cattle on the one hand and to the practice of poetry on the other. It may seem far-fetched to say that any one has gone so far as to suppose a law of poetry which makes cattle-lifting a common theme at a certain stage in the growth of poetry, and which results in reaving, but still that is implied by those who study the heroic element in early poetry as primarily a literary problem. Its proper study is even more anthropological and historical, and what Doughty tells us about cattle-lifting among the Bedouins is more enlightening, if we are reading Nestor’s tale of a cattle raid into Elis, than is the mere knowledge that the theme occurs elsewhere in ancient poetry.

Milman Parry

—posted 120 days ago


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