Albert Lord

From Academic Kids

Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991) was a Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard who, after the untimely death of Milman Parry, carried on that scholar's research into epic literature. Lord authored the book The Singer of Tales, first published in 1960. His wife Mary Louise Lord completed and edited his manuscript of a posthumous sequel The Singer Resumes the Tale in 1995 which further supports and extends Lord's initial conclusions.

He demonstrated the ways in which various great ancient epics from Europe and Asia were heirs to a tradition not only of oral performance, but of oral composition. He argued strongly for a complete divide between the non-literate authors of the Homeric epics and the scribes who later wrote them down, positing that the texts that have been preserved are a transcription by a listener of a single telling of the story. The story itself has no definitive text, but consists of innumerable variants, each improvised by the teller in the act of telling the tale from a mental stockpile of verbal formulas, thematic constructs, and narrative incidents. This improvisation is for the most part unconscious; epic tellers believe that they are faithfully recounting the story as it was handed down to them, even though the actual text of their tellings may differ substantially from day to day or from teller to teller.

Albert Bates Lord studied not only field recordings of Bosnian Yugoslav heroic epics sung to the gusle, and the Homeric epics, but also Beowulf, Gilgamesh, The Song of Roland, and the Anglo-Scottish Child Ballads. Across these many story traditions he found strong commonalities concerning the oral composition of traditional storytelling.

Source: John Miles Foley, "Albert Bates Lord (1912-1991): An Obituary," Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992): 57-65.

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