Oral Literature in English | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Oral Literature in English

The term "oral literature" is sometimes used interchangeably with "folklore," but it usually has a broader focus.

Oral Literature in English

The term "oral literature" is sometimes used interchangeably with "folklore," but it usually has a broader focus. The expression is self-contradictory: literature, strictly speaking, is that which is written down; but the term is used here to emphasize the imaginative creativity and conventional structures that mark oral discourse too. Oral literature shares with written literature the use of heightened language in various genres (narrative, lyric, epic, etc), but it is set apart by being actualized only in performance and by the fact that the performer can (and sometimes is obliged to) improvise so that oral text constitutes an event.

Literature's Life Through Performance

Oral literature may be composed in performance; transmitted orally over generations, like many Scottish and Irish ballads that have been brought to Canada; or written down specifically for oral performance. The process of transmission itself (often in recent years, to collecting folklorists and oral historians) shows that oral literature has not been replaced by the ubiquitousness of books and the electronic media though it persists alongide them as secondary orality. Indeed, whenever a ghost story is told around a campfire, whenever a protest song or a lullabye is sung, whenever a riddle, tongue twister, counting rhyme, shaggy-dog story or knock-knock joke is shared, or fables and proverbs told, oral literature lives in performance.

The attitudes of scholars and the literate public toward oral literature were largely shaped by the 19th-century Romantic movement. William Wordsworth, in his Preface to Lyrical Ballads (1798), claimed to have found in the oral discourse of unlettered rustic people the source of literary spontaneity, sincerity and integral unity. At about the same time a rise in nationalism, with its emphasis on local origins, encouraged the study of "popular antiquities" - ie, the oral tradition of history and narrative. Writers in Canada followed the trend, transforming tales, legends, proverbs and anecdotes into written form, and sometimes incorporating tale-tellers, such as T.C. Haliburton 's Sam Slick, into their written work. The techniques were adopted by Susanna Moodie, who, in Roughing It in the Bush (1852), tells a life history that is also a "liar's tale": a hyperbolic account of the hellish life in the new land to counter the land company's lie that Canada was a new Eden. Other examples of borrowing - of techniques or of actual tales (canoe songs, tales of encounters with the devil, etc) - appear in 19th-century Canadian written literature, and the use of dialect further emphasizes their oral underpinnings. At the end of the century the so-called Confederation poets (Mair, Roberts, Crawford, Johnson, Carman, Lampman) reworked extensively such sources as traditional ghost stories and native myth.

Change: The Oral Becomes Artifact

Oral literature has been studied principally by folklorists, who emphasize its ability to act as the voice of a tradition; they collect oral literature in order to preserve something of the culture of ethnic groups facing assimilation into the mainstream. But there are problems associated with gathering and preserving such materials. The communicative act is changed to a greater or lesser extent by recording methods (eg, gestures are lost when recording is done shorthand or on tape; even on videotapes the ambience of an occasion or ritual is lost, although the speaker is recorded both aurally and visually). More significant is the "freezing" of the oral moment into an artifact, when a major characteristic of oral literature is its capacity to be changed through generations, and even from occasion to occasion, by storytellers and bards.

Folklorists in Canada, using the classification system devised by Antti Aarne (The Types of the Folktale, translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson, 1961), which was designed primarily for narrative, have placed most items they have collected in the broad categories of legend, joke and anecdote. Myths and màrchen are rare, though they are found among the natives and as archaic elements in areas of Celtic settlement or in those with close connections to French speakers (eg, New Brunswick). Legends represent the localizing of the marvellous; for example, Captain Kidd's treasure is located in many a Nova Scotia town, the devil is known to have danced at Kensington, PEI, and the burning ship of Chaleur Bay makes periodic appearances elsewhere on the coast. Political oratory and sermons have seldom been studied in Canada as oral literature.

Folk Heroes

The heroes of cycles of tall tales, yarns and anecdotes include the Wizard of Miramichi and Paul Bunyan. Sometimes folk heroes tell whoppers about themselves, especially in front of tenderfeet from other regions. Tall tales are often used, as are the Joe Mufferaw tales of the Ottawa Valley, to promote a locality or "prove" its superiority over others. Sometimes these yarns provide the mainstay of local radio programs, as the electronic media disseminate oral culture. Another side of transmission has been the weekly session and annual festival of the Toronto Storytellers, where narratives of a variety of cultures from Europe, Asia, the Caribbean, as well as Canada are performed for live audiences.

The performance of oral literature is readily encountered in the form of children's playground rhymes and songs, such as those recorded by Sharon, Lois & Bram, Raffi and others. Although the performance, once recorded, is in a fixed form, the variants in such genres as skipping rhymes show that the oral tradition - typically mutable - is thriving; and one seldom hears 2 identical recordings of such tall-tale songs as "The Cat Came Back." Less accessible to most Canadians is the continuing oral tradition of the Newfoundland Mummers' plays (see mumming). The ritual aspect of their performance is common to much of oral literature performed in its proper context.

No other extended poetic forms are found in Canada's oral literature. The lyric predominates in ballads, laments and work songs (eg, sea chanties, lumbering songs and milling songs). Whereas many of these songs are traditional songs from Europe, others develop new themes arising from the social and political realities of Canada (eg, Gaelic elegies, songs of emigration, satires and humorous songs). Themes from Canadian history are celebrated in ballads such as "General Wolfe." Newfoundlanders have contributed a rich treasure of sea chanties and ballads of shipwrecks, and have also produced well-known dance songs such as "I's the B'y that Builds the Boat." From Ukrainians in the West have been collected a variety of carols, wedding songs, dance ditties, cumulative songs and drinking songs. Much oral poetry is chanted rather than sung, as are children's counting rhymes and the charms, spells and alliterative rhymes collected from German speakers in Ontario.

Native Literature

Many songs and chants of the native peoples have been recorded, but more attention has been paid to their narratives. Two broad groups of myths involving tales of when the world was young and of the origin of native ways of living may be found across the continent: stories of the great flood are related by the Cowichan in the West and the Iroquois in the East, and the discovery of fire is variously attributed to heroes such as Nanabozo of the Ojibwa and Coyote of the Salish.

This native literature, as well as that of the medieval troubadours and the Balkan composers of oral epic, has inspired numerous contemporary writers in North America to adopt an oral poetics. Charles Olson's idea of a "poetry of utterance" and Jack Kerouac's "spontaneous prose" have found extensions in the work of Canadian sound poets such as bp Nichol, the Four Horsemen, Re:Sounding and Owen Sound, as they attempt to make literature from the ephemeral and improvise before audiences. As he tries to create a sacred ritual for himself and his audience, bill bissett's composition in performance draws heavily on native chants. A younger generation, drawing on traditions as diverse as dub, rap and performance art, has taken the "Spoken Word" not only into coffee houses, traditional venue for poetry readings, but into TV sound-bites for MuchMusic, to recordings for the Virgin label or to "Wordapalooza," a side-stage at Lollapalooza, the annual travelling show of rock bands. Many of these performers eschew the printed page in order to seek an immediate audience response. Indeed, Afro-Canadian poets Lillian Allen and Clifford Joseph diffuse their dub poems almost exclusively on records.

Writers of contemporary narrative have been as attracted to the concept of orality as the poets have. Robert Kroetsch, for example, tells liars' tales through his characters. In The Diviners Margaret Laurence provides a genealogy and history of oral narrative in Canada, from improvised Scottish heroic narratives and legends and Métis tales and songs through novels to the new orality of modern popular ballads. Although Laurence does not use material from traditional folklore but creates anew from the formulas and conventions they employ (a practice folklorists consider "fakelore"), and although her material is neither composed in performance nor written specifically for performance, her novel, like those of other contemporary novelists, places the text in a context of performance and analyses the nature and function of its own telling.

Role of the Theatre

The role of the theatre in keeping alive oral literature in Canada is exemplified by James Reaney's dramatic versions of 2 Ontario legends, the Baldoon mystery of poltergeists and the legend of the folkheroes the Donnellys. In these plays Reaney uses traditional jokes, songs, stories and proverbs. The range of his creative freedom is greater than that of the traditional performer, but his materials are similar. Native myths and rituals have served as the basis of performance for a number of plays by native playwrights such as Tomson Highway (The Rez Sisters and Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing) and Joyce B. Joe Ravens), who use drama as a way to combine traditions of oral performance with high cultural theatrical forms. Contemporary developments suggest that the growth of a written literature does not mean the death of an oral one, but announces change and displacement or both. While the oral literature of rural Canada may be fading, a new one is being created in the city, where supernatural happenings, numbskull stories and yarns continue as typographers create their genres in the workplace and science fiction groupies compose songs for their conferences.

See also Ethnic Literature; Folklore; Oral History.

Further Reading