Epic and Narrative
Affiliation: Russian-Armenian/Slavonic University

We can’t imagine our existence without narrative. I think one of the definitions of humankind should be as a story-telling creature. Epics are the highest expression of this characteristic.

As far as I know, epic narrative has not been discussed in studies of epic. One possible exception may be Bowra’s work on heroic poetry, to which I will return.

Epic is a narrative about the most important events in a people’s history. When we state “important events” we mean a given people’s perspective and opinions, not historians’ viewpoints. That is not to say that the approaches of researchers and the mass population are inevitably contradictory. I only wish to stress that the images of an epic were born spontaneously, in the depths of folk life, outside the influences of historians, clergymen, and other educated circles.

This issue is of paramount significance for my approach. Epic is the expression of a people’s ideas and notions. It is principially collective, not individual. How this collective view is formed is another question. But every epic tradent expresses this collective or folk view on the events and heroes. All the narration is based on the collective, not individual ideas of moral values. That is why in folk epics we do not encounter the names of singers or tellers. They are only the representatives of their collectives, their peoples. From this point of view folk epics are primarily anonymous. This applies to the Armenian folk epic, the Russian bylinas, the Kirgiz folk epic, etc. We know the most talented tellers of epics. But you cannot ascribe the folk epic per se to a teller or singer. That would be ridiculous.

From this point of view some of Bowra’s approaches seem incorrect. He continually focuses on the poets. But in European and other languages the poet is a creator, an author, who creates his works independently. The tradent of a folk epic transmits only what had been created by the people. He is really only a mediator. In no sense do I wish to downplay the role of these mediators in the preservation and development of epics. Most of them were really talented men, and their contribution to the folk epics is great. But you have to discuss this problem in the context of of folk epics and their particular characteristics. There is one “poet” in folk epics, the people, the community at large, who consider themselves an entity with a common history, common worldview, and common moral values. When Bowra treats the tradents’ contribution as something highly creative, he surpasses the limits of the tellers’ true contribution, consciously or unconsciously аscribing to them the norms of contemporary literature, though on other pages he highlights the differences between them.

Above, I described the tellers as mediators, but it would be more precise to call them the representatives of their community or people. Their individuality can be expressed only within those boundaries. We can hardly overestimate their significance in speaking about folk epics. It is thanks to them that we possess the heritage of the world epic tradition. But they are not the bearers of an individualistic point of view.

In the narratives perspective is one of the main elements. Anyone, who tells about something, tells it from a specific point of view. In contemporary literature this point is primarily individual. In folk epics it is primarily not individual but collective.

However, this in no way limits the diversity of folk epics. On the contrary, in epics we observe the peculiarities of the distinct peoples and epochs, and only within these parameters do we note the peculiarities of the individual narrative styles.