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A multitext format is needed for editing the epic poetry of the Homeric Iliad and Odyssey for a simple reason, which is this: the Homeric text itself is basically multiform in nature. Such multiformity, as I have argued, is a sign of oral poetry at work, since oral poetry is itself basically multiform in nature (Nagy 1996:8-9). For background on oral poetry and on the study of oral poetics, I cite the foundational research of Milman Parry (collected writings published in 1971) and Albert Lord (especially his book The Singer of Tales , first published in 1960; second edition 2000).

Lord noted that many researchers who study the history of ancient textual traditions find it difficult to grasp the multiformity of oral poetry. He collegially included himself as one of those researchers in his classic formulation of the difficulty (Lord 1960:100):

Our real difficulty arises from the fact that, unlike the oral poet, we are not accustomed to thinking in terms of fluidity. We find it difficult to grasp something that is multiform. It seems to us necessary to construct an ideal text or to seek an original, and we remain dissatisfied with an ever-changing phenomenon. I believe that once we know the facts of oral composition we must cease trying to find an original of any traditional song. From one point of view each performance is an original.

Researchers who study ancient texts without knowing the facts of oral composition are not accustomed to thinking in terms of fluidity because they think of the text of any piece of poetic composition as something rigid and uniform . By contrast, researchers like Lord who studied living oral poetic traditions as well as ancient texts understood the differences between oral and textual composition. And the basic difference is this: oral composition, unlike textual composition, is fluid and multiform . In any piece of oral poetic composition, the act of composition and the act of its performance are aspects of the same process, so that every new performance is the occasion for a new composition, a recomposition.

Combining the study of ancient texts with the study of living oral poetic composition-in-performance, we can see that some of these texts show signs of the same kind of fluidity and multiformity that is typical of oral poetry (Nagy 1996:26-27). A most striking example is the textual transmission of the medieval French epic, the Chanson de Roland . As Ramón Menéndez Pidal observes (1960:60-63), three of the earliest manuscript versions of the Chanson have not a single identical verse in common with each other. Such a degree of textual variation is symptomatic of an ongoing oral tradition that keeps its fluidity and multiformity despite the fact that it keeps getting written down (Nagy 1996:27, summarizing Menéndez Pidal 1960:67-68).

Comparable degrees of textual variation are attested in medieval Arabic textual traditions. Michael Zwettler offers this description (1978:206):

We are doubly fortunate in Arabic, in that we often have not only two or more recensions of many poems ... but also a mass of additional variants presented in the scholia to the poems or in various supplementary philological and literary-historical sources where poetry held a paramount position. And nowhere does the inherent instability or, better, fluidity of the early Arabic poem—its essential multiformity—emerge with greater clarity than through consideration of the body of those lectiones variae that the textual tradition has preserved.

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Source:  OpenStax, Online humanities scholarship: the shape of things to come. OpenStax CNX. May 08, 2010 Download for free at http://cnx.org/content/col11199/1.1
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