Alfred Lord and KCKP

I had heard of Alfred Lord’s work on oral tradition, but did not get round to reading his famous The Singer of Tales until after we had finished and published the translation. I then found that Lord was very helpful in understanding the form of KCKP and its evolution.

lordsingeroftalesLord wanted to show that the Greek classics, especially the Odyssey and Iliad, had emerged from an oral tradition of storytelling, rather than being written by an individual author named Homer. He researched in an area of Eastern Europe where there was still a vibrant tradition of storytellers reciting tales for local entertainment. He showed that storytellers used certain techniques to compose, remember, and reproduce their tales, and that the tales as a result had certain distinctive characteristics. He then demonstrated that the Greek myths exhibited the same characteristics. Subsequent studies have shown that the same distinctive characteristics are found in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Norse sagas, Hekke tales from Japan, and many others. There is also a counter-literature, insisting that such works have individual authors.

Lord’s storytellers were able to reproduce a tale of several thousand lines after hearing it only a single time, and for the first time. They did so by using certain techniques. Each story is a sequence of typical scenes (a lovers’ meeting; audience with the king; travel through the forest), and each type of scene is told in a similar way. Similarly, each scene can be broken down into actions or verbal exchanges which have typical forms. At base, each line is formed around certain key words, for which the rhyming sequence may serve as a mnemonic. This description grossly oversimplifies a complex process, but the point is that the storyteller does not memorize a story line by line but deconstructs it into algorithms or formulas, nested down many levels, and stores these for reassembly. For the storyteller, this process of deconstruction, storage, and reassembly is innate and unconscious, a result of constant practice, rather as we handwrite a word by selecting certain letters, and then joining each pair of letters in a standard way. As a result of these techniques, a work of oral literature has certain distinguishing features, particularly types of repetition.

The characteristics that Lord identified with works from oral tradition are clearly present in Khun Chang Khun Phaen, even after the work has been adapted into written tradition.

Take for example the scenes of royal audience in KCKP. They always have the same form. The king is presented in a beautiful palace surrounded by throngs of beautiful women, as proof of his status. He rises from sleep and is elaborately bathed and costumed. After ascending to the audience hall, he is given a piece of information, to which he reacts with appropriate emotion before giving orders to the appropriate officials. To reproduce this scene, all the storyteller needs to remember is the piece of information. Everything else falls into place around that.

In our Afterword for the Thai-language Wat Ko edition, we inserted a summary of Lord’s argument and how it was relevant for KCKP. We then adapted this argument into an article for the Thai literary magazine อ่าน, Aan (Read).

The motive was this. At the KCKP exhibition in Suphan, the director of the museum had stated that the story of KCKP was lost at the fall of Ayutthaya and then recomposed in the Bangkok era, especially in the court salon of King Rama II. The same assertion can be found in several books, including a popular list of 100 books that all Thais can read. Prince Damrong wrote that no manuscripts of KCKP seem to have survived from the Ayutthaya era, but the poem was retained in the memory reciters. This passage of Damrong has since been misread to state that the whole poem was lost and had to be recomposed. At the base of this conclusion is a deep misunderstanding of oral tradition. Lord is very helpful for countering this argument.

In the intro to the Aan article, we showed our hand:

 In sum, the development of KCKP in oral tradition is becoming lost, forgotten, or unimportant.  In this article, we want to do three things. First, to remind people of this stage in the development of KCKP – to rescue it from this process of deliberate “forgetting.”  Second, to argue that, contrary to the usual impression, that the plot, style, rhythm of KCKP as known today were formed in oral tradition, and that the changes made by court authors are rather superficial. Third, focusing on KCKP in oral tradition, switches attention away from the poetry and onto the plot (a reversal of the trend of the last 200 years).

The article-reviewer for Aan magazine  completely misunderstood and rejected the argument. We made a revised version that was accepted and printed. We suspect the reviewer was Sujit Wongthet. His view of the origins of KCKP is rather different but also fascinating (see post on “Sujit Wongthet and KCKP”).

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