Random note… Polynesian oral narratives

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A recommended article:

Judith Huntsman, (1981) ‘Butterfly collecting in a swamp: suggestions for studying oral narratives as creative art’, Journal of the Polynesian society 90(2), pp.209-218

She writes:

“Butterflies must be captured with great care and handled with utmost delicacy lest their colour be lost and their wings broken. But collected butterflies, no matter how meticulously treated, have lost an essential quality of butterflies: they cannot flutter about. Separated from their swamp and motionless, they are lifeless specimens. So it is with oral narratives. Though faithfully recorded and sensitively handled, they too are separated from their “swamp” and lose their vitality.

Why do people bother to collect butterflies or narratives? Some acquire them for profit. Wings of butterflies, ripped off, are encased in plastic, and sold as paperweights or baubles; oral narratives, rewritten as saccharine, inoffensive stories, are encased within glossy covers, and sold as “myths and legends”. They too are “ripped-off”. Others collect to preserve “priceless specimens”. Exotic butterflies are mounted behind glass; old, authentic traditions are preserved in archives. Still others seek to understand what butterflies or narrative are all about. Lepidopterists enter swamps to observe butterflies in flight and at rest, to record their interplay with each other, to examine their environment, and to capture a sample of butterflies for closer study. Some students of oral narrative visit the communities where narratives are being told to witness the telling of them, to note the performance of tellers and interactions of tellers and audiences, to study the culture of which the tales are a part, and to record some narratives for further study.

Whereas butterflies and the swamps in which they flutter are products of nature, oral narratives and the cultures in which they flourish are the creations of people. Here is where my butterfly and swamp analogy breaks down. It is to this important difference that my essay is primarily addressed, a difference that is often overlooked in studies of oral narrative—their artistry.” (p.210)

“Oral narratives, as I use the phrase here, have distinctive stylistic features, setting them apart from ordinary discourse, and relate some kind of story, setting them apart from sermons, speeches, proverbs, riddles and so forth. Some are considered to be “true” and others are treated as fictitious. Some serve to validate privilege, position, rights to property or other prerogatives, while the stated purpose of others is simply to entertain. In the Western Polynesian societies with which I am most familiar there are three types of narrative distinguished linguistically: (1) “true”, validating ‘accounts of the past’ (tara tupua in Tikopia, tala tupua in Tonga, tala mai anamua in Tokelau, tala mai le vavau in Samoa); (2) “true”, entertaining ‘accounts of recent events and adventures’, e.g., fishing stories and travel stories, (araarafanga in Tikopia, tala in Tonga, Tokelau and Samoa); (3) fictitious, entertaining ‘tales’ (kkai in Tikopia, fananga in Tonga, kakai in Tokelau, fāgogo in Samoa). My primary concern in this article is with the last type, those which I gloss ‘tales’, and my reference collection is 130 ‘tale’ texts I have collected in Tokelau. I suspect that the types are not immutable (something that Boas demonstrated long ago), though this is not a point to labour here.

Published collections of Polynesian narrative are numerous, ranging from “rewritten, saccharine versions” or “frothy folklore” (Dorson 1976: 4) cribbed from earlier texts, the equivalent of butterfly wing baubles, to exemplary works of the lepidopterists of narrative, such as From the Two Canoes (Elbert and Monberg 1965). Most volumes can be placed somewhere between these two extremes, unfortunately a greater number closer to the “frothy” end. Nevertheless, there is a substantial body of published Polynesian narrative produced by serious students. Few collections compare favourably with From the Two Canoes in the manner in which the material was recorded, processed and presented, but still a great deal of time and effort has been devoted to compiling them. What was the stimulus for all this activity of so many? Until recently, the two dominant and interconnected motivations were “rescue and reconstruction”. Narratives had to be “rescued” before they disappeared under the onslaught of Western civilisation and preserved for posterity, as “butterflies” mounted behind glass, as a source for reconstructing or recalling states, relationships, events of the past, whether recent or remote. While these motives may be considered admirable, even if somewhat misguided, what they have resulted in is an attitude towards Polynesian oral narratives that is, I think, unfortunate. Narratives are seen by many collectors to be priceless, pure, authentic, preserved relics of the past, and they have impressed this view upon [-p211] Polynesians (Meleisea 1980: 21-9).” (pp.210-211)

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