A Great Explorer

Selected Writings, Volume IV

by Roman Jakobson
Mouton, 751 pp., 75 guilders

To anyone who values literary scholarship and likes to see it well done, the achievement of Roman Jakobson brings assurance and comfort. Not only is the volume of his oeuvre unusually large, far larger than almost any other scholar could have done, but it covers several fields and handles them all in depth with an eye both for the interest and the significance of details and for the general patterns which emerge from them. In this volume, the fourth of his Selected Writings, Jakobson has brought together a large number of articles on “Slavic Epic Studies.” This has always been one of his leading interests, and he has probably done more in this field than any living man. He formed a love for it in childhood, pursued it under inspiring teachers at the university, and has never, despite other competing claims on his time and energy, relaxed his affection for it.

The large number of articles in this book shows how carefully and systematically he has explored a vast area, and how many new branches of a large subject he has discovered and examined and put into order. The articles are written variously in Russian, German, French, and English, and cover many aspects of the traditional literature of the Slavs. We call it “literature,” but one of its chief claims on our attention is that usually it was not written to be read but composed orally to be heard. Such was the art of words in all countries before the introduction of writing, and in many after it, especially when writing was reserved for such matters as sacred texts and legal documents. This art lives by tradition, by being passed from mouth to mouth. Its contents vary from folk tales and fairy tales to heroic epic and heroic romance. If Jakobson’s main material comes from Russia, he is equally at home with material from other Slavic peoples, and derives a special strength from seeing them all in a wide context in which comparative methods are used with skill, economy, and judgment, not as an amusing game but as a means to explain and illustrate why some kinds of literature have taken this or that form.

A SUBSTANTIAL PART of this volume is occupied by a number of papers on the unique and fascinating work, The Tale of Igor’s Raid. This, Jakobson maintains, was composed in 1187 about events which took place in 1185, and is the authentic voice of Kievan Russia before its destruction by the Mongols in the disastrous battle of Kalka in 1224. It tells with much brilliance of an unsuccessful raid on the Polovcians and of its successful sequel. In date it is a little later than the Chanson de Roland, as we know it from the Oxford manuscript, and a little earlier than the long romantic Georgian epic, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin by Shot’ha Rusty’ hveli. It comes from a Russia which had not yet been cut off from Western Europe by the…

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