Dialectic Narrative in Two Ballads

by D E Bynum

The study of intangible culture in Europe is naturally subject to divisions along regional, ethnic, and national lines. This is due most of all to differences of language that subdivide the population of Europe. Such differences greatly increase a European cultural scholar’s labor whenever one looks beyond the attributes of one’s own people, and make it progressively harder to know other cultures as they are farther removed geographically and by linguistic type.

A highly developed science of cultural forms in one enclave of Europe has thus often found it difficult to recognize the same operative principles at work in the seemingly different cultural forms of another people or region. But what is commonly thought to be the characteristic trait of a particular ethnic community is frequently in fact only a cultural universal veiled in local garb. It is indeed seldom automatically or self-evidently apparent even to an experienced native scholar which traits in the culture of a given district are universals, and which are real peculiarities of that locale. So it sometimes happens that diverse cultural forms from widely separated regions of Europe have more substance in common than do more formally similar, geographically proximate traditions in one particular region. No high degree of familiarity with local cultural idiosyncracies can compensate in such cases for a failure to recognize the deployment of universal values in local forms. A science of particular values can never be better than the science of general values upon which it rests, and this, despite time-honored prejudice to the contrary in the humanities, is as true in the science of cultural forms as in any other kind of learning.

To discriminate successfully between the universal and the particular, one must know both. The assiduous collection and tabulation of ethnically-specific data is manifestly the only path to an adequate knowledge of cultural particularity. But one must nevertheless pause sometime in thelabor of collecting and tabulating such data to think critically about the sense of it, and about the manner in which that sense may be inter­culturally pervasive.

Humanistic science in Eastern Europe, for example, customarily regards the decasyllabic meter in the oral poetry of the South Slavs as their primary vehicle for traditional epic narrative. In some western, Serbo-Croatian speaking districts of the Balkans, stichic oral poetry in decasyllabic meter was indeed a form of epos, and individual compositions in this meter commonly exceeded a thousand verses in length. But songs sung in the same meter in Bulgaria seldom approached even half that length.

That difference can be rationalized as a difference of narrative music. In Bulgaria, oral decasyllables were composed in a musical manner that produced fewer words in a given length of time than were normally produced in the Serbo-Croatian style. But if musical style rationalizes the different verbal productivity of decasyllabic poesy in those two neighboring traditions despite their other prosodic likenesses, musical habit alone is still neither a sufficient etiology nor a substantive explanation of the difference. Where there are fewer words, there must inevitably be some difference in what is said, and consequently some difference of meaning.

As to what was said in Bulgarian decasyllables, that was, commonly speaking, the soul of clarity. Take for example the piece that began:

Раснал Марко, раснал, та пораснал,
та дораснал до седъм години
и излезнал телци да си пасе.
Изкарал ги към синьо езеро,
тамо слуша писък на детенце — 1
Marko waxed and grew
til he’d grown to the age of seven years
and gone as a herdboy to pasture calves.
Away he drove them to an azure lake,
where he heard the cry of a child —

Both the music and the meter of these lines set them apart from any common Bulgarian speech (or writing) about reality. One did not address mundane facts in Bulgarian by singing poetry. The name of Marko, a modern Bulgarian counterpart of ancient Herakles, alerts the hearer moreover to expect fictions of a preternatural kind as the melodic narrative continues. Yet the song remains perfectly intelligible as to what it says throughout its first five verses, and their meaning need not be taken as more or less than what is stated in the plain, factual meaning of the words.

But in the verses that follow, a certain hiatus appears between the things said and any useful automatic appraisal of their meanings. This is, namely, a song about how the legendary hero Marko Vǎlkasinov Kraljeviči obtained his preternatural strength and his fabulous sword, and things sung in verse about this unreal person and his fictitious adventures are simply not commensurable with real human experience.

The infant child whose crying Marko hears beside the azure lake is the daughter of a nymph. The baby nymphling is named Gyurga, and she cries from her cradle where the hot sun beating down upon her has made her uncomfortable. Marko gives her water to drink and sets a bough over her for shade, then he too lies down beneath the bough and the suspended cradle to keep the infant company in the absence of its kin. The nymph’s mother when she subsequently approaches sees the boy Marko while she is yet at a distance, and determines to kill him. But the baby Gyurga intervenes to tell her mother of Marko’s kindness, and says that he must not be slain, for he is her adoptive (fictive) brother. The mother nymph remarks that he cannot be such in truth until he has drawn milk from her breast, and she proceeds with his permission to nurse Marko. Fabulously energized by the nursing, Marko then lifts an enormous stone and hurls it away to a distance of three hours’ walking.

If the beginning of this sung narrative was a reasonable account of events that might have happened, or that had in fact happened, to innumerable Bulgarian youths at some past time as they grew up and took on their first serious boyhood responsibilities as herdkeepers, the part about the nymph is pure traditional fiction that never happened literally to anyone. To take this piece of fiction at face value, as if in some way it meant just what it says, or to suppose that Bulgarian peasants commonly thought that the singers of this song meant just what they said when they sang the part about the nymph, is to make the Bulgarian peasantry by inference worse than gullible children; it depicts them as unthinking adults incapable of distinguishing fact from a blatant act of imagination. This adverse reflection on the intellectual capacity of the peasantry as a whole has, to be sure, been taken seriously at various times, and has promoted contempt for Bulgarian oral tradition among Bulgarians of all kinds including the peasantry itself, just as it has in many other parts of the world.

Bulgarian nymphs, or as peasant Bulgars called them, samodivi, are therefore not to be literally believed by anyone, be he peasant or critic. Our minds no less than theirs are full of propositions of many sorts which we and they alike know are perfectly true without necessarily being at the same time real. And what is true is not to be taken any the less seriously for being merely unreal. So Bulgarian songs like the one about Marko and the nymph’s daughter have persisted tenaciously and been honored in Bulgarian tradition for a very long time. And although it has repeatedly been recorded in performances of greater length than most Bulgarian narrative songs attained, this tale of Marko’s potentiation by the nymph’s mother is nevertheless a fairly typical example of Bulgarian decasyllabic storytelling.

If nothing persists in culture without reason, then the sung decasyllabic tale “Marko dobiva sila i orăžie” (Marko Acquires His Strength and Arms) must mean something other than what it explicitly says, for in regard to factual credibility, it only gets worse as it continues.

After Marko has gained preterhuman power from the nymph-mother’s milk, he and the nymph’s daughter, his fictive sister, grow to maturity. The daughter gratuitously informs him that a certain sabja diplenica—a sort of collapsible Joyeuse or Excaliber—is for sale in Istanbul, and Marko, says his sister the samodiva, should have it. Marko obediently sets off toward Istanbul, but falls victim on the way to a Bulgarian counterpart of Circe, a femme fatale who has known men before Marko’s advent:

кой я види, секи я залиби,
ем залиби, ем па я засака —
а вдовица никога не зима
дор си юнак кула не направи.
Сви юнаци кула направили,
деньем права, нощем кула пада...

Whosoever beheld her loved her,
loved and lusted after her;
but the widow would have none of them to husband
save who might be man enough to build for her a tower.
Then every man went a-building of her tower,
but all that each could raise by day anon by night fell all away...

Marko falls prey to the weird widow’s fascination and forgets his mission to Istanbul. Like the others of her suitors, he too attempts to construct a tower, but cannot finish the building for want of one last building stone. He crosses the Danube into Rumanian lands to seek and fetch it. His sisterly samodiva meets him as he returns bearing the stone, puts him in mind of his original, forgotten quest, and tells him that while he has been searching in Rumania for the right rock to finish his futile architecture a certain Aethiopian has bought the marvelous sword at Istanbul and taken full possession of the widow whom Marko has meantime vainly wooed.

Marko drops the hateful building-stone into the Danube, goes directly to the widow’s place, smashes the black Aethiopian with a piece of local rock which he finds perfectly adequate for that purpose, and claims the collapsible sword for his own. With it he beheads the now helpless black interloper, kills the widow with all her other suitors, and razes her tower. After this cataclysmic display of violence and destruction, he goes home.

No such incredible nonsense as this has any direct bearing on the realities of life in Bulgaria in any era. However true this story about Marko may be (and Bulgars surely did once believe it to be a true account of events in illo tempore), it belongs in company with such other patent irreality as the British ballad that says:

1 It fell about the Martinmas time, And a gay time it was then, When our goodwife got puddings to make, And she’s boild them in the pan. 2 The wind sae cauld blew south and north, And blew into the floor; Quoth our goodman to our goodwife, ‘Gae out and bar the door.’ 3 ‘My hand is in my hussyfskap, Goodman, as ye may see; An it should nae be barrd this hundred year, It’s no be barrd for me.’ 4 They made a paction tween them twa, They made it firm and sure, That the first word whaeer shoud speak, Shoud rise and bar the door. 5 Then by there came two gentlemen, At twelve o clock at night, And they could neither see house nor hall, Nor coal nor candle-light. 6 ‘Now whether is this a rich man’s house, Or whether is it a poor?’ But neer a word wad ane o them speak, For barring of the door. 7 And first they ate the white puddings, And then they ate the black; Tho muckle thought the goodwife to hersel, Yet neer a word she spake. 8 Then said the one unto the other, ‘Here, man, tak ye my knife; Do ye tak aff the auld man’s beard, And I’ll kiss the goodwife.’ 9 ‘But there’s nae water in the house, And what shall we do than?’ ‘What ails ye at the pudding-broo, That boils into the pan?’ 10 O up then started our goodman, An angry man was he: "Will ye kiss my wife before my een, And scad we wi pudding-bree?’ 11 Then up and started our goodwife, Gied three skips on the floor: ‘Goodman, you’ve spoken the foremost word, Get up and bar the door.’

[apud Francis James Child, ed., The English and Scottish
Popular Ballads
, 5 (Boston, 1894-8), p. 98.]

This frivolous ballad from Scotland has at least the merit of demonstrating what a woman should do for a man, a simple matter—cook him good puddings in autumn (Martinmas being 11 November); and what he should reciprocally do for her—give her shelter and protection against unkind elements and strangers in the night. The ballad demonstrates how comically and how painfully wrong personal life may go if the differentiation and complementarity of social roles should happen to fail. Things to eat, shelter, and the complementary utilities of companionship are not the ostensible subjects, but they are nevertheless the conceptual subjects of this British ballad.

Surveying the sequence of ideas in the Bulgarian song, one finds that it too is about ingestion, shelter; and the nature of companionship. The British ballad shows first what a woman may do for a man, and then what a man may do for a woman. The Bulgarian ballad contains these same two sets of data, only in the reverse order.

One element in the classic definition of ballad is that the narrative in it usually encompasses not more than a single incident. From marital discord to barring of the door, the English ballad cited above may be fitted into that description without intolerable distortion, although in a meticulous analysis it must be conceded to comprise two distinct incidents: first, the housekeeping and domestic quarrel at Martinmas, and then the visit of the two mischievous wayfarers to the household that has ceased to function. The persistence of the goodwife and the goodman from the first incident into the second is all that really holds the two pieces of the ballad together.

Similarly, the Bulgarian ballad before us here—I deliberately call it a ballad, not epic—incorporates two incidents: first, the nursing of Marko, and then the getting of his sabja diplenica, his “folding sword”—and this pair of incidents is held together only by the persistence of Marko and his fictive sister from the one event into the other.

Marko does what a male may do for a female when he brings drink to the nymph’s daughter. Next, he erects a makeshift wooden shelter—a leafy bough—to protect the preternatural girl from the sun. He then lies down to keep her company till her kin come to fetch her—or until whatever other eventuality comes to pass. All three of Marko’s acts meet the child’s immediate physical needs, but those acts are in no way calculated to have lasting effects. Marko does his voluntary, material kindnesses spontaneously and without any thought at all as to their possible social consequences beyond the moment.

The mother-nymph’s initial adverse reaction to Marko is no less spontaneous than was his to the needs of her daughter, but the elder’s violent distaste for him is instantly offset by the younger nymph’s calculated adoption of him as her fictive brother, an adoption calculated to save him from sudden death. Having reacted first to Marko as Marko had reacted to Gyurga—in an instantaneous, unthinking response to a perception of Gyurga’s dire need—Gyurga’s mother now reacts a second time in a socially calculating way imitative of her daughter. Gyurga has met Marko’s dire need in the same sudden way in which he earlier met hers, but her goodness to him is social rather than material, and it endures beyond the utility of the water, shade, and temporary guardianship that he earlier bestowed on her. Gyurga’s quick intervention on Marko’s behalf and the information she gives her mother about him produce not only his physical salvation by the mature preternatural female, but also a great improvement in the quality of Marko’s life ever after.

The experiences of real people in real lives—what they themselves do as well as what happens to them through the operation of forces beyond their understanding or control—are naturally full of contradiction, inadvertence, and happenstance. The characters of traditional fiction such as Marko, Gyurga, the goodman and his goodwife, are, however, subject to no such effects of chance and the unforeseen. In fact none of these four characters, British or Bulgarian, are significant in themselves as persons. They are only tokens of larger arguments that give them their places in tradition. It is only the conception which these characters represent of constants in the relationship between men and women that is important. Marko and Gyurga are invoked merely to act out the typical relationships, and their very fictitiousness makes them better than real persons would be for this purpose, since nothing else in anyone’s experience of Marko and Gyurga (who exist only in narrative songs) could contradict or obscure the principles which they are made to depict, as would certainly happen were the characters real people.

The dynamics of male-female relations philosophically perceived, as I think they are in the Bulgarian ballad, are of course twofold, proceeding from the initiatives of both parties. Therefore the two successive incidents of the narrative are as inseparable and as necessary to each other in the Bulgarian case as they were in the British example. Marko gives Gyurga water to drink. It is physically necessary that this be done for Gyurga, but morally unnecessary. The effect of the kindness is physically transient—that single drink of water will suffice for only an insignificant span of time—but it has a lasting moral effect on Gyurga, who thereafter shows an enduring sense of her obligation to Marko. Then Gyurga’s mother gives Marko milk to drink from her own breast—first one, then the other. The act is physically unnecessary, but morally needful as a means of discharging the infant nymph’s moral obligation to Marko. And whereas the water given to Gyurga could have no enduring physical effect upon her, the milk given to Marko alters him powerfully for the better for the rest of his life. Marko’s gift of drink left a legacy of moral obligation, although he did not calculate that it should do so; but the nymph’s gift of mother’s milk entails no obligation, for the nymph indeed has calculated the gift as a means to end such obligation.

Thus the mother-nymph’s benefaction to Marko is an inversion of his to Gyurga. While Marko’s kindness to her was purely voluntary, unplanned, and without any foresight as to the consequences good or bad, the nymphs’ kindness to Marko is strictly in the nature of recompense, an act of calculated reward which represents their conscious planning for Marko’s future. To put the matter simply, a man’s kindness to a woman may be unplanned, voluntary, transient in effect, and socially unifying in unforeseen ways, while a woman’s kindness to a man is planned, morally obligatory, lasting in its effects, and paradoxically divisive from a social point of view. After his experience with the two nymphs, Marko is forever different from other men, and incapable of further undifferentiated socialization with them.

Thus, when he comes to woo the fascinating widow of Nekyup Grad, Marko builds his stone tower apart from the competing collaborative construction of the other heroes whom that woman has enthralled. And the strong stone tower which he builds to house himself and the widow is an exact inversion of the flimsy, impermanent, makeshift shelter he earlier devised—the leafy branch—temporarily to house himself and the virgin samodiva. Marko is an enchanted thrall of the widow of Nekyup, unable to remember any alternative to life with her, in an exact inversion of his earlier accidental and perfectly voluntary ties to Gyurga.

But his originally temporary companionship with Gyurga resolves itself into a lifelong relationship, while his seemingly boundless fascination with the widow of Nekyup proves in the end to be only a delusion. And whereas Gyurga earlier gave to her preternaturally powerful samodiva mother the information that made her mother save Marko’s life and endow it with unheard-of energy and ability, in the end she herself gives to the preternaturally powerful Marko the information that makes him kill everyone in sight and lay waste their habitations forever.

The demise of the untrustworthy widow is a good and reassuring thing, but no general reordering of a mythic world results from the events in this ballad. Like balladic narration everywhere in Europe, this Bulgarian tale also turns on the extremity of reaction to an intrinsically minor and commonplace social provocation. The goodwife has had enough of housekeeping and will stomach no more of it in the British ballad, while in the Bulgarian instance too the fascinating widow who prefers to engage with strangers has had enough of marital deference, and bends sooner to the outlandish Aethiopian than to the man who demonstrates the skill and determination to be a proper husband to her. The Bulgarian ballad is neither tragic nor elegiac, but its outcome is nevertheless a massive, wanton destruction, not a comprehensive experience of re-established cosmic order such as one would expect to find in epos.

The flow of the narrative in both the Bulgarian and the Scottish instance is dialectic, a cascade of abstract propositions and counter-propositions couched in the concrete actions and counter-actions of persons who, because fictitious, are unalloyed representatives of their respective social categories. Out of that dialogue emerges a general explanation of how and why those categories articulate with one another wherever they happen to occur.

Being attentive to the similar pattern of ideas in this Bulgarian ballad and its British cousin, it may be well to reflect also somewhat more widely on the dialectic of ideas not only in ballad. A notable twentieth-century writer has said that dialectic analysis is the unsurpassable intellectual technique discovered in his century for understanding all types of cultural data. (Not that the technique itself was new, but rather that its applicability to formerly obscure cultural matters, such as the import of balladic narrative, was an important twentieth-century discovery.)

Previously, the common understanding has been that rigorous dialectic reasoning was a philosophical invention of western culture in its ancient Mediterranean phase, as expressed preeminently in the Socratic dialogues of Plato. If however, as in the present pair of little ballads from oral tradition, modern dialectic analysis of cultural data is not really, when accurately understood, something to be done to such data, but rather something to be extracted from it, then the only essential difference of kind between an ancient Greek philosophical dialogue and a modern European ballad is a mere matter of rhetorical form, a difference in principle of nothing more than genre, to put it in literary terms.

And if that is indeed as true as it certainly seems to be, then dialectic reasoning is an unsurpassable—or at least a quite valuable—analytical technique for the study of culture not because its application to such use was a good invention of modern thinkers, but because it is inherent in culture to the same extent that the meaning of Marko and Gyurga was inherent in the narrative singing of the Bulgarian peasant poet Ivanka Ognjanova, or the meaning of goodwife and goodman was in the song of Jane Webster in 1887.

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