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Joseph Nagy: Dragons in Medieval Irish 'Transitional Texts

About the Workshop

This workshop explores from a multidisciplinary standpoint how oral literature stands alongside and engages with texts in literate societies. While the study of oral literature has transformed many disciplines in the last century, the label of “true” orality was originally granted only to pre-literate traditions. We bring together a variety of perspectives as to how different disciplines have bridged the perceived gap between verbal art and artistic text. To that end, the workshop builds an ongoing conversation on
topics such as the transmission and textualization of folk literature, the interplay between spoken word and written text, and the sociology of reading and performance. 

Our aim is to broaden participants’ perspectives of oral literature in a literate society by encouraging a methodological dialogue across disciplines. Each session features an invited speaker who gives a short introduction to a pre-circulated paper followed by a respondent who will open the discussion. We warmly invite anyone who is interested in questions surrounding orality and literacy to join us for food and fellowship.

Please join our mailing list to receive notices about events and pre-circulated papers. 

Joseph F. Nagy, November 17th


The workshop got off to a fantastic start with Joseph Nagy’s visit from UCLA to discuss dragon tales and transitional texts in medieval Irish literature. Nagy’s past work has laid bare the faultlines between the oral and the written that are perhaps more apparent in Celtic studies, with its transitional texts, than for Greek and Latin. Similarly his work has highlighted how mythology is not for solving problems but for thinking about them: the more minor and marginal the motif, the more important it must be for the tradition that sustains it. Thus, in the workshop talk and pre-circulated paper, Nagy discussed instances of dragons in the Irish tradition, a rare occurence which he argued could shed light on the combination of the oral and written in Irish transitional texts.

Focusing particularly on three stories containing dragons (The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, The Saga of Fergus mac Léti and The Cattle-Raid of Fráech), Nagy argued that these stories, featuring creatures otherwise unseen in Irish literature, could be seen as surviving markers of the Irish oral tradition in written texts. Finally he also introduced evidence for alternative versions where the dragon-killing hero died rather than succeeded, providing a glimpse into the variety of potential versions and the vagaries associated with transmission.

In response, Richard Martin (Stanford Classics) picked up on Nagy’s stress on the importance of sight when facing dragons in Irish Literature. Martin stressed the importance of sight and face-to-face contact in the performance of transmission and oral literature, linking this into the code of honour and dishonour which Nagy had discussed in relation to the dragon stories. Furthermore, Martin suggested that dragons were linked to three particular motifs (issues of compensation, the ambiguous status of women and shame/disfigurement) and that there were hints in all of the stories that the actual reporting of who killed the dragon is problematised or disputed.

As we look ahead to future sessions of the workshop, several threads of interest emerge. The first, is the question of story frames and grafting. In The Pursuit of Diarmuid and Gráinne, multiple stories are combined in a style which appears to be interweaving a variety of tales from the Fenian Cycle, often in a complex narrative frame. Is such a construction indicative of later compilation, or do we see here a practice rooted in oral tradition?

Second, Nagy introduced us to the nativist debate in Celtic studies, between those who see similarities between Celtic texts and classical and Biblical texts as one of borrowing and those who see them as independent (Indo-European?) traditions. The debate has largely died out in Celtic studies but the very debate alerts us to the possibility to the re-oralization of written texts: how do written texts work their way back into oral culture, and how can we tell? To cite Mark Pyzyk’s modern parallel, children tell ghost stories to one another that they have learned from TV shows – in this kind of composite culture, is it possible to draw a distinction between written and oral?

Finally, it is clear that the question of the existence of a transitional text is crucial. While Lord was always unsure about the existence of these transitional texts (although his stance softened significantly over time), Nagy stressed that the debate on this topic has centred around the question of transitional composers as much as transitional texts. For instance, the poet Petar Petrović Njegoš II (discussed in Lord’s final work, The Singer Resumes the Tale, 1995) moved from oral to written media but this is not necessarily the same as ever being ‘transitional’. Conversely, as Nagy pointed out, a text, not necessarily attached to any one individual and potentially existing over a longer stretch of time, can be much more easily described as transitional.

Furthermore, the definition of what we’re looking for when we talk about transitional texts is quite fluid. At its largest scope, such a definition could include something like Herodotus’ Histories, a written work which contains traces of oral logoi. But on a more strictly defined level, the transitional text must contain elements particular to oral composition; formulae, phrases and the like which it would be harder to claim were present in Herodotus (although work on prose rhythm and metrics in Herodotus might dispute this). It is easier to accept transitional texts for poetry rather than prose because it is easier to point to particular formal features of poetry as oral, but can we do the same for prose? Nagy suggests one way – find a marginal element of mythology that has clear significance in the tradition, like dragons – but are there others too? With our second session, discussing Ossian, fast approaching, this seems particularly relevant.