While our lives are saturated with them today, the vast majority of people in the dark ages would never in their lives see a visual image–a painting, a sketch, a statue, possibly not even a map.
Just as we use stories and films and computer games today to spark our imaginations or experience another world, so the people of the dark ages felt about the songs/poems they heard. The stories and worlds created by their poets would have served to engage and inspire and capture dark age imaginations.
Those with power, money or influence used it to commission bards to create favourable stories about their exploits (or unfavourable ones about their enemies in the dark age equivalent of trolling or political campaigning). While bards were commissioned to peddle certain tales, they still had plenty of capacity to tell other, more traditional and popular tales on the side. Thus, bards would travel the countryside performing epic works of poetry/music that was part entertainment, part current affairs and part advertising.
A well-crafted and delivered tale could make or break a powerful family as it spread across the land. As individuals fell in or out of favour the oral references to them would shift, subtly, and change community attitudes as they went.
There are some important differences in the stories of oral tradition and that of written tradition:
|Equity – all the information of the day was shared orally (announcements, politics, laws, campaigning and propaganda, lobbying, entertainment). Because there was no written record (and even if there was almost no-one could read it) information was transient and easily changed but it was totally equitable to anyone who could hear.
|When general day-to-day information was more immediately accessible by the population, written texts became the language of knowledge/education and a sign of power/wealth, their contents grew in size, meaning and importance.
|Team sport. There was almost no point in being sung a poem all by yourself. Part of the pleasure of hearing the latest poems/songs was to do it in the company of others with food and liquor. It was a festival. A performance. Exciting treat.
|Solo act. Reading a text/book is not a group experience. A book is enjoyed privately and intimately.
|Relied heavily on rhyme. This helped the listener with comprehension and recall, and aided the performer with recitation without missing parts. Early ‘stories’ were songs or poems more than tales.
|Development of Prose designed to be read in ones head, not recited.
|Evolution The stories evolved (much like theatrical performance) and could be tweaked by the Bard to suit the audience. This meant content was never secure.
|The written word rarely changed. The story was reliably the same every time you read it. This provided content surety for the authors.
|Repetition – Structurally a lot of repetition was used (with content and phrases) to aid in the recitation and to consolidate the story in the audience’s mind and link connected episodes together.
|Content was freer of the need for repetition (except for effect) because the reader could read the line or passage a number of times to ensure comprehension. Led to more flowery/evocative phrasing.
|Episodic – individual tales were grouped into epic tales which could be told across the space of a weeklong festival or mixed up and presented like a cycle to keep it fresh.
|Episodes eventually became scenes and chapters in one big story rather than individual stories collated into a volume like an anthology.
|Metre – designed to be performed aloud with musical accompaniment, and to create atmosphere. Optimised for the language of the region/listener. Flowery, evocative language.
|Designed to be read in silence. Optimised for the author’s language. Visually beautiful book artifacts.
|Anticipation – The audience knew the story or recognised the tradition of a new story and would listen with bated breath waiting for the best bits to come. This meant the bard’s craft was of ultimate importance and he bent and twisted the tale to evoke the most response.
|Reveal – modern literature relies more heavily on visual imagery and the slow revel of an unfamiliar story for impact/effect.