The Theory of Hungarian Folk Poetry and Prose

By folk poetry and prose we mean those works which were born among the wide masses of the working people, or those which spread and became popular among them. As we know, it has been customary to designate the entirety of all these works by the international term folklore. The word itself originally was intended to mean “folk learning”, the knowledge and science of the people, “what the people know”. It later began to be understood as the branch of knowledge engaged with various manifestations of the intellectual life of the people (folk poetry, folk music, ornamental folk art, customs, beliefs, etc.). In this sense, research on folk poetry and narrative can be looked upon as one of the branches of folklore.

We must emphasize that when we speak of folk poetry and prose we use the word “folk” in the sense of “working people”, so that we do not exclusively mean by it the peasantry, as did most of the authors of earlier works dealing with folk poetry and prose. Industrial labourers, the workers, also have their own folk poetry.

For that matter, the folklore of the industrial workers and working peasants is in contact in many ways, which is primarily explained, besides their fight against common exploiters, by the fact that a significant part of the industrial workers in Hungary have come and to this day are from among the peasantry, and bring along to their new employment the songs and stories of their village environment. The traditional contentual and formal world of these songs and stories continues to leave an impression on their literary creations.

A significant part of the commonly known works of Hungarian folk poetry and prose was born among the working peasantry. In Hungary old folkloristic traditions were preserved especially by rural workers, the small peasants who possessed a few acres, and the middle peasants. Béla Vikár had already ascertained by the end of the last century that only poor peasantry preserve the creations of folk poetry and prose. Similarly, Kodály and Bartók established that they could find valuable and ancient melodies only among poor peasants. Zsigmond Móricz also writes in his autobiography that it was unbecoming for a prosperous farmer to sing or tell stones: the well-to-do farmer listens to the tales in the spinning room, or at the scouring of the hemp; he goes to see the comic customs. He stands there and regards the poor folks enjoying themselves. But it was socially impossible for him to participate in the story telling or group singing. Therefore it was the working peasantry who basically created and preserved the oral traditions and customs of the peasantry. The contact of rich peasants with folk poetry and prose pertains to the narrow layer of jokes and anecdotes, to worthless “folksy”, composed songs, and to certain forms of customs, which in the latter case are used precisely to show off the rich peasant’s prosperity.

However, not infrequently certain poetic literature could become folk {461.} poetry and folklore. Among the poetry of the Hungarian poets, many songs of Petőfi especially became popular countrywide. The popularity of such poetic works is explained by their content, which expresses the sentiments and struggles of the people. “Hit” songs can become temporarily fashionable and may spread to folk poetry, but these, just like the sentimental composed folksongs of the second half of the last century, do not belong to folk poetry proper.

A significant part of folk poetry and prose reflect the life of the workers, as demonstrated not only by Hungarian folk poetry and prose, and by the folk poetry of the last 200 years, but by the tale set in Egypt, known by the title Complaints of a Peasant, which bewails the sufferings of the peasantry in 2000 B. C.

In relation to historical songs and myths, we shall speak in detail of what heroes the Hungarian folk remember from their wars of liberation, and, in the course of discussing certain literary forms, we shall also discuss the question of revolutionary traditions. However, in this connection a few, in themselves expressive, examples present themselves, and unmistakably manifest the revolutionary passion of the people, that explosive hatred with which they have wanted to strike back at those who have beaten them through centuries. Let us mention the popular group of tales called “Is the farmer angry?” (Haragszik a gazda?), which belongs to the humorous tales. When hiring his young farm hand, the farmer stipulates that he will not pay him if the farm hand gets angry during his service. The tale ends with the victory of the farm hand, who destroys the farmer’s fields and house, sets a bear upon him, and always asks, “Are you angry, farmer?...” Or let us mention those story types known by the name Nagy Kolos (Big Kolos), Kis Kolos (Little Kolos) (cf. Ill. 270), as well as the story type of Igazság és Hamisság (Justice and Duplicity). In these, the rich peasant of the village is confronted by the poor man of the village. The rich walks over and tries to destroy the poor, but the poor peasant triumphs in the end. It is not surprising that one collector was told: “The only justice lies in stories; why can’t people be like that?”

As a conclusion to these examples we shall quote a folk anecdote (recorded by Kálmány). It becomes obvious from it how clearly, also instinctively, the Hungarian folk saw in 1914 the connection between capitalism, imperialism, and the war. “When the war broke out, the king (Francis Joseph) sent a message to Rudolph, who was popular with the masses: ‘I will pave your road with roses.’ ‘Pave it rather with the heads of the rich Rothschilds’, was the message Rudolph sent back with the runner. ‘That one thing I cannot do my dear son, because they print the money for my war.’ That is the reason why prince Rudolph never came home.”

However, the content of the previously quoted folk tale not only shows the close-knit unity of folk narrative and folk history, but also focuses on the great agitative power of the former.

Therefore, both folk and composed poetry, which in general we call literature, belong to the superstructure. Views which try to deny the superstructure character of folk poetry and prose and seek instead to emphasize that in folklore “permanent”, “above-class”, “continuous” {462.} elements can be found just as much as in language, are misleading. The misunderstanding in this case comes about in the following way: folk poetry and prose actually have formulas, motifs, formal elements which appear to be permanent and continuous and seem as if they have lived through centuries, up to the present day. However, these formulae and motifs reflect a given social and economic foundation, and detailed analysis also shows that after the foundation of certain such formulae and motifs has weakened, the motifs, by continuing to serve a new foundation themselves, become carriers of new content. One main characteristic of the elements of folk poetry and prose is continuous transformation and change. However, it is certain that the formulae and motifs of folk literature that developed in the past, and even its contextual elements in the feudal as well as in the capitalist period, often betray surprising relationships, although they are never completely identical.

It is indisputable that the development of folk poetry and prose depends on the laws of the superstructure, and thus is determined by the rules of social life, just like in composed poetry.

However, literature as superstructure and, within it, as ideological form, has its own particular character. It reflects reality through artistic method, it introduces reality, and by this means urges us to change it. This applies both to folk and regular literature.

The formal characteristics of literature and folk poetry and prose are also similar. Language provides the means of artistic expression in both, and their main genres (song, ballad, etc.) are related, or are frequently the same. Furthermore, many written works can become folk literature and thus part of folklore, or else help turn folk literature into “high” literature. Furthermore, the difference between the two forms is in the final stage of disappearance in socialist society, as the old folkloristic works are spread not just by word of mouth among the peasantry, but also through books, theatre and radio, and are becoming the treasure of the entire nation, its “literature”.

While emphasizing the unity of folk and written literature, however, we must not forget that folk literature, right up to the present time, was transmitted through oral tradition, except for a slight layer expressed through written forms. Written poetry on the other hand has relied from the start on literacy and writing. That all this is not merely a formal difference we can ascertain, among other things, by the Latin name for literature, the word literature, which originates from the word “letter”, so that it includes in itself the concept of literacy. The Hungarian word irodalom (literature) also includes the concept of literacy (írni, to write). Literature, therefore, tried from the start to fix the work of art in writing, as opposed to folk literature, which has relied on the vitality of the living word of oral transmission. Of course, until the 18th century, the living word was strongly influential even in the sphere of composed literature. But while folk literature was not written down until the beginning of conscious collecting, composed literature has always been characterized by the intent to record, even in its earliest forms. For example, alongside the performers of Homeric poetry, the aidoses and rhapsodes, the preservers and explainers also appeared, who were the first developers of Homeric philology and pointed towards literature based on literacy.

{463.} One of the main characteristics of folk poetry and prose, on the other hand, is that it can be treated only within the framework of a community. Every episode of its birth and survival is passed from mouth to mouth; this, on the other hand, also means that it is under the judgement of a constantly changing, constantly correcting, creative community. Not counting a certain amount of isolated humming and singing, folk poetry and narrative is created in all its forms–the small stories of belief and superstition to the dramatic genres–in front of a communal presence, and with its creative participation. This is the cardinal rule characteristic of all folk poetry and prose. There are even some outstanding folklorists who see in this single feature the differentiating character of folk and written literature. Thus Bartók himself says in his definition of folksong that what can be considered as folksong is something the community has accepted, holds to be its own, and constantly lives with.

Literature also reflects the community, the class, the nation. However, there is still a difference between the two. In the world of literature, the reflection of community influence and social reality always takes place through individual creativity. This is demonstrated, for instance, by the different ways Goethe and Schiller, or their Hungarian contemporaries express the same social problems at the same time. Individual intention and talent in folk poetry and prose can only express themselves and their class within the traditional framework provided by the community.

We have, therefore, arrived at the point where, by examining the relations and quantitative differences of folk poetry and prose, we can establish that while in literature the community is reflected through the individual, and while all that is alive in the community is always expressed individually, the situation in folk poetry and prose is the opposite: individual quality and individual creative desire are expressed through the traditional forms and material of the community. All the succeeding conclusions follow from this law of ours.

One other basic difference comes from the fact that folk poetry and prose is tied to certain occasions. Folk poetry, especially until its old world of forms arrived at a state of decomposition, was strictly tied to occasions. Today in Hungarian folk poetry we rarely find this restriction to occasions and this rigidly consigned place of poetic manifestation in the life of society. The most characteristic feature of the restriction to occasions is that it was proper to sing or recite certain types of lyrics only on certain occasions and only by certain persons. For example, old women singing love songs were frowned upon. Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály often mention that it was precisely those old women who remembered the old material well, who were unwilling to sing the love songs. Or there are story types which could be told only by men, others that could be told only by women. Similar restrictions can also be found in plays and dramatic folk performances.

Because folk poetry and prose exists through oral tradition, and because it always occurs in some community, and within that, is generally tied to some occasion, it is constantly subject to change. For example, it is impossible to imagine that a novel would have as many versions as there are people who read it. On the other hand, a folksong {464.} or story often changes according to the character and composition of the community in which it is performed. Thus the story teller revises the story, weaves allusions into it, according to his audience. In folk plays the audience becomes a participant of equal rank in the play, a factor which also shapes and changes tradition. At the same time, in written poetry, from the beginning of the reign of literacy, every author, every poet strives for uniqueness, for unchangeability, insists on the finality of his rendering. The authors of antiquity were outraged if anybody changed their works. We know, for instance, that Horace attacked in his satires those who wanted to alter his work. Of course, variations of themes do appear within literature, yet if we regard the codexes either of antiquity or the Middle Ages, the number of versions is insignificant compared to the multitude of variations existing in folk poetry and prose. In short, a typical trait of folk poetry and prose is its existence in variations through transformations, and that its creations are never so final that time can no longer make an impression upon them.

In the course of the more recent research into folk poetry, the former mechanical view of evolution cannot be applied. It cannot be stated that individual works of ancient folk poetry and prose had an original “prototype”, a so-called “archetype”, the first and best formulation of individual texts and that afterwards every variation was a worse version, a mere corruption of the original form. It is evident, for example, that the recent recordings of numerous tales and ballads include motifs which appear much more lively in their recent form than in recordings made many decades ago. This is exactly why we must investigate individual texts, not from the point of view of the archetype, of “timelessness”, but always in their own age and in the context of social relationships. Furthermore, comparison among the elements of form and content of some folk poetry and prose is possible in only such a way. Similarly, this view makes it possible to realize that a new creation can be even more beautiful and more valuable than the old.

Earlier folk poetry researchers also felt that it is difficult to grasp the phenomena of change and change itself. Among the Hungarian researchers, a music folklorist, János Seprődi, first noticed these phenomena at the beginning of the 20th century and pointed out that a whole lifetime would not be enough to gather all the variations of songs in even one village, because every melody is constantly changing: the same one singer changes the same song in the course of its repeated performance. Among the Hungarian researchers Zoltán Kodály pointed out in connection with the ballad The Wife of Mason Kelemen that within certain large epic songs the same melody and stanza structure alter from stanza to stanza in the course of the performance.

Since then, more and more researchers have become interested in the interrelation of change and traditional form. In this particular characteristic of folk poetry, important features of content, form, rhythm and stanza structure are repeated in the course of the performance, but at the same time they still go through some kind of a change. The changeability of folk poetry is a very significant factor, because it provides an opportunity for the old traditional form to become enriched with new content.

{465.} As we have already mentioned, certain rules can be set down about the question of change. Prose, narrative, and, in general, epic traditions are the most strongly subject to change; transformation by the individual is possible in these genres. We know of tales told for several days and reshaped by the teller. Ballads and historical songs belong to this category. Here we can observe a loose oscillation between the more rigid restrictions and free changeability, because the stanza structure and melody restrain the performer, and do not allow as much freedom as do prose presentations; yet opportunities for free interpretation are possible. There are also some transitional forms between ballads and prose epics: ballads that are sung may be transformed into prose epics. The most rigid restrictions is in the realm of small lyric units.

We must emphasize in this connection that folk poetry, the traditional oral lyric–with the exception of a very thin stratum–always exists together with melody. It is impossible either to understand or to explain correctly a folksong without its melody. Furthermore, the coexistence of poetry, melody and dance also characterizes a significant part of lyric oral tradition. János Erdélyi, the first great summarizer of Hungarian folk poetry, called the folk ballad the “opera of the people”, with singing and dancing united in an organic whole. This refers again to one of the basic differences between folk poetry and prose and written literature, since in written literature, as the result of literacy, the interrelationship between lyric text and melody had ceased fairly early.

A further difference between the two is that while in written literature increasingly complex literary genres can be observed, folk poetry is characterized by relatively few literary forms, by repetition of content and motif, and by simplicity of structure. This difference is also expressed in the fact that folk poetry is generally shorter and smaller in scope than written poetry, although in some cases oral tradition has been capable of preserving works really large in scope.

However, in spite of its fewer literary forms, a limited number of themes and inner simplicity, folk poetry is still a monumental art form. It would be a mistake to believe that only intricacy and complex beauty represent the greatness of poetry. On the contrary, numerous examples of folksongs exist with emotional richness expressed in a simple pentatonic melody, and a short lyric folksong can approach in its own simplicity the greatest works of written poetry. The main aesthetic reason for this is that folk poetry gives a total reflection of its own society, fulfilling the theory of aesthetic completeness both from the point of view of form and of ideological content.

After all this, let us turn to one of the most important and most debated guestions in the theory of folk poetry, namely the relationship between the individual and the community in creative activity. When interest in folk poetry was just making itself felt, the question had already appeared: who is it who creates works of folk poetry and prose? Is it individuals, or some kind of “mystical”, anonymous community? Two points of view locked horns from the start. One–and Herder must be mentioned as first among its representatives–designated the “national community” as the originator of works of folk poetry. According to this view it was the community, and not an unknown {466.} individual creator, a poet, that produced folksongs. Hegel added to this that works of folk poetry came to life by involuntary, spontaneous creativity, so that it is their natural quality, directness, and character that speak to the entire nation. The theory of Herder and Hegel that folk poetry is “created” by a community can be traced to the most modern conceptions. Bartók on his part also pointed out that a nation would be unable to compose independent melodies by individual creation; he too claimed that the community itself, and the traditions of the community are responsible for creating, preserving and changing works of folk poetry and prose.

The theory of the communal origin of folk poetry clashes in many respects with the point of view of those who explicitly deny the folk origin and character of folk poetry and claim that because it is nearly impossible to find folk writers in person as authors of folk poetry, folk poetry is nothing else but the string of individual creations of “upper” social classes, descending down to the people through a corrupting process and thus turned into folk literature, evoking the feeling that it speaks of a separate poetic world, the world of folk poetry, only because it is primitive in nature.

The entire history of folk poetry and prose and the example of known folk authors prove the opposite of this theory. Naturally, we must not forget that the individual signs of creative activity are not as apparent in folk literature as they are in the sphere of written literature. Even the most talented story teller or singer hears from early childhood and then year after year, through innumerable versions, stories that the story tellers of previous generations have been telling. Tradition works in him when he starts telling stories and he tries to assert his own personality, to incorporate the experiences of his life and fate into the story through the bequeathed poetic material. The author’s personality is expressed through given tradition, and it is also demonstrable that new types, new forms come into being under its influence which then, on the basis of the bequest of an important singer or story teller, can become new examples of community creation.

We know several characteristic types of story tellers. One is the faithful type of performer. He clings to the restrictions provided by tradition, and does not want to deviate from it at all. Many story tellers say that they heard the story in a certain way from their fathers, grandfathers–this was the custom in story telling, and they do not wish to deviate from the practice; should they make any changes, the tale would lose its meaning.

Another type of story teller asserts that someone who knows ten tales, if he has some imagination, can make even a hundred tales out of them. Such a story teller feels that he is able to recreate tradition, and therefore can be looked upon even as a kind of “poet”. Within this type we can differentiate further types. One outstanding Soviet folklorist, Asodovsky, mentions a Siberian woman story teller, who always simplified the tales. She shaped the long and verbose tales into brief, epigrammatic ones and wove into them her own personal experiences, sorrows, wisdom, creating meanwhile veritable little masterpieces. Her opposite is one who elaborates, such as the famous Hungarian story {467.} teller Mihály Fedics, who often interweaves other tales into the main stream; remembering a new tale, he pays no attention to the trichotomy of the tale, but turns it upside down, connecting the old with the new tale, adding jokes to it, improvising according to the requirements of the audience.

A newer group among story tellers is represented by the type who explains, interprets the story, and tries to dress it up in more sober form and to bring it closer to reality. This type often simplifies and narrows down the world view of the tale. There are fine story tellers who try to connect the theme to historical events. They feel that the entire presentation, the entire spirit of the tales is irreconcilable with and unacceptable to the real world, and yet the inner truth of the tales’ tradition is such a constraining factor for them that they must find an explanation for it.

Finally we must point out one more feature of folk poetry and prose that likewise points to a difference between folk and written literature. Among the listeners to oral folk poetry and prose, credence, the desire to identify, is much greater than among the readers of regular literature. We know that it is not possible to really experience and absorb a work of art if we do not accept that particular reality presented to us by the author in his work. However, in the case of literature, the identification is a paler factor than among the audience of folk poetry, ballads, and tales. Trust is much greater towards both folk theatre and the creations of the story tellers, than in the sphere of written poetry and prose.

The same applies to the self-consciousness that appears in a work. A writer is consciously the author of his work. The theory of conscious composition has a lesser role among the creators of folk poetry and prose, while instinctive creative force has the greatest role. However, we cannot accept in itself the romantic theory that only instinctive, communal folk creation exists, because within the restrictions already mentioned, folk poetry and prose also exhibit implicit creative consciousness. But behind every form of written composition, there stands the proud self-awareness of poetic immortality, the exegi monumentum of Horace, which looks beyond the poet’s own existence. On the other hand–to quote Goethe–”collective modesty” characterizes folk poetry, that is to say, no feeling of authorship, no self-awareness of the immortality of the author’s individuality is connected with its marvellous creations.