1. Story and Genre: Traditional Motifs and Patterns

1.1. Narrative and Traditional Patterns

Storytellers do not create their stories from thin air. As Paul Ricoeur observes, they stand within a tradition that they reshape and transform to create new works.[1] Their audience likewise depends upon the tradition to provide the context for understanding a new work. Because the tradition is a recurring phenomenon, it belongs neither to the storyteller nor the audience. This autonomy also functions for later audiences because the a‑historical and a‑cultural dimension of “the ‘form’ secures the survival of meaning after the disappearance” of its historical context and thereby “opens the message to fresh interpretation according to new contexts of discourse and life.”[2] Ricoeur’s remarks help to explain why people continue to enjoy stories whose immediate historical context is largely unknown or irrelevant.

Studies of oral literature by Milman Parry and Alfred B. Lord and of folklore by Vladimir Propp have described how an oral storyteller re-creates a traditional story in performance from the traditional motifs of plot, characters, and details and their traditional patterns.[3] Heda Jason, building on Lord and Propp’s work, describes the tradition as “a set of rules of compositions and a lexicon of content units.” Using the tradition, which is an unconscious possession of the performer, the storyteller recreates the story in performance for the audience.[4] While some of these conventions transcend cultures, others have a specific cultural form that must be recovered.

The use of generic patterns is not just a strategy of oral literature. As Robert Alter argues, our ability to grasp an artwork, “whatever the medium, requires some detailed awareness of the grid of conventions upon which and against which, the individual work operates.” He discusses the importance of “type-scenes,” which allow us to “pick up directional clues in a narrative work, see what is innovative and what is deliberately traditional at each nexus of the artistic creation.”[5] Christopher Booker has argued that seven basic plots shape all narratives, and he explores their meaning at both a literal and a psychological level.[6] H. Porter Abbott calls these skeletal stories “master plots” which “play a powerful role in questions of identity, values, and the understanding of life.”[7]

This study will explore the traditional pattern of the battle narrative by examining key literary texts from the ancient Near East (ANE) and the Bible without regard for historical connections. This analysis will show that these narratives reflect a similar plot with typical motifs making up the generic pattern of the traditional battle story. At the same time, each telling transforms that tradition to tell its own story. While each story reflects the genre, no story is definitive; rather, the tradition is continually changing and renewing itself.

1.2. Narrative: Tension and Resolution

The last fifty years and more have seen many studies of narrative—its techniques and complexity. In his Poetics (I.7), Aristotle brilliantly observes that a story has a beginning, middle, and end. The story’s beginning sets the context and, most importantly, introduces the tension or problem without which there is no story. The middle typically heightens the tension as it puts in place the means for resolving the problem. The end resolves the tension and ties up whatever details the storyteller deems good to bring closure.

Stories have three basic elements: plot, characters, and details.[8] The plot, of course, is the chain of actions moving from tension to resolution. Generally, these ancient narratives tell the actions in chronological sequence, sometimes with repetition and occasionally with flashbacks or flashforwards, as in dreams or prophetic predictions. The characters populate the story and carry out its actions. Traditional characters are stereotypes who illustrate an idea rather than portraying the complex and conflicting motivations of a realistic character. E.M. Forster called these two groups  “flat” and “round” characters, but rather than being two different categories, they are better understood as the ends of a continuum. The details include all the other pieces of a story: its objects, such as the hero’s weapon or clothing, along with time, place, and context. Though these details serve a literal function in the story, they may also carry a larger significance as also the actions and characters

A fourth element is easily overlooked: the storyteller who mediates the story. This voice may speak in the first person as a character in the story. Mainly, omniscient storytellers tell these battle stories in the third person. Authoritative and reliable, they stand outside the story with a knowledge of everything. However, they do not tell everything, but only what they deem important. These voices shape the story by repetition and their allotment of “narrative time.” In this way, they provide the lens through which the audience receives the story.[9] Still, audiences find gaps in the story, sometimes significant gaps, which they must fill in as best they can.[10] Meier Sternberg notes that audiences must answer a series of questions about the characters, the plot, and their values for us “to reconstruct the field of reality devised by the text, to make sense of the represented world.”[11] While we fill in some of these gaps automatically out of our experience of the tradition, a gap may become a problematic “crux” upon which the story’s interpretation turns.[12]

1.3. Tradition and Realism

Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg provide a helpful model for understanding the ways that narratives present reality. They argue that the traditional storyteller is primarily committed to “re‑creating” the tradition. Therefore, the storyteller’s “primary allegiance is not to fact, not to truth, not to entertain­ment, but to the mythos itself, i.e., the story as preserved in the tradition,” for the story carries “a culture’s cherished religious, political, and ethical values.”[13] Likewise, Abbott notes that the stories which “we tell in myriad forms” are those stories which “connect vitally with our deepest values, wishes, and fears.”[14] In the traditional battle story, the hero and the victory represent more than a single, literal event; they celebrate the triumph of a culture’s values and self-understanding over the forces of chaos and futility. These stories also raise questions for the audience about their own values and self-understanding.

Traditional narrative, as defined by Scholes and Kellogg, is “stylized and stipulative, highly dependent on artistic tradition and convention.”[15] However, this allegiance to tradition gives way to new allegiances, which Scholes and Kellogg identify with Plato’s truth, beauty, and goodness. The concern for goodness leads to didacticism, with propaganda being one type. Beauty concerns itself with art itself. The focus on truth moves narrative toward history or realism, what Aristotle called mimesis—the concern for human motive and emotion.[16] Though the hero ultimately triumphs in traditional narrative, such is not always the case in life, as seen in the realism of Greek tragedy or in the history of Thucydides. Realistic narrative, whether as history or realism, “seeks continually to reshape and revitalize ways of apprehending the actual, subjecting conventions to an empirical review of its validity as a means of reproducing reality.”[17] Erich Auerbach produced the classic study of the development of realism in the west, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.[18] As heirs of Greece and Rome and their Renaissance, we value this worldview and the ability of art to reproduce it.

Scholes and Kellogg want to identify the movement from traditional narrative to realism with the movement from oral to written literature, but the situation is not so neat. Susan Niditch discusses orality and literacy in ancient Israel not as a question of either/or but of both/and. She shows an “interplay” between the two which forms an “ongoing continuum.”[19] Heda Jason points out that much of popular literature is generated by the canons of a tradition and cites several modern examples of the traditional battle story: “the detective story, television plays, wild west movies.” As in oral literature, they depend on the audience, who assiduously guards and demands the tradition.[20]

1.4. The Changing Tradition

Within biblical scholarship, the study of genre belongs to form criticism, but some studies have failed to allow for the flexibility and creativity of the generic patterns.[21] These patterns are not mathematical formulae that yield the correct answer only when they contain all of the elements in the correct order. Robert Alter has criticized “professional Biblical scholars” of form criticism “which is set on finding recurrent regularities or pattern rather than the manifold variation upon a pattern that any system of literary convention elicits.”[22] Dorothy Irvin has also insisted on this point: 1) the order of the motifs in a pattern may differ, 2) the motifs may be repeated or left out, 3) a pattern may be presented in an elaborate form and serve as the skeletal plot of a whole narrative, 4) the pattern may serve as only an episode or be reduced even further to a mere mention in the narrative.[23] The reasons for this may depend either on the audience or the storyteller.

For the audience, knowledge of the tradition provides a common understanding which allows them to follow the story and recognize the import of its form. On the other hand, there is no suspense for the traditional audience. They know that the hero will ultimately triumph. They know that Achilles will slay Hector even before Homer begins to sing. Therefore, the storyteller must “defamiliarize,” a term coined by the Russian Formalist Victor Shklovsky. He saw perception as a fundamental goal of art; thus, “the technique of art is to make objects ‘unfamiliar,’ to make forms difficult, to increase the difficulty and length of perception.”[24] In this way, a storyteller forces the audience to confront the material as if for the first time.[25]

Elaboration and repetition and complication help to achieve this.[26] Elaboration expands the time of confrontation so that the audience can absorb the impact. Repetition creates the same by continual return, and complication retards the inevitable by increasing the story’s tension and the audience’s expectation. This may happen in two ways. First, the storyteller may complicate motifs and patterns by creating new configurations or displacing an expected motif with the unexpected. Second, the storyteller may also break a pattern by denying its fulfillment to retard the action; thus, the hero may fail in his first attempt to conquer the enemy. In a traditional story, however, the pattern is ultimately fulfilled. The story’s failure to fulfill the traditional expectation marks the shift of allegiance away from the tradition.

For the author, familiarity brings a mastery of both the generic pattern and specific story traditions. The mastery of technique bestows the powers of elaboration, repetition, and complication. To this technical mastery, some storytellers bring a creative power that allows them to transform the tradition and explore the potential complexity of the tradition.[27] Homer, like others before and after him, tells the story of the Trojan War, but his achievement is more than technical mastery. As the opening line of the Iliad states, he tells the story of the anger of Achilles. The hero’s anger is a traditional motif that characterizes his response to the enemy’s aggression. Still, Homer moves beyond the traditional confines of the motif and brings the anger to such a pitch that the hero is almost consumed by his own rage. Unlike the traditional battle narrative, which reaches its climax with the single‑combat between hero and foe, Hector’s death does not resolve the tension, for Achilles’ anger is not spent. The resolution comes only with the return of the body to Priam, Hector’s father and king, for in Priam, Achilles recognizes his own father and finds again his compassion. Homer uses the battle story to tell a larger story of human emotions and relationships. The battle tradition serves as the frame and grammar, allowing Homer to transform and reshape the tradition.

Other forces of change and creativity have already been discussed above: the shift of allegiance from the tradition to history or mimesis, to art, or to instruction.[28] Reshaped and broken traditional motifs and patterns indicate other forces at work. As Scholes and Kellogg argue, history plays a major role in the breakdown of the tradition in early western literature. By understanding the traditional movement of a story, the historian can more easily identify the replacement of traditional elements with unique events.[29] This judgment is seldom simple because the tradition is not mechanical but flexible and creative. Also, where the historical facts fit the tradition, as in a victorious battle, the traditional storyteller can retell the history with the motifs and patterns of the tradition. Therefore, a story’s traditional pattern does not necessarily imply that the basic facts are not true. Still, the shift of allegiance provides a valuable clue.

1.5. Conclusion

This study will explore the traditional motifs and patterns used by storytellers in their battle narratives. Although the storyteller’s creative power and the audience’s desire for a good story bring about an ongoing transformation of the tradition, the tradition lays the foundation for that transformation.

1.6. Footnotes for Chapter 1

[1] Cf. Paul Ricoeur, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” Semeia 4 (1975) 29‑148, esp. 63‑75.

[2] Ricoeur, “Biblical Hermeneutics,” 71.

[3] A.B. Lord, Singer of Tales (Harvard Studies in Comparative Literature 24; Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press, 1964). Vladimir Propp, Morphology of the Folktale (Austin TX: University of Texas Press, 21968). For a good overview, see Susan Niditch, Folklore and the Hebrew Bible (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993).

[4]Heda Jason, Ethnopoetry: Form, Content, and Function (Forum Theologicae Linguisticae 11; Bonn: Linguistica Biblica, 1977) 1,1. Cf. also by Jason, Ethnopoetics: A Multilingual Terminology (Israel Ethnological Society Studies 3; Jerusalem: Israel Ethnological Society, 1975) and “About ‘Motifs’, ‘Motives’, ‘Motuses’, ‘-Etic/s’, ‘-Emic/s’, and ‘Allo/s-‘, and How They Fit Together,” Fabula 48. 1/2 (2007): 85-99.

[5] Robert Alter, Art of Biblical Narrative (New York, NY: Basic Books, Inc., 1981, 2011) “Chapter 3. Biblical Type-Scenes and the Uses of Convention.”

[6] Christopher Booker, The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories (New York: Continuum, 2004). He lists overcoming the monster, rags to riches, the quest, voyage and return, comedy, tragedy, and rebirth. The battle narrative fits under his category of overcoming the monster.

[7] H. Porter Abbott, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008) 46-49, 236.

[8] Abbott, Narrative, 19.

[9] For narrative time, see Gerard Genette’s Narrative Discourse (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1980); he discusses narrative time from three perspectives: order, duration, and frequency.

[10] Abbott, Narrative, 90-92.

[11] Meier Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative (Bloomington, IN: University of Indiana Press, 1985) 186-229.

[12] Abbott, Narrative, 92-95.

[13] Robert Scholes, James Phelan, and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative: Fortieth Anniversary Edition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, rev. ed. 2006), 12.

[14] Abbott, Narrative, 46.

[15] Scholes and Kellogg, Nature of Narrative, 84.

[16] Ibid, 12-14, 29-31.

[17] Ibid, 84.

[18] Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, translated by Willard Trask (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1953).

[19] Susan Niditch, Oral World and Written Word: Ancient Israelite Literature, Library of Ancient Israel, D.A. Knight, editor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1996), 99.

[20] Jason, Ethnopoetry, 1.1.

[21] I have discussed this issue more recently in “Basic Plots in the Bible: A Literary Approach to Genre,” Biblical Theology Bulletin 49 (2019) 198–213.

[22] Robert Alter has characterized form criticism as being “set on finding recurrent regularities of pattern rather than the manifold variations upon a pattern that any system of literary convention elicits”; Art of Biblical Narrative, 47.

[23] Dorothy Irvin, Mytharion: The Comparison of Tales from the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (Alter Orient und Altes Testament 32; Neukirchen‑Vluyn 1978) 11.

[24] Viktor Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” in Russian Formal Criticism, translated with an introduction. by L. Lemon and M.J. Reis (Lincoln NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1965) 3-24, esp. 12.

[25] Shklovsky, “Art as Technique,” 19-22.

[26] Luis Alonso Schökel, “Poésie Hebraïque,” Dictionnaire de la Bible, Supplément (Paris: Letouzey et Ané, 1972) v. 8, col. 47-90, esp. 72-73.

[27] A.B. Lord, Singer of Tales, 100, 102. Cf. also Scholes and Kellogg, Nature of Narrative, 22-23.

[28] Scholes and Kellogg, Nature of Narrative, 12-14, 29-31.

[29] Ibid, 40-41.


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Mighty in Battle by Harry Hagan, OSB, © Saint Meinrad Archabbey, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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