Oral epic poetry is still performed by Turkic singers in Central Asia. On trips to the region, Karl Reichl collected heroic poems from the Uzbek, Kazakh, and Karakalpak oral traditions. Through a close analysis of these Turkic works, he shows that they are typologically similar to heroic poetry in Old English, Old High German, and Old French and that they can offer scholars new insights into the oral background of these medieval texts.
Reichl draws on his research in Central Asia to discuss questions regarding performance as well as the singers' training, role in society, and repertoire. He asserts that heroic poetry and epic are primarily concerned with the interpretation of the past in song: the courageous deeds of ancestors, the search for tribal and societal roots, and the definition and transmission of cultural values. Reichl finds that in these traditions the heroic epic is part of a generic system that includes historical and eulogistic poetry as well as heroic lays, a view that has diachronic implications for medieval poetry.
Singing the Past reminds readers that because much medieval poetry was composed for oral recitation, both the Turkic and the medieval heroic poems must always be appreciated as poetry in performance, as sound listened to, as words spoken or sung.
"Karl Reichl's brilliant work with little-known modern Turkic oral literatures casts unexpected light on more familiar works of medieval literature (such as Beowulf) while western texts and concepts (such as genre) provide a context for facilitating appreciation of the more exotic products of his remarkable fieldwork."
Joseph Harris, Harvard University
"Karl Reichl studies oral and oral-derived narrative from a uniquely productive vantage point, combining his own fieldwork and recording of Central Asian oral epic with his deep knowledge of western European vernacular literature in the Middle Ages. The result is an intriguing look at a living oral poetics and a fresh, informed reconstruction of the verbal arts of the early medieval period."
John Miles Foley, Center for Studies in Oral Tradition, University of Missouri
"He is not out to identify the authentic and strip away the spurious. He understands that such categories have at least as much to do with the interpretive desires of their proponents as they do with the texts they set out to study. The performative element is central to Reichl's ways of reading, as one would expect of someone who has heard and recorded so many such events across Central Asia.... It gives us a larger world for reading heroic poetry, and for that we should be grateful."