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How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics [Paperback]

Calvert Watkins
4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 15 2001
In How to Kill a Dragon Calvert Watkins follows the continuum of poetic formulae in Indo-European languages, from Old Hittite to medieval Irish. He uses the comparative method to reconstruct traditional poetic formulae of considerable complexity that stretch as far back as the original common language. Thus, Watkins reveals the antiquity and tenacity of the Indo-European poetic tradition. Watkins begins this study with an introduction to the field of comparative Indo-European poetics; he explores the Saussurian notions of synchrony and diachrony, and locates the various Indo-European traditions and ideologies of the spoken word. Further, his overview presents case studies on the forms of verbal art, with selected texts drawn from Indic, Iranian, Greek, Latin, Hittite, Armenian, Celtic, and Germanic languages. In the remainder of the book, Watkins examines in detail the structure of the dragon/serpent-slaying myths, which recur in various guises throughout the Indo-European poetic tradition. He finds the "signature" formula for the myth--the divine hero who slays the serpent or overcomes adversaries--occurs in the same linguistic form in a wide range of sources and over millennia, including Old and Middle Iranian holy books, Greek epic, Celtic and Germanic sagas, down to Armenian oral folk epic of the last century. Watkins argues that this formula is the vehicle for the central theme of a proto-text, and a central part of the symbolic culture of speakers of the Proto-Indo-European language: the relation of humans to their universe, the values and expectations of their society. Therefore, he further argues, poetry was a social necessity for Indo- European society, where the poet could confer on patrons what they and their culture valued above all else: "imperishable fame."

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"...it attests to an extraordinary erudition and unique command of the major ancient IE languages; it contains innumerable original insights and fascinating notes on religion and mythology; it is well written and develops its argument step by step with growing conviction and clarity; altogether, a challenging and stimulating work!"--The Journal of Indo-European Studies

"The book...is at once an impressive summation of what has gone before and a bold step forward into new waters...In its methodology, in its breadth, Watkins' book can only be termed a tour de force."--Journal of the American Oriental Society

"This book is an inspiring introduction to the problems and techniques of comparative Indo-European poetics and at the same time a major contribution to that field...It is both delightfully entertaining and a very important work..."--The Classical Journal

"...[this] rewarding book crowns many decades of thorough and often brilliant linguistic research."--Religious Studies Review

"Watkins builds a compelling case for his interpretations....This work is richly illustrated with examples from relevant literature, with all passages presented both in the original and in translation."--Diachronica

"...the sheer mass of the learning in this landmark book by Watkins is overwhelming....the whole book is full of stimulating ideas....We owe a debt of gratitude to Watkins for this massive - and masterly - synthesis of traditional poetics in the Indo-European tradition."--Journal of American Folklore

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First Sentence
INDO-EUROPEAN is the name that has been given since the early 19th century to the large and well-defined genetic family which includes most of the languages of Europe, past and present, and which extended geographically, before the colonization of the New World, from Iceland and Ireland in the west across Europe and Asia Minor-where Hittite was spoken-through Iran to the northern half of the Indian subcontinent. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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4.8 out of 5 stars
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Most helpful customer reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A stunning achievement July 21 2001
Format:Paperback
I haven't read this book, not really.. How could I? The author cheerfully quotes about fifty of the major Indo-European languages over an historical span of some 5,000 years. The Greek is in Greek (which I can barely spell) and (if you are like me) your knowledge of Luvian, Old German, and Sanskrit is probably a little bit rusty.
Nevertheless, it is absolutely one of the most fascinating books I have ever had in my hands. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrase "tour de force."
What Watkins is doing is the same thing J.R.R. Tolkien did for a living: philology. What's that? It's the insistence on studying language AND literature together: the union of the separate departments of linguistics and literature. Tolkien was a genius in this field, and it is awe-inspiring to see how much further Watkins can go.
Here you will learn how to extend the Comparative Method used in linguistics to the field of early poetry, and you will learn of common poetic expressions in use 5,000 years ago: "word-weaver," "immortal fame", "he slew the monster/dragon/worm." You will learn what poets were 5,000 years ago: what they did and how they did it. (They were the most highly-paid profession in ancient times.) It is just plain fascinating to learn that the proto-Indo-European language and people already had well known words for "god" and "Zeus/Jupiter" well before writing was invented, as well as "prayer" and lots of other things.
You will most likely not be able to understand every word in this book, but the messages are very clear, and throw an extremely illuminating light on human prehistory, language, and society. It will also make you realize what the whole point of poetry was in those not-so-far-off times.
Highest recommendation! Unbelievably good!
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5.0 out of 5 stars AWESOME & EXHAUSTIVE MASTERPIECE Jan. 26 2003
By Pieter Uys HALL OF FAME TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
This vast tome is a masterpiece of comparative Indo-European poetics. It investigates the nature, form and function of poetic expression and ancient literature among an impressive variety of Indio-European peoples. The author uses the traditional comparative method to identify the genetic intertextuality of particular themes and formulas common to all the daughter languages of ancient Indo-European. The work comprises seven sections and 59 chapters. The first chapters of part 1 explain the comparative method, concepts like synchrony and diachrony and pinpoints the various Indo-European cultures in terms of genre, space and time. The rest of part 1 considers the role of the spoken word in Indo-European society and its preservation across time.
In chapter 3: Poetics as Grammar, Watkins analyses the expression "Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow," demonstrating how the word order, alliteration and assonance form a perfect ring-composition. This formulaic utterance now functions only to amuse children, but in its essential semantics, formulaics and poetics it must have been continuously recreated on the same model over six or seven thousand years. He proves that is the central "merism" of an ancient Indo-European harvest song or agricultural prayer, by quoting from the Hittite, Homeric Greek, the Atharvaveda and the Zend-Avesta!
Selected text analyses an case studies from Anatolian, Celtic, Greek, Indic and Italic are found in chapters 7 - 11 of part 2, followed by the analyses of inherited phrasal formulas, stylistic figures and hidden meaning through chapters 12 to 16.
The remainder of the book presents the evidence for a common Indo-European formula in the expression of the dragon - or serpent-slaying myth.
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4.0 out of 5 stars Prodigiously learned; but does he make his case? Jan. 4 2003
Format:Paperback
Your first impression will involve picking your jaw up off the floor. Here we have examples from Vedic Sanskrit, Old Irish, Greek, Latin, Old English, Hittite, and dozens more obscure, ancient, or dead languages like Umbrian and South Picene, all marshalled in support of the argument that it is possible, not only to reconstruct the language spoken by the ancient Indo-Europeans, but also to reconstruct some of their oral literature, and the cultural role of ancient bards in the courts of nameless chieftains.
The marshalled evidence of the rhetoric of these ancient literatures is indeed impressive. Many parts of it --- specifically, the parts that discuss the various metres of the ancient poems, and suggest ways in which the sound changes of which we have evidence may suggest that these verse forms stemmed from common ancestors --- are convincing.
But the difficulty in parts of the book's argument is its failure to exclude other possibilities --- such as borrowing, loan-translations, or simple independent invention --- of the phrases and images it argues are inherited. Some of them, like the inherited phrase meaning "everlasting fame," are more convincing than others, if only because not only the idea, but the root words themselves, are inherited. We know from comparing Classical, Hindu, and Germanic mythologies that some god-names were inherited.
But when the book argues in favour of an inherited myth that says "a hero kills a dragon (or some other foe)," we're dealing with subject matters that are known to exist in literatures other than Indo-European ones. After all, this is what heroes do. It is unclear even whether these motifs are commoner in Indo-European literatures than elsewhere. Some attention needs to be paid to the possibility of other explanations, and why the hypothesis of inheritance is the likeliest among them.
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  11 reviews
60 of 60 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars AWESOME & EXHAUSTIVE MASTERPIECE Jan. 26 2003
By Pieter Uys - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This vast tome is a masterpiece of comparative Indo-European poetics. It investigates the nature, form and function of poetic expression and ancient literature among an impressive variety of Indio-European peoples. The author uses the traditional comparative method to identify the genetic intertextuality of particular themes and formulas common to all the daughter languages of ancient Indo-European. The work comprises seven sections and 59 chapters. The first chapters of part 1 explain the comparative method, concepts like synchrony and diachrony and pinpoints the various Indo-European cultures in terms of genre, space and time. The rest of part 1 considers the role of the spoken word in Indo-European society and its preservation across time.
In chapter 3: Poetics as Grammar, Watkins analyses the expression "Oats, peas, beans, and barley grow," demonstrating how the word order, alliteration and assonance form a perfect ring-composition. This formulaic utterance now functions only to amuse children, but in its essential semantics, formulaics and poetics it must have been continuously recreated on the same model over six or seven thousand years. He proves that is the central "merism" of an ancient Indo-European harvest song or agricultural prayer, by quoting from the Hittite, Homeric Greek, the Atharvaveda and the Zend-Avesta!
Selected text analyses an case studies from Anatolian, Celtic, Greek, Indic and Italic are found in chapters 7 - 11 of part 2, followed by the analyses of inherited phrasal formulas, stylistic figures and hidden meaning through chapters 12 to 16.
The remainder of the book presents the evidence for a common Indo-European formula in the expression of the dragon - or serpent-slaying myth. Over thousands of years this formula occurs in the same linguistic form as it existed in the original mother tongue. This formula is the vehicle for the central theme of a proto-text that has endured for millennia, a precise and precious tool for typological and genetic investigation in the study of literature and literary theory. It is thus of immense value to literary historians, literary critics and philologists.
I found chapters 50 - 59 of particular interest, as it deals with the application of the formula to the medicine of incantation in a variety of Indo-European traditions, and includes a discussion of the poet as healer.
This work is an opus magnum, and it took me months to read it. Even so, I cannot claim to have grasped all the complexities of the fascinating text in which more than 30 familiar and obscure languages are quoted. I strongly recommend this masterpiece to those interested in ancient history, language and its structure, and to literary critics.
The book concludes with 27 pages of references, an index of names and subjects, an index of passages, and an index of words quoted from the various Indo-European languages.
55 of 58 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Prodigiously learned; but does he make his case? Jan. 4 2003
By S. Gustafson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Your first impression will involve picking your jaw up off the floor. Here we have examples from Vedic Sanskrit, Old Irish, Greek, Latin, Old English, Hittite, and dozens more obscure, ancient, or dead languages like Umbrian and South Picene, all marshalled in support of the argument that it is possible, not only to reconstruct the language spoken by the ancient Indo-Europeans, but also to reconstruct some of their oral literature, and the cultural role of ancient bards in the courts of nameless chieftains.
The marshalled evidence of the rhetoric of these ancient literatures is indeed impressive. Many parts of it --- specifically, the parts that discuss the various metres of the ancient poems, and suggest ways in which the sound changes of which we have evidence may suggest that these verse forms stemmed from common ancestors --- are convincing.
But the difficulty in parts of the book's argument is its failure to exclude other possibilities --- such as borrowing, loan-translations, or simple independent invention --- of the phrases and images it argues are inherited. Some of them, like the inherited phrase meaning "everlasting fame," are more convincing than others, if only because not only the idea, but the root words themselves, are inherited. We know from comparing Classical, Hindu, and Germanic mythologies that some god-names were inherited.
But when the book argues in favour of an inherited myth that says "a hero kills a dragon (or some other foe)," we're dealing with subject matters that are known to exist in literatures other than Indo-European ones. After all, this is what heroes do. It is unclear even whether these motifs are commoner in Indo-European literatures than elsewhere. Some attention needs to be paid to the possibility of other explanations, and why the hypothesis of inheritance is the likeliest among them.
21 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars "Technical" but well written. April 20 2005
By Thomas E. Sandidge - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I enjoyed this book although I am best termed a "lay person" and the book is (necessarily and appropriately) written in a technical style. Other reviewers have addressed the content and worth of the book. I will try to give an idea of its "readability" for the non-specialist.

I frequently found exact understanding somewhat difficult and did gloss a number of passages as just too difficult to be worth the return (to me) of greater effort. Also, at times it almost seemed as if the author was pulling together a series of journal articles and quite possibly the book could have been twenty to thirty percent shorter without much, if any, sacrifice of material. Despite this, I never felt like hurrying nor that my time was being wasted - I found a number of new and interesting ideas that are clearly understandable by an interested reader. Also, the author neither talks down to his audience nor tries to impress with difficult terminology. Furthermore, at several points I sensed the underlying enthusiasm and reverence the author feels toward his work and I occasionally caught the sense of "beauty" as several threads came together.
31 of 34 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars this book is astonishing Sept. 13 1999
By Skyboy - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
With enormous learning, grace, and brilliant insight into the arts of anicent poetry, Calvert Watkins illuminates whole areas of human linguistic experience. Time and again a small detail in an ancient text, under his patient eye, will open itself to reveal the roots of poetry in the oldest strata of human experience left to us. What Watkins can do with a simple children's poem or an old Russian nursery rhyme puts most contemporary "language" criticism to shame.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The culmination of a lifetime of singular scholarship Sept. 13 2005
By Phlogiston - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
FINALLY, a thorough understanding of the roots of the poetic material that we all learned when taking the classics. A thorough exploration of both epic and lyric poetic methods and the methods behind them that are used to this day.

The first dozen chapters or so read a bit like a bibliography, making frequent references to other authors (both contemporary and otherwise) and to things that are addressed quite a bit later in the book. This does not make the work so easily readable, but when dealing with comparative Indo-European poetics, one cannot expect a light-summer read.

I thoroughly enjoyed this work. I found that Dr. Watkins' ability to find common roots for everything from the Odyssey to childhood rhymes that we all learned to be both engaging and informative. I gained not only a deeper appreciation for the Classical and Homeric Greek, Avestan and Sanskrit literature that I have enjoyed since my days as s student, but also for everyday language.

If you are interested in any sort of Proto Indo-European studies, this is a must-read.
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