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

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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About Dragon Mystic

I fell in love with dragons when I read Tea With the Black Dragon, and never looked back. Not the clunky winged Medieval dragons that ate cows, the graceful Asian dragons that could fly without wings. Later I discovered the elegant Welsh dragons, red and white, as described by R.J. Stewart in his books on the historical Merlin.
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3 Responses to How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics

  1. Pieter Uys "Toypom" says:

    AWESOME & EXHAUSTIVE MASTERPIECE 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.

  2. S. Gustafson "Holy Roman Emperor" says:

    Prodigiously learned; but does he make his case? 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.

  3. Skyboy says:

    this book is astonishing 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.

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