Episode 265: March 3, 2011
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The Origin of Third Person in Paleolithic Epic Poetry
by Gerald Warfield
The first story ever told was told in first person. It was told around a campfire by Ogg who raised both his fists into the air and exclaimed in a loud voice: “I killed a mammoth!”
Ogg’s story was very popular, especially with his girl friend, Umpah, and he was asked to repeat it often. But Ogg was frequently away on hunting trips and not available to tell his story, so Umpah began to tell it. Looking up at the others around the campfire, she quietly told the story in third person and it went like this: “Ogg went out one day and he killed a mammoth.”
Although with either telling what the listeners around the fire envisioned was more or less the same, they much preferred the first-person version. But alas, after Ogg’s unfortunate encounter with the mama of the mammoth he had killed, the only version of the story available was Umpah’s, but she was often asked to tell it.
Now, there was at this time a rascal among those who crouched around the fire, and he noticed that people preferred the first person version of the story and that they were sorry they could no longer hear it told in that manner. After thinking about it, the rascal figured out a way that the first person version could be told again, and he invited everyone down to the dry stream bed to hear it.
He quickly put on a ratty bear skin like Ogg always wore, painted a long scar across his face just like Ogg’s and sported a feather in his hair like the ones Umpah always gave him before a hunt. After everyone had gathered at the stream bed, the rascal jumped out from the bushes and raised his spear and said: “I am Ogg, the greatest of all hunters, and I went out and I killed a mammoth!”
The people were delighted and beat their hands together in appreciation. They knew, of course, that it was the rascal who told the story, but they enjoyed it nevertheless. The rascal repeated the story many times in the stream bed. It was a good location to tell a story, being very flat and wide, and the people began to refer to the place as the Broad Way.
After several seasons there came a liar named Eh to the campfire who saw the success of the rascal in telling Ogg’s story in first person, as if it were his own. He wanted to dress up like Ogg and tell the story, too, but the liar was missing one leg and so nearsighted that no one would believe he had killed a mammoth, no matter how much he dressed up. So the liar named Eh decided that he would tell the story in another way.
Eh took up a bow and plucked the string while he recited the story in rhythm which he called poetry. The technique worked so well that he excited people just as much as Ogg, who had raised his hands and shouted, and Umpah, who had first elaborated on the story, and the rascal, who had sprayed the audience with spittle. Eh picked upon his bow and recited the poem like this:
Ogg, the great
I killed the MONSTER!
With consummate skill
The Mammoth killed,
Upon his spear he tossed her.
Eh hobbled around to all the caves in the valley picking his bow and picking the poetry, too. And the people were always glad to hear Eh pick poetry (ahem). In this way, Ogg’s story passed down from generation to generation until it was heard by a man named Homer who changed it a lot.