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Serbian Epic Poetry 101: Vuk S. Karadžić - “The Father of Serbian Folk-Literature”


Serbian Epic Poetry 101 is a series created with the intent of providing the most important information about Serbian oral folklore to the widest audience possible. It is an attempt to systematize the vast amount of data regarding the epic tradition of the Serbian people that was created over many centuries. This series will provide its readers with key characteristics of the corpus of the Serb epic tradition, such as its history, classification, versification, motifs, and themes, as well as resources for further research. Interdisciplinary study is required when analyzing the oral tradition of any nation, combining ethnology, mythology, history, folkloristics, and literature.

Serbian Epic Poetry 101 is divided into seven different chapters:

Vuk S. Karadžić - “The Father of Serbian Folk-literature”

The period between the 18th and 19th centuries is of the utmost importance when looking at the modern history of Europe. It was a time of revolution and of national awakening, driven by great faith in humanity, freedom, and progress. In arts, Romanticism was starting to arise and one of its main subjects was the return to nature which symbolizes the irrational and mystical. All of these elements can be found in national Oral Traditions, which is why a great interest in the artwork of the collective exemplified by folk literature was on the rise. It is thus no coincidence that the appearance of a man such as Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787-1864) was perfectly aligned with the spirit of the time. His most important contributions, although there were many, to the evolution of Serbian culture were his reform of the Serbian language based on the dialect of the common folk, rather than the elite, and his work of collecting Serbian folk literature into several paramount volumes. These volumes represent the core reservoir of Serbian epic poetry, among other genres.

Portrait of Vuk Stefanović Karadžic - Pavel Đurković (1816).
The Bigger Picture
''Such national poems are not appropriate to look at individually, out of context, much less to judge, least of all to enjoy in the right sense. The universally human is repeated in all peoples, but under the foreign costume, under a distant sky draws no real interest; the most special thing about any people is only strange, it seems bizarre, often repulsive, like everything peculiar that we have not yet grasped in a concept, have not yet learned to appropriate'' (Goethe, 1960, para. 6).

These are the words Johann Wolfgang von Goethe used to describe the extraordinary impressions that unfamiliar cultures often leave on their recipients, written in an article titled Serbische Lieder (Serbian Songs) published in 1825 (Ćurčin, 1932). The article was dedicated to Serbian oral literature which was then gaining popularity among German intellectuals. In the article, Goethe shares his insights into Serbian history and Oral Poetry, along with important remarks about the problem of language barriers. Near the end, he holds in the greatest regard the work of one Vuk Stefanović Karadžić, who had by that time collected and published many Serbian oral songs, thus preventing their disappearance. This was the period classified as the second phase of Romanticism when the uniqueness of the individual genius characterizing the first phase grew to become the appreciation of the collective genius mirrored in folklore and oral traditions. These ideas influenced not only literature but other art forms as well, such as painting ("Romanticism", 2021).

Death of Prince Marko ‒ Novak Radonić (1857).

Apart from Goethe, Jacob Grimm, the renowned collector of German folk fairytales, was an admirer of Serbian Oral Poetry and even exchanged letters with Vuk Karadžić through their mutual friend Jernej Kopitar (Selvelli, n.d.) who will be mentioned again later on, as he was an important figure in Karadzić's career. It is said that Grimm even learned Serbian to read the songs in their original form (Selvelli, n.d.). He published reviews in German for Karadžić's most important works such as the first collection of Serbian Folk Songs (1814) and the Serbian Lexicon (1818) among others (Selvelli, n.d.).

The new European connections Vuk Karadžić was creating are among the first of their kind to be formed after centuries of Ottoman rule over Serbian lands and represented the turning of Serbia to the West, away from the East. It was a time of great turmoil known historically as the First Serbian Uprising (1804‒1813) when Serbian men, mostly peasants, and the common folk, engaged in armed conflict against the Ottoman rogue military commanders (Meriage, 1978) known in Serbian epic poetry of the time as dahija. It was a time when oral poetry was still alive, and the events of the Uprising were celebrated in song, while the leader of the Uprising, Đorđe Petrović known as Karađorđe (Black George) became a national hero. The young Vuk Karadžić was a witness to the violent events and participated in them as a scribe. After the failure of the rebel forces to take over the Belgrade pashalik and the end of the insurgency, Vuk Karadžić fled the Serbian lands and began his literary, linguistic and anthropological career.

Murder of Karađorđe ‒ Đura Jakšić (1862).
The Life and Career of Vuk Stefanović Karadžić

Vuk Stefanović Karadžić (1787‒1864) was born in the small village of Tršić in today's Western Serbia, as a descendent of the famous old-Hercegovian family tribe Drobnjak (Deretić, 1987). Đuro Bodružić (Bodrožić, 2018) describes how Karadžić was named. His parents had five children before him, all of which died shortly after birth. In order to protect their sixth child from the supposed evil forces that killed his siblings, they named the infant Vuk (Wolf). He was mostly homeschooled and spent some time studying in the monastery Tronoša.

Court-yard in front of the house of Vuk Karadžić. Tršić, Serbia.

After 1814, Vuk found himself in Vienna which was one of the most important cities in Europe at the time. There he met Jernej Kopitar, a Slovenian intellectual who admired Vuk's passion for the language and art of Serbian lower classes and encouraged him to begin working on the popularization of Oral Poetry and the standardization of the Serbian language (Deretić, 1987). Vuk was not a typical intellectual in terms of his behavior, upbringing, and character. He did not try to present himself as above the Serbian common folk but always remained true to his humble beginnings. It is a well-known curiosity how great the number of profane and vulgar swear words can be found in the Serbian Lexicon published in 1818, and the seldom discussed collection of Oral Erotic poetry called The Red Ban (Crveni ban). In philological and literary disputes he was often harsh, persistent, and self-confident, but these traits allowed him to stand up against the Serbian intellectual elite of the time that did not favor his ideas and work, especially his views on language. Opposers of Vuk's ideas existed even in the 20th century (Selimović, 1967), long after his victory was evident.

As a philologist, Karadžić first drew attention with the publication of the grammar book of the Serbian language in 1814 (Pismenica serbskoga jezika po govoru prostoga naroda napisana), where he stated his attitude about Serbian orthography based on the phonological principle ''Write as you speak, read as it is written'' by which one letter is equivalent to one sound (Ivić, 1998). During the following decades, he removed letters that did not have a corresponding phoneme, and added graphemes that were missing, thus reaching the total number of 30 Cyrillic letters used to date. In 1818, he published the Serbian Lexicon (Srpski rječnik) which is not a simple dictionary but an anthropological study that contains much data about the Serbian way of life. It is a trilingual dictionary with definitions written in Serbian, German and Latin, provided by Jernej Kopitar. All the lexemes in the rječnik were derived from the idiom of the common folk, meaning he entirely bypassed all books and manuscripts written in Serbian during prior centuries. The biggest downside of his determination to standardize the language based on the idiom of the 'ordinary man' is that such a language could not express abstract ideas in science, philosophy, and art. The great turning point came in 1947 when Karadžić published his translation of the New Testament, incorporating words from the Old Church Slavonic and his reformed script (Deretić, 1987). The second and definite edition of the Serbian Lexicon came out in 1852, containing around 47,000 entries.

A photograph of Vuk S. Karadžić (n.d.).

Equally important are his efforts as a collector of Oral Literature. After his first collection of oral songs was well-received (Mala prostonarodna slavenoserbska pjesnarica, 1814), Karadžić's systematical fieldwork began, as he traveled across Serbian lands and wrote down songs as gulsars and singers performed for him. The four-volume Leipzig edition of Oral Poetry (1823‒1824) drew international attention and acclaim. The preface Vuk wrote for the first volume of this collection contains important information about the way songs can be classified and performed. He divided Serbian Oral Poetry into heroic songs (pjesme junačke) which people sang to the music of gusle, and female songs (ženske pjesme) which are sung by both men and women, usually in a duet (Karadžić, 1824, p.17). He also mentioned a type of song that is on the margin between the two aforementioned, which are heroic by their content but are sung by women without gusle (Karadžić, 1824, p. 19‒10). Karadžić also wrote here about the denial of authorship mentioned in the previous article of this 101 series. Containing facts about the geographical distribution of Serbian Oral Poetry, the behavior of men and women in society, the way songs are created and changed over time, and many more, the preface to the Leipzig edition of Oral Songs is one of the most important documents about Oral Poetry ever published in Serbian.

In addition, Vuk S. Karadžić published collections of national proverbs (1836) and short stories (1821, 1853). He was also an author, writing several historical and anthropological studies describing the people and events of his time (Deretić, 1987). Perhaps the pinnacle of his career is represented in the four-volume Vienna edition of Serbian Oral Poetry (1841, 1845, 1846, 1862) containing 793 lyrical (female) and 252 epic (heroic) songs. The first volume contains only lyrical songs, while the other three are classified by antiquity into The Songs of Oldest Times (Pjesme junačke najstarije), The Songs of Middle Times (Pjesme junačke srednjijeh vremena) and The Songs of Newest Times about the Fight for Freedom (Pjesme junačke novijih vremena o vojevanju za slobodu).

Ultimately, Karadžić was born in the right place at the right time. More than a typical scholar, he was a man of action who felt a sense of urgency combined with a strong will and a courageous spirit. He did not limit himself to a single field of work but expanded his opportunities to contribute to the society he was born into as a historian, a linguist, and an anthropologist. His work significantly impacted the history of Serbian culture and had far-reaching consequences that will affect it indefinitely. Many people continued what he began by preserving the fading Oral Tradition, as well as developing the Serbian language for future generations.

Bibliographical References:

Bodrožić, Đ. (2018). Jedan pogled an život i delo Vuka Stefanovića Karadžića; životne prilike i odlike dela. Politička revija, godina (XXIX) XVII vol. 55. br. 1, str. 89‒108. Institute for Political Studies.

Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2021, February 2). Romanticism. Encyclopedia Britannica.

Deretić J. (1987). Kratka istorija srpske književnosti. BIGZ.

Goethe, J. W. (1960). Serbische Lieder. Kunsttheoretische Schriften und Übersetzungen [Band 17–22], Band 18.

Ivić, P. (1998). Pregled istorije srpskog jezika. Izdavačka knjižarnica Zorana Stojanovića, Sremski Karlovci.

Karadžić, V. S. (1924). Narodne srpske pjesme. Knjiga prva. Digitalna biblioteka Matice srpske.

Meriage, L. (1978). The First Serbian Uprising (1804-1813) and the Nineteenth-Century Origins of the Eastern Question. Slavic Review, 37(3), 421-439. doi:10.2307/2497684

Selimović, M. (1967). Za i protiv Vuka. Projekat Rastko.

Selvelli, G. (n.d.) The cultural collaboration between Jacob Grimm and Vuk Karadžić. A fruitful friendship connecting Western Europe to the Balkans. University Ca' Foscari of Venice.

Ćurčin, M., & R. W. S.-W. (1932). Goethe and Serbo-Croat Ballad Poetry. The Slavonic and East European Review, 11(31), 126–134.

Image References:

Court-yard in front of the Vuk Karadjic’s house, Trsic, Loznica, Serbia. (2008). [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Jakšić, Đ. (1862). Murder of Karađorđe [Painting]. My Forever Travel.

Đurković, P. (1816). Portrait of Vuk Stefanović Karadžic [Painting]. Wikipedia.

Radonić, N. (1857). Death of Prince Marko [Painting]. My Forever Travel.

The archive of Museum of Vuk and Dositej, Belgrade. (n.d.). A photograph of Vuk S. Karadžić [Photograph]. Wikipedia.

Author Photo

Jelena Martinec

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