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How to Kill a Dragon: Aspects of Indo-European Poetics Paperback – 28 Jun 2001


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Product details

  • Paperback: 640 pages
  • Publisher: OUP USA; New Ed edition (28 Jun. 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0195144139
  • ISBN-13: 978-0195144130
  • Product Dimensions: 22.6 x 4.6 x 15 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 717,108 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Review

since Watkins writes in English, and very readably (exotic material is regularly translated), he will surely dominate Anglophone perceptions of the field ... This is a magnificent work. (N.J.Allen)

"...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 ofter brillant 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

About the Author

Calvert Watkins is at Harvard University.

Inside This Book (Learn More)
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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16 of 16 people found the following review helpful By Peter Uys HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWER on 27 Jan. 2003
Format: Paperback
This vast tome is a masterpiece of comparative Indo-European poetics. It investigates the nature, form and function of poetic expression and literature among an impressive variety of Indo-European peoples, ancient & modern. The author uses the traditional comparative method to identify the genetic intertextuality of particular themes & 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 in linguistics & poetics, including concepts like the synchronic, diachronic, linguistic reconstruction and poetics as repertory & grammar while pinpointing the various Indo-European traditions in terms of genre, space and time. The rest of part 1 considers the role of the spoken word in Indo-European society, its preservation across time and its unusual particularity.

In chapter 3: Poetics as Grammar, Watkins examines 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.
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8 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Jacques COULARDEAU on 27 Nov. 2007
Format: Paperback
This book starts with an essential visit to and discovery of Indo-European poetics. For one it does not take poetics in the Aristotelian meaning of the term that privileges dramatic texts, theater, performed poetics. The author defines the poet within a wider frame, that of the custodian and professional of language. He has to remember (at first, write and read later) all that is important for the community: its past, its important people, the laws, but also the medical knowledge, and the religious knowledge. As such the poet is at the very same time a priest, a poet, a doctor, ,a lawyer, a healer, a wizard, etc. He controls language in its abstract conceptualizing power and he performs pragmatic tasks that require knowing and reciting (to some type of music) texts.

As such he is the custodian and preserver of the knowledge of the community. Thus he has a second power, that of developing that language, writing and reciting all kinds of texts to entertain the community, politically manage it, laud its leaders, etc. Watkins righteously insists on this essential point. As such poetry and religion merge together, the poet is the priest and vice versa. The author goes further and declares there is some original, specific and stable Indo-European pragmatics and poetics. All I-E poetry comes from the same melting pot or the same mould. And he insists on the fact some common formulas can be found.

Here he works along two lines. One, etymology and the history of words, only words. Two, the formulas of words based on some words that semantically build a mainly semantic knot. He follows one such formula: HERO - SLAYS - DRAGON, that leads him to interesting remarks including the reversal of the killing. But he does not question the thematic functions behind the change.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Ernie on 26 Jun. 2014
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Beware of the jokey title, this is a detailed and intense piece of research which needs a knowledge of Greek. Even the bits in English I could follow didn't convince me of the author's thesis that Indo-Europaean migrants were incapable of making up new myths and folk tales, but always brought the old ones with them - if that actually was his proposal.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)

Amazon.com: 13 reviews
63 of 63 people found the following review helpful
AWESOME & EXHAUSTIVE MASTERPIECE 27 Jan. 2003
By Peter 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.
58 of 61 people found the following review helpful
Prodigiously learned; but does he make his case? 5 Jan. 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.
23 of 23 people found the following review helpful
"Technical" but well written. 20 April 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.
32 of 35 people found the following review helpful
this book is astonishing 14 Sept. 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
The culmination of a lifetime of singular scholarship 13 Sept. 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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