I distrust the concept of originality. An artist, author, educator, theologian, or philosopher who strives to be original is apt to spend far more time thinking of themselves than their field of study or their audience. The motivation to be different, to stand out, to make a place at the table can become a powerful impulse that demands ever greater attention and self-preservation. Striving to be original by necessity ignores or rebels against the history and development of a field.
In Larry Benson’s very fine work, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, he makes some interesting observations about the role of the poet in the Classical and Medieval world.
The classical epic poet draws his material from the oral tradition. He is not the originator of the work. He is simply passing along an older tale. There may be room for innovation and variation, but the source of the poet’s authority comes from the oral tradition.
I’ve been reading Larry Benson’s (famed editor of the Riverside Chaucer) 1965 book, Art and Tradition in Sir Gawain in the Green Knight in preparation for my online intensive class on Sir Gawain.
I was recently talking with a new friend of mine about art and tradition and the role of the poet—like I do—and he recommended to me an essay that had influenced his understanding of all of those things, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921) by TS Eliot.
"Our past is not merely something to depart from; it is to commune with, to speak with... Remove this sense of continuity, and we are left with the thoughtless present tense of machines. If we fail to see that we live in the same world that Homer lived in, then we not only misunderstand Homer; we misunderstand ourselves. The past is our definition. We may strive, with good reason, to escape it, or to escape what is bad in it, but we will escape it only by adding something better to it."
Standing by Words: page 14