Russell Examines Armenian Roots of Outlaw Figures

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By Thomas C. Nash
Mirror-Spectator Staff

BELMONT, Mass. — Harvard University’s Prof. James Russell presented his research on the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son, its shared Armenian and Turkish heritage and its influence on the world’s thirst for stories of outlaws at the National Association for Armenians Studies and Research (NAASR) last week.

Russell, who has served as the Mashtots Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard since 1992, has written several books on Armenian literature, including An Armenian Epic: The Heroes of Kasht and Hovhannes Tlkurantsi and the Medieval Armenian Lyric Tradition, among others.

The September 17 lecture, Russell’s first for an Armenian audience since a presentation on Armenian magical scrolls at the Armenian Library and Museum of America (ALMA) late last year, centered around not only an outline of the Epic of the Blind Man’s Son, but also the historical and sociological forces that made it endure.

Known to most by its Turkish name, Köroglu, the epic comprises roughly 30 parts, or “branches.” Reciters would tackle one part a night for 30 days (for Muslim reciters, during the month of Ramadan), accompanying themselves on instruments. Boiled down, it is the story of a son, Köroglu, armed with a magical horse and super strength he acquired from drinking foam from a river, seeking revenge on the king who blinded his father.

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Köroglu becomes a roving bandit and minstrel in the kingdom, attracting followers along the way. He is an archetype found in many cultures: “The brave and cheerful bandit who rebels against unjust authority and robs from the rich and gives to the poor,” according to Russell.

All of this, Russell points out, begins to take shape five centuries before the story of Robin Hood begins to be told.

“The historical Robin Hood of the 14th century seems to have inherited in literature the ready-made deeds and features of a folk epic narrative perhaps five centuries older.”

Köroglu takes place across Central Asia and is influenced by multiple cultures and languages.

“The Soviet Armenians knew [the epic] from a famous opera and from Russian translations,” Russell said.

“Few surmised that its roots are in part in their own country and culture, partly because it has been appropriated by Turkey and Azerbaijan as their national epic, and partly because its characters are indeed Muslims, with Turkic and Persian names, and most versions of the epic are in Turkic languages … though there are also Kurdish, Persian and Armenian variants.”

The shared history, Russell said, may be a large factor as to why the epic is so little-studied today by those interested in Armenian studies.

“The cultural divide … has become so wide that the idea of a shared literary work of this kind has become almost inconceivable,” Russell added.

Quoting German communist scholar Ivan Olbracht, Russell said, “Man has an insatiable longing for justice and so he rebels against a social order which denies it to him. Whatever world he lives in, he accuses that social order, or the entire material universe, with injustice.”

“Man is filled with a strange, stubborn urge to remember, to think things out, to change things. And in addition he has the urge within himself to have what he cannot have — if only in the form of a fairy tale. That is perhaps the basis for the heroic sagas of all ages, all religions, all peoples and all classes.”