Throughout the 19th century scholars puzzled over the riddle of the composition of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. It was clear that they derived from a tradition of oral recitation, but it seemed inconceivable that anyone could recite for so long and so coherently. The poem must have been an example of early written composition based on an older oral tradition. This led scholars into the field to study the few remaining traditions extant in Europe where old peasant singers of tales still carried on this ancient form of entertainment and folk memory. And the place to which they turned was Serbia, where they found that old men and old women -- in a couple of cases blind old women -- could sing traditional poems and poem cycles even longer than Homer's epics. The riddle of The Iliad was solved in the series of songs sung in the hills of Bosnia and Herzegovina about the Battle of Kosovo. The classic book on the subject is Albert B. Lord's The Singer of Tales, which was published in 1960.

There is a splendid translation of the Kosovo cycle, The Battle of Kosovo, a collaboration between the American poet John Matthias and the Serbian mathematician Vladeta Vuckovic. The songs were transcribed by Serbian scholars early in the 19th century. The singers were called guslars and they played a one-stringed instrument called a gusle. The American poet Charles Simic was born in Serbia and heard a guslar perform when he was a child. He described the experience this way: "The sound of that one string is faint, rasping, screechy, tentative. The chanting that goes with it is toneless, monotonous, and unrelieved by vocal flourishes of any kind. The singer simply doesn't show off. There's nothing to do but pay close attention to the words which the guslar enunciates with great emphasis and clarity. . . . After a while the poem and the archaic, other-worldly-sounding instrument began to get to me and everybody else. Our anonymous ancestor poet knew what he was doing. The stubborn drone combined with the sublime lyricism of the poem touched the rawest spot in our psyche. The old wounds were reopened."

The poems tell of the great battle on the plain of Kosovo between the Serbian prince Lazar and the forces of the Turkish invaders under Sultan Murad in 1389. The poems teem with characters: Lazar himself, his rivals, his fellow warriors, his wife, the sisters and mothers of the fallen warriors. They feel to me a little like the Robin Hood ballads with their story of the fight for freedom and the doughty band of heroes. They must have been sung endlessly in the five hundred years of Ottoman rule before they were written down, and they were sung long after that. Rebecca West, in her classic travel book about Yugoslavia, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, describes hearing old Serbian women in the countryside in the late 1930s recite the poems as if they were saying the Pater Noster while she looked out across the plain: "Here is the image of failure, so vast that it fills the eye as failure sometimes fills an individual life, an epoch."

Impossible to convey the sweep of the cycle in a short space, but here, a story of Lazar, is one of its best-known episodes. John Matthias has used the device of spacing to indicate the pauses, something like those in Anglo-Saxon oral poetry, that mark the classic Serbian 10-syllable line:

The Downfall of the

Kingdom of Serbia

Yes, and from Jerusalem, O from that holy place,

A great gray bird, a taloned falcon flew!

And in his beak he held a gentle swallow.

But wait! it's not a falcon, this gray bird,

It is a saint, Holy Saint Elijah:

And he bears with him no gentle swallow

But a letter from the Blessed Mother

He brings it to the Tsar at Kosovo

And places it upon his trembling knees.

And thus the letter itself speaks to the Tsar:

"Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,

Which kingdom is it that you long for most?

Will you choose a heavenly crown today?

Or will you choose an earthly crown?

If you choose the earth then saddle horses,

Tighten girths -- have your knights put on

Their swords and make a dawn attack against

The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.

But if you choose the skies then build a church --

O not of stone but out of silk and velvet --

Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,

For all shall perish, perish utterly,

And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them."

And when the Tsar has heard these holy words

He meditates, thinks every kind of thought:

"O Dearest God, what shall I do, and how?

Shall I choose the earth? Shall I choose

The skies? And if I choose the kingdom,

If I choose an earthly kingdom now,

Earthly kingdoms are such passing things --

A heavenly kingdom, raging in the dark,

endures eternally.

And Lazarus chose heaven, not the earth,

And tailored there a church at Kosovo --

O not of stone but out of silk and velvet --

And he summoned there the Patriarch of Serbia,

Summoned there the lordly twelve high bishops:

And he gathered up his forces had them

Take with him the saving bread and wine.

As soon as Lazarus has given out

His orders, then across the level plain

Of Kosovo pour all the Turks.

(From The Battle of Kosovo, translated by John Matthias and Vladeta Vuckovic, Ohio Univ. Press/Swallow, 1987. Reprinted by permission.)