Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky once recited the epic Sidney Sheldon novel, The Other Side of Midnight, to a crowd of drunken Gaets.
"Unferth, who sat at the feet of the Scylding's lord, started to speak. He unbound battle words. In him, Beowulf's mission caused great vexation…"—Beowulf
Epics are public literature. Poets used to entertain crowds, often after a day of feasting, with stories of heroic deeds, great battles, and endless journeys. We don't really know who first started to tell stories about the Trojan War, but they probably started telling them the day after the ships sailed. Vergil's written epic feels stiffer than Homer by comparison, mostly because it lacks the driving rhythm of a live piece—and even Homer comes down to us as written work, probably edited and cobbled together from different performers and performances.
Even by the standards of epic poetry, Beowulf is an odd duck. It is really two stories. In the first part, a young hero arrives to save the local king and his company from a fearsome monster—and the monster's even fiercer mother. It is a rousing adventure story, full of drinking and fighting and suspense. The second half is darker: the hero is now an old man, lord of his own kingdom. His subjects are cowardly, but he must—as is the lot of the hero—sacrifice himself in a suicidal battle against a dragon to save them.
You might have read Beowulf in high school—at least the first part of the poem about Grendel and his mother. I did. (I also had to read the John Gardner novel which tells the story from Grendel's perspective.) Later, I read the whole thing, dragon and all. Of course, that's sort of my job as an English professor: to read these things that everybody else just buys Cliff's Notes for. Anyway, Beowulf is one of those "important" books, the ones you are supposed to know if you want to be culturally literate. These days, though, it is pretty much read only by English majors and Tolkien fans. (Tolkien was a key figure in Beowulf scholarship and borrowed ideas from its anonymous author for his own fantasy fiction.)
Even if you have read Beowulf, you have almost certainly never heard it the way it was meant to be: as public spectacle; as oral poetry. Benjamin Bagby has toured the world with his Old English performance of Beowulf since 1990. It's just Bagby and his harp.
Of course, you don't speak Old English. Hell, I don't even know any Old English. Sure, I am an English professor and read Beowulf, but in translation. Somewhere up the hall from me as I write this is the office of our resident Old English expert (he even teaches a course in translating Beowulf), and I'm sure he could understand Bagby. But I'm relying here on the subtitles, which provide a loose translation intended, according to Bagby, to appear "neutral" and not distract from his performance. (This is according to an interview in Andante magazine that I've linked in the sidebar.)
Even if you turned off the subtitles, you would still be drawn to Bagby's rich tenor and total conviction in the material. The sign of a powerful storyteller is that you find yourself listening to his story even if you cannot understand a word of it. Bagby's facial expressions and use of different vocal inflections give a sense of place and character—and even pick up on the bits of humor in the story that I never even noticed were there before.
Director Stellan Olsson does try to keep your eyes busy by periodic dissolves to the audience or exterior landscapes. But let's face the hard truth here: 98 minutes of this does try one's patience. Bagby's performance covers the first third of the story: the tale of Beowulf's visit to Hrothgar's hall and the battle against Grendel. Indeed, the last twenty minutes or so of the show is just the celebrations in Heorot and a good deal of boasting and side stories. The increasingly darker parts of the poem—the brutal struggle with Grendel's mother and Beowulf's war against the dragon—are cut entirely. Fair enough: the Grendel story is the part most people know, and the story they have arguably come to hear. Why turn the show into a downer?
After you have enjoyed Bagby's stage performance, you can join him in a roundtable discussion with a trio of Beowulf scholars who, prompted by questions by Bagby, hold forth on the differences between oral and written poetry (one scholar even asserts his theory that Beowulf was never meant to be a performance piece), the origins of the single existing Beowulf manuscript, and issues related to oral performance and poetic syntax. You would think that after so many centuries nobody would have anything new to add to a conversation about such a seminal literary work. This debate format is an interesting way to show viewers how even our understanding of a "classic" is always evolving. Unfortunately, if you aren't an English major, you'll find this really, really opaque. Bagby provides a direct lecture to the viewer about the show's music: how he composed the score and trained himself to play a reconstructed harp based on original Anglo-Saxon designs.
Chances are that you are not a big enough Beowulf fan to shell out for this disc, and if you want to experience the poem in a more relaxing setting, you should pick up the recent and muscular Seamus Heaney translation. (You can also hunt up a couple of public domain translations on the web, but I cannot vouch for their quality.) You might want to recommend ordering a copy of this disc to your local librarian however. That way, all those many, many fans of ancient oral poetry can pour themselves tankards of mead, curl up by the hearthfire with a leg of mutton, and enjoy Beowulf as it was meant to be.
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