Monday, November 30, 2009

Under the Spell of Beowulf

I love the poem Beowulf - have taught, thought about, translated, published about, read, and re-read it countless times (well, only one translation experience, which was fun, but more than enough!). And just as cliche has it about all wonderful art, I find something new and exciting every time I encounter it.

I first heard Benjamin Bagby perform Beowulf in 1993 at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. The venue was quite small, holding at most fifty people - small enough for the performance to have an intimate feel.

Bagby has reconstructed an Anglo-Saxon harp based on fragments like the one found at Sutton Hoo (a huge Anglo-Saxon burial find). He uses the harp to accompany himself as he performs the poem in Anglo-Saxon. The magazine Andante has an excellent article about Bagby and his close research into medieval and older music.

Traditional Old English poetics - two strong beats in each of two half lines across a caesura, together with alliteration, in particular - drive the poem with dramatic sound and rhythm. Beowulf is compelling to listen to, especially when the calibre of the scop's performance is as good as Bagby's.

My fellow attendees knew no Anglo-
Saxon, but not knowing the language was a benefit for them; with no focus on the meaning of the words, the audience is held by the powerful sounds. When I saw Bagby, I knew enough Anglo-Saxon to get caught up in trying to follow the story instead of just getting lost in the surge of the sound. Still, it was an unforgettable experience.

There are several translations of the poem, both in poetry and prose, and several movies, books, comics, and plays based on it.

My first introduction to the poem was the story of Beowulf's fight with Grendel in a children's book. Although I was never a big fan of monster stories, there was something, even then, powerful and compelling about one unarmed man besting an evil monster, and all those crashing beams and benches thrilled me!

The Norton Anthology of English Literature contained a prose version over several editions which was actually very good, inspite of the fact that it was prose. The decision may well have been made because there are some really terrible translations in poetry.

Very, very happily, Norton now contains the Seamus Heaney  (a Nobel laureate) translation in poetry, one of the best ever. Seamus Heaney reads excerpts from the poem here .

Beowulf endures because it is powerful,  primal, and compelling. I will never tire of reading it or hearing it read.

The video clip is of Benjamin Bagby performing the section of the poem about the arrival of Grendel on the scene. Enjoy!


ONE of THE GUYS said...

I read this a long time ago in college. But obviously I need to read it again!

Thanks for the prompting.

ChrisJ said...


I hope you enjoy reading it again. (Not everyone on earth is as big a fan as I am!)

Anonymous said...

thanks for this nice post 111213