Beowulf: a performance with surtitles

Featured performer
Benjamin Bagby, voice and lyra

Date 1 November 2008 Venue UBC Recital Hall

Reviewer Elizabeth Paterson

Under a spell. Enchanted or bewitched are words which have a too-endearing charm about them to describe the experience of hearing Benjamin Bagby’s telling of the Anglo-Saxon poem, “Beowulf”. Using only his voice and the open strings of a reproduction of an Anglo-Saxon six-stringed harp, or lyra, Bagby evoked a world both as remote and as familiar as the kingdom of Keats’s Belle Dame sans Merci.

With virtuostic playing he painted pictures in music. The sun sparkled on the waves as the Geats sailed across the sea to Denmark and one could feel the movement of the horses as the men rode to Heorot. The music described emotions, characters and dramatic events.

With only half-a-dozen notes available, the patterns of the music repeating and changing, changing and repeating endlessly also had a mesmeric effect, relentlessly drawing one into the story-teller’s world so that, although there were projected surtitles, they were soon hardly needed to be absorbed in the story.

The general outlines are well-known: Hrothgar, like Priam and Wotan, before him decided to build and disaster ensued. Unlike the other two, Hrothgar’s problems were caused not by unpaid debts but by partying. The sound from the new mead-hall of revelry by night annoyed the man-eating monster who lived in the near-by lake. Grendel soon found his way to the hall for mid-night snacks and the Danes lived in fear by night. On learning of their plight, the Swedish hero Beowulf decided to go to their aid. After a fierce fight with Grendel he was successful and a celebration was held once again in the Mead-hall.

This takes up roughly the first 1000 lines of the poem and here Bagby ends. The successful fight with Grendel’s mother soon after, and Beowulf’s final, unsuccessful fight with a dragon, who may indeed be Death itself, are tales for another night.

Bagby is a singer, and his control of his voice is astonishing. He evokes the world and character of the skop, the Anglo-Saxon bard, without props or costume beyond his harp and black clothes. It is clear that he has done considerable research into the practices of ancient story-telling. One might otherwise, superficially, describe his delivery as scene-chewing or hammy. There are times when his words seem as tangible as chunks of wild boar-meat. He growls, he rasps, he howls; he sings, he sneers, he commands. But this is not designed to double-underline a point or to force meaning into the thick heads of an audience. All is integrated into a unity of vision and understanding of the poem, its language and meaning, word by word, sentence by sentence, kenning by kenning, alliteration by alliteration, each with its place in the whole.

© 2008 Elizabeth Paterson