Ben Bagby performs ‘Beowulf’ in WOSU’s Radio Performance Studio
A kingdom is assaulted by a monster and a hero sweeps in with his army to defend the realm.
Not the premise of a new Netflix fantasy series. Instead, a plot synopsis of the Old English epic Beowulf.
Since 1990, musician, medievalist and reciter Benjamin Bagby has lifted Beowulf off the dusty pages of books and performed it around the world. Those performances put flesh on the bones of a centuries-old epic whose drama and excitement rival that of any action film.
Bagby stopped by WOSU’s Radio Performance Studio recently to perform a selection from the opening of Beowulf. Set in the 6th-century Scandinavia, the poem begins with the funeral of the Danish warrior-king Scyld Scefing. In cinematic detail, the Beowulf poet – the author’s name is unknown – takes us to the edge of the ship on which Scyld is laid to rest amid the weapons his bereft subjects pile around him and set adrift on his final voyage to the unknown.
Bagby first read Beowulf during his school days, as a work of literature. But the epic stems from an age long before printing and before books became widely available. The poem was originally transmitted orally by a scop – a bard, or storyteller, who would recite it while accompanying himself on a hand-held harp.
“In the Middle Ages, (stories) were transmitted in oral tradition by people who were trained to do that and were really good at it and only the best were called,” Bagby said. “And I thought at the time, yeah, we’re making a big mistake here in thinking this is literature. It’s performance art. If you take it off the page and put it in the mouth of the storyteller, you see that it was designed to be done like that. It’s not designed to be read. It’s designed to be told.”
Bagby’s path to taking Beowulf off the page and onto the stage began with a deep dive into the text. He studied the language of Beowulf with noted scholars of Old English, mastering a vocabulary far removed from that of modern English and examining the intricacies of the poetry.
Acquiring a six-stringed harp modeled on instruments that survive from the 6th, 7th and 8th centuries gave Bagby the tool he needed to embody the scop and bring the epic to life.
“The (harp) can, for instance, make time pass,” Bagby said. “The instrument can make time stop. The instrument can comment on something that’s been said. The instrument can prepare something that’s about to be said. It can depict travel and time passing without anybody saying anything. It can also accompany the speech of somebody who’s talking to you. So it has all of these different functions, and it’s crazily changing function all the time.”
In an age obsessed with smartphones and AI, the storytelling dimension of the more-than-1,000-year-old Beowulf remains relevant today because it resonates at the core of our humanity. The monsters in Beowulf – Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon – are archetypes of monsters in any era. The epic’s hero is the type of leader we long for in almost any context. And the battle between the oppressed and their oppressors at the heart of Beowulf’s plot satisfies our human desire to see human conflict resolved and justice served.
Equally relevant today, Bagby says, is the act of hearing Beowulf told aloud, just like the bedtime stories we heard when we were children.
“I think storytelling, when you stop looking at the page and reading and you’re just listening, that plugs back into something from childhood, which we all miss terribly. We miss the bedtime story,” Bagby said.
“I think that’s how Beowulf was perceived in the 7th or 8th centuries, or in a tribal society earlier than that. People said, ‘We want to hear the Beowulf story.’ Why? Because it reminds us of who we are. It plugs us back into our identity as a people and it’s an essential act that needs to be fulfilled every now and then. And that’s what keeps stories alive.”