Among the great warrior heroes of the far past—Achilles and Hector and Odysseus, all the stars of the literary epics— stands their lesser-known brother in arms, Beowulf. Beowulf’s adventures and deeds are told in an 11th-century Anglo-Saxon poem by an unknown bard. And, in keeping with the oral tradition of Homer, Beowulf needs to be spoken/sung. Now, many many centuries later, Benjamin Bagby takes on the role of the scop, the storyteller.
It is a fascinating experience. Sitting in the Annenberg modern theater, we are transported back to an ancient court —I imagine men draped in fur, weapons at rest against the wall, their metal cups filled by— what? flagons!— filled with— what? mead! We are being entertained by the bard dressed in black, sitting on a stool before us, and he, in turn transports us back to a mythic past, where a monster with a lethal claw named Grendel holds sway.
The plot of his song/story follows Grendel’s hideous murdering of the tribe until Beowulf arrives. Grendel bears a strong family resemblance to Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest, a deformed creature made dangerous and grotesque by envy of the privileged around him. There is a ferocious mano-a-mano battle and Beowulf rips off the monster’s arm and hangs it as a sign of triumph over the hall.
And that’s only the beginning of the story, but Bagby has already performed for an hour and a half—shouting and laughing, loud and soft— dramatizing the old English until we hardly need the modern English narrative projected on the wall behind him. It is interesting to hear modern English words embedded in the rough sounds of Anglo-Saxon: “grim,” “twelve.”
Bagby accompanies himself on a six-string harp, modeled on an ancient wooden instrument found in a 7th century grave. Its sound is rhythmic and haunting, but not melodic—we are not going to leave humming. But we are going to leave having had a rare theatrical experience.
[Penn Live Arts at the Annenberg Center, 3680 Walnut Street] January 27, 2023; pennlivearts.org