Dallas — To hear Benjamin Bagby recite the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is to be transported back in time a thousand years. That was the experience on March 1, 2018 at the Nasher Sculpture Center when Bagby picked up his six-string replica of a medieval German harp and commanded the audience to “Hwaet!” (“Listen!”)
Principally known as a presenter of new music, the Soundings: New Music at the Nasher series took a detour with the presentation of Bagby, who re-creates the role of the Anglo-Saxon scop (which we might translate, loosely, as a reciter of poetry) with one of the first masterpieces of the English language. Although several written texts precede the one surviving “hard copy” of Beowulf, from the early 11th century, Beowulf may have been extant in various spoken versions as early as the sixth century C.E. Since the tradition of recitation of poetic narrative has been long dead in our culture (though somewhat revived in rap), Bagby, an Illinois-born early music specialist currently based at the Sorbonne in Paris, relies on examination of surviving similar traditions in Central Asia and Japan to determine how that sort of performance works. As he and others have pointed out, there may have been numerous versions of Beowulf, and certainly ad hoc variations depending on the mood and taste of the scop.
In Anglo-Saxon England, Beowulf would have been recited in a mead hall, with an open fire on a hearth in the middle of the room, the audience of young warrior-knights filled with feast and drink, torches on the wall, and hounds ranging the floor.
We had none of that Thursday night in the extremely civilized setting of the Nasher ground floor. But the power of Bagby’s fiercely expressive delivery (in Anglo-Saxon), capturing the glorious determination, the humor, the irony, and the suspense of that thousand-year-old text, hurled the audience into a sense of what it was to be alive in those precarious, historically pivotal times, when Christianity was relatively new in Britain and dragons, orcs, and half-human monsters lurked in the darkness.
On the six-string, hand-held harp, Bagby produced delicate, oft-repeated chords and occasional melodic motifs, creating, through repetition, a pulse that reached inside the listener. The performance covered the opening one-third of the 1,000-line epic poem, which contains the most famous plotline, the vanquishing of Grendel by the hero Beowulf. (A complete rendition of the poem would have taken about six hours.) There may have been one or two Medievalists in the audience fluent in Anglo-Saxon (a.k.a. Old English), but the evolution of the language over the past 500 years necessitated projected captions for the rest of us. Nevertheless, one could experience an uncanny feeling of recognition in the very sounds early version of English, adding to the eerie sensation brought on by Bagby’s performance. All we who speak English, regardless of our genetic ancestry, are linguistic descendants of the Anglo-Saxons, and their powerful, complex vocabulary echoes strongly in our day-to-day lives. To experience a spoken version of Beowulf is to come into direct contact with that linguistic heritage—like finding a photograph of a great-grandparent, and seeing a bit of yourself reflected in the features of a person you never knew.
As Bagby points out, Beowulf was largely aimed at an audience of young warriors — essentially teenaged boys of the aristocratic class — convincing them to aspire to the exaggerated prowess and bravery described therein, and to practice the fearlessness necessary to preserve communal life and civilization in the tumultuousness of early Medieval Britain.
The syntax of Beowulf is lean and keen — particularly the succinct, captivating descriptions of weaponry and battle. Although the original audience was composed of young men whose main purpose in life was to fight, in Bagby’s performance, we pampered, technology-infused modern Americans could, for an hour, experience the world inhabited by our linguistic and cultural ancestors.