“Beowulf,” the first great literary epic to come out of the British Isles, barely squeaked its way to us through time. Created between 650 and 850 A.D. and committed to manuscript circa 1000 A.D., it was almost lost in a 1731 fire, before being deposited in the British Museum. It now resides in the British Library.
While the text survives, it can only hint at how Anglo-Saxon audiences experienced this tale of a hero from Geatland (southern Sweden) who volunteers to kill a monster, Grendel, that’s been ravaging neighboring Denmark. Clues can be found in the poem itself, with its mentions of court poets who sing tales of brave feats to the accompaniment of a harp.
Benjamin Bagby, who brings his version of “Beowulf” to Town Hall this weekend, heeds those clues in his own half-chanted, half-sung approach to the poem. On DVD, his performance has the energy of an action movie — albeit one recited in Anglo-Saxon with modern English supertitles.
Anglo-Saxon performers probably came up with their own spontaneous variations on the story, but Bagby sticks strictly to the text — even if that text may just represent the story at a later stage of its evolution. “We can never know how close we are to anything ‘original,’ ” he said last month in an email interview from Paris, where he teaches at the Sorbonne.
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Bagby’s first encounter with “Beowulf” was at age 12, when his seventh-grade English teacher gave it to him. The idea of performing it live in the original Anglo-Saxon came to him in 1982.
“I had already been in contact with an Anglo-Saxonist who was interested in issues related to music and performance,” he recalls. “I also knew a harp-builder who was making an Anglo-Saxon harp. … My first text sung to the harp was ‘Caedmon’s Hymn,’ one of the oldest Anglo-Saxon texts, which is related to the miracle story of a simple, illiterate man named Caedmon who turns Bible stories into Anglo-Saxon poetry which he performs with the harp.
“At that time I did not sense any obstacles to making it work — the whole thing was fairly clear in my head. The advantages were that the texts are among the most beautiful ever crafted in the English language.”
Bagby leads the Paris-based, early-music ensemble Sequentia, and “Beowulf,” he says, is a key work in an ongoing Sequentia cycle called “The Lost Songs Project.” The idea behind it is to explore the intersection of oral tradition with written narrative, not just in Britain but all over early medieval Europe.
His 100-minute “Beowulf,” recited from memory, covers the first third of the poem, omitting Beowulf’s later showdown with Grendel’s angry mother and his old-age battle with a dragon. The show’s supertitles (“designed for maximum understanding with a minimum of text”) are a hybrid of different modern English translations.
Bagby’s harp, designed with reference to remains of instruments found in archaeological digs, has six strings and no frets. The sound it produces is highly atmospheric, but has its limitations: “One risks running out of ideas very quickly if one doesn’t enjoy the challenge of ‘doing more with less.’ ”
Bagby hopes to follow up “Beowulf” with performances of the Anglo-Saxon elegies, poems that lament lost friends, lost comforts and lost worlds.
“It promises to be the gloomiest evening of song imaginable,” he jokes. “I may have to ask the audience to sign a waiver before the concert, absolving me of responsibility for any ensuing bouts of depression.”
Michael Upchurch: firstname.lastname@example.org