More Beowulf

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As a companion-piece to Steve Tompkins’ thoughts on the manuscript that Sir Robert Cotton saved from oblivion those many centuries ago, Cimmerian readers should check out John J. Miller’s new article in the Wall Street Journal on the enduring significance of Beowulf, and on the fortuity of its reaching our time in (more or less) one piece.

For those who have never read the poem, there are lots of online resources to get you started. You could do worse than begin here at the University of Nevada, Reno Libraries page, which offers a lot of information and links.


For couch potatoes, I can especially recommend Benjamin Bagby’s DVD. Bagby is a performance artist in the mode of Cimmerian contributor Donald Sidney-Fryer, and his specialty is performing Beowulf on a stage alone, accompanied by an Anglo-Saxon harp and reciting the poem in the original Old English, much as it must have sounded a thousand years ago. (see an excerpt here, and check out some of the rapturous press reaction here.) It’s grand listening to him chant and sing and emote each line with gusto, occasionally hearing a word that sears across time and still makes perfect sense to modern ears. As his website puts it:

This is a performance which will speak to many: lovers of Beowulf and oral epic, early music enthusiasts, Tolkien fans, medievalists, and anyone searching for virtuoso storytelling, great theater, or a glimpse into the fascinating beginnings of the English language.

If and when you get tired of not knowing exactly what he is saying, you can turn on the subtitles. And there are bonus features, including a nice interview between Bagby and a group of learned Beowulf scholars. The DVD only covers the first thousand lines or so of the poem, so it is to be hoped that Bagby completes an entire oration in two more video installments. Well worth the money.