Monday, 19 November 2007

Mediæval performance: An Updated Beowulf


There has been much talk in the popular press of late regarding the venerable Beowulf, the thousand-some-year-old epic that underpins all English poetry and literature. In particular, I am told there is a new dramatic adaptation of the story for the cinema.

Not having yet seen this new production, I can say that I have been told that there have been some liberties taken with the plot, characters, and the relationship between Beowulf, Grendel, and Grendel's Mother (interestingly, played by the ubiquitous and bi-accessible Angelina Jolie).

For the scholars of mediæval performance, Anglo-Saxon, oral tradition, and folk instruments, I offer this report of a modern performance of the ancient poem.

The original manuscript is un-named, but known for its protagonist. One manuscript is extant (Cotton Vitellus A. XV, British library). It is dated to somewhere between the VIII and XI centuries, and written in Anglo-Saxon ("Old English", not to be confused with the faux ren-faire stylings properly belonging to Early Modern English). While written in England, the content covers a period of Danish and Swedish history, somewhere in the VI century. In what is thought to be a common feature of epics of the era, truth and fable are inexorably intertwined.

The scop, a minstrel, would have performed the poem, likely set to some accompaniment. At 3183 lines long, a performance of Beowulf would have been epic just for the effort needed. Anglo-Saxon poetry relied not on rhyme, but on alliteration:

Hƿæt! ƿē Gār‐Dena / in geār‐dagum
þēod‐cyninga / þrym gefrūnon,
hū þā æðelingas / ellen fremedon.

ƿ = "w"; þ = "th" as in thick; ð = "th" as in the

Note the repetition of sounds across the caesura: Gār‐Dena, geār‐dagum, and so on.

So, while Beowulf is a staple of the student of English, the poem doesn't see much of the light of the modern day. One recent exception to that was in Professor Tolkien's Lord of the Rings, where Anglo-Saxon is used as the language of the Rohirrim. The Peter Jackson film version contains a dirge sung by Éowyn:
Bealocwealm hafað fréone frecan forth onsended
giedd sculon singan gléomenn sorgiende
on Meduselde þæt he ma no wære
his dryhtne dyrest and mæga deorost.

'An evil death has sent forth the noble warrior
Sorrowing minstrels shall sing a song
in Meduseld that he is no more,
to his dearest lord and kinsmen most beloved.
An evil death...'

The beginning of this newly-written piece recalls line 2265 in Beowulf:
Bealocwelm hafað fela feorhcynna forð onsended...
'Baleful death has many of my living kin sent forth...'

Whilst catching up on my reading today, a particular conversation in an Anglo-Saxon scholar's forum on the æthernet caught my attention. Added to a lively discussion of the film adaptation, was a link to a video performance of one man performing the poem with a reconstructed period harp.

This modern-day scop has memorised(!) the entire poem, and set it to appropriate period music on a harp. The six-stringed instrument was built by a German firm, based on artefacts found in a 7th century Alemannic nobleman's grave in Oberflacht (south of Stuttgart), and corroborated by Sutton Hoo findings.

The instrument is tuned to six tones across an octave which make up three perfect fifths, and two perfect fourths, which gives the scop a useful modal palette with which to work. The sound is rustic, pentatonic, ancient, and haunting.

The effect is astounding, and I am given to imagine that this was what one would have heard a thousand years ago, around a campfire in West Saxony.

References, other than noted above:

(my current favourite translation) Seamus Heaney, Beowulf: A New Verse Translation (Bilingual Edition) W. W. Norton & Company, 2001. ISBN 0393320979.

History of the English Language at Virginia Tech:

Old English at the University of Virginia:

Beowulf Translations:

Soundtrack analysis of languages used in the Lord of the Rings film:

Peter S Baker, Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0631234543. Electronic edition at

Englisc composition listserv:

Beoð ge gesunde!



Her Grace, Eva Bellambi said...

Lady Kate -
This is a very interesting post! That scene from Lord of the Rings is one of my favorites primarily due to the song you reference.
Beowulf was a favorite read in High School and I have been debating whether to see the latest movie. Maybe this holiday weekend.

Thanks for continuing to keep us up to date on our language studies.

I shall link to this fine article.


Hotspur O'Toole said...

An excellent post (as always), Miss Nicholas, and well researched. Concerning the kinescopic adaption of Beowulf, I have heard from a friend (who is another fan of medieval languages, in fact, she once pronounced the lengthy Thanksgiving blessing at my table entirely in Middle English, a feat that won her lasting reknown). She had rushed to see the movie, being something of a fan of the original (poem, not so much the Collier press version we were all subjected to in High School), she was eager to see what Hollywood would make of it. Apparently it's a pretty dire excuse for a film, attempting to cash in on the paths that 300 trod last year and failing miserably. They took so many liberties with the original story that her report back to me was laced with some rather salty, unlady-like language.
In short, stay away.. far away.. until, perhaps, it shows up on cable.

Thank you for your post, they are always enlightening and well-crafted.



Eladrienne Laval said...

I have always loved Beowulf and regard it as one of the best things that I have ever read. Thank you for the fascinating post Lady Kate!

Her Grace, Eva Bellambi said...

Och! I believe you may have saved me some cash, Mr. O'Toole. Thank you for letting us know about the potential badness of the movie adaptation.
Lady Kate - I am sure you may already have this book, but my typist did purchase the original poem - with excellent commentary and translation - a few years ago for her spouse. They have let me peer through the pages and it is spectacular. Do let me know if you need the particulars on the volume.

Edward Pearse, Earl of Primbroke said...

I think I first heard about Beowulf as a side note to having read The Lord of the Rings in 1980 (for the first time) and then in 1981 with the release of Grendel Grendel Grendel. Professor Tolkien's work on the poem was interesting to the rather young me (though I didn't understand large parts of it) and it's a story that I have always found intriguing.

Sadly most adaptations want to change the story in some way (and the less said about the Christopher Lambert version the better). I'm curious to see this mainly because of Neil Gaiman's contribution to the script, but I may wait until it comes out on DVD.

Oh and the linked clip was very impressive!