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: http://ebbs.english.vt.edu/hel/hel.html
Old English at the University of Virginia: http://faculty.virginia.edu/OldEnglish/
Beowulf Translations: http://www.beowulftranslations.net/
Soundtrack analysis of languages used in the Lord of the Rings film: http://www.elvish.org/gwaith/movie_soundtrack_ttt.htm#e_dirge
Peter S Baker, Introduction to Old English. Oxford: Blackwell, 2003. ISBN 0631234543. Electronic edition at http://www.wmich.edu/medieval/resources/IOE/index.html
Englisc composition listserv: http://www.rochester.edu/englisc/
Beoð ge gesunde!