Thursday, February 22, 2007

Review of Bagby's Beowulf

I am probably the only Anglo-Saxonist in the world who has never seen Bagby perform live, so when a DVD of Benjamin Bagby's Beowulf was made commercially available, I popped it to the top of my NetFlix queue.

Bagby is a fellow who has been making a name for himself for his oral performances of Beowulf that are intended to replicate the experience of hearing the poem recited by a scop (an Anglo-Saxon oral poet). Bagby has an Anglo-Saxon-style harp that he uses to accompany the poem, and he sings it more than chants it. For a clip of one of his performances, look here (note that the DVD is of a different performance, and the sound quality is better on the DVD too).

My assumption was that this was going to be something to appeal only to scholars like me, and not the general public -- not even to smart fans of all things medieval. After viewing it, I do think that in its feature-length form (at about an hour and forty minutes, it still only takes us from the beginning through the Grendel sections) is probably too long for all but the most intrepid amatuers. Nevertheless, the performance is smashing, and absolutely captivating. For the non-scholar out there, I would recommend renting (or buying) it and watching as much as you can enjoy. That might mean watching it in 30-minute hunks, or that might mean skipping ahead in the chapters straight to the fight with Grendel -- but it's worth it.

My son (seven years old) watched about ten minutes of it. Though he can read, he couldn't read the subtitles fast enough, so I had to read them aloud as we went. He wandered off, and told me to call him back when we got to the fight with Grendel. I got so lost in it during the fight scene that I forgot to call him back, so when he came back in later, I had to go back on the DVD and re-do the scene for him. Just to clarify -- a seven-year-old boy insisted on having a translation read aloud to him of a guy sitting on a stool playing a harp in a foreign language. þæt wæs god scop!

I was a little disappointed by the subtitles. You've got two choices: English or none. I really would have liked to have had Old English subtitles available, because much of it was sung too quickly or with too much embelishment for me to follow in the original language. I could have watched with a book in my lap, but I felt that it would detract from the experience.

The DVD contains two special features, too. In one, Bagby talks about the construction and tuning of the harp, and this section is accessible to any viewer. I'm pretty musically illiterate, and I followed it. Another section, though, is a roundtable discussion by Bagby, John Miles Foley, Thomas Cable, and Mark Amodio. At first, the discussion seemed to be aimed at a general audience, with the participants explaining things that the general public wouldn't know about -- such as the 1731 fire at the Cotton Library -- but by the end they seem to have forgotten themselves, and begin making oblique references to things that non-scholars aren't going to know anything about. For example, they discuss Alfred Lord's research on oral poets at great length without ever explaining what they are talking about. It seems to me that nobody who isn't already a scholar would get that reference. Still, the roundtable is interesting; if you are a scholar, I would recommend watching the whole thing, and if you are a non-scholar, I would recommend watching until you don't understand what they are talking about any more.


  1. It's delightful to hear about your son's interest. When Masaki Kobayashi's 1967 film Rebellion played at the local cinematheque ten years ago, for one day only and not then available on video, I was babysitting my seven-year-old cousin. Like your son, he couldn't keep up with the subtitles, so I had to (very quietly) explain some of the story as we watched.

    Until the climax, the film has very little action, just a slowly-mounting tension, but he stayed with it right to the end. Some great art overcomes language barriers.

  2. Faboo -- hadn't heard it was out. I've been lucky enough to see him perform this twice; once at Kazoo and just a year or so ago in Houston. Brilliant both times (although the nod goes to the performance in the cathedral in Houston -- much more atmospheric). Huzzah!