Finally, the long awaited recording is made! Since 1990, Benjamin Bagby has been performing the great epic Beowulf at major festivals and venues around the world. Now we have his remarkable performance on DVD, beautifully filmed by the award-winning Swedish director Stellan Olsson.

While Beowulf has come down to us as literature, as a written poem, the epic’s pre-literate medieval audience would have known it through the performance of a scop, a bardic storyteller, as Bagby presents himself here. In this one-man tour de force Bagby accompanies himself on an Anglo-Saxon harp. Using the entire range of his voice, he delivers this gripping tale in Old English, as it could have been experienced more than one thousand years ago.

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

What is Beowulf?

The untitled Anglo-Saxon epic poem known as Beowulf survives in a single manuscript source dating from the early eleventh century (British Library, Cotton Vitellius A. XV). Although scholars do not agree on the dating of the poem – theories range between the sixth century and the date of the manuscript – it is clear that the story has its roots in the art of the scop (‘creator’), the bardic story-teller and reciter at formal and informal gatherings, whose services were essential to the fabric of tribal society in early medieval England.

The scop would re-tell the story of Beowulf, in song and speech, perhaps accompanying himself on a six-stringed harp (this we know from contemporary accounts, although musical notation was superfluous and only remnants of instruments have survived). His courtly audience was attuned to the finest details of sound and meaning, metre and rhyme, timing and mood. The performance – which, for the whole epic, might last between five and six hours – would never be exactly the same twice, as the ‘singer of tales’ subtly varied the use of poetic formulæ to shape his unique version of the story.

The central dilemma of any attempt to re-vocalise a medieval text as living art is based on the fact that a written source can only represent one version (and possibly not the best version) of a text from a fluid oral tradition. The impetus to make this attempt has come from many directions: from the power of those bardic traditions, mostly non-European, which still survive intact; from the work of instrument-makers who have made thoughtful renderings of seventh-century Germanic harps; and from those scholars who have shown an active interest in the problems of turning written words back into an oral poetry meant to be absorbed through the ear/spirit, rather than eye/brain. But the principal impetus comes from the language of the poem itself, which has a chilling, magical power that no modern translation can approximate.

Jack says: Beowulf was a very interesting story. The reason I found it interesting was because the story wasn’t emotional.  Usually I like stories that are emotional and make me feel connected to the characters.  But I wasn’t connected to any of the characters in Beowulf because I could not relate to any of them.  However, I still loved the story because it was exciting and full of adventure. There were many obstacles that Beowulf had to overcome and I liked that.  Also it was interesting to see what a true hero {Beowulf} would be like in the time of 500 A.D.   My favorite part of the story was when Beowulf and his noble friend Brecca swim across the ocean , as boys , for seven days and seven nights. They defeat several sea monsters along the way. This shows that even when he is a boy, Beowulf can still do things no other man can do.  My favorite character is Beowulf who is the main character and has the strength of 30 men!  Beowulf is my favorite character because unlike characters Harry Potter, or Percy Jackson, Beowulf has no personal flaw.  A personal flaw is a problem almost every hero has.  Harry Potter’s personal flaw is the love and compassion he has for his friends which Voldemort takes advantage of.   Percy Jackson’s personal flaw is that although his destiny is to be a leader he struggles to take the leadership role which almost leads to his downfall.  In my opinion Beowulf does not have a flaw that makes him weak.  The story of Beowulf was written in Old English in 1000 AD.  Shortly after we finished reading Beowulf we watched Benjamin Bagby sing the story of Beowulf, in Old English.  Along with his Anglo Saxon harp, he created a piece of art.  When I first listened to the man sing I was very surprised, it sounded nothing like English!  Instead Old English sounded more like Swedish or even German, that is because English originates from the same area. The original speakers of Old English were the Anglo Saxons. I would like to thank my Mom and Dad for introducing me to the world of Beowulf.  I would give the film 5 stars for its wonderful way of telling a story in song.

Ava says: I thought the movie we watched was very cool.  The old English words were amazing because  the words were so different from our modern English. My favorite part was the music with the words.  Benjamin Bagby played the anglo-saxon harp while reciting the poem of Beowulf in old English.  We had read a translation of the poem before we watched the film.  The book was awesome.  It had everything I like. It had danger and was happy and sad. The part I like that was dangerous for Beowulf was when he was fighting Grendel’s mother in her cave under the water of the lake.  It was happy when Beowulf killed Grendel and it was sad when Beowulf dies fighting the dragon in the end.  My favorite character was of course Beowulf.  Did you know that there are three stages of the English language?  There is old English, middle English and there is modern English.  Today we speak modern English.  I would rate the movie 4 1/2 stars. I would recommend this to everyone.

Payton says: “I loved the movie Beowulf. Mr. Bagby did an excellent job reciting the poem. I felt as if I were in Heirot listening to an eleventh century scop. He told the story very actively, using hand gestures, change of voice tone and facial gestures to let you know the feeling of the moment. The story of Beowulf was originally written in old English. When I listened to Mr. Bagby sing the book in old English, I was amazed. The fact that Old English sounds so different from, yet so similar to, Modern English blows my mind. I could hear a few words that sounded like their Modern English equivalent, which was very cool. I felt as if I was going back in time. at the end, I found myself wishing I could understand this fascinating language.  The poem was very enjoyable as well.  I liked the adventurous parts, and the fantastical parts of the poem, such as when Beowulf fights the dragon to  stop it from killing his people. I also liked when Beowulf fought the tyrannical monster Grendal. I feel the writing was very descriptive. It described, very well, the horrid look of the monster Grendal, and his awful mother. I would recommend the movie and the poem to friends and family of all ages. In my opinion both the movie and the poem were excellent. I would give them 5 stars.”

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