In Days Gone By: Ruminations on Reading Beowulf Aloud

dylyn-petersonBY DYLYN PETERSON
Staff Writer, UAS Whalesong

So. I arrived a few minutes late to find that the door to Egan 115, the posted locale, was locked. Luckily, including me, six out of the seven who’d participate in our reading of Beowulf were already there, discussing the sadly many cinematic disasters Beowulf has found himself the subject of. If you’re unaware, he’s been subject to one of the biggest financial failures in film history (The 13th Warrior), two equally insane science fiction adaptations (the 1999 simply-titled Beowulf, and the 2008 film Outlander, where I guess he’s an alien?), and a Sci-Fi Original Film called Grendel, which…exists. I’m still fond of the 2007 version, myself, but that’s just because I’ve got a soft spot for its screenwriter, Neil Gaiman. Too bad about Angelina Jolie’s golden butt.

Eventually, we decided to try out the Writing Center, which, with its many tables, comfortable couches, and great acoustics, was a great place to read. The snacks were laid out (I tried Boy Scouts popcorn for the first time; it’s pretty good), the seats were adjusted, and those of us with them compared our copies. The side-by-side is the coolest, but most of us just had our Norton Anthologies. About half of the people in attendance were in Brit Lit I at the time (myself included), which this event is roughly related to, so the story was still pretty fresh in our minds.

We were gifted with a number of excellent orators; I was the weakest. Most of us, though, delivered our lines with the sort of gusto that makes one believe that the speaker has killed nine sea-beasts over the course of a week-long swimming contest. We went around the table about three times. The first time, each of us read for two-hundred or so lines, but each person (myself excluded) read noticeably longer than the last. I was lucky enough to read the entirety of Beowulf’s battle against Grendel’s mother, which meant I got to deliver the unforgettable line, “sharp-honed, wave-sheened wonder-blade,” which put everyone in hysterics, especially those of us who remember that Beowulf has terrible luck with swords. I guess he does have the strength of thirty men in each of his hands, though. As good as we all were (our editor Daniel certainly stuck out in my mind), we were outclassed entirely by Nina Chordas, who could probably record an audiobook of Beowulf in one take. She provided explanations, which were needed, since Beowulf will often introduce somebody a good two hundred lines before naming them, and trivia. Altogether, the reading lasted about three hours.

In terms of comprehension, Beowulf works vastly better spoken aloud than read to oneself. There are lots of structural elements (most noticeably, every fight scene is almost immediately followed up with a recap of the fight scene we just read) that only make sense aloud, and the poetic elements (it’s alliterative verse) become more overt. It’d probably work even better if we were reading one section a day for about a week, as it was told in days gone by, than in one big chunk, but ain’t nobody got time fo dat. It’s a lot easier to concentrate, too, because the long speeches become easier to manage when a speaker is doing a different voice for characters and narration. The only problem was that none of us were particularly good with names, because how do you pronounce Hnaef, or Ecglaf?

The most interesting part of Beowulf’s spoken presence, though, was that after about thirty minutes, everybody read with the same kind of narrative voice. We put emphasis in the same places, we kept to mostly the same tone, we even built up our own stable of jokes (“Hrrmmfurrb, son of Kffrhrbin…”). And, as I said, every time we read, we read for longer stretches, as the text seemed to be vaguely addictive. It’s fun to read.

The only thing that bothered me was that, between reading out loud for ten-to-fifteen minutes at a time, and the slew of hard consonants, Beowulf will do more to the voice than the titular hero did to Grendel’s arm. About halfway through, I rummaged through the Writing Center’s tea supply; luckily, I found a nice green tea with mint, for which I thanked the Old Gods and the New. Otherwise, I’d’ve probably bowed out faster than Beowulf’s wonder-blade (“CURSE YOU, UNFERTH!!”).

It was a little strange leaving once it was over. Beowulf is an immersive story, even with strange moments like Beowulf randomly killing a sea-dragon on the way to fight Grendel’s mom (although our collective head-canon is that that’s Grendel’s dad, because otherwise Beowulf is just a crazed serial killer). It made me think about doing something similar in my free time with The Epic of Gilgamesh.

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