15 March 2012

Who Best to Read out Beowulf?

Latter-day scops (poets and singers) still tell Beowulf aloud, both in the Old English and the new. Among those who use the Old, Benjamin Bagby is unique. He has memorized sections of the poem and performs them in a mixture of dramatic story-telling and song. He accompanies himself on a reproduction of an Anglo-Saxon harp. I cannot say if his style is the same as the old scops', but it is the best effort that has been made, and is thrilling in its own right. Here are are links to two short samples: the opening lines and Grendel's ambush.

Anyone interested in Beowulf should consider getting the dvd of Bagby's full performance.

A free recording of the Gummere translation, read by Kara Schallenberg, was released as part of the Librivox project. However, when I imagine my translation being read aloud, I hear a different type of voice speaking it.
First, it is a man's voice. With no disrespect meant to Ms. Schallenberg, Beowulf is a story by, for, and about men. If a woman was given Queen Wealhtheow's lines to speak, which are almost the only lines attributed to a woman, then she would have only thirty-five lines out of more than three thousand.

Next, it should be a slow, deliberate voice that gives appropriate weight to the alliteration and action, and a deeper voice would be better than a higher one.

Finally, I must admit that I hear it in my head spoken with a West Country accent...one from the counties to the west and South of London: Wiltshire, Somerset, Avon, Devon and the like. If you are not familiar with this manner of speech, think of pirates talking, or Sam Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings movies, or Hagrid in the Harry Potter movies. In fact, Robbie Coltrane, the actor who plays Hagrid, would do a fine job, Scot though he is.

However, the best voice I've heard for the reading of Beowulf, even though I do not believe he has ever done it, belongs to a Yorkshire-born actor, Jim Carter, who played Lord Faa of the Gyptian folk in the film The Golden Compass. These lines of his could be considered an audition for the job of reading Beowulf
When the time comes to punish, we shall strike such a blow as'll make their hearts faint and fearful. We shall strike the strength out of 'em. We shall leave them ruined and wasted, broken and shattered, torn in a thousand pieces and scattered to the four winds.
Now that's an alliteration-heavy formal boast very close in spirit and style to Beowulf's own, and Carter delivers it perfectly.

One reason that I imagine Beowulf read in a West Country accent is that I was born in that part of England and would probably have that accent myself, if my family had not emigrated. A better reason is that this accent is the most direct descendant of the Old English language that Beowulf was written in.

Wikipedia puts it this way: "The West Country dialects derive not from a corrupted form of modern English, but reflect the historical origins of the English Language and its historical pronunciation, in particular Late West Saxon, which formed the earliest English language standard, from the time of King Alfred until the late 11th century.")

To get an idea of its sound, listen to this Wiltshireman, Phil Harding, being interviewed. 

Another accent that would sound "right" to me, though, is Yorkshire's. After all, it descends from Viking language, spoken by invading Danes, and much of Beowulf is the about those Danes. Here's what it sounds like, unadulterated, and here's Jim Carter himself in an interview.


Late breaking. I'd wanted to include a clip of Jim Carter saying his little speech of vengeance, but can't find one on-line. This one, however, does include him in character as Lord Faa.

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