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Oral Fixation

A performance of Beowulf in Case Western's Harkness Chapel


Before Europe evolved into sovereign domains, tribal societies were the norm, and word of mouth transmitted their histories from one generation to another. A peek at the family tree of an Anglo-American might reveal Uncle Moletar getting lit and telling the same old story about the dragon he smote, or perhaps listening, enthralled, to the sounds of a bardic storyteller strumming a lyre and recounting an epic poem.

In the latter fashion, Benjamin Bagby -- a vocalist, harpist, and scholar of medieval musical performance -- will be presenting Beowulf in Case Western's Harkness Chapel this week. Bagby will recreate the first part of the sixth-century Anglo-Saxon poem about Beowulf, a prince of the Geats.

"It's not only the most famous part, it's the best of three fight scenes," explains Bagby. "[Beowulf] fights the monster named Grendel, who's terrorizing the Danes at night, making off with warriors and eating them. At one point, Beowulf holds onto his arm so tightly that the monster has to leave it behind."

The 75-minute performance will be in the original Old English, so you might want to brush up on the text, says the bard. But listening and remembering -- not reading -- is a big part of the process.

"In Western culture, before literacy became widespread, people related to stories and history by listening," says Bagby. "They had much more acute and powerful memories than we do today. Our memory is pathetic, by medieval standards."

Bagby will be accompanying himself with a six-stringed lyre, as was common in the seventh century. The instrument is just one example of the Anglo-Saxon culture that extends the epic poem beyond the written word.

"If people are interested in finding out about white, European American tribal history of a very deep past, it's something quite unique to experience," Bagby states.

Unless you're used to seeing a man tear the arm off a huge marsh creature with his bare hands.

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