A skop sang about a quarter of Beowulf in the Great Hall last night, to a six-stringed lyre. The hall was packed with curious people of all ages, old, young, and holding up children to see. The flickering red light produced the bard's shadow on the wall, and made the dark outside seem darker, the dark inside seem more comfortable. The skop had come from a faraway place and had been trained by the best musical teachers. He was worth traveling great distances to hear, and some of the people had. His Beowulf was kingly and proud; his Hrothgar old, yet still hearty; his drunken Ulfarth a hilarious caricature. His Grendel was terrifying. The hall was a fit match for the Great Hall of Heorot, and everyone could see the monster's arm stretching from doorpost to roofbeam, amid the gleam of gold and the precious ornaments. Everyone could imagine that the beast that walks by night might still be angry at humans who dared to use a hall this splendid after sunset. But the skop's voice rang trumpets, calling on the power of the warriors of the Geats and the power of their God, and, in the end, good triumphed at last.
This event took place last evening, April 8th, 2002, in the Great Hall of my college; the bard was Benjamin Bagby, one of the most renowned scholars of medieval music, performing in Old English with computerized supertitles before an audience of students, professors, and local theatergoers. The event would have worked as well without the supertitles, as even though the language was incomprehensible, the delivery was so beautiful that the exact plot of the poem could be followed without any knowledge of Old English. The performer spoke no modern English during his entire seventy-five minutes on stage, pausing only to tune his harp. He will, with any luck, be releasing on DVD soon the entirety of Beowulf, all seven hours, and, if we are luckier yet, he will be filming the DVD in our Great Hall, since it was such a perfect setting.
The fact that this event was such a special occurrence, that the real recitation of epic poety has become so uncommon in this day and age that people who were not present at or aware of this particular evening might think my first paragraph was a fictional description of a long-ago setting, saddens me desperately. We tell stories to each other, but stories that we make up as we go along, or others' stories with our own spin on them, no two words the same way twice. This might be poetry, but poetry extempore, ignoring the fact that the written poem cannot produce the sound of the word, and that the poet was thinking of the sound of the word. Poems confined to books are not living up to their potential, and although there are audiobooks and cassettes available of the most famous epics and translations, long works composed after the advent of writing have been relegated to being read silently, or being read aloud by the reader to herself, or being read to audiences by untrained readers who do not know how best to speak the lines and how to perform with language. When was the last time someone sang you the Chanson de Roland, or the Lais of Marie de France, even though 'song' is in the title of both works? Those were still works meant to be sung-- when was the last time you heard someone recite the Eddas (which Benjamin Bagby says he's going to learn next, hurrah), or the Canterbury Tales? What new life might be given to the works far too many now consider hoary old classics, written down by poets long dead and now confined to libraries? When was the last time that somebody sang you Paradise Lost?
I'm not saying anything here that hasn't been said many times, except perhaps as a statement of intent. The human memory is far more capable than anyone today believes it could be; consult your Giordano Bruno for techniques which still work and which, when highly developed, can store entire texts verbatim without requiring the Truffaut-esque wandering about reciting all the time. Find something you love. Memorize it. Tell it to people. I'm going to, as soon as I decide what I love the most in poetry-- and I'll get back to you in a couple years.
Angst Ratio: zero. Life good. Purr.