By André Bastos Gurgel, OAB
Epic poetry is a common genre among most major ancient civilizations. Romans, Ancient Greeks, and Hindus, among others, have produced great poetry that has fascinated mankind down through the centuries. Still, to a modern audience this type of poetry may seem passé and even a bit dull. But why is this? I contend that the primary issue is the lack of scholars and performers nowadays reading epic poetry the way it’s supposed to be read. I’ve seen a number of performers recite epic poetry but I’ve only seen one who truly brought an epic poem to life—the scholar Benjamin Bagby, with his his amazing rendering of the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf!
Who is Benjamin Bagby?
Benjamin Bagby is an American singer, composer, harpist and performer of medieval music. His greatest achievement is a 90-minute-long dramatic reading of Beowulf accompanied by Anglo-Saxon harp. Bagby also founded the ensemble Sequentia, which takes an innovative approach to medieval repertoires.
Bagby has also performed the Icelandic “Edda” and German music from the 10th and 11th centuries. The latter is available on a recent album titled “Lost Songs of a Rhineland Harper”.
Why is Bagby the Best?
In my opinion, Bagby is the only living scholar who has understands how to render an epic poem. Back in the times of Homer and Vergil, epic poetry was anything but boring. Bards would recite while playing musical instruments (often a harp), portraying the distinct voices of all the characters, and interacting with the audience. This is precisely what Bagby does in his performances. I have listened to recordings by a number of people who don’t seem to care about what’s actually going on in the story. Their voice intonation remains pretty much the same whether they are describing a battle or telling a
funny anecdote. I was told by my Ancient Greek tutor that all his college professors used to think epic poetry should be read like this. No wonder young people think the Iliad is boring!
When you read epic poetry, you are no longer merely a reader. You are an actor, and you have an obligation to entertain the audience. You should investigate each character, understand the story as if it were unfolding before you, then and there, and contemplate the author’s intentions behind each passage. Click on the link at the end of this blogpost for an example of Benjamin Bagby’s impressive performance technique.
I hope more people will develop an interest in Bagby’s amazing performance of Beowulf and learn from his example. This is the best way to recite not only Old English poetry but epic poetry in all classical and modern languages. Believe me, at the end of the performance, you’ill feel like buying your own Anglo-Saxon harp!
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
André Bastos Gurgel, OAB (Order of Attorneys of Brazil), Academic Advisor for the Carmenta Online Latin School, is a life-long student of both modern and ancient languages. Mr. Gurgel is fluent in English, Portuguese, Mandarin, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Latin (the last of which he learned with Carmenta) and has a working knowledge of Danish, Hebrew, Ancient Greek, and Sanskrit. Mr. Gurgel is currently studying Old English through Carmenta as well.
Click here to read Mr. Gurgel’s full profile.