A great tale of yore
Annual Beowulf Marathon celebrates a milestone

By Fernando Quintero and Diane Ainsworth


manuscript page

08 May 2002 |

Some strange-sounding medieval oratory will emanate from the English department lounge Friday evening. In modern vernacular, as translated by Burton Raffel, it goes like this:

Bring me ancient silver, precious
Jewels, shining armor and gems,
Before I die. Death will be softer,
Leaving life and this people I’ve ruled
So long, if I look at this last of all prizes.

Literary aficionados will intone these lines around midnight, May 10 — four- and-a-half hours into the reading of the epic tale of Beowulf. After one reader reenacts the Scandinavian warrior’s dying words, the next will continue the saga:

And then Wiglaf was left, a young warrior
Sadly watching his beloved king,
Seeing him stretched on the ground, left guarding
A torn and bloody corpse. But Beowulf’s
Killer was dead, too, the coiled
Dragon, cut in half, cold
And motionless.

Fear not. By midnight — as Berkeley’s quirky Beowulf Marathon comes to a close — the grotesque flying, fire-breathing dragon, Grendel, will be dead and the young warrior, Wiglaf, will have inherited the throne.

Golden anniversary
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the marathon — as far as anyone can tell, that is. Friday’s “stop-by-anytime” affair begins at 6:15 p.m. in 370 Dwinelle Hall. The public is invited, and a growing number of non-academicians have been gathering with Berkeley faculty, students and staff in recent years to join in this Old English reading of an ancient fable.

Although nobody can definitively trace the Beowulf Marathon’s history, coordinator Patrick Schwieterman and Beowulf scholar John Niles agree that the custom probably began in 1952.

“Local legend holds that a group of students first came together to read Beowulf aloud in the original language some time in 1952,” says Schwieterman, adding that “the history of the event in the ’50s and ’60s is murky.”

Beowulf describes the adventures of a great and ancient Scandinavian warrior. Scholars of the epic, the first great English literary work, are in awe of the masterpiece. Its 3,182 lines, written in Old English, are known from a single 11th century manuscript, which fell into oblivion for nearly 700 years. In the early 18th century it was rediscovered,and fortunately it was transcribed before being badly damaged by fire in 1731.

Housed today in the British Library, the originally scribed manuscript continues to stir scholarly debate about its creation, date and provenance.

“Beowulf is a person otherwise unknown outside of this one remarkable poem,” says Niles. The Old English prose reflects the “language, history, culture and mentality of ourselves in earlier stages of our existence,” he says, “and earlier stages of the English language.”

Diverse fans
Marathon participants are not just the usual suspects.

“One would expectedly see graduate students and faculty who specialize in Medieval literature, but the marathon also draws people from all over campus and beyond,” said Schwieterman, a graduate student in English who’s involved in organizing the event. “Last year, we had professors from engineering and natural resources, an undergraduate from theater arts, people from Stanford, San Francisco State and Davis.”

Interest may have been spurred, in part, by the popularity of — and controversy concerning — a modern English translation of Beowulf published in 1999 by Irish poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

And then too, as movie director George Lucas of Star Wars fame could attest, there’s appeal in a fable about dragon slayers and heroes with superhuman strength and spiritual powers. “Beowulf is one of those lusty, old classics of the English literary canon,” Schwieterman says.

The marathon attracts die-hards, adds Niles, who one year suggested that the group recite another epic poem — and was met with “passionate rebellion.”

By the 1970s, reading Beowulf at the beginning of May, as a rite of spring, had become tradition. It takes up to five hours for participants, huddled in a circle, to take turns reading the poem to its end. This year’s event is the centerpiece of a conference co-sponsored by the Old and Middle English Colloquium and the Graduate Medievalists at Berkeley. (See for conference details.)

“Greenhorns read it out loud. They just use interesting pronunciations,” Schwieterman says. “Old hands are always willing to give crash courses in Old English pronunciation to those brave souls who want to try reading without any prior instruction…. Inclusivity has always been part of the marathon.”

Beowulf buffs enjoy the sound of Old English, says Niles. “They know how reading Beowulf aloud enhances the experience.”

Graduate student Arthur Bahr, a repeat participant, agrees. “To me, the sound of it is very beautiful. The words have harsh contours, guttural sounds. It has a lilting, musical quality and yet there is a certain fierceness to it.”


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