Listen! Ancient Stories and Modern Hearers


It’s almost impossible not to sit up and pay attention when that word is shouted, spoken, or even whispered. It reminds us that what is coming is important, and worth heeding.

The great epic poem Beowulf begins with that phrase: “Listen!” While obviously a call to attention, to alert the listeners to the import of the story, it is also an inescapable part of the storytelling. The fact that we read Beowulf is a bit odd—the story is part of an oral tradition, meant to be sung to an audience, not read in solitude.

For many years, I did not understand why Beowulf was considered to be such a great work of art. The story seemed archetypal but not unusual, the characters difficult to relate to, and poetry in translation never holds the appeal of the original. Part of the difficulty, of course, is the fact that Beowulf was never intended to be read at all: it is part of an oral tradition, meant to be performed by a skilled bard for an audience accustomed to listening to a single performance for hours at a time.

But then a friend mentioned a DVD he’d seen in a catalog: Beowulf, performed in Anglo-Saxon. Curious, I ordered the DVD; when it arrived, I sat down to watch, intending to get some work done in the meantime. What followed was unlike anything I’d ever seen before. Benjamin Bagby, founder of the medieval music group Sequentia, sat on a bare stage, and sang the first part of the Beowulf story in Anglo-Saxon, accompanying himself on a reconstructed Anglo-Saxon harp. Over the next hour and a half, the story of Grendel’s attacks unfolded, culminating with the coming of Beowulf and the defeat of the monster. I hadn’t gotten any work done–instead, I was perched on the edge of my seat, hanging on every word of the performance. Reading Beowulf had stirred nothing in me: hearing it set my mind and heart on fire.


How important is it to hear a work like Beowulf or the Odyssey? It’s true that adding sensory perception makes any experience more memorable, and music has long been known to aid in memory and recitation. But perhaps it’s more than that. When one reads, it is usually a solitary pursuit. We often speak of “getting lost in a good book.” But some works were not meant to work that way. In the oral traditions, it is impossible to have a solitary experience of the story. There must always be a storyteller, and there must always be someone to hear the story. There must always be a community.

Shared experience of a story not only requires a community, but creates and strengthens  community as well. Many students of the Torrey Honors Instutite have had the opportunity to attend the beloved Homerathon, when a group gathers to read aloud through the majority of the Iliad and Odyssey over the course of a day and night. It’s not just that great discussions can arise in such a setting, valuable though these may be. It is the participation in a story; shared stories not only give us shared experience, but they tell us who we are, and what is expected of us. The best stories, when shared with a receptive community, can change the world.

In today’s world, we have unprecedented access to written versions of tales constructed in an oral tradition, and this is certainly a good thing: better to read such a work than never experience it at all. But something is still lost.

Don’t just read Beowulf, or the Iliad. Gather a group, and read it aloud together. Enter into the story.


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  • Jenny

    Wow! What a fantastic resource. Thanks for posting about it.

  • Joi Weaver

    I cannot say enough good things about the Bagby dvd and the Chaucer Studios recordings (the second link in the post). Both are completely wonderful! If you end up using either, please let me know what you think!