For twelve years, an ogre named Grendel has been terrorizing Hrothgar the King, killing his men, and disturbing his parties. One day, a visiting warrior named Beowulf brings fourteen of his men to help confront the beast. Grendel, mortally wounded, flees and dies in his home in the bog. Beowulf and Hrothgar celebrate with a party. Grendel’s mother, upset that her son has been murdered, attacks and kills some more of the King’s men. Beowulf seeks her out and beheads her. They throw a party. Beowulf goes home, becomes king of his own people, and is eventually killed by a dragon. …Beowulf.
Danish storytellers Jesper la Cour Andersen and Troels Kirk Ejsing will be in town for the fourth annual St. John’s Storytelling Festival to tell the story of Beowulf much better than we did above. Using nothing more than a watering can, their voices, seven years of experience performing the story, a few (maybe) pieces of costume, and the audience’s imagination, they will bring the story to life.
They will be here just before a computer-animated version of Beowulf will be hitting screens across North America.
Elling Lien got the chance to chat with Andersen on the phone about Beowulf, authenticity, and how storytelling fits in the modern world.
Beowulf is known as the oldest surviving piece of literature in English, is that right?
Yes. The original text was made in the 9th Century, and then the old copy they have in the British Library is from the 11th Century. And that’s the oldest surviving one. I went there to see it this summer—but it wasn’t there! It was the week where they repair it every year. [laugh]
That’s really unlucky for someone whose spent a lot of time working on telling this story. How long have you been telling it exactly?
How did it all start for you?
It started in 1993, when I heard it for the first time. It was told to me, and, somehow, that is important. It came into my ears, and I imagined everything as this amazing storyteller told it to me. I think passing the story from mouth to ear gives the story a life.
When I say I’ve been telling the story for seven years, it’s because I told the story first time in the sacrificial bog here in Denmark [near a town called Lejre], where Grendel lived. It is a real place, and 300 meters from there, they found the old holes from King Hrothgar’s hall, where the poles with the heads on them were supposed to be.
The first time you visited the sacrificial bog, had you heard the story?
What was it like to visit there for the first time?
It’s a very intense place. It’s part of an archeological center where they experiment with old ways of working with stones, blacksmithing and architecture.
They also study how they made sacrifices and offerings at that time. They filled the whole bog with offerings—two huge horse hides on poles, with their heads still on and their tongues hanging. It’s quite spooky to imagine.
Beowulf is not necessarily a kids’ story…
No. But we have made it into a kids’ story. In that way our version of Beowulf is Beowulf Lite. We want children to experience this story together with their parents.
How much does it follow the text?
We use our freedom. We don’t want to make fun of the characters but we are having fun telling the story. It’s a delicate balance.
You know there is a Beowulf movie opening up in the next little while… On the 15th…
How do two people and a watering can compete against millions of dollars from Hollywood on a huge screen?
We don’t. We’re not going to compete. We just tell our stories and see what happens. I haven’t seen the film yet so I don’t know what we’re up against. But we are up against the television all of the time, against movies, computer, Playstation. These things are part of our lives.
But I would like to see the movie.
So how does oral storytelling fit into today’s world?
I think storytelling gives us something authentic. An authentic experience that movies and computers cannot give us.
What do you mean?
It’s very difficult to smell a film, you know? But it’s actually possible to smell the storyteller. The feeling of being together with people is something completely different than looking at a cold, two-dimensional screen.
In the new movie, everything is computer animated, which, again, makes it interesting to compare to storytelling—there’s another layer of separation from the person in the audience.
I don’t think human beings can ever, ever replace being together.
Listening to a good story from a storyteller, you can suddenly forget about time. Afterwards you think ‘What happened?’
I had this amazing experience of seeing things that weren’t there. That’s common for a lot of people listening to story telling.
In film, they are trying to show you reality. Not in all movies, but many movies.
When [we tell the story of Beowulf] we keep a strong contact with the audience, we interact with the audience. It’s best when it’s a surprise because then people aren’t getting prepared or thinking beforehand whether they want to be part of it or not. We’re not forcing anyone to be part of it but we ask people certain things—do they want a drink? Do they want to go party with us? Sometimes we ask people what a character should do in the story, where to go, or where to get help.
What happens depends on the audience, how they’re feeling. I think it will be mostly adults at the Storytelling Festival, but we go into schools as well.
At some schools kids are told “this is theatre. Don’t say anything or we’ll kill you afterwards.” And when we talk to them, they just sit there looking at their teacher. It’s so obvious they would like to be part of it but they can’t.
With adults—some adults want to play, but a lot of adults don’t. They just want to look. They feel shy and embarrassed. But we’re not forcing anyone to do things they don’t want to do.
Why do you want audience participation?
It’s important for our way of telling the story. And also because we can do some things that are not possible on film, or with a computer, or anything else. It always turns out to be a unique situation. What happens when we tell a story has never happened before and it will never happen again. Sometimes people realize this and they take that chance and go with the story to another level.
How often do people get engaged like that?
Very often. We just told this story in Dublin, Ireland at Trinity College for some students and their teachers. At one part, I asked an old lady sitting on a chair if she knew whether the beach guard had come here, because he hadn’t arrived.
And then I asked her, “Is it you?”
“Yes,” she said.
“Really? Where’s your horse then?”
“Umm… It lost a shoe. It’s up there.”
Then she said, “who are you?”
And then we began to discuss the situation. Afterwards I was told she was one of the professors. Situations like that are so fantastic.
As a human being, sometimes if there are too many people I feel less human. If I’m talked to like one of a thousand, it’s not really meant for me… We want to keep intimacy in the storytelling.
Will there be any costume involved when you tell the story?
We’ll have leather trousers on.
Can you tell me a bit about the Telling Theatre?
Beowulf is one of the six performances that we’re touring in Denmark. This year we had a ten year anniversary and we found out we’d played more than a thousand performances in ten years for more than a hundred thousand children and adults.
And each performance was different.
In a way, yes. It’s the nature of theatre that it’s never the same. For me it’s not a big deal that it’s always different—that’s natural. You and me, we’re not the same people as we were yesterday.
Last year we got the children’s theatre award in Denmark which felt very good. It’s a big thing in Denmark. We have a lot of children’s theatre and at a high level. There is a lot of official support for that area. About 25% of the budget for theatre is used for children’s theatre. So there is a political will about children’s arts in Denmark which is quite amazing and unique.
How do you tell a story differently when you are telling it to children?
They are less experienced people…On some levels they have all the experience they need, but on other levels they don’t know how the world works. We have to be careful with what experiences I choose to perform with children. Childrens’ imaginations are open. With adults it’s very common that the imagination is more closed. When working with adults I have to open up their imagination—to allow them to imagine.
How do you go about doing that? That’s a magic skill.
It takes a lot of experience and a lot of rehearsal. You have to ease people slowly into it.
How, with Beowulf, for example…
My attitude is less comic when I perform for adults. With children I can go straight into it, no problem. But adults will think I’m being too weird or crazy. In a way, I have to choose what impression they get of me from the beginning.
I have to lead them into it.
In that way I often feel a storyteller is a guide for the audience’s imagination. When you look at it that way, it’s actually not that complicated.
Troels uses a household watering can as a horn instrument… How did that come about?
It happened because we wanted to make a contribution to the story that was every day. It shouldn’t be like “Okay, here comes a musician who spent ten years working on how to play his fiddle.” And obviously this very, very clever musician being clever.
Troels is very clever. He’s more than clever, but the first impression is it’s weird. He’s playing a watering can? Come on.
Somehow it helps take some of the pressure out of the story—because the story is quite heavy.
It’s a very violent story.
Yes, that too. It’s very violent. But violence is a part of our life. We see it lots of times. There is nothing new about that. But we’re not trying to make violence. The point of the story is also peace.
You can hear Beowulf by Denmark’s Telling Theatre on Saturday November 10th at 10am at the Masonic Temple. It’s a family show, and it’s free.
Another showing will take place later that evening as part of the Saturday night concert at the Masonic. Starts at 8pm. Tickets are $10.
Page one of the oldest surviving copy of Beowulf.