On Saturday went to see a fantastic version of Beowulf, performed by master storyteller Hugh Lupton and percussionist Rick Wilson, at France Lynch Church Rooms – just along the road from me. I had originally seen an earlier version of this at Beyond the Border about a decade ago, but it was good to see it again – reminding me of the power of great storytelling, and the consummate skill of Mr Lupton, who is quite possibly Britain’s greatest living storyteller (and certainly one of the busiest).
The hall was full when we arrived, having negotiated the Grendels of traffic and the lonely fens of dark country lanes. Catching our breath, we found seats and settled down. My partner and I were soon enthralled by Lupton and Wilson, who took us effortlessly to Heorot.
Hugh’s style is very poetic – he’s a brilliant wordsmith – and in this show, he emphasized that approach, to echo the original (written) text by the anonymous Saxon poet. Yet his style is never inauthentic or overly ‘stagey’. The focus is on the story, not the storyteller. We see through him to the tale – while at the same time being aware that all this (meadhall, hero, monsters, treasure, warriors, longship, weather) is being conjured up by his voice (and the sensitive percussive skill of Wilson – who eerily evoked the spirit of Grendel with nothing more than breath and cymbal). In Lupton’s gramarye we see the craft of the Scop, rippling down the ages. The ancestors, the ghosts of tellers, stand in ranks behind him, and the audience before – and he mediates between the two. Time stands still and the seen and unseen worlds interlock.
After the break, when I had a chance to chat with the performers – who did not seem out-of-breath or in need of a reviving cuppa – Wilson drummed us back with an impressive djembe solo; before Lupton tried a few riddles out on us, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition. Then they delivered the final act of the story – set fifty years hence – when the ageing Beowulf encounters the wyrm, the fire-drake, the third and nastiest monster. This provided a rousing finale and a poignant reflection on mortality, and the transitory nature of wealth, fame, and power.
I was perhaps even more engaged – in experiencing this performance of Beowulf – than previously, having recently completed my book, Desiring Dragons: creativity, imagination and the writer’s quest (published by Compass Books) – in which I use the story of Beowulf as a metaphor for the creative process. It is due out on May 30th, when I’ll be launching it at the Stroud Story Supper, with an evening of ‘scaly tales, serpentine poems, and wyrm-songs’. Having told the story of Beowulf myself (back in 2000) both ‘straight’ and as a cyber-punk poem, (Bio*Wolf, 1999) and then deconstructing it for pedagogical benefit in my new book, I know the tale warrants revisiting and yields more treasure each time. Truly, it is an immortal classic. The Seamus Heaney translation is perhaps the best on the page (and his Radio 4 broadcast of it was spine-tingling); but Lupton’s storytelling treatment of it is the finest one on the circuit – catch it if you can.
- Author of The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien, talked of ‘desiring dragons’; that he would prefer ‘a wilderness of dragons’ to the bleak territory of the unimaginative critic. The genre of Fantasy (including Science Fiction and its various sub-genres in TV, film & computer games) has never been more popular. This book seeks to examine why this might be and why so many are tempted to write Fantasy fiction. Tolkien suggested how ‘consolation’ is an important criteria of the Fairy Tale: we look at how writing Fantasy can be consoling in itself, as well as a portal to Fantastic Realms for the reader. Along the way famous dragons of myth, legend and fiction will be encountered – from Grendel to Smaug. The riddles of dragons will be tackled and their hoard unlocked.
Because Kevan Manwaring is a writer who loves and has travelled widely in the realms of fantasy fiction, his book is a trustworthy guide to the challenges, opportunities and enchantments that an adventurous imagination can discover there. ~ Lindsay Clarke, Whitbread-prize winning novelist (The Chymical Wedding, The Water Theatre, and others)