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Berkeley celebrates 50th anniversary of ‘Beowulf’ marathon

By Michelle Locke, The Associated Press
Friday May 10, 2002

BERKELEY — It’s an event that may have “the cool of scratched LPs, plaid polyester pants or schnauzer-shaped salt and pepper shakers,” frets organizer Pat Schwieterman. 

Still, the read-aloud “Beowulf” marathon is an epic gathering, especially this year as it celebrates its 50th anniversary, more or less (hey, things got a little fuzzy in the ’60s), at the University of California, Berkeley. 

“Part of what’s so entertaining about the ’Beowulf’ marathon is exactly the fact that there’s nothing traditionally entertaining about it — just a bunch of people reading in a language none of them can really understand ... for hours,” says Schwieterman, a graduate student in English. 

First, a primer for those who don’t have “The Medievalist’s Handbook” on their night stands. 

“Beowulf” is the first known major poem written in a European vernacular language, Old English to be precise. It was spoken long before that, so it’s not clear exactly when it was composed. The only known manuscript is a 1,000-year-old battered relic at the British Library that was licked by the flames of a 1731 fire. 

The story follows the adventures of Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero who saves the Danes from a man-eating monster named Grendel and from Grendel’s even more unpleasant mother. The warrior becomes a leader and then, at the end of his life, musters his strength for one last stand against a fierce, gold-guarding dragon. His allies turn tail, save for Wiglaf, the valiant youngster who helps Beowulf win his last battle. 

“It’s a poem about heroism that takes the hero seriously but also it’s not ironic, which is such a relief in the 21st century,” says Michael Drout, a “Beowulf” fan and assistant professor of English at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. 

Drout, partly inspired by the Berkeley event, helped organize a read-aloud “Beowulf” event at the International Congress on Medieval Studies held at Western Michigan University this month. Drout wasn’t too sure what reception he would get but found himself “absolutely swamped with e-mail.” 

The No. 1 query: “Can I bring mead?” 

“It’s a stereotype, but an accurate stereotype of the Anglo-Saxonist,” Drout says cheerfully. 

Schwieterman, who doesn’t drink, will admit to no more than a “certain conviviality” at the Berkeley event. 

These “Beowulf” readings can get rather loopy. 

One professor who “was apparently quite a ham,” would act out portions of the story as the reading progressed, complete with props. “He would have little packets of ketchup ready that he would pop at the right moment when someone had just taken an ax blow and just fall flat to the floor.” 

Melodrama can be tricky, though, especially for those with an imperfect grasp of Old English. 

A few years ago, a participant who read with more style than comprehension thought he was reading Beowulf’s big moment, “so he delivered it in this booming, stentorian voice. After, everyone was chuckling and it was, ’What? What?”’ 

The poor fellow had been reading the part of the Danish queen. 

Chuckles are allowed at the marathon; smirks are frowned on. “I won’t say that nobody has ever smirked but it’s certainly not encouraged,” says Schwieterman. “The marathon is a thoroughly democratic event.” 

Some marathons have crossed over to anarchy. 

One year, the event fell on May 5 — the Mexican holiday of Cinco de Mayo — so in recognition, organizers started the reading in Spanish. 

“Then other people insisted on reading in French and Italian and German languages. So we had the famous multilingual ’Beowulf’ that year. After a few hundred lines, all but one stubborn participant settled down and read the Old English. One person persisted in reading in French ’til the end.” 

This year’s event starts Friday at 6:30 p.m., and is expected to take the usual four hours. 

It’s the 50th anniversary, based on accounts of a 1952 event, but it may not be the 50th marathon — it has been said that anyone who remembers the 1960s wasn’t there and that appears to be true for “Beowulf” marathon history. No one seems to know much about whether the marathon was a regular event during the 1960s, a time when students were campaigning for Free Speech and against the Vietnam War in thoroughly modern English. 

Schwieterman is hanging his hat on the 1952 event. Beyond that, he says, “I don’t know and I don’t care.” 

Attendance has swelled in recent years, particularly after a recent translation by Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney cracked the best-seller lists. 

In the mid-1990s, as few as five people showed up. Last year, there were close to 50. This year, Schwieterman is thinking about rationing the poem’s 3,182 lines; the usual system is to have people sit in a circle and read until they get tired. 

The secret to the poem’s appeal is that “frankly, it’s a masterpiece of literature,” says Schwieterman. “It really is brilliant. There’s a musicality to the language, a vigor in the alliterative lines that you just don’t have in modern English language poetry. That’s one of the things that reading the poem out loud brings out — this rugged music the poem has.” 

Beautiful, but strange.