Literary Lunch: A Beowulf for a new time

By Heather Lee Schroeder
August 4, 2006

APPETIZERS: Culture meets politics

As summer winds down, author events pick back up. The next two weeks are packed with don't-miss opportunities, but my pick is Gary Cole, a lifelong Republican and one-time presidential appointee as the deputy chairman for grants and awards at the National Endowment for the Arts. He will read from and discuss his memoir, "Artless: The Odyssey of a Republican Cultural Creative," at 2 p.m. Aug. 12 at the University Book Store at Hilldale.

Cole found himself disillusioned and without a job after his political appointment by the Bush administration to the plum position was withdrawn, based on work he had done with two controversial plays.

ENTREE: A Beowulf for a new time

Like many high school students, I suffered as my English teacher pounded "Beowulf" into my head.

But a funny thing happened while I was listening to the new Beowulf CD produced by Norman Gilliland's NEMO Productions. It turns out "Beowulf" is a lot more entertaining when it's translated into a language familiar to the modern ear and the epic poem's original meter is preserved.

Gilliland, best known for his role as a Wisconsin Public Radio host, partnered with Dick Ringler, University of Wisconsin emeritus professor of English and Scandinavian studies, to produce "Beowulf: The Complete Story - A Drama." The University of Wisconsin Press has signed on as the nonexclusive distributor of the CDs.

Although official distribution hasn't yet begun, the first run of the CD - a dramatization of the entire poem with actors playing key speaking roles, sound effects and music compatible with its time - has already sold out.

Gilliland hopes to both reach the popular audience and serve the academic market at the high school and college levels.

He describes Ringler's translation as both subtle and dynamic. "That's what made me so enthusiastic about it in the first place," he said. "It has this wonderful narrative drive. It's very easy to follow with a wonderful simplicity of language, and it's a syllable by syllable re-creation of Old English meter, but yet you're not aware of hearing choppy lines of poetry."

"My deep-seated hope as a former 12-year-old boy is that this CD will turn a lot of 12-year-olds on to Beowulf," he added.

There are surprises in this production. For those who thought "Beowulf" was a dead text, the narrative force of the story is much more vivid and immediate than might be expected because Ringler's translation preserves both the meter and the alliteration of the original text. This means Ringler's translation closely resembles how the original poem would have sounded when spoken aloud (as it was meant to be presented), but he didn't attempt to translate each line word for word. Instead, he used simple and straightforward language accessible to a modern audience.

On the CD, Ringler plays the part of the narrator, a job he describes as challenging. The production draws together other local and regional talent, including the band Navan, and actors from the American Players Theatre and the Guthrie Theatre. Gilliland lent his own voice to the CD as well, but you may not recognize it on the first listen. He played the part of the dragon and many of the monster Grendel's sounds. This required Gilliland to shut himself into a sound booth and make as many kinds of screams as he could.

"I was a little bit hoarse there for a couple of days," he said in a recent telephone interview. "You can't hold back. You have to cut loose. You have to let yourself go."

Gilliland said developing this production of "Beowulf" was rewarding, and he's definitely considering producing another audiobook.

DESSERT: There's still time to write

Writers, aspiring writers and scholars, take heed. The Wisconsin Humanities Council is calling for essays for the upcoming Wisconsin People & Ideas magazine (formerly the Wisconsin Academy Review).

Writers may choose from two categories: "The Humanities Moment" or "The Public Scholar." The first asks for an exploration of a "life-defining moment, one in which the humanities played a transformative role." The second asks humanities scholars and professionals to write on a topic of their choice for a nonacademic audience.

The deadline is Aug. 15. For sample essays and guidelines, visit To learn more about Wisconsin People & Ideas, see

Heather Lee Schroeder's "Literary Lunch" appears twice a month. E-mail: Web site:

©Literary Lunch 2006