"Beowulf is not so much about good people fighting evil monsters; it is about what is monstrous in us all."
xxxxxx—Chris Vinsonhaler

A Coast storyteller takes on Beowulf
with surprisingly modern results
 
By PAM FIRMIN
THE SUN HERALD

 
xxPeople might wonder how a lively, engaging and versatile professional storyteller like Chris Vinsonhaler of Ocean Springs gets wrapped up in retelling what's likely the most loathsome work of literature faced by high school students the country over.
xxEven the vandal who broke into her car recently and stole a cassette of her reading "Beowulf" in Old English threw it unwound and unwanted on the ground nearby, apparently in anger, after hearing its content.
xxVinsonhaler made the tape in order to immerse herself in the words of the poem as research in a seven-year project of translating this fearsome story into one with modern meaning. Her impetus for the translation was the idea that "Beowulf" was meant to be heard as a spoken story, not to be read—which radically changes its meaning from a story about heroes to a work of prophetic literature for all time.
xx"It is a story of long ago and far away," Vinsonhaler said. "Yet it is also a story of what is present and what is to come."
xx"Beowulf" was written in Old English sometime before the 11th century A.D. and it describes in an epic poem the adventures of a great Scandinavian warrior of the sixth century.
xxConsidered to be a rich fabric of fact and fancy, it's the oldest surviving epic in English literature and exists in only one manuscript, which is now housed in the British Library. Its study is included in most English literature curricula in the country.
xxThere are at least 88 translation of "Beowulf," including one by Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney.
xxA 500-copy first run of Vinsonhaler's book is due out by August 15, financed by a $4000 grant funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.Vinsonhaler's performance of the poem has been hosted by universities, conferences, schools, and community groups.
Beowulf at a glance

Plot:
A Danish mead hall built in the form of a high tower by King Hrothgar is ravaged for years by Grendel, a spirit in the form of a man, the monstrous offspring of Cain, who inhabits the swamp next door. Enter Beowulf of the Geats, a man of great strength and size, who takes on and defeats Grendel. There's rejoicing at the mead hall until the following night when Grendel's mother comes for revenge, murdering Hrothgar's closest friend. Beowulf seeks out and slays the monstrous mother in her underwater home. King Hrothgar rewards Beowulf, who then returns to his own country and rules for 50 years, until he again has to take on an enemy, a dragon that emerges from a grave. This time, however, Beowulf purchases victory with his life: He and the dragon destroy each other.

Contrast: While the poem is traditionally viewed as a story admiring heroes in days gone by, Vinsonhaler reads the poem as a work of prophetic literature that speaks to all time. "Beowulf is not so much about good people fighting evil monsters, as it is about what is monstrous in us all."