What is it that happens when you hear a good story?
Do your palms get sweaty when the tensions rise? Does your heart pound, and then do your eyes tear up in the final sequence? Do you guess what the characters’ backstories might have been and trace out alternative endings once the story concludes?
We can all recognize the suspended, alternative state of mind and body that happens when one really enters a story. Maybe we felt it all the time when we were kids, but more rarely now, only during our favorite TV dramas or podcasts, and maybe the odd novel. At it’s best it’s an escape, a rush, a sort of physical and mental transportation.
Joe Froeber describes this feeling when he talks about listening to one of Odds Bodkin’s epic stories: Simply, it’s being “sucked in … before you know it you’re in the middle of a world that Odds is painting.”
The entire space of Grendel’s Den, where Freober is producing a series of winter shows for Bodkin, is transformed. Sometimes, while listening, Froeber closes his eyes, he says, and then upon opening his eyes, “I look around and see some people doing that as well,” an entire room of people experiencing the story in their bodies and minds.
“Aside from the pouring of drinks and printing of bar tickets,” he says, “you could hear a pin drop.”
Bodkin, who has been performing and recording epic stories like the Odyssey, Beowulf, and various Norse tales for, in his estimation, 30 years, notes that “a lot of people in New England grew up with my story-telling recordings. And gosh, I bet you at least half the people in the audience are either 20-somethings who listened to my stories when they were little kids and still remember or their parents.”
But even though Bodkin’s performances, packed with character voices, sound effects, and the musical accompaniment, facilitate the story-listening fugue state of childhood, his series at Grendel’s Den explicitly offers that experience for, and mainly attracts, adults. As Bodkin puts it, this series caters to a “mixed crowd: young people out on dates, old professors, everything in between.”
Bodkin does put on “empathy awareness” shows for children, but he characterizes the lineup for Grendel’s Den as “straight-on fun adventure stories. Some of them are really bloody and horrible and filled with deciet and … murder and stuff. Especially the Viking stories.” The effect might be described as a childlike trance coupled with adult content.
Bodkin argues that his methods follow directly from an ancient bardic tradition.
“Bardic storytelling is a kind of story telling where,” Bodkins explains, “as in the old days, the story teller would play music simultaneously with the story.”
Bodkin uses a harp and two open-tuned 12-string guitars to strategically introduce plot and character. Some of the themes, he says, “will make your heart pound, some of them will relieve the tension, and some will make you sad.”
But his most characteristic touch is a preternatural ability to “create characters” with an array of simply inspired voices. Bodkin connects this voice-over technique to the ancient tradition as well.
“According to what I’ve learned about Homer, for instance, he would pluck a lyre, he would recite his verse, but he would use character voices for his characters as he recited his verses,” Bodkin says. “That’s a scholar’s best guess of how he performed.”
He compares this mode to “inton[ing] a poem in a kind of a sing-song, hypnotic fashion, which is one really effective way to offer epic stories.” In contrast, this method follows what he sees as Homer’s legacy as “the most famous among all the singers of tales,” one who “used voices.” Also, “I just have a gene for making voices,” Bodkin says, that “I figured I might as well use.”
About five minutes into my conversation with him and Froeber, Bodkin couldn’t help but offer a couple of examples in rapid succession: the grumbling, slightly slavic voice of a man who’s “big, and he’s very nice, but he’s dangerous,” then the gasping older voice of Beowulf’s Hrothgar. And both “come with a leitmotif, a kind of musical theme that signals them,” he says, demonstrating for example the “dum, dum, dum” of Dark Vader’s intro music.
“It’s that kind of a patched-together performance art, with music going almost all the time. So that’s why it’s called bardic storytelling as opposed to straight stand-up platform storytelling where you’re behind a mic and you’re talking in the third person and you’re not trying to create some sort of cinematic illusion in your listener’s minds.”
More than anything else, these voices facilitate those “mental images”; if two dwarves speak differently, Bodkin can switch between them in conversation without the clunky introductions: “It’s not like [you’re] going to get these two dwarves confused.”
The voices, better than names or adjectives, produce an imagined picture. Because even though voices still function abstractly—you can’t see the dwarves by their voices—like a rough drawing, they bring out meaning more mimetically than words. Hearing the voices allows you to conjure the outline of the character. Unlike words, the voice is not merely abstract but a (very rough) sketch of reality. The type of voices, sometimes ingeniously, recall stereotypes that further fill out the profile. In Book One of the Iliad, for example, Achilles has the deep, slow, self-confident bluster of a lacrosse bro, Calchas has the lisping British accent of a shady off-brand apothecary, and Agamemnon a blustery, defensive cockney.
Besides the voices, the sound effects, like wind or foot-stomps and the open-tuned guitars, Bodkin introduces his shows with the sort of accessible yet scholarly lore that eases listeners into his worlds. Before introducing the Iliad, Bodkin prepares his audience with “a bit with a description of the ancient Bronze-Age world … and I just try to get them to imagine a world that is absolutely quiet. No machines anywhere … unless there was a grindstone going or something.”
Before the Viking shows, he will “get my Celtic harp out and … talk about the Viking age, this 250-year period before and after 1,000 AD. … All the ice melted in the northern hemisphere, which let them get in their great ships and sail all over the place.” Warming himself up with the factoids of world creation, he rushes through the etymology of Russia (“Rus” for “the red-haired ones”), beserk (“bear-skin wearers”) and the days of the week, (“Thor’s Day, Frigg’s Day,” etc.). The lore alerts us to how our own words recall the ancient epics: “how those old belief systems still resonate through our heads and our lives.”
Finally, the venue itself promises to add to the experience. Grendel’s Den modifies its menu to match the performance. For Bodkin’s version of Beowulf in January, it offered Viking fare like “Meads from Near and Far,” bread pudding, and stew. For the upcoming Odyssey show in February, there will be a Mediterranean theme with baklava, flaming saganaki, and cocktails called Siren’s Song and Circe’s Potion.
Could all this music, affect, and food risk moving from an authentic atmospheric to overdone camp? Just as you sometimes get pulled out of old movies when all the German characters speak in British accents, listening to Bodkin, I sometimes can’t help but wonder why Aphrodite is British too. But my resistance to over-the-top performance stems from the same cynicism of crusty adulthood that prevents me from entering imaginative worlds as easily as I once did. Part of the exercise means learning to embrace the quirkiness. If you allow Aphrodite her British lilt, maybe then Thor and Achilles can, for a moment, exist.
Here, both the storyteller’s sounds and the audience’s active suspension of disbelief matter. As Bodkin phrases it, the listeners “animate all this right in their imaginations.” In other words, he says, offering that on-the-nose, yet apt metaphor of brain and body: slipping inside a tale requires not only his storytelling techniques but the audience actively “entertaining themselves with their own mind’s eyes.”
ODDS BODKIN AT GRENDEL’S DEN. 89 WINTHROP ST., CAMBRIDGE. 2.9 (THE ODYSSEY: BELLY OF THE BEAST); 3.8 (ODIN AND THOR BATTLE THE FROST GIANTS); 3.29 (AUDIENCE CHOICE TBA). MORE INFO AT ODDSBODKIN.NET/EVENTS.
Max is a PhD student in English and American literature at BU. Previously, he worked at the NGO GiveDirectly, an organization that sends cash transfers, no strings attached, directly to extremely poor families. In 2014, he studied and wrote poetry in Wellington, NZ on a Fulbright scholarship.