A beloved tradition held at a local institution, storytelling with Odds Bodkin at Grendel's Den in Cambridge should be on your list if you find yourself in the area. I went back to see him tell Beowulf after two years away, and it was such a treat.

A tale from the Befores: Storytelling with Odds Bodkin at Grendel’s Den

One of the last things I did in the Before Times was go to storytelling with Odds Bodkin at Grendel’s Den in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Bodkin performed perform the Odyssey: Belly of the Beast in a series of mythological tales.

By that point in February 2020, news of Covid-19 had filtered down, and people had started to realize that it might get serious, but it definitely wasn’t a factor in our daily lives just yet. At the communal table, as we ate our snacks during intermission and chatted, Covid-19 came up, but more as a theoretical thing than anything else.

I had tickets to see Odds Bodkin tell the Viking story Odin & Thor Battle the Frost Giants in March, but I didn’t go, and a week later, the world shut down.

Odds Bodkin at Grendel's Den
One of the last things I did in the Befores: Odds Bodkin performs the Odyssey in February 2020

I think about that last evening a lot

I’ve thought about that evening, sitting with strangers at a table, listening to an old tale being told, accompanied by a 12-string guitar, often in these last years. I’ve missed coziness with strangers, and tales on a winter’s night. Grendel’s Den in Harvard Square, Cambridge, is a perfect home for storytelling.

Returning to tradition: Odds Bodkin performed Beowulf at Grendel’s Den

This past Sunday, I got to do it again. This time, Odds Bodkin performed Beowulf: The Only One at Grendel’s. I’ve heard him perform this three times, now, and each time I get wrapped up in the magic of a very old tradition.

Odds Bodkin at Grendel's Den
Storytelling with Odds Bodkin at Grendel's in 2019

A tonic for our jumbled minds

We live in a multimedia age, but not necessarily a multisensory one. We read screens, watch videos, and listen to podcasts, all while jumping around the Internets. We don’t often sit and listen attentively to someone as  they tell us a story. Bodkin plays his guitar to set a scene and voices the characters (sometimes hilariously so—he likes to make a point that his version of Grendel’s mother is nothing like Angelina Jolie), and interprets the story. If he’s successful, he tells us at the beginning of every performance, his voice will recede, and our imaginations will take over. It’s the long-lost art of creating a story in our minds.

It’s fun. And, it’s relaxing in our jumbled age.

Odds Bodkin has inspired for generations

My parents used to go see Odds Bodkin perform frequently, and they still talk about seeing him perform at the Corner House Restaurant in Sandwich, New Hampshire. When some work friends mentioned that they were going to see storytelling at Grendel’s a few years ago, I was delighted to learn that it was indeed Odds Bodkin. I couldn’t go to that year’s storytelling sessions (back in the halcyon days of international work travel and trips), but I made a point of planning on it in 2019, and again attended in 2020. And, now I was delighted to return.

Taking our seats

My friend and I arrived a bit early—I’d been thinking of past events. We took our Covid tests (required by the venue), and then took our seats. As Grendel’s filled up, though not as much as it had in previous years, she and I talked about how strange it was to be with so many others again. This time has left a mark.

Still, as we settled in, it felt less strange. Gathering together runs deep in our veins, and we do not forget how. We ordered snacks and drinks, and, from my vantage point, I watched Odds Bodkin prepare. He had his harp and his 12-string guitar. A tech adjusted the speaker on the counter next to my friend. Our order arrived, as Odds Bodkin took the stage.


Odds Bodkin, tell us a story

Odds Bodkin’s storytelling performances begin with the harp, gentle music that fills the room and starts to quiet the audience. After a few minutes, a whooshing sound of wind draws the audience’s attention, and Bodkin switches to a 12-string guitar.

“Imagine that the year is …” he intoned, telling us a brief tale of how the Beowulf manuscript was discovered. Combining elements of Christianity and the older religions, while written in Old English, the tale is from the Vikings. Bodkin explained that he will not be reciting the poem itself, but performing an interpretation, with voices and sounds, accompanied by his guitar. This performance is not for children, but you can tell that he’s especially skilled with storytelling for the little ones.

Beowulf begins

And, then the tale. Beowulf is a graphic story of a hero who comes to save the Danes from the dragon Grendel (how very appropriate for the venue) who has terrorized King Hrothgar’s people. His goal is to win glory. Bodkin voices Beowulf as a brawny guy who might not be all that brainy, but proud, and fundamentally good. “Fate often saves an undoomed man, when his courage holds,” is Beowulf’s refrain.

In the first half of the performance, Beowulf bests Grendel, and wins fame and fortune. With the threat of the far more terrifying mother of Grendel’s in the offing, the story broke for an intermission. Servers refreshed drinks, and brought out more food orders (though, audience members like me might have stopped eating at certain parts of the second act).

The tale continues

Grendel’s mother is a shrieking, terrifying (and squishy) beast. While Beowulf has thanes, he often acts alone, as when he goes after Grendel’s mother. He laments being the only one. Beowulf also defeats the wicked mother, and, cloaked in glory and with the riches of a grateful Hrothgar who adopts him as a son, leaves the shores, never to return.

And comes to an end

We meet Beowulf again as a very old man, a king in his own right, when another monster appears. Beowulf, afraid that he is still alone, sets out to fight the beast. A thane follows him, though, proving that he was not, in fact, the only one. While Beowulf kills the dragon, he is poisoned in the fight and dies, grateful at least to not be alone. However, with his death, his kingdom is once again vulnerable to attack, and, this time, no one will come to save the people.

It’s not a happy ending, but my friend and I were indeed happy to hear a story, surrounded by others. Judging from the applause, others were happy as well.

I bought another ticket for Odin & Thor Battle the Frost Giants in early April. This time, I think we’ll be able to go.

Grendel's Den
Grendel's Den has been a Harvard Square institution since the early 1970s

Attend one of Odds Bodkin’s storytelling events at Grendel’s Den

There are two more performances this season—check them out!

All performances are $25. Table seats can be communal. If you and a friend purchase separate tickets, you can contact Grendel’s and request to be seated together.

NOTE: While you do not need to show proof of vaccination, you will need to take a rapid COVID test prior to being seated. Currently, masks are not required in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Odin & Thor Battle the Frost Giants

Sunday, April 3, 2022 5:00 p.m. Tickets

The Fall of Gaia

Sunday, April 17, 2022 5:00 p.m. Tickets

About Odds Bodkin

Odds Bodkin has worked as a master storyteller since the early 1980s, performing all over the country, including at the White House and Lincoln Center. Check out his website for his work.

About Grendel’s Den

A Harvard Square institution, Grendel’s Den (aka Grendel’s)  has been dear to the heart of students and locals alike since opening its doors in 1971. Even as the square has undergone huge changes in the last twenty years (most would not say for the better), Grendel’s remains.

Grendel’s is a cozy place to get a drink and a snack, with a crowd that ranges in age (later in the evenings during the semester, it definitely skews younger). They also have patio seating along the park.  I don’t go often, but I’m always happy when I do.

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