In October 1731 there was a fire in the Ashburnham House residence of the Keeper of the King’s libraries in Westminster London. The fire threatened the one and only manuscript of the Old English poem, Beowulf. It was rescued by the librarian and others leaping from the window, clasping manuscripts. Singed but intact, Beowulf was literally saved from a Burning Archive.
Beowulf would then be studied as the great artefact of early medieval culture of Britain, Scandinavia and Northern Germany. But in time its imagery and story became buried underneath arcane arguments about the text. 200 years later in 1936 an English scholar of Beowulf sought to recover the poem and artistry of Beowulf from the dead hand of arid historical scholarship. Look at the imagination of the poet, he said. So was launched the modern recovery of Beowulf as a masterpiece of the rediscovered culture of the Dark Ages.
That scholar was JRR Tolkien. One year later he began to write Lord of the Rings. Would we have had the Lord of the Rings if we did not first have Beowulf?
- Beowulf, translated Seamus Heaney, (2000)
- Beowulf, translated Maria Dahvana Headley, (2020)
- Electronic Beowulf, full Old English text, with manuscript images
- Beowulf: The Epic in Performance – Benjamin Bagby, voice and medieval harp
- BBC, In Our Time (podcast) Beowulf
- History of English podcast on Beowulf
- BBC, The Adventures of English (episode 1)
- JRR Tolkien, “Beowulf, the monsters and the critics” (1937)