LONDON—I keep trying not to squint.
But the light, an eerie purple, is very low. And there’s a piece of heavy glass between my eyes and the object. If I lean in close I can make out the words: “siþen þe sege and þe assaut watz sesed at troye ...” Or, in modern instead of Middle English, “After the siege and the assault of Troy ...”
The words are worth the eyestrain, for they were written more than 600 years ago. The book, propped up behind the glass, isn’t much bigger than a paperback mystery, but it is the world’s only original copy of the epic medieval poem “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
A few paces behind me, behind another pane: Shakespeare’s First Folio, from 1623.
Around a corner lies the 15th century, in the form of a copy of the Gutenberg Bible.
And in a small chamber of its own is Magna Carta, or “great charter,” issued by King John in 1215.
I’m in the British Library, one of the planet’s most important repositories. Or, as the library trumpets on its Web page at www.bl.uk, “The British Library: The world’s knowledge.”
Here is a draft of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby.” There are some letters written by members of the family of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, author of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Kubla Khan.” Yet another wall of glass cases holds music manuscripts, including Handel’s “Messiah” from 1741.
And yet my wife, Sherri, has to talk me out of a bad mood. Amazing as this room is, something is missing: “Beowulf.”
There is no London fog anymore, really. Those “pea soup” fogs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries actually were billowing clouds of smog caused by the burning of soft coal. Such pollution is long gone; modern London is pleasant, especially in early fall. But if there’s no fog in the streets, there’s plenty in my brain.
For years—decades—I have wanted to see the “Beowulf” manuscript. Like “Gawain,” only a single copy exists. Unlike “Gawain,” “Beowulf” was written in Old English; it is centuries older. But my quest to see it has become a comedy of errors that began before we even left the States.
“`Beowulf’? It’s in the British Museum,” a well-meaning friend from St. Louis said when I told her we’d be spending a week in London.
I’m something of a skeptic; I like to double-check things. After we arrive in London I ask one of our traveling companions. “Oh, `Beowulf,’” he says. “British Museum, that’s right.”
Just to be sure, I ask the concierge at our hotel. He nods vigorously; all those old manuscripts, he says, are in the British Museum.
Easy enough. The British Museum is a short Tube ride from our hotel. And it is filled with marvelous things: alabaster urns, bronze belt buckles, pewter tankards and so forth. But I see no manuscripts.
I approach a guide.
“`Beowulf’? It was moved to the British Library about 10 years ago.”
I look at Sherri, who has been tolerant of this whole thing, but it’s getting late. Plus I promised her we’d have afternoon tea in a room that boasts a view of Buckingham Palace—or at least the gate to its stables, the Royal Mews.
We strike out for the Library the next morning—a morning so beautifully clear that it would, with its lack of fog, baffle Sherlock Holmes. (The Library, by the way, has a sound recording of Arthur Conan Doyle talking about how he created the famous detective.)
Upon arriving, we make a beeline for the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, where, a guard tells us, all the “Treasures of the British Library” are on display. We walk up a short flight of stairs, out of the well-lit corridor and into that room with its purplish light. We wander from case to case, name to name: Gawain, Gutenberg, Shakespeare ...
“This is getting ridiculous,” I say to Sherri, and we walk back down the stairs to the front desk. I ask the man about “Beowulf,” and he says three words:
“It’s being rested.”
I suspect I know what this means but ask for some elaboration. Because of the manuscript’s age, he says, it is sometimes necessary to take it from its glassed-in display case and put it away for several months.
He starts to launch into an explanation that involves light, temperature, air and other factors, but Sherri is looking at me in alarm. I have seen this look before. She is waiting for my head to explode.
“John,” she says. “There are other things to see here ...”
And I nod and nod, trying to calm down. What I’m thinking is that I’ve traveled nearly 5,000 miles, and this man tells me I can’t see “Beowulf.”
Well. You can’t slay all the dragons on a single quest. “Beowulf” has survived a thousand years; one supposes it’ll be around if we visit the Library again someday.
So we go back upstairs and gaze again at the portrait of Shakespeare, the pages of Magna Carta, the strange characters in “Gawain”—letters of the alphabet that are no longer part of the English language.
We wander back over to the music manuscripts. And there, in a glass case we’d overlooked, is a scrawl both distinctive and heartbreaking:
There are places I’ll remember
All my life, though some have changed
Some forever, not for better
Some have gone and some remain ...
Near the lyrics to “In My Life” is a photo of a young John Lennon, in his Beatle days, years before he was murdered by a madman.
Sherri and I are both fighting back tears.
“Well, it isn’t `Beowulf,’ but isn’t it wonderful?” she says softly.
And the cosmos—or my memory, at any rate—supplies my answer, in the form of a line from another Lennon song:
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
A BRIEF HISTORY OF `BEOWULF’
Scholars think “Beowulf” was composed between the eighth and 11th centuries. It is an epic poem of more than 3,000 lines that tells the story of a hero named Beowulf who engages in three battles: He fights a monster named Grendel, then Grendel’s mother, then, much later in his life, a dragon. “Beowulf” is written in Old English; readers who are not Old English scholars must read the poem in translation.
The manuscript survives largely because of two collectors: Laurence Nowell, an antiquarian who somehow came to own the manuscript in 1563, and subsequent owner Sir Robert Cotton (1571-1631), who also possessed, at one time, the original “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.”
In 1700 Cotton’s grandson bequeathed Cotton’s library to the British people. According to the British Library’s Web site, www.bl.uk, “the dilapidated state of Cotton’s house gave cause for concern over the collection’s safety. The library was moved first to Essex House in the Strand, then to Ashburnham House in Westminster.”
Unfortunately, the move did not save the manuscript from harm. In 1731 a fire at Ashburnham House scorched the edges of the “Beowulf” pages.
In the 1750s the manuscript became part of the holdings of the newly formed British Museum.
In 1997 the British Library was split off from the British Museum and housed at 96 Euston Road, St. Pancras, London, in a new building designed by noted British architect Colin St. John Wilson.
In 2000 poet Seamus Heaney made best-seller lists with his new translation of “Beowulf,” published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
On Nov. 16 Paramount Pictures will release a film version. Directed by Robert Zemeckis (“Back to the Future”), “Beowulf” will star Ray Winstone, Anthony Hopkins, Crispin Glover and Angelina Jolie—but apparently the film consists of computer-generated instead of live-action images.
ABOUT THE WRITER
John Mark Eberhart is books editor for the Kansas City Star.