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Lines of Thought : The tale of Beowulf

Lines of Thought

<p style='text-align: justify;'><i>Beowulf</i> is amongst the earliest pieces of vernacular European literature. It was written in Old English, the language spoken in Anglo-Saxon England.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Originally untitled, the poem sings the exploits of a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, and has been named for him since the nineteenth century. Beowulf is a prince of the Geats, a Germanic tribe, who comes to the help of Hrothgar, King of the Danes, attacked by a monster called Grendel. Beowulf successively battles with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and much later, with a dragon guarding a hoard of treasure. He is eventually defeated by the dragon.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The text survives in a single manuscript known as the Nowell Codex, after its earliest known owner, the 16th century scholar Laurence Nowell. It was written sometime between the 8th and early 11th century. In the 17th century it became part of Robert Bruce Cotton's collection and is therefore known as Cotton Vitellius A.XV. In 1731, it suffered irreparable damage in a fire, and is now kept at the British Library. The first translation into modern English was made by J. M. Kemble in 1837. In 1895, William Morris and A.J. Wyatt published the ninth English translation.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>Translating and publishing <i>Beowulf</i> seems to have been a long- favourite project of Morris. In a way that echoes of his socialist principles, he described the Anglo-Saxon epic poem as "the first and best poem of the English race, [with] no author but the people". Morris had created the Kelmscott Press in 1890, and was keen on creating books using intricate ornamentations and specially created typefaces. He wanted his books to be "beautiful by force of mere typography".</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>In 1892 William Morris contacted A. J. Wyatt, and Anglo-Saxon specialist at Christ’s College, Cambridge, to provide him with a translation of the text in prose, and used this as a base for a poetical version. Morris was familiar to that type of arrangements, and had worked previously with Eirik Magnusson on the translation of Icelandic Sagas.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>The Kelmscott <i>Beowulf</i> was issued in February 1895, with 300 copies printed on paper and 8 on vellum. Costing over £485 to produce, it was one of the more of the more expensive productions of the Kelmscott Press. Problems with the initial printing led to several sheets having to be reprinted. Morris was later to claim that he had lost money on the book. The copy reproduced here are the proof-sheets, with manuscript notes and corrections by W. Morris, given to Cambridge University Library in 1903 by the mother of Robert Proctor, one of Morris’s friends and a fellow enthusiast for both fine printing and early English works.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This item is also available in a free to download <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''>iPad app</a>, with expert discussion from Dr Kathryn James and Dr Richard Dance and additional contextual materials.</p><p style='text-align: justify;'>This item was included in the Library’s 600th anniversary exhibition <a target='_blank' class='externalLink' href=''><i>Lines of Thought: Discoveries that changed the world</i></a>. </p>

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