English Literature for Boys and Girls - H. E. Marshall
The story of Arthur has led us a long way. We have almost forgotten that it began with the old Cymric stories, the stories of the people who lived in Britain before the coming of the Romans. We have followed it before the coming of the Romans. We have followed it down through many forms: Welsh, in the stories of The Mabinogion; Latin, in the stories of Geoffrey of Monmouth; French, in the stories of Wace and Map; Semi-Saxon, in the stories of Layamon; Middle English, in the stories of Malory; and at last English as we now speak it, in the stories of Tennyson. Now we must go back and see why it is that our Literature is English, and why it is that we speak English, and not Gaelic, or Cymric, or Latin, or French. And then from its beginnings we will follow our English Literature through the ages.
Since historical times the land we now call England has been conquered three times, for we need hardly count the Danish Invasion. It was conquered by the Romans, it was conquered by the English, and it was conquered by the Normans. It was only England that felt the full weight of these conquests. Scotland, Ireland, and, in part, Wales were left almost untouched. And of the three it was only the English conquest that had lasting effects.
In 55 B.C. the Romans landed in Britain, and for nearly four hundred years after that they kept coming and going. All South Britain became a Roman province, and the people paid tribute or taxes to the Roman Emperor. But they did not become Romans They still kept their own language, their own customs and religions.
It will help you to understand the state of Britain in those old days if you think of India to-day. India forms part of the British Empire, but the people who live there are not British. They are still Indians who speak their own languages, and have their own customs and religions. The rulers only are British.
It was in much the same way that Britain was a Roman province. And so our literature was never Latin. There was, indeed, a time when nearly all our books were written in Latin. But that was later, and not because Latin was the language of the people, but because it was the language of the learned and of the monks, who were the chief people who wrote books.
When, then, after nearly four hundred years the Romans went away, the people of Britain were still British. But soon another people came. These were the Anglo-Saxons, the English, who came from over the sea. And little by little they took possession of Britain. They drove the old dwellers out until it was only in the north, in Wales and in Cornwall, that they were to be found. Then Britain became Angleland or England, and the language was no longer Celtic, but English. And although there are a few words in our language which can be traced to the old Celtic, these are very few. It is thus from Anglo-Saxon, and not from Gaelic or Cymric, that the language we speak to-day comes.
Yet our Celtic forefathers have given something to our literature which perhaps we could never have had from English alone. The Celtic literature is full of wonder, it is full of a tender magic and makes us feel the fairy charm of nature, although it has not the strength, the downrightness, we might say, of the English. It has been said that every poet has somewhere in him a Celtic strain. That is, perhaps, too much to believe. But it is, perhaps, the Celtic love of beauty, together with the Saxon love of strength and right, to which we owe much of our great literature. The Celtic languages are dying out, but they have left us something which will last so long as our literature lasts.
And now, having talked in the beginning of this book of the stories which we owe to our Celtic forefathers, let us see what the Saxons brought us from over the sea.
Almost the oldest Anglo-Saxon book that we have is called Beowulf. Wise men tell us that, like the tales of Arthur, like the tales of Ossian, this book was not at first the work of one man, but that it has been gradually put together out of many minstrel songs. That may be so, but what is sure is that these tales are very old, and that they were sung and told for many years in the old homes of the English across the sea before they came to Britain and named it Angleland.
Yet, as with the old Gaelic and Cymric tales, we have no very old copy of this tale. But unlike these old tales, we do not find Beowulf told in different ways in different manuscripts. There is only one copy of Beowulf, and that was probably written in the tenth or eleventh century, long years after the English were firmly settled in the land.
As Beowulf is one of our great book treasures, you may like to hear something of its story.
Long ago, in the time when Queen Elizabeth, James I., and Charles I. sat upon the throne, there lived a learned gentleman called Sir Robert Bruce Cotton. He was an antiquary. That is, he loved old things, and he gathered together old books, coins, manuscripts and other articles, which are of interest because they help to make us understand the history of bygone days.
Sir Robert Cotton loved books especially, and like many other book lovers, he was greedy of them. It was said, indeed, that he often found it hard to return books which had been lent to him, and that, among others, he had books which really ought to have belonged to the King.
Sir Robert's library soon became famous, and many scholars came to read there, for Sir Robert was very kind in allowing other people to use his books. But twice his library was taken from him, because it was said that it contained things which were dangerous for people to know, and that he allowed the enemies of the King to use it. That was in the days of Charles I., and those were troublous times.
The second time that his library was taken from him, Sir Robert died, but it was given back to his son, and many years later his great-great-grandson gave it to the nation.
In 1731 the house in which the library was took fire, and more than a hundred books were burned, some being partly and some quite destroyed. Among those that were partly destroyed was Beowulf. But no one cared very much, for no one had read the book or knew anything about it.
Where Sir Robert found Beowulf, or what he thought about it, we shall never know. Very likely it had remained in some quiet monastery library for hundreds of years until Henry VIII. scattered the monks and their books. Many books were then lost, but some were saved, and after many adventures found safe resting-places. Among those was Beowulf.
Some years after the fire the Cotton Library, as it is now called, was removed to the British Museum, where it now remains. And there a Danish gentleman who was looking for books about his own land found Beowulf, and made a copy of it. Its adventures, however, were not over. Just when the printed copies were ready to be published, the British bombarded Copenhagen. The house in which the copies were was set on fire and they were all burned. The Danish gentleman, however, was not daunted. He set to work again, and at last Beowulf was published.
Even after it was published in Denmark, no Englishman thought of making a translation of the book, and it was not until fifty years more had come and gone that an English translation appeared.
When the Danish gentleman made his copy of Beowulf, he found the edges of the book so charred by fire that they broke away with the slightest touch. No one thought of mending the leaves, and as years went on they fell to pieces more and more. But at last some one woke up to the fact that this half-burned book was a great treasure. Then it was carefully mended, and thus kept from wasting more.
So now, after all its adventures, having been found, we shall never know where, by a gentleman in the days of Queen Elizabeth, having lain on his bookshelves unknown and unread for a hundred years and more, having been nearly destroyed by fire, having been still further destroyed by neglect, Beowulf at last came to its own, and is now carefully treasured in a glass case in the British Museum, where any one who cared about it may go to look at it.
And although it is perhaps not much to look at, it is a very great treasure. For it is not only the oldest epic poem in the Anglo-Saxon language, it is history too. By that I do not mean that the story is all true, but that by reading it carefully we can find out much about the daily lives of our forefathers in their homes across the seas. And besides this, some of the people mentioned in the poem are mentioned in history too, and it is thought that Beowulf, the hero himself, really lived.
And now, having spoken about the book and its adventures, let us in the next chapter speak about the story. As usual, I will give part of it in the words of the original, translated, of course, into modern English. You can always tell what is from the original by the quotation marks, if by nothing else.