Saved from the Fire

Wednesday, January 27th, 2010

Beowulf, in his old age, faces the dragon and suffers through its fire before the great serpent buries its fangs in his neck. The great warrior, sword broken, lives just long enough to slay the dragon with his knife. Fortunately, the manuscript was never bit in the neck:

When the heirs of Sir Robert Cotton selected a spot to stash the rare-book collector’s priceless library, they probably should have known better than to pick a place called Ashburnham House. In 1731, a fire swept through that ill-named residence in London and forever impoverished our literary heritage.

One manuscript that escaped the blaze — just barely — contained an untitled poem of more than 3,000 lines. The flames actually singed its pages and destroyed bits of its unique content. In the centuries to follow, gradual deterioration consumed even more. It’s a small miracle that “Beowulf,” as the poem came to be called, survived at all.

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