In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle reviews a classic fantasy novel that responds to the epic poem Beowulf
History, they say, is written by the victors. Although this isn’t universally true – there are many testaments and narratives by those who were on the losing side, or who were victim to tyrannies or empires which overran or subjugated them – it’s certainly broadly true of literature. If we think of Anglo-Saxon literature, for every ‘Battle of Maldon’ – the poem telling of the Saxons’ defeat at the hands of the Vikings in Essex in 991 – there are many examples of triumph, victory, and glory, of which Beowulf is the supreme example.
Beowulf is a fascinating poem in itself. It was effectively lost for the best part of a millennium, and it would have been lost from literary history altogether if it hadn’t been for one nineteenth-century scholar who made a copy of the single surviving manuscript, shortly before that manuscript was badly damaged in a fire.