| English Literature for Boys and Girls|
|by H. E. Marshall|
|Delightful introduction to the writers of English literature whose works hold the greatest appeal for the youthful reader. The life and personality of each author is given in outline, with enough material quoted from his works to give an idea of what he wrote. For most authors suggestions for further reading are included. The outline of historical background enables the young reader to grasp the connection between the literature and the life of the time. Excellent as a companion to a chronological study of English literature. Ages 12-15 |
THE ADVENTURES OF AN OLD ENGLISH BOOK
 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
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
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
 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
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
 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
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
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
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.
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