At the British Library
Having been in London for exactly twenty-seven-and-one-half hours, it struck me that it felt as if every single place in London with a door had a cafe. There was a cafe IN the library, for heaven’s sake.
I declined a charming and encouraging request from the handsome foreigner behind the counter to have a sugar-coated bakery product, settled for a coffee, and decided that I would treat myself to something scrumptious for lunch.
I am at the British Library.
OhmigawdohmigawdohmiGAWD I am at the British Library!
The fourth-grade junior librarian in me, who in her prime actually knew the Dewey Decimal System, was beside herself with delight.
Zillions of books, possibly an actual gazillion, on every subject under the sun.
And everybody is welcome.
They even have an awesome (if that’s your thing) stamp collection, on panels that you can slide out of the wall and look at, but not on Saturdays (alas).
photograph by Nevit Dilmen, Wikimedia commons, GNU Free Documentation License
The Library is a little bleak on the outside, with those massive brick walls making up two sides of the square, and the Winter-desolate courtyard you have to walk across just to get to the front door that you can’t see under the overhang and is not all that impressive when you do.
But then you get inside, into that fabulous hall with the banners of the exhibits and the whiteness of the stone and the airiness of the space, and you realize that the British Library is just like that standoffish fellow who turns out to be a lovely and generous person once you get to know him. My goodness, he exclaims, but I’ve got a lot of books! I bet you’ve got books too! Wouldn’t you like to come in and read mine?
photograph courtesy Philip Greenspun
It’s next to a train station, for goodness sakes.
How much more “All for one and one for all” could this place get? (I got that quotation from a book, I’ll have you know.)
Ready to meet my Manuscript
I was sooooo nervous about seeing the Beowulf manuscript.
It felt like I was going on a first date with the captain of the football team: my knees were weak, my palms were sweaty.
Image property of The British Library. All rights reserved.
I was here in London at the British Library because it was the penultimate day of the Library’s Beowulf 1000: A celebration of a heroic poem exhibit in the Treasures Gallery.
Next to the manuscript was a draft page of Seamus Heany’s translation (which is fantastic), as well as two Michael Foreman watercolors from Michael Murpurgo’s children’s version. Still a lot of blood and guts in that one—and how could it not, it’s nothing but blood and guts.
And bravery. And drinking, but never mind about that.
Turning a corner, holding my breath
I walked through the door of the Gallery, turned left, and there it was, the first thing in the display cabinet, the one-and-only Beowulf manuscript in frickin’ existence.
Six inches from my face.
I so wanted to press my nose right up against the glass but I was afraid that some super secret silent alarm would go off and I would get the boot.
Since I am no hoodlum (Unhand me, sir, I was merely admiring your Beowulf!) I was the epitome of gentility, which I epitomized by lots of sighing and, finally, gracefully sinking onto the bench to refresh myself after such strenuous medieval manuscriptal, uh, ogling.
A bit about the book
The Beowulf manuscript at the British Library is over 1,000 years old.
One thousand years, people.
Leif Ericson hadn’t even bumped into North American when it was written.
“They” know that is a transcription, i.e., it’s a copy of another manuscript, said copy made by monks, possibly in the scriptorium of Malmesbury Abbey. It is believed that the story itself came into being sometime in the sixth century, but they don’t know when it might have actually been written down because the bardic tradition was very strong at that time, and so it would’ve been passed down orally for generations.
It is the oldest
thing in the world surviving epic poem in Old English, the ancient language of the Anglo-Saxons, and is 3,182 lines long. It tells the story of the Nordic hero Beowulf and his dealings with the monster Grendel and various other scary creatures/relatives.
Very Olde Nordic is the story, lots of drinking then snoring then killing, and various people feeling bad (or not) about the things done (mostly the killing).
And it is thrilling.
And this Beowulf, the one I’m practically throwing up on because I can’t believe I staring at it, is the only manuscript in existence.
The very clever people who examine such things know the following: it was written by two scribes (the tell is in their handwriting),
and was transcribed in the time of King Cnut (1016-35). I love that guy!
A shameless plug! But not for me…
My good friend Gareth Hinds, illustrator extraordinaire and all-round good guy, took a leap of faith a few years ago and created a graphic novel of the Beowulf story, which turned out to be very good and got lots of people interested in him and the idea of graphic-novel-izing the classics, and now That’s What Gareth Does.
Beowulf illustration by Gareth Hinds
You can see for yourself here (and buy it there, too!).
Splendid, really Splendid
British Library has a room of splendids.
Actually, it’s called the Sir John Ritblat Gallery Treasures of the British Library. And how cool is this, Sir John is still alive.
The other cool thing, of course, is the splendiferous treasures actually in the Gallery: an awe-inspiring, oh-my-gawdering, breathtake-ering number of truly fabulous treasures of the (mostly) English written word/world.
If you’re an English Literature Renaissance person like me (I know a little bit about a lot of authors), the Treasures Gallery will make your head explode. If you are a lesser creature, you might possibly wet yourself.
Why? Because it’s got everything. Every thing. Okay, not everything but a lot of things, so many things that while you’re there you probably won’t be able to think of a single thing that isn’t there. The actual written works of authors you’ve read, and studied, and still read in your grownup-hood:
- Phillip Sydney’s Arcadia is here—in his handwriting!
- A whole notebook of Milton’s.
- Dr. Johnston and Jane Austen side-by-side (Jane has far better penmanship than the good doctor’s).
- Wordsworth. Bronte. Carroll. Wilde. Wolf. They’re all here, in this room, side by side by side, their handwriting, their cross-outs, their notes in the margins.
- Handel’s Messiah is there. No, HIS Messiah, in his handwriting. Apparently it took him 24 days to write it. (Just for comparison, it takes me 42 days to post an 8×10 rug on Cragslist that doesn’t sell.)
- And, you know, the Beatles (well, they had to write it before they could sing it, right?).
- The only item believed to be in Shakespeare’s own hand? It’s here. Remember all those confounding bits about the Folio edition and the Quarto edition? They’re here, too.
- Captain Cook’s Journal, a letter from Florence Nightingale, Captain Scott’s diary showing the final entry of 29th March 1912 (he froze to death just afterwards).
- They’ve got TWO Gutenberg Bibles, and they don’t even make a big deal out of it; no flashing neon arrows with a sign saying “Gute Bibles right here!” Weird…
- The Benedictional of St Aethelwold (c.971 – 984) AND the Lindisfarne Gospels (698-721), the Codex Sinaiticus (vol. II).
- The Magna Carta (known as the Magnuh Caahhdah in Boston) has its own room—you wouldn’t believe how big it is (the Magna Carta, not the room).
There was more, but I was worn out by all the looking. Just…so much…to look at.
What’s all this inter-web stuff, then
If you don’t think you’ll get a chance to see these treasures in the flesh, the British Library’s website is just unbelievable with the amount of information it’s got.
Its interactive 3-D maps of the Library’s physical space, its turn-the-page technology, slideshows narrated by curators, photos, podcasts, recordings of famous people reading famous things, just tons and tons and tons of stuff.
Right there for the learning. By any body in the world with an internet connection.
The British Library’s website is one of the best examples of the power and purpose of the internet I’ve yet to come across. I was relieved that, even though I had to leave, I could always call up my Treasured friends with a couple of clicks of my mouse.
Feeling a bit peckish
You can’t imagine how hungry you can get staring at a 1,000 year old book written in a language you don’t understand.
Luckily, just across the street was an outpost of Pret-a-Manger, which I came to understand was practically everywhere.
Yay! I don’t have to go hungry anywhere! And I don’t have settle for a plate of chips and a coffee! Because upwards of 50% of their sandwiches, baguettes, wraps, and “hot foods” are vegetarian.
And they are designed that way; they aren’t just a meat-based item without the meat.