Beowulf exists in only one manuscript, and that manuscript has had some close calls. In 1731, the British library in which it was stored caught fire. Although someone carried the ancient poem to safety, it was badly scorched. The manuscript has deteriorated since that time, with parts of it flaking away. Fortunately, a Danish scholar named Thorkelin had two copies of the poem made in 1786, before the damage became too severe. Since he lived long before the invention of photocopy machines or cameras, these two copies of the 3,200-line poem had to be written carefully in longhand.
Then, as if the poem had some lingering evil curse on it left over from the days of the monster Grendel and his mother, Thorkelin's exhaustive twenty-year study and analysis of Beowulf suffered a serious setback during the Napoleonic wars. A British bombardment of Copenhagen, Denmark, in 1807 destroyed all of Thorkelin's valuable notes on the poem! Luckily, his copies were not damaged, and he used them to issue the first published edition of Beowulf in 1815. Today, the original, fire-damaged manuscript is carefully protected in the British Museum in London, England, and many different translations of the Old English poem have appeared.
Because Beowulf gives us only a hazy glimpse into long-forgotten times, the epic poem continues to fascinate readers. Although we may no longer believe that mythical dragons and monsters dwell in the fog-shrouded swamps, we can experience the mystery and sadness of the poem. We can also appreciate the literary masterpiece's underlying universal messages: courage in the face of great odds, loyalty even in the teeth of terror, and friendship to the very end.
Beowulf was composed by an unknown poet, so you would think we wouldn't know very much about the author. In a way that's true, but we can make some educated guesses. To begin with, the poet was probably a scop, or court poet. The Old English poem Widsith gives us a good idea of what such a poet was like. He went from place to place, searching for a king who would give him a home. In return, the poet entertained the nobles with his songs and even wrote songs about the king, so that the king's fame "may last under heaven."
Picture an English banquet hall in the dead of winter. Outside, snow falls and the wind howls. Inside, the atmosphere is stuffy, crowded, and noisy as people eat and talk loudly to their neighbors. Then a short, slight man seated near the king rises, holding a small harp. Everyone falls silent. He begins to play a melody on the harp, and in a clear, high voice he sings the words of a heroic poem. Everyone listens attentively, imagining the action of the poem battles and raids, monsters and great deeds. After a few minutes, the scop ends his song and sits again, and people nod their appreciation.
The scop was essentially an entertainer, of course, but he was much more than that. He was the memory of the people at a time when very few people knew how to read or write. His songs were an important part of the oral tradition of storytelling. They kept the past alive and made history seem real. If the scop was very good at his craft -- like the one who first sang about Beowulf his poem would last and become part of our literature. That is why, more than one thousand years after the tale was first told, we can read today of Beowulf's heroism, strength, and sacrifice.
About Brad Strickland
Brad Strickland is a writer and college professor who lives in Oakwood, Georgia. As an associate professor of English at Georgia's Gainesville College, he has often taught Beowulf and is always stirred by the poem's heroics. He is sure that a daring character like Wishbone would find the tale a fascinating adventure.
In addition to writing Be a Wolf!, Brad has authored Salty Dog, a Wishbone adventure based on Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson's classic pirate tale, Treasure Island. He has also written or co-written twenty-two other novels, fifteen of them for young readers. Brad's first young-adult novel was Dragon's Plunder, a story of adventure on the high seas. With his wife, Barbara, Brad has co-written stories for the Star Trek and Are You Afraid of the Dark? novel series. He also co-wrote four books with the late John Bellairs, and he continues to write books in Bellairs's popular young-adult mystery series, most recently The Hand of the Necromancer.
Brad and Barbara have two children, Jonathan and Amy. In addition to teaching and writing, Brad enjoys photography, travel, and amateur acting. In fact, he once played the role of a dragon on radio -- and remembering that role helped him get in the mood to write the exciting last part of the Be a Wolf! story. The Strickland family is home to a menagerie of pets, including cats, ferrets, a rabbit, and two dogs, neither of which has so far shown much interest in books.