This past weekend, my services were required to help chaperon my wife and kids up to London to meet a friend. After the trip, I wasn't needed again for five or six hours, so I was left with a lot of time to kill in London. Now, lucky for me, our train arrived into St. Pancras which happens to be just down the road from the British Library, who are currently running an exhibition called Anglo-Saxons: Art, Word, War.
I arrived at the British Library just after 10 in the morning. When I went up to purchase my ticket to the exhibition, they said the next available slot was 12:30! Guess I should have booked in advance. Well, thankfully, I had nothing better to do, so I bought the ticket. I spent the next few hours poking around the shop, the book store, and a couple of other smaller exhibitions. I investigated both cafés. Finally, it was time.
Despite getting there on the dot of 12:30 the exhibition was already crammed, mostly with people lingering from earlier admissions, but also from other eager attendees. It is no wonder, really. The exhibition is stunning – eight or nine rooms crammed with artefacts. Mostly these were ancient tomes, but also included bits from Sutton Hoo (on loan from the British Museum), Alfred’s Jewel (on loan from the Ashmolean), and, of great excitement since I hadn’t seen them before, several pieces from the Staffordshire Hoard, including the famous bent cross! Glorious, glorious stuff.
But really, it was about the books - scores, maybe hundreds of books. All of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were there. The Domesday Book, which got a room to itself as well as a movie. Judith’s Gospel. The works of the Venerable Bede!
My heart though was set on seeing one specific work, and I missed it the first time through. I had to ask a security guard, and he walked me through half the exhibition. There, in a little corner, given no more standing that any of the books around it, was Beowulf. The only surviving manuscript of the only Anglo-Saxon epic poem. How less rich would the world be if not for this collection of papers that were slightly singed in a fire some centuries ago…
I saw Beowulf, and another little geek dream came true.
The exhibition runs through February 19, so if you are in London and have any interest in the Anglo-Saxons, Beowulf, or really old books, you really must go. It’s not cheap at £16 entry, but it is seriously worth it. It is an utterly unique collection. My advice though – book in advance! If you can't make it to the exhibition, you might want to consider picking up the exhibition book. It's a pretty incredible tome itself!
For those who might be wondering, my favourite translation of Beowulf remains the one by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney. It’s not the most literal translation, but for me, it captures the spirit like no other.