I’ve become quite the exhibit addict. None struck my attention this month as much as the exhibit put on by the librarians at the Osborne Collection of Rare Books library within the Lillian H. Smith TPL Branch. This fall the exhibit featured the illustrated works of Edward Gorey. Reading The Gashlycrumb Tinies (1963) is by far the most elegant way to learn the alphabet after all. Gorey is such an enigma. On one had, in groups of people drawn to the morbid and macabre he’s not only popular, but a downright classic; and yet, he’s rarely mentioned in mainstream literary discussions–even those entirely on children’s literature. Known to be the grand-daddy of Goth, Gorey remains strangely “unclassifiable.” He’s weird, macabre, and downright creepy, but he’s also secret, hidden, private. His illustrations are famous and widely-found, and he’s still surrounded by mystery.
What this exhibit brought to my attention was just how many illustrations he’s completed in his lifetime. Some don’t surprise me. I can certainly see Gorey being drawn to illustrate Dracula in his coffin, or The House with a Clock in Its Walls, but finding out that he was also illustrated Oscar Wilde, The Aeneid, Tom Jones, Winnie the Pooh and Alice in Wonderland, among several other fairy tales really took me by surprise and it was very interesting to see his take. I prefer it. His style is so unique for its time. Now we–in the macabre community– are spoiled with the visuals of Tim Burton and del Toro’s films and Chris Riddell’s and Tony DiTerlizzi’s illustrated works; but to imagine a time where not many illustrators were playing around with dark humour for children, or experimenting in the darker toned illustration, Edward Gorey stands apart. It was also very interesting to see a collaboration between Gorey and Charles Addams, famously known for his illustrations of what later became The Addams Family.
Overall, I really enjoyed this exhibit, and if you have the opportunity to go see it before it closes. I highly recommend it. It will be on until October 2nd, so try to go see it within the next week.
I took a brief trip to NYC and explored several bookstores and the exhibition at the Morgan Library: Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, hosted in the Engelhard Gallery. It only took a quick glimpse to realize this exhibition was the effort of many skilled librarians and curators. Manuscripts were brought from the Harry Ransom Center, Columbia University, New York Public Library, Harvard, and many others. The exhibition was made possible by generous donors, and it is exemplary work by the librarians and curators at the Morgan Library. Walking through the exhibition I felt absolutely inspired! Inspired to write, to learn, to read, to live! The way the exhibit was set up, the information provided, the research done, all was put together so well that—in my mind at least— it brought Tennessee Williams back to life.
The way my high school English courses were set up, and coincided with my theater classes, I accidentally had to read A Streetcar Named Desire about five times—not only read it, but study it, memorize it, and write several essays on it, as well as performing parts of it on stage. In undergrad I studied The Glass Menagerie, and this put me on a bit of a Williams crusade. His tragic female characters who cannot let go of an idealized past, his confrontational men who are mere bullies incapable of understanding the delicate nature of their sexuality, in addition to the intensity of the plot—are absolutely unforgettable.
The way the exhibition is set up we get glimpses into Williams’s life in chronological order. Artefacts include one of his many typewriters, keys he collected from hotels, manuscripts and first drafts of his plays, elaborate plans for some of his character development, as well some of his well-deserved awards. Because Williams wrote on the cusp of the Golden Age of Hollywood, there are many playbills from Broadway, images of Elizabeth Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Marlon Brando, and posters/still images of these great actors playing a role in one of his many plays.
Tennessee Williams’s inner life, however, was most intriguing to me. On display was a letter Williams sent to his grandfather explaining how anxious he was for receiving a grant from the Rockefeller fellowship, the ways in which he based Belle Reve (the location from which Blanche arrives—the idealized past) on a poem he wrote many years prior, the way he dissects Blanche’s character and psyche before writing her into dialogue, and his many oil paintings. This was new information to me—I had no idea Williams painted—in a style I very much admire. His painting style resembles a cross between Cezanne and Van Gogh—a form of expressionism/impressionism but with a flat brush. I remember a moment from Streetcar where he went through a lot of trouble to outline the setting by means of a painting:
“There is a picture of Van Gogh’s of a billiard-parlor at night. The kitchen now suggests that sort of lurid nocturnal brilliance, the raw colors of childhood’s spectrum. Over the yellow linoleum of the kitchen table hangs and electric bulb with a vivid green glass shade. The poker players—Stanley, Steve, Mitch and Pablo—wear colored shirts, solid blues, a purple, a red-and-white check, a light green, and they are men at the peak of their physical manhood, as coarse and direct and powerful as the primary colors.” (Streetcar Named Desire)
According to one of the information panels next to his drafts of Streetcar, Williams got the idea for the play when living in New Orleans with his new lover Pancho Rodriguez where he famously wrote:
“’I was and still am Blanche…[although] God knows I have a Stanley in me, too,’” drew on their tumultuous relationship for the play. This he wove together with elements from earlier poems, shorter plays, and character studies to draft and redraft The Poker Night, the immediate precursor to A Streetcar Named Desire.”
Clearly, he drew a lot from Van Gogh’s art and allowed it to guide the poker night scene which became the heart and beginning of his most famous play.
Lastly, and what I found most interesting, was the way Tennessee Williams regarded writing as a kind of madness. In a diary where he noted anxieties about his play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, which he feared was a failure, he wrote:
“I love writing too much, and to love anything too much is to feel a terror of loss: it’s a kind of madness”
Then, below the typewriter on display The Morgan Library wrote:
“Two of Williams’s most important possessions were his copy of Hart Crane’s Poems (also on view) and his typewriter. As a young man, he would write through the night, seeming to subsist on strong black coffee and creative expression alone. Even at his poorest, when his typewriter was seized by his landlady, he borrowed one. When he pawned the borrowed typewriter, he found another and promptly spent 15 cents of his last $2.00 on paper. ‘I must be mad,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘It’s all a little too much, too much.’”
It was so interesting to see it all laid out and to get so close to his handwriting, and most prized possessions. The exhibition has been put together in a library catalog titled Tennessee Williams No Refuge but Writing, which is available for purchase online.
Note: all pictures above were taken by me (no flash) at the Morgan Library, and are the property of the sources listed in the opening paragraph. According to their website: “Images may be printed out for study, or downloaded for presentations, dissertations, or non-commercial websites or blogs.”
I conducted this interview with Erik Mohr as a member of the book tour for Sam Beiko’s second book in The Realms of Ancient Series. Erik Mohr, the Creative Director at Made by Emblem. Erik has been working as an art director for over 10 years and has received numerous industry awards including the Society of Publication Designers, Canadian National Magazine Awards, Art Directors Club of Canada and Magazines du Québec. Erik has been very kind and patient, and answered all of the questions I directed at him about the artwork, and I can see why it would be an absolute pleasure for any author to work with him and his team. Here is our full interview:
What attracted you about this particular project, and what made you take on Scion of the Fox in the first place last year?
I have been a fan of Sam Beiko’s work for years. We had worked together on her previous book, The Lake and the Library, and she really wanted to work together on The Realms of Ancient series. I was super excited and loved the direction she wanted to see the cover taking. Book design can be really exciting for a number of reasons, but the best is working with incredibly talented people and the collaboration between the author and designer.
Does it feel different working on Canadian projects for Canadian authors versus magazine art for things further away?
We have worked on book covers for Canadian, US and British publishers. I have to admit that the Canadian market is normally very conservative. That said, we’ve had the opportunity to work with publishers who are willing to take risks and create really exciting book covers. The magazine work we do is very different from the book design work. But there is cross-over, too. Magazine work is very fast paced and every page needs lots of entry points and design elements. But legibility and typographic skills are mandatory in book design and it’s simple and little tricks that can make a big difference.
What techniques do you use when creating a book cover? Do you make a plan, do you make several covers and choose the best one, or do you just keep building on the one template?
The process for creating a book cover involves reading the manuscript or excerpt, discussing the cover with the publisher and author, lots of sketches, then lots of discussions, lots of revisions and then eventually the finished product. Sometimes the first sketch is bang on. Sometimes there are 20+ revisions. Designing a book cover is all about marketing the book. Many considerations can influence the design of the book: who’s the audience, what genre is the book, is it part of a series?
Do you read the novel in its entirety first and then decide what to extract from it for the cover art, or do you obtain an excerpt and an idea from the publisher and work with that?
It totally depends. Sometimes the cover needs to be designed before the book has gone through its final proofing. Or there are substantial rewrites happening. In that case, we read the synopsis. Sometimes if there are issues with the manuscript, there are exhaustive emails about the story to best communicate the themes and mood.
Would reading the whole novel be too distracting because there would be too much material to decide what to choose?
Not at all! It’s what we prefer! That way we can understand the story arc and what elements are significant and which are spoilers!
Did you coordinate that both books complement each other (green and red) and have one central figure in the middle on purpose or did it turn out that way by accident?
This was very much on purpose! We didn’t know what the characters would be on the second book cover, but we purposely created a simple and impactful cover featuring a central character. This made for a composition which could easily be adapted to other books in the series.
Do you paint or draw by hand, or do you use computer programs, if yes, which programs do you use?
We use Photoshop primarily. The process is basically a digital collage. We photograph textures and find stock photos online that we can use as elements. Then there is a lengthy layered process to achieve the final photographic image. This way, we are able to create surreal or fantastical settings and characters.
–End of Interview–
I would like to extend my thanks to Erik Mohr for answering all of the questions and for creating such beautiful covers. Children of the Bloodlands was published by ECW Press.
In Early Modern England, children were not only in choirs, but they also participated in plays to entertain mayors, Queens, and Kings, in addition to travelling alongside acting guilds in larger cycle productions. There were, however, rare cases where deformed children or ‘monstrous chyldrn’ were paraded for a sum of money (payable to their owner) and for the entertainment of the crowd. One such record appears in the Norwich Record of Early English Drama for the 5th of June 1616 in the Mayors’ court Books XV.
“Humfry Bromely hath libertie to shewe in some howse within this Citty A strange Child with two heads. And that by the space of two days and no more But he ys forbidden to sound any Drume of vse any other meanes to drawe company then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said Child.”
This record is a source of three informative points: deformed children would be on display, public announcements for such displays were regulated, and it became the business of the mayor’s court to keep a record of these showings. Though the Norwich 1616 record shows no sign of payment, an account from the 29th of November, 1637 (also a Saturday) at Coventry in the Chamberlains’ and Wardens’ Account Book III under the subheading of ‘Rewardes to players’ reads “paid given to Walter Neare that went about the shew a child borne without Armes ij s. vj d.” The two shillings and six pence, (or half a crown) would have the buying power today of about $28-30 Canadian Dollars. Thus, Mr. Neare got paid a decent sum from the town’s treasury to go around and show a child who did not have any arms, just as it can be assumed Mr. Bromely was also paid to show a child with two heads.
In the late Middle Ages/Early Modern Period deformed children would scarcely make it to adulthood, yet the parents found it necessary to place these children in monasteries, on the steps of Churches, or journey alongside them on pilgrimages in the hope of a miraculous cure. Most importantly, the prevailing belief was that these ‘changelings’ were mitigating “guilt-feelings by transference” and physically reflected the sins of their parents. One popular method of connecting these ‘monstrous chyldrn’ to Biblical damnation can be found in the late 1500s on broadside ballads printed in the newspapers. These ballads were a “broad cross-section of ‘news’ ballads, miraculous happenings [and] monstrous births…which sometimes made use of religious judgements, but which (like criminal last speeches) appealed to their audience primarily on other grounds.” What Tessa Watt is describing is the intrigue audiences found in crude humour and entertainment. In his book Mirth Making, Chris Holcomb sustains that “deformity and conformity divide the social world into those who laugh and those who are laughed at.” Though this may come across as ignorant and insensitive in 21st century North America, in the late Middle Ages deformity was a laughing matter and an entertainment act of its own.
These two deformed children accounted and paid for in Coventry and Norwich were an ‘embodiment’ of human sins, impending doom, and a source of cruel humour and entertainment. Their existence and presentation were physical appropriations of the broadside ballads confirming doubts and incredulity. The fact that Bromely was forbidden “to vse the drumme” did imply that this activity was not universally tolerated in 1616 Norwich. However, Neare being paid a half-crown implies that wonder overcame the sense of guilt, as crowds indulged in watching a circus-bound, ‘monstrous chylde’; this shame went only as far as preventing a boisterous form of advertising in Norwich. According to the introduction in the Norwich REED volume, “the mayor and alderman were the guardians for public morality, as we can read in the Court Books of fines for swearers, drunkards, unlicensed ale-house keepers, ballad sellers, [and] wife beaters” (xxiv). Hence, a person caught ‘swearing’ might have been in much more trouble with the ‘guardians for public morality’ than one showing a deformed child.
If one is to consider a play in performance as the appropriation of a written text transferred to a physical presence, then perhaps the ‘shewing of monstrous chyldern’ can be better understood in performance by closely reading a broadside ballad. In an article dedicated to the religious interpretation of these ballads entitled “Popular Hermeneutics: Monstrous Children in English Renaissance Broadside Ballads,” Helaine Razovksy concludes that the three widely found interpretations of such ballads were that:
the monstrous child embodies the sins of the parents (if unmarried), and constitutes a specific warning;
the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state and constitutes a general warning;
the monstrous child embodies the sins of the world (independent of the parents’ marital state) and constitutes a lesson about the practice of interpretation
This interpretation of monstrous children creates a better understanding as to why the Mayors Court and the Wardens would pay for such displays—to maintain a sense of ‘morality’ by instilling fear, parading ‘proof’ all around. The Wardens of Coventry were in charge of rewarding travelling players and by doing so “they maintained the apparently unwritten agreement among civic officials in England that the names of the plays presented should not be mentioned” (xxxiii). Evidently, civic officials, though ‘indirectly,’ knew the presentation of deformed children and willing to pay a half-crown for it.
The same religious interpretation of deformed children that Razovsky presents, might have been the reason why Mr. Bromely in Norwich was “forbidden to vse any Drumme…then onely the hangynge vpp of the picture of the said child.” The advertisement for the ‘strange child’ was like the presentation itself, one that was solely visual.
In addition, the records show that this display of deformed children was more frequent than one would think. In the same 1616 record, on June 15 (only 10 days later from the Humfry Bromely record) the Mayor’s Court listed a Mr. Abell Gary with a:
“warrant signed by his Maiestie & vnder his Maiesties signed Aucthorisinge the said Abell to shew a child…they haue leaue to shewe the same till Wednesday next at night & no longer…they are forbidden to use any Drumme…other than A Trumpet at the windows of the howse where they showe”
June 15 was a Wednesday in 1616, thus ‘till Wednesdays next’ implies that the showing of this child by Mr. Abell Gary would be for an entire week. The record itself was only 10 days after Humfry Bromely—who had shown a deformed child for two days—meaning only eight days had passed in Norwich since the crowd had seen a deformed child (or at least written down).
This frequent display emphasized that there was a pressing moral and religious matter that the Majesty himself wanted to instill in his people, or that these deformed children were sensationalized and the crowds simply loved to be entertained by seeing such ‘monstrous’ or ‘strange’ children. Subsequently, a rising demand for such performances was created. However, due to the regulated advertising noted in the Norwich records, the religious damnation associated with deformed children from the late 16th century, encountered in the broadside ballads, was still an underlying component influencing the reception of such a display.
 The court normally ‘met on Wednesdays and Saturdays in the Guildhall’ thus, simply because it was written down on the 5th of June (a Saturday) it does not mean that it is the exact day the account happened.
Records of Early English Drama, University of Toronto Press. Toronto: Coventry (1981), Ecclesiastical London (2008), Newcastle Upon Tyne (1982), and Norwich 1540-1642 (1984)
“I had already noticed the peculiarities of the typewriter, and wrote to the man himself at his business address, asking him if he would come here. As I expected, his reply was typewritten and revealed the same trivial but characteristic defects. The same post brought me a letter from Westhouse & Marbank, of Fenchurch Street, to say that the description tallied in every respect with that of the employee, James Windibank. Vila tout!” – Sherlock Holmes, “A Case of Identity”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s chemistry and print culture knowledge embedded in his iconic character Sherlock Holmes comes from his medical background and hands on experience with the publishing world. The letters exchanged between Doyle and The Strand Magazine’s editor H. G. Smith validate just how detail-oriented Arthur Conan Doyle was when it came to the ways in which his stories were represented in the paper—from selecting his favourite illustrators, to showing concerns for how his work would be perceived by his readers.
In Canada, the largest collection of Doyle’s works can be found on the fifth floor of the Toronto Reference Library –part of the Toronto Public Library system. The idea of a special Doyle collection was conceived in 1969 when a local collector, Mr. Hugh Anson-Carwright sold 200 books from his collection of Sherlock Holmes to the Toronto Library. At the same time, another Torontonian, a “S. Tupper Bigelow, [had] a splendid collection of secondary material –books, pamphlets and magazines about the Sherlock Holmes stories.” The library’s Literature Department purchased the large Doyle collection from Anson-Carwright, the Bigelow collection, and the smaller Mortlake collection. The Collection became accessible to the public in 1971 and continued to grow rapidly since. According to the collection’s current curator, the library back in 1969 could afford to make such purchases based on its allotted budget from donations made by Friends of the Library, benefactors, and/or Sherlock Holmes Specific groups—such as The Bootmakers of Toronto.
Since then, the Toronto Reference Library has purchased secondary material such as “critical, biographical and bibliographic studies” and ephemera such as tickets, brochures and advertisements related to any Sherlock Holmes play, film, exhibit, in addition to literary works that are written by other writers but inspired by Sherlock Holmes (even House M.D featuring Hugh Laurie is such a secondary work because it’s inspired by Holmes).
The Collection itself is composed of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s letters to the press, specifically to Mr. Herbert Greenhough Smith—whom he always refers to in letters as “My dear Smith.” Doyle traveled across Canada in 1914 (staying mainly in Alberta at Jasper Park) where his wife kept a handwritten journal which is also currently in the TPL Special Collection. Doyle’s notes on fauna and flora (beasts, birds, fishers) of North America, which he saw on his subsequent trips in 1922-1923 on his American Lecture Tour, his notebook on coin collecting, and notes for a speech delivered in Canada, are all part of the manuscript collection at the Reference Library. Equally important are two rough drafts for his literary works intended for publication and/or performance of The Crown Diamond (a short Sherlock Holmes play) and The Marriage of Brigadier Gerrard.
Doyle’s manuscripts have been acquired over time by the library at various auctions in the ‘70s, by means of donations, and from private collectors. In London a significant portion of Doyle’s manuscripts was sold at an auction where the work became instantly scattered—“Christie’s held the sale in London at their King Street location on 19 May 2004.” The Toronto representative at the 2004 Christie’s auction was Doug Wrigglesworth (chair of the Friends of the ACD Collection of the Toronto Public Library and contributor to The Magic Door newsletter). When it comes to a collection like Doyle’s, due to such a large fan-base worldwide, his works are purchases by extremely wealthy collectors at times where libraries can barely stand a chance in the competition. Such collectors appear on mainstream book-selling websites like AbeBooks where they sell either hardcover first editions, or manuscripts for prices that are difficulty to match with a library budget.
If you happen to visit the special library you will come across a small room with a wooden desk, a lovely carpet, and walls lined from the ceiling to the floor with books that have to do with Sherlock Holmes retellings. The rooms have decorations like busts of Holmes, chess pieces shaped like Sherlock characters, and illustrations. The special collections I mentioned above have to be requested in advance from the librarians. If you do access them make sure to follow the instructions from the librarian on how to use them: no pen, clean hands, delicately and carefully.
Letters to Sherlock Holmes
While I was at the library exploring the collection, I was told this anecdote on tour, which I would like to share with you. As it turns out, over time, people from all over the world wrote letters to Sherlock Holmes at 221b Baker Street. Little did they know that in London at this address was the location of a bank. The bank received so many letters they hired a secretary to archive these letters, and at times, respond to them. Richard Lancelyn Green compiled some of the best and funniest letters in 1985 and published Letters to Sherlock Holmes. The book is available at the public library and for sale on bookseller websites. This is one of those books that makes you laugh out loud. There are people asking Holmes for his picture, for information on mysteries in their home towns, personal questions like: “I want to buy your violin, how much does it cost?” or “what kind of tobacco do you smoke?” There are letters from children asking him for math or chemistry homework help, people who truly believe he is real, or making inquiries for meeting him.
Here’s an example from one letter:
Dear Mr. Holmes
I often wondered how you met Dr. Watson, and what was your hardest mystery, and have you ever made love to any of your clients?
Sincerely yours, Robert Lawrence (Deer Park, NY, USA)
If you want to have a good time by yourself and laugh, I recommend you find this book and read it. It can be easily done in one sitting so there’s no pressure.
I hope you enjoyed this post. I was very happy when I discovered this library two years ago, so I wanted to know as much about it as possible. If you get a chance, do stop by because the librarians there are some of the most wonderful people you will ever meet, and the room is highly atmospheric. Just being there will make you want to run home and read all the Sherlock Holmes books.
 Toronto Reference Library. Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. Toronto: Toronto Reference Library, 2015. Print.
“Their writing explores themes in our society…the plight of the marginalized, the environment, the difficulties of finding one’s self and place, the anxiety of getting it all wrong, the longing for love, the search for justice.” —Anne Urbancic
Professor Anne Urbancic (at Victoria College, University of Toronto) assigns her first-year students to explore in depth a library’s archive, write a detailed essay, and present it to the class. One of her students, Griffin Kelly, discovered in her search a series of compact discs in the Victoria University Archive at the E.J. Pratt Library. What she found were 16 interviews conducted by Earle Toppings with some of Canada’s top novelists and poets who were leading figures in the emergence of Canadian identity in literature. Kelly brought Mr. Earle Topping—an editor turned radio host who still resided in Toronto at the time—to speak to the class. Thus began the project that has now been turned into the book Literary Titans Revisited. Urbancic called upon four students, including Griffin Kelly herself, Geoff Baillie, Amy Kalbun, Vpasha Shaik, and the E.J. Pratt Library’s leading Reader Services librarians Agatha Barc, and Colin Deinhardt to collaborate on transcribing the interviews.
Urbancic notes in the introduction that:
“While Canada prides itself on its many excellent and exceptional authors and poets… they had not often appeared on the world’s literary stages until the second half of the twentieth century.”
The topic of Canadian identity in literature is still relatively new compared to its English and American fellows, and resources on Canlit authors are still being pieced together. What Urbancic created with Literary Titans Revisited is an excellent primary source for future Canlit students. Each writer’s interview with Earle Topping is preceded by a brief introduction including biographical material, a portrait, relevant and major contributions, as well as a brief analysis of their overall influence on Canadian literature and culture. The first section ‘Prose’ includes interviews with six novelists including Margaret Laurence, Morley Callaghan, Hugh Garner, Hugh MacLennan, Mordecai Richler, and Sinclair Ross. The second section ‘Poetry’ contains the remaining ten interviews—among which are Al Purdy, Dorothy Livesay, and Irving Layton—to name a few. Lastly, the seventeenth chapter contains an interview with Earle Toppings who discloses his interviewing process, the composition of his questions, and the experience of interviewing the sixteen authors. Finding how he came up with the project and the recording devices he used at the time is an inspiring reminder of how much one can do with minimal resources.
The authors shared personal anecdotes, life struggles, and their creative process. Some poets read aloud to Toppings some of their newly composed poems which are not necessarily the ones that later on appeared in print. When it comes to transcribing the poems, this collection stays true to the recordings rather than what was finalized in print. What I found particularly interesting was how at the moment Canadian writers were asked how some of their life experiences connect to their artwork, they began by discussing either a British or American author as an example of how that can happen. Morley Callaghann speaks of Conrad and Joyce, Hugh Garner of Fitzgerald, Hugh Maclennan of Hemingway, and Mordecai Richler of several authors like George Orwell, and Norman Mailer. While trying to find the Canadian voice, these Canadian authors were still using American and British identities as a crutch even in the late sixties. These interviews are a clear depiction of the search for a unique voice. Simultaneously, some keep in perspective the problematic consequences of Canadian history. Urbancic emphasizes that Al Purdy for instance:
“points out in his poignantly metaphorical verses about broken indigenous art pieces that represent the plight of Canada’s First Nations.”
This book has been published by Dundurn Press and is currently available for purchase (click here) and at your public library (click here). I would recommend this work to anyone who is interested in Canadian Literature, wants to be in the presence of Canadian literary titans, and interested in aspects of the creative process. Lastly, I would hope that all libraries will have this book in their collection. This collaborative project supplemented with the editorial work of Anne Urbancic is a new excellent primary source in Canadian scholarship.
Beowulf is the foundational text in the English literary canon. It is the only epic in Old English and has been used as a source for a large portion of our vocabulary and understanding of Old English and Anglo-Saxon England. Nobody knows for certain when the poem was originally composed in an oral tradition and by whom but the manuscript itself has been dated around the year 1000 A.D. There is a large scholarly debate as to whether the manuscript was written in the early part of the 11th century or late part of the 10th century so the compromise agreement settled on 1000. The scholars who have tried to situate the oral poem itself based on syntax, word usage, vocabulary, and references to clans, people, and events include J.R.R. Tolkien who situated the origins in the year 700, about three hundred years prior to it being set in text. Since then several scholars have verified and defended Tolkien’s stance.
The story of Beowulf contains 3182 lines and is divided into three almost equal parts, identified by the various ‘monsters’ the protagonists must face. Beowulf, a prince of the Geats, hears of his neighbour Hrothgar’s troubles. Hrothgar resides in his Kingdom of the Danes as the poem introduces itself “wē Gār-Dena” literally translated as “we, the Spear-Danes.” Hrothgar’s mead hall is terrorized by a monster named Grendel repeatedly. No man had been strong enough to face the monster and defeat him. The Geats (OE: gēatas) would be what is now South Sweden and was at the time a North Germanic Tribe, and the Danes (OE: danēs) were where Denmark is now. What is curious is that the first English epic and the first English hero is from Sweden, especially since the Viking Raids were detrimental to English monasteries, manuscripts, and culture. Although the Vikings were Nordic military and their attacks happened between the oral tradition of the poem and its immortalization in text, it is still interesting given these relations that the first English hero, is not English.
Beowulf defeats Grendel and there is much rejoicing, after which Grendel’s mother seeks revenge on Beowulf and Hrothgar for killing her son. The idea of avenging was a widely accepted concept in Anglo-Saxon England, and many argue that Grendel’s mother is not so monstrous and uncivilized, because what she seeks is quite noble by Anglo-Saxon standards. Beowulf defeats her as well after which he departs and returns to Geat-land. Years go by, and near the end of his life Beowulf must face a dragon who has been guarding a treasure-hoard. In the process of defending his people and defeating the Dragon, Beowulf dies. The poem is concluded with a funeral service. There have been parallels drawn between the funeral mentioned in Beowulf and burial ship found at Sutton Hoo in England near Woodbridge, Suffolk.
In terms of content one may be able to see parallels between Beowulf and the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, particularly the dragon Smaug who is also sitting on a treasure-hoard in The Hobbit. Tolkien was not only one of the biggest Beowulf fans he was one of the few to make it canon. According to his biographers, when Tolkien gave a lecture on Beowulf in front of a large group of scholars:
“Tolkien’s argument changed forever the landscape of Beowulf scholarship. He said what everyone wanted to hear but no one had mustered the courage to say: that Beowulf was a great poem, a joy to read, a masterpiece of mythopoeic art.”
Tolkien brought Beowulf into scholarship studies by being highly influential, and yet his greatest contribution was brining Beowulf into mainstream culture. Due to the large success of Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit, Fantasy as a genre began to grow with a formula: landscape (maps), new language, and dragons were almost always present. The Elvish language Tolkien created was heavily influenced by Old English, and so, fans would work their way backwards and find their way to Beowulf. From my personal experience, as I was sitting in an undergraduate class of Old English, I noted that a large group of the class was sitting there because of their love for Tolkien (as they mentioned it outright).
As mentioned earlier, the manuscript containing the written text of Beowulf was written around the year 1000. According the British Library
“we do know that the manuscript was produced by two scribes, working in collaboration, but whose handwriting suggests that they were trained at different times, and were significantly different in age. The first scribe copied the texts at the beginning of the book, together with the opening part of Beowulf itself. His counterpart, clearly working at the same time and place, took over the middle of a line, and brought Beowulf to its conclusion, besides adding Judith. To judge by his hand writing, the second scribe was trained late in the tenth century; the first, in contrast, writes a script more typical of the period after 1000. The most likely time for them to have collaborated in the early decades of the eleventh century, possibly during the reign of Æthelred the Unread (978-1016), when England was subjected to waves of Danish attacks.”
The script itself is insular writing and a clear result of communal collaboration. Such scribes (monks) would evidently be in a monastery. The manuscript’s place of origin is also uncertain but the poem’s language is “Late West Saxon, but preserving earlier dialectical forms.” Given that we have no other proof in writing, academics have speculated and agreed that this manuscript remained in a monkish community until King Henry VIII had the religious revolt and reform across England.
The first person to write a name within this manuscript is Laurence Nowell (d.c.1570). Kevin Kiernan argues that Nowell most likely acquired it thorough William Cecil, 1st Baron Burghley, in 1563, when Nowell entered Cecil’s household as a tutor to his ward, Edward de Vere, 17th Earl of Oxford. Nowell himself was a pioneer in Anglo-Saxon studies, and his signature on the opening leaf of this manuscript is on its opening leaf, dated 1563.
The inscription is not on the incipit page of Beowulf because the Beowulf manuscript is part of a larger collection within the “Nowell Codex.” Rather, the inscription is on the first page of the Homily on St. Christopher.
Soon after, the manuscript found its way to Sir. Robert Cotton (d. 1631). Cotton was a politician, and a collector of manuscripts, as well as printed books and other antiquities. Cotton’s method of organizing his large collection was based on various shelves having the bust of a Roman Emperor on it placing this codex under Emperor Vitellius’s. Cotton however, had a habit of binding together manuscripts and works that had unrelated origins. He pieced together the Nowell Codex to the Southwick Codex into one larger, leather-bound codex known as Cotton Vitellius A XV. In an essay titled “Thomas Smith, Humfrey Wanley, and the ‘Little-Known Country’ of the Cotton Library” Eileen Joy wrote about the cataloguing of the Cotton Library. After Cotton passed away, Reverant Thomas Smith (1638-1710) and Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726) were hired to catalogue his library. According to Joy:
“The Beowulf manuscript itself was identified by name for the first time in an exchange of letters in 1700 between George Hickes, Wanley’s assistant, and Wanley. In the letter to Wanley, Hicks responds to an apparent charge against Smith, made by Wanley, that Smith had failed to mention the Beowulf script when cataloguing Cotton MS. Vitellius A. XV. Hickes replies to Wanley ‘I can find nothing yet on Beowulph.’”
The theory that Kiernan has on the matter is that Smith failed to mention the Beowulf manuscript because of his reliance on previous catalogues, or because he had no idea how to describe it, or because it was temporarily out of the codex.
Cotton however, hired a ‘librarian’ named Richard James (d.1638) to write an index at the beginning of the two combined codices. He seemed to have dismembered the Psalter for use as binding-leaves in 1612 and sewn the two codices, Southwick, and Nowell together. In an attempt to make sense of what is in in it he pasted a parchment page at the very front with a legend/index.The final product of what was in the codex is as follows, according to the British Library:
“This manuscript contains four separate items, bound together for Sir Robert Cotton (d. 1631):(i) f 1: Psalter leaf (now removed to form London, British Library, MS Royal 13 D I*, f 37); (ii) f 3: Medieval endleaf, containing historical memoranda; (iii) ff 4–93: Augustine of Hippo, Soliloquia (ff 4r–59v: imperfect); Gospel of Nicodemus (ff 60r–86v: imperfect); Debate of Saturn and Solomon (ff 86v–93v); homily on St Quintin (f 93v: imperfect); (iv) ff 94–209: Homily on St Christopher (ff 94r–98r: imperfect); Marvels of the East (ff 98v–106v); Letter of Alexander to Aristotle (ff 107r–131v); Beowulf (ff 132r–201v); Judith (ff 202r–209v: imperfect). f 2 is a 17th-century Cottonian endleaf.”
Because Robert Cotton would ‘catalogue’ his manuscripts by means of which Roman Emperor’s bust would be above it, this manuscript, sewn together, happened to be under Emperor Vitellius. Thus it being 15th on the first A shelf, it is known and still labelled to this day as “Cotton, Vitellius MS A. XV.” Sometimes in papers when scholars refer to Beowulf alone they may bring up the Nowell Codex as its own entity and discuss it as such. The British Library however, knows it by the Vitellius name and that is how it is catalogued.
The leaf detached from a fourteenth-century English Psalter (f.1), was reunited in 1913 with other parts of the same volume, the early modern contents-page (f2.), as mentioned before was written by Cotton’s ‘librarian,’ and a late-medieval English endleaf (f3) containing historical memoranda in Latin and Anglo-Norman French.
After Cotton passed away, his son, and then grandson inherited it, but by 1702 the Beowulf-manuscript, was given to the nation and eventually moved to Ashburnham House at Westminster. This particular manuscript was there almost untouched or studied and was left of it. In time some parts deteriorated, as mentioned, it was bound in leather and the pages were parchment so it was susceptible to pests and mould. It had survived about 700 years thus far, and on October 23 of 1731 there was a massive fire where hundreds of manuscripts were severly damaged either by fire or water and thirteen of them were completely destroyed. The collection was moved to the British Museum in 1753. But the manuscript remained in its original biding, and mothering was done to stop the dry, brittle pages from disintegrating. In about 1786, about 50 years after the fire, Danish scholar Grimur Jonsson Thorkelin came to the Museum, looking for documents relating to Denmark. He made two complete copies of the manuscript (the first time ever a copy was made), one by a professional copyist and the other by himself.
Torkelin returned to Copenhagen which was then bombed in 1807 by the British (Napoleonic Wars). Thorkelin’s house burned, but the two transcripts were saved. This aided Thorkelin in producing the first printed edition of Beowulf in 1815. Over time, the original manuscript back in England, was severely deteriorating. Keeping in mind that no one was tending to it, and it had recently survived a fire. The margins and even some of the text itself gradually crumbled.
Because Thorkelin brought Beowulf to light, in 1833 there were preparations for the first (modern English translation) English edition of Beowulf so the manuscript was brought up for examination when for the first time curators noticed that the neglected manuscript was in critical condition. Luckily, Thorkelin’s transcription of the manuscript helped us piece the missing text together. In 1845, the British Museum took steps to preserve what remained. The manuscript’s restoration is owed to Sir Frederic Madden (d.1873), keeper of manuscripts at the British Museum, and Henry Gough, who rebound its leaves in 1845. They mounted each leaf on a paper frame and the manuscript was rebound. The tape still obscured some of the letters as you can see in both figures one and two above. The translation used frequently before more translations appeared was that of William Morris associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement, and A.J. Wyatt, published it in 1895 as The Tale of Beowulf, Sometime King of the Folk of the Weder Geats.
After that the text came to surface, more translations were in the making. Some would directly translated, as others tried to maintain meter, and rhythm. Others would try to make poetic renditions. In time, Tolkien and the Beowulf/Anglo-Saxon scholarship had grown into what was discussed in the introduction. The 20th century was a renaissance for Beowulf and it was immediately incorporated in the English curriculum.
In 1973 the British Library took hold of the manuscript, where it remains today. I was assured in an email from the British Library that:
“[the Beowulf Manuscript] is regularly displayed in our Sir John Ritblat Gallery: Treasures of the British Library, under controlled temperature and light conditions. The amount of time it can spend on display is carefully regulated, and it is frequently removed for periods of rest.” 
I asked the British Library if the manuscript has gone any treatments in terms of conservation, particularly in the times it is not on display. The response I received was:
“Dear Andreea, I asked the curator responsible for the Beowulf MS (Cotton MS Vitellius A XV) and he replied as follows: I’m not aware of any information we hold about the conservation of the Beowulf manuscript and this hasn’t happened since I’ve been at the BL (about 10 years).”
Post-Thorkelin bibliographers and scholars such as Sir Frederick Madden and John Josias Conybeare contributed to the production of study-worthy manuscripts of Beowulf by creating their own transcriptions and collations. Equally as significant were the many translations of Beowulf that have been surfacing. While some maintained direct translation, others like the Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney, tried to adapt it in a poetic style to resemble a folk/poetic song. Many people have translated and published their translations of Beowulf, Heaney’s being the most recently famous. Tolkien himself had translated Beowulf and his son Christopher recently published in 2016, Tolkien’s translation. It being in the public domain, and widely studied, the amount of scholarship on content, language, syntax, history, and literary analysis, as well as existing translations are countless. This phenomenon is not included in the manuscript’s history, but the content is now immortalized.
Kiernan did not digitize only the original Beowulf, he also digitized Thorkelin’s two transcriptions as well as Conybeare’s and Madden’s. The beauty of Beowulf’s digital form is that one may look at the copy of the medieval manuscript alongside Thorkelin’s transcription and interact with the digital transcription simultaneously using it as a study aid in translation for content, but also in the study of bibliography. By comparing variations in the different copies and through different lighting Kiernan observed for instance how Nowell or a post-medieval forger may have tried to ‘freshen up’ some of the writing as it is visible through the layers of ink on the palimpsest. Kiernan preserves and shows in his digitization project all the details revealing the long history mentioned above of the manuscript’s provenance—such as script, inscriptions, etc.
In addition to the facsimile-like scans of each transcript, the manuscript, and variations in writing, the website contains metadata. There are glossaries, indication of recto and verso, bright light digitizations (and in response to ultraviolet) to give the student the full bibliographic experience without missing a single detail. Kiernan’s intended audience for this work of art is not necessarily the English student as it does not include various translations of Beowulf such as
Seamus Heaney’s or even Conybeare’s. Kiernan includes only the raw materials (including access to an Old-English translation) to give the student a similar experience to interacting with the primary sources only. In the website including the digitization project, particularly in the acknowledgements section Kiernan attached a presentation titled “Electronic Beowulf Archives, 1993-1997” where Kiernan writes:
“The equipment we are using to capture the images is the Roche/Kontron ProgRes 3012 digital camera, which can scan any text, from a letter or a word to an entire page, at 2000 x 3000 pixels in 24-bit color. The resulting images at this maximum resolution are enormous, about 21-25 MB, and tax the capabilities of the biggest machines. Three or four images – three or four letters or words if that is what we are scanning – will fill up an 88 MB hard disk, and we have found that no single image of this size can be processed in real time without at least 64 MB of RAM.”
In the same spirit he marks that the backup files and images were saved on banded microfilm by the University of Kentucky in storage.
The Digitization project of the Beowulf epic is only small portion of an approximate thousand years of preservation and scholarship in relation to its existence as print culture and as text. The set-up of the digital form of Beowulf forces the contemporary student to understand the manuscript’s provenance and history in order to navigate the website. In its set up a student may view different ‘versions’ of Beowulf and collate and compare them alongside a transcription, and various guiding aids for translation from Old English. In addition there an option to see the palimpsest through bright light and in response to ultraviolet.
As a bibliographer and person keenly interested in the material and print culture of a manuscript I was convinced that the story of the Beowulf manuscript has ended in Digitization. However, in a moment of inspiration I decided to experiment by reverse google-image sourcing the incipit page of Beowulf. The first page is most famous and the first word is as contested as its dating. I’ve personally read several papers inquiring whether “Hwaet!” the first word on the incipit of Beowulf means: ‘Lo!’ ‘Listen,’ ‘Hear,’ ‘pay attention,’ or other possible interpretations. I took this first page and reversed it online. I wanted to see in what ways has the Beowulf manuscript, as it exists today has been appropriated online. My findings resulted in something else which was: readerships. By tracing the first page alone I could find what kind of people use Beowulf and for what purposes. Something that could not be traced in a pre-digital era, now can be. I found the page had been used in settling debates on what Old English looks like on websites and social media. In addition the page had been used on many blogs on literature.
There was a 2010 version of Kindle using it as a screen saver, it was used commercially in a poster sale, among blogs (some personal including headings such as ‘works which inspire me’), Buzzfeed quizzes such as “who were you in a past life.” The digital traces of Beowulf indicate a lot more than its existence as a form of ‘digital print culture’ as it also contextualizes the ways by which readers use it. The readership and usage of Beowulf give a better understanding to what people know of Beowulf, or the misconceptions around it, including traces of its digital format. Although the links to Tolkien and public academic forums were traceable in this experiment, private academic databases like OMEKA for instance do not show in a google image reverse search or other privately-set blogs/or journals. Thus, Beowulf’s digital afterlives might be even more detailed and vast than its many ownerships prior to digitization. I hope that future scholars will consider exploring the present usage of the ‘Beowulf manuscript’ in contemporary media and find the ways in which it has been used, read, or interpreted.
The reverse-image search is a pure manuscript study, whereas in terms of text there is a lot more online. The text opens up opportunity for hypertext as in: one clicks on a word and finds translations of it or a link to an explanation of what that person did, what the historical event was, and so on. One link leading to another, one page nested in another.
Beowulf Treasures in Focus. The British Library Board: London. 2009. Print. pp.1-23.