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4

PREFACE SOMETHING ABOUT THE POEM BEOWULF

The story of Beowulf, the Strong Man and the Helper of Mankind,
comes from pretty far away and pretty long ago. It was a story that
grew up across the seas in the fjords of Western Scandinavia and
the marshy coasts and low plains of Denmark, in the times when
the chiefs and their retainers in their halls and the farmer-folk in
their homesteads, during the long winter evenings of the north,
used to enjoy make-believe and song of the harp. It was really a
collection of stories, some of them historical traditions of Viking
voyages and real battles, but most of them stories invented by the
folk-imagination, like Jack the Giant Killer and other fairy stories
about strange and tremendous adventures. But they were invented
in such a lively manner that doubtless both the tellers and the
listeners came to half-believe them true-just as every child half-
believes the story of Jack the Giant Killer to be true.

And they were told over many times by many different
storytellers; and presumably almost every new story-teller added
something new and interesting of his own invention. The same
thing happens around the fires and in the shacks of our own
lumber-camps, when the lumber-jacks tell year after year about a
gigantic strong man, like Beowulf, whom they call Paul Bunyan.
And when some of these folks from Scandinavia and from
Denmark and from the flat country on the coast south of Denmark
sailed in their crowded boats to the island of Britain,
they brought along these stories-along with their swords and
shields and cattle and language and wooden images of their gods.
And the stories continued to grow in the new island home.

Then sometime about seven hundred and fifty, a period of some
prosperity and culture, when the descendants of these old
Germanic invaders and settlers had established walled towns and
green homesteads, and built bridges and churches and monasteries
and schools, some nameless poet took these stories (perhaps
preserved in ballads) and made them into a long, stirring poem. He
was not a heathen, unlettered man; but a man who knew the Bible
and perhaps some Latin books like Vergil. Yet he loved the old
stories of the days when his ancestors were heathen and ignorant
of books, and he loved them so much and he told them so well that
he ought to have left out the Bible references and the Christian
piety.

And the poet of the Beowulf-stories was a man rather clever in
putting different stories together as one larger story, clever too in
telling about one thing in a way to make us all ears to hear about
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