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The Story of Beowulf, by Strafford Riggs [1933], at


    JUST as Conrad's character Singleton, in The Nigger of the Narcissus, sat in the fo'c'sle reading, so, on board the Gulf of Akaba, off Cape Verde, I saw Old Man Seastream with a tattered copy of Beowulf, which, by some strange chance, had been sent down to the ship as suitable reading for sailors. Off the lonely island of Fernando Naronha, Seastream and I fell into talk just after the third mate had twitted the sailor for reading "them kindergarten fairy tales."

  Seastream was in a mood of quiet defensiveness. "There isn't," he said, "much more than a story of how the hero killed Grendel, then Grendel's mother, which was more frightful, then the fiery dragon with only one true man to help. But the tale is a fine one if you get the spirit of it; and it gets me. That's what it does--gets me."

    Strange that I should look back over crowded years to remember that remark. Seastream, unschooled, not only brought me to Beowulf but with his unconsidered words made me see something that should be obvious to all of us, though it is not. It is that what we would see introduced into the life of a nation must be first introduced into the schools, or in other ways carried into the world of youth.

    History tells us that the Beowulf epic was forgotten for nigh upon a thousand years and might have been irrevocably lost had not a solitary manuscript been discovered. If some grain of superstition be allowed us, I should hold that among the high gods sits one encharged with the care of literary treasures, so that nothing is utterly lost, but merely forgotten by men because purposely hidden until the proper time arrives when the world is ready to receive, just as the Rosetta Stone, and the tale of Hasisdra, and the monoliths at Tiahuanaca, and the litany scratched on the bricks at Ur were hidden; for had they been found earlier, vandal hands might have marred them. Carrying this belief down to to-day, I like to think that in these days when knighthood is at low ebb, and when the desire for acquisition looms large in the thoughts of men, someone in that workaday hive of New York chanced to hear a whispered word of that guardian god of literature, so bethought himself, or herself, that a tale of heroism, of faith in self, of courage, of patience, of forbearance might find readers in a world too much involved in trivialities. For it certainly seems marvelous to me that this book should appear at this moment, quite as marvelous as that it appeared out of the dark in the nineteenth century when, as now, waves upon waves of broken hopes and desperate efforts dashed against the ship of state, dangerously threatening. For the marvel of that appearance I am grateful as the sailor is grateful for the light. That gratitude is touched with high happiness because the someone who thought to bring a new Beowulf into the world should have found, as illustrator, one whose soul seems "sticht to the starres," whose discernment is rare, who has dared in originality, whose enthusiasm is contagious.


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