What a relief that Jonathan Bate's lively entrée to EngLit does not kick off with Beowulf. Instead, we have Mr Toad's estate agent-like description of Toad Hall: "Up-to-date sanitation. Five minutes from church, post-office and golf links." This is because "Once Upon a Time", first of the essays in which Bate tackles his huge topic, explores the works where most people start.
Beowulf briefly crops up but even here Bate defuses tedium by relating Dr Johnson's suspicions about a fake antique epic. "Could any man today write such poetry?" a believer asked. "Yes," replied Johnson. "Many men. Many women. And many children." While exploring towering works, Bate reminds us that literature can also be terrific fun.