Beowulf surfs on to Internet

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The Independent Online
Beowulf - ancient Norseman, dragon slayer and hero of one of Britain's oldest epic poems - has found fame once more, on the information super-highway Despite a gap of more than a thousand years since bards first performed his Old English poem in smoky feasting halls, the story is now being told again on the Internet, through computer imagery created by the British Library.

Staff have spent nearly a year digitally photographing the only surviving manuscript of the 70-page saga in colour so fine details can be magnified and read more clearly on a computer screen. Even tiny hair follicles puncturing the animal skin it was originally written on are now visible.

By creating back-lit and ultra-violet images, the staff have discovered previously hidden letters which were obscured when the delicate pages were mounted on stiff paper during preservation work in the mid-1800s.

Primitive corrections made as long ago as the 8th century have also been highlighted.

Andrew Prescott, a medieval historian who has worked closely with the Electronic Beowulf project, said: "To have it in colour and to be able to manipulate it as we can now...that's when it starts to become very useful. It is as if the bard is now the computer screen telling the same story to people but via technology."

He added: "You can imagine a bard reciting it to the warriors in the hall as they listened closely while drinking their mead at the end of the day, but the reality may have been a bit more like Asterix, where the bard is the one they tried to shut up every time he starts singing."

The legend, composed by an anonymous poet, dates back to 680 AD and is now hailed as the first major poem written in a European vernacular.

It tells of three epic clashes between Beowulf (a tribal prince), the ogre Grendel, its even more terrifying mother and a particularly fierce, fire-spitting dragon.