Five Reasons for Teaching Beowulf
I can still remember the first time I heard someone read Old English aloud. The words had a hypnotic sound to them like a druid casting a spell. Of course, this druid was Dr. Ellis, my Hawaiian-shirt-wearing English professor. I couldn’t believe that what I was hearing was actually English or at least “pre-English.” I later learned that Dr. Ellis was so knowledgeable in linguistics that the Merriam-Webster folks (of dictionary fame) would send him whole sections of the dictionary to double-check for accuracy. Throughout that semester Dr. Ellis taught us how to conjugate Old English verbs and peppered our lessons with fun facts like how gossip, a negative term in modern English, used to be in Old English godsib, a positive term for confidential information passed between a godparent and a godson. Needless to say, Old English held my interest.
When I became an English teacher myself, I knew that I had to teach my students a bit of Old English—just so they could experience the same fascination I had for it. I soon learned I was not Dr. Ellis, but I was able to cobble together a few resources that gave my students a taste of Old English. This only primed them to experience the world of Beowulf, a fascinatingly brutal world of bearded warriors, mead halls, monsters, and dragons. So here are my five reasons to teach Beowulf.
- Beowulf helps teach students about Old English and the development of the English language. As I mentioned in the introduction, teaching students a little bit of Old English really opens their eyes to how languages develop. Admittedly, I do not spend many days teaching Old English (at the most two), but these lessons always provoke a reaction from my students. Playing an audio recording of someone speaking lines from Beowulf or “The Lord’s Prayer” in Old English makes them first laugh, but then we look at the words and analyze how our language developed from these beginnings. Another assignment they enjoy is when I give them a few everyday phrases in Old English and then ask them to have a short conversation. These activities immerse the students in the history and fun of learning an ancient culture. For free copies of the Beowulf Old English assignments I use, click here.
- Beowulf teaches about heroes. Heroes are fun to study in general, but Beowulf himself gives us the ultimate Anglo-Saxon. Heroes are symbols of their culture. By analyzing Beowulf’s character, we can see what the Anglo-Saxons prized in a human being. Many of Beowulf’s qualities are ones we still prize, but others—like his braggy nature—have gone by the wayside (or in most circles at least). After we have analyzed what Beowulf says about his own culture, we discuss what American heroes have to say about our culture. It’s a thought-provoking and important discussion.
- Beowulf asks questions about good and evil. Just as a society shapes its heroes, it also shapes its monsters. Grendel is everything that his society despises—a loner, a murderer, a physically repugnant descendant of Cain. All of these qualities make him an “other” to the Anglo-Saxons; however, the modern reader can ask, “Is Grendel really as bad as they make him out to be?” Discussing the alternate angle behind John Gardner’s Grendel gets students to think about whether all monsters are evil or just misunderstood. This type of thinking is particularly useful later in the year when we run into Frankenstein’s monster, who is misunderstood, and Count Dracula, who is pure evil.
- Shed some grief-drops over Anglo-Saxon culture before you head over the sea-road. Beowulf is peppered with kennings, hyphenated nouns which describe themselves, like “grief-drops” and “sea-road.” My class, in addition to reading the poem in its original form, reads a series of three script-stories, which dramatizes the story and gives the students a solid understanding of the poem’s plot. Whenever they read these kennings out loud, they chuckle at first, but they soon get the feel for the Anglo-Saxon style. (Later in the year, some students will even joke about shedding “grief-drops.”) To further develop a deeper understanding of Anglo-Saxon culture, we also read some riddles. Anglo-Saxons loved riddles. Then the students try their hand at writing their own. It’s great fun as we engage in our own Hobbit-style riddle-off. These activities, all supplements to the actual poem, help develop a deeper appreciation of the text. To see my riddle assignment, click here. To see the Beowulf Reader’s Theater script-stories we use, click here.
- Students can spot the connections to The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings in J.R.R. Tolkien was first and foremost a linguist and scholar, a professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford. If it had not been for his championing of Beowulf as a great work of art, we might not be teaching it to students at all. It was he who discussed its literary merits in a famous essay called “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” which renewed and refocused interest in the poem as a hero epic. As for his own great epic, The Lord of the Rings, and its predecessor, The Hobbit, Tolkien drew inspiration from the Anglo-Saxon world as well. Grendel and Gollum share similarities, Bilbo and Gollum engage in a contest of riddles, and then there is that dragon named Smaug who cannot stand a stolen cup.
I hope you have success teaching Beowulf to your own students. To see the Beowulf script-stories for sale on this site, click here. There is even a free sample available with the other Beowulf resources.