Does the Beowulf narrative have the same purpose if its digressions are skipped over? How might the poet argue for their continued inclusion?
Whether right or wrong, I tend to think there's a line between what is necessary for me and the literary community and what is necessary for a select bunch of high school kids. I should have prefaced with the fact that my particular senior level class is attended by very few students who will continue their education after high school, and those who do will most likely be in a trade school. It often takes me every bit of action in a story simply to interest them enough to get them reading. I think that there are many stories (and Beowulf is certainly one of them) that can be taught at many various levels. Does all the disgression into history make the story more powerful? Absolutely - and from my eyes it's what makes that story so important...but I think the same about such works as Animal Farm, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lord of the Flies, Huck Finn, etc. Knowledge of the history of the novel ALWAYS makes for a more well-written and powerful novel, but the story can certainly be appreciated without it - especially in a world of benchmarks and standards where the use of imagery and foreshadowing in Beowulf dwarfs the necessity of Danish history.
Maybe I'm being a weasel by trying to sit on both sides of the fence, but I do really believe that what's important in the things we teach differs from us as teachers to them as students. It's our interest in the work as a whole that allows us to teach whatever we can with as much passion as possible!
Funny that you brought up Gatsby. I slog through that every year simply because I like it but knowing full well most of the students won't get it no matter how much time we spend on it - the benefit of sitting at the big desk, I suppose.
Here's the problem with trying to ignore Beowulf, though. If you're lucky enough to get to teach Brit Lit and you're a history buff (both of which I am), you try to teach the history of the language right along with the literature. Modern English - no problem; find some Shakespeare and have at it. Middle English - no problem; there's a little something for everyone in the Canterbury Tales. Old English - hmmmmmmm - pretty limited choices. You want to cover heroic poetry so you teach Beowulf; you want to cover elegaic poetry so you teach something like The Wife's Lament. Outside of that, what do we have from A-S literature? Maybe Caedmon's Hymn if you're brave. I teach riddles using leftover A-S ones that the kids have fun with. But for a major A-S work - a piece that simply defines the time period?? Unless I'm missing something, there's only Beowulf. So in my classroom, I cut out the stuff they probably won't understand, and we read three sections of blood and guts because that's how the Saxons would have liked it!
You argue for the necessity, but then claim that the pic-within-a pic oriented 17 year olds demand action. I have had the same experience, btw, with my own thumb-happy-texting teens. But if the digressions are necessary, how do we make them see the value?
I argue, in Lesson 2, that the purpose is to fit Beowulf into the pantheon of the greats, and to distinguish him from the less-than-greats. To get students to see the point, if not fully appreciate the lines, I tell them it is like trying to appreciate the eloquent rhetoric of MLK without knowing any of the history of behind his words. Would his story be as powerful? Surely not. Is the history of the Danes as rich without the legends of those who came before Beowulf? Surely not.
I encourage you to have some aloud reading in your classes. We had the most fun acting out the scenes (all girls, btw) of the battle with Grendel and then with Grendel's mother. You are quite right in the observation that this was first an oral tale. Wear them out a bit with a few hearty battles, and they'll enjoy the breather of some diversions! :)
What texts do you feel would better suit your particular "audience," or do you hope there might be a single one or two or three who will be the gretest benefactors, whether the rest get anything from it or not?
My colleagues and I have this argument quite a bit. Yes, I think that many students may get more out of Beowulf in college than high school. But I don't think we should stop teaching it. I have no problem with the administration saying "its this level, teach it." Literature is accessible to everyone, no matter the level. What changes is how you teach it. With an honors class, I delve into the history of the region and the changes in language. With a low level class, we talk briefly about time period and then dive into the story, act it out, tear the characters to pieces, and chat about themes.
My point is that the more literature from the broader range of time periods and culture that we can expose kids to, the better.
Most digressions in Beowulf are absolutely necessary. One of the needed elements of a literary epic is the inclusion of societal values. For the Anglo-Saxons, those values are bravery, boasting, obligation, loyalty, and generosity. When reading through the cantos that tend to wander a bit, you'll find strong elements of those values, particularily boasting!
I'd also like to think that since this poem started as an oral narrative, the addition of that extra stuff would have made for an excuse to drag the story out and keep the family sitting by the fire for a little bit longer. The storyteller had to create some hype in order to deliver his hero.
I have a great text that mercifully removes much of that extra stuff in our British Lit book. It's tough enough to get 17-18 year olds to buy into my excitement for a poem (!!) without them seeing the daunting length.
Maybe it's not a good idea to introduce the work so young. I've felt this about many works I've taught. I gleaned much more from Beowulf in grad school than hs. (One of the major works I think students don't have the maturity to undersand is "The Great Gatsby," for example, even if they can appreciate the writing and do have a passionate teacher, like you.)
I also feel that too many teachers are forced to teach what they have a severe lack of knowledge or passion about. "It's this level, teach it," is the apporach I've encountered. How do you feel about it? What texts do you feel would better suit your particular "audience," or do you hope there might be a single one or two or three who will be the gretest benefactors, whether the rest get anything from it or not?
Me, too--history buff, that is. Although I teach English and French, my specialty area in college and grad school was medieval and Old English. But I love to learn and study about most ancient civilizations. My students think I'm weird because I believe that the most intelligent people who ever lived were the "cave men." Let's face it: Who could look at a wad of cotton growing on a plant and think, "Hmm, if I stretch that out far enough, I can make some threads, and if I weave them together, I can make some clothes"???? Or how did they figure out that if they got a fire hot enough, they could melt certain rocks, form them into certain shapes, and when they cooled they'd have tools and weapons???
How about The Seafarer? It's not as exciting as Beowulf--no blood and guts scenes--but it does help to paint a picture of how the A-S lived, believed, and morphed into the Medieval period.
I love the A-S, Medieval, and Renaissance periods. They are my three favorite eras to teach...but then, I'm a history buff as well.