Introduction

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Last Updated on September 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

So you’re going to teach Beowulf. Whether it’s your first or hundredth time, Beowulf has been a mainstay of English classrooms for generations. While it has its challenges—Old English diction, graphic violence, troubling depictions of women—teaching this text to your class will be rewarding for you and your students. Studying Beowulf will give them unique insight into the origins of English-language literature, the transition from paganism to Christianity in northern Europe, and literary touchstones such as the hero, the tragedy, and the elegy. This guide highlights some of the most salient aspects of the text before you begin teaching.

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Facts at a Glance

  • Publication Date: 8th century CE
  • Recommended Grade Level: 11th and up
  • Approximate Word Count: 17,500 (translations may vary)
  • Author: Unknown
  • Country of Origin: Britain
  • Genre: Epic Poem
  • Literary Period: Medieval
  • Conflict: Person vs. Supernatural, Person vs. Nature, Person vs. Person
  • Narration: Third-Person
  • Setting: Denmark and Geatland, Middle Ages
  • Dominant Literary Devices: Alliterative Verse, Kenning, Epithet
  • Tone: Heroic, Elegiac, Incantatory


Texts That Go Well With Beowulf

Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” (1936) by J.R.R. Tolkien is a critical essay about Beowulf. Tolkien was a scholar of Old English who had tried his hand at a translation of Beowulf in the 1920s, though it was never published during his life. In the essay, Tolkien attempts to change the critical conversation about Beowulf, viewing the poem less as a historical document than as a literary masterpiece brimming with aesthetic riches. 

“Cædmon’s Hymn” (658-680 CE) is often considered the earliest piece of Old English literature. It was composed by an illiterate cow-herder named Cædmon who, inspired by the Christian God, composed a poem of divine worship. Like Beowulf, the poem reflects the tension between Paganism and early Christianity in medieval northern Europe. 

Grendel (1971) by John Gardner is a modern novelistic take on Beowulf, written from the perspective of Grendel. It covers the opening sections of the epic, describing Grendel’s origins and his years of terrorizing Heorot, and ends with his confrontation with Beowulf. Gardner’s Grendel is consumed by a pessimistic, even nihilistic, vision of life. He casts a condescending gaze on the fictions the desperate Danish men tell themselves to make sense of a meaningless universe. 

The Mere Wife (2018) by Maria Davhana Headley is a modern retelling of the Beowulf story. It takes place in the present-day United States in and around a suburban gated community known as “Herot Hall.” The wealthy suburbanites stand in for the Danes, while 7-year-old Gren and his war-veteran mother, Dana Mills, stand in for Grendel and his mother. Headley uses the Beowulf story as a framework to explore issues of class and race in contemporary American culture. 

“The Seafarer” and “The Wanderer” are Old English narrative poems composed by unknown poets at unknown dates during the early Christian era in England. Both poems are compiled in the Exeter Book, a collection of Anglo-Saxon poetry published in 975 CE. Both poems are first-person meditations spoken by solitary older men who reflect on their pasts, examine the suffering of their lives, and ultimately find salvation through a steadfast connection to God.

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Key Plot Points