Direct quotations and line references in the following teaching approaches come from Seamus Heaney’s (2000) translation of Beowulf.
Investigating Beowulf: The eponymous protagonist of Beowulf offers readers a central mystery. He is immediately recognizable as a classical hero, and yet he is also an enigma. In a world of mortal humans, he is the supernatural exception: a man with the strength of thirty men. In a world of human fallibility, he is seemingly unerring, always prepared to do the right thing. In a world of royal heredity, he succeeds in rising to the rank of king, despite his middling bloodline. In world of patrilineage, he marries no queen and fathers no children. In a world of legend-making, he tells his own stories, time and again. At the heart of the poem stands a simple but challenging question: Who is Beowulf?
- For discussion: Which traits and qualities most centrally define Beowulf? Do those traits change? Which values does he hold in the highest esteem? Does he behave according to those values?
- For discussion: How is Beowulf described by others? How does Hrothgar view Beowulf? How does Unferth view him? How does Hygelac view him—both before and after the expedition?
- For discussion: Examine Beowulf’s orations beginning at lines 530, 956, and 2000. How does Beowulf describe himself and his actions? Does he speak accurately with regards to himself?
- For discussion: Read Beowulf’s final remarks (lines 2794–2816). What do his parting words reveal about his character and concerns? What matters most to Beowulf when he is faced with death’s finality?
- For discussion: What do you make of Beowulf’s supernatural abilities? Why did the poet place a superhuman protagonist among ordinary humans? What parallels do you see between Beowulf and the superheroes popular in contemporary culture? What differences do you see?
Meeting the Monsters: Without its unforgettable beasts, Beowulf would be an entirely different—and perhaps lesser—poem. Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon each offer a fresh challenge to Beowulf, testing his abilities in new ways. As a class, engage in a study of the three monsters. Consider dividing the class into three groups; assign the three monsters to the three groups. Each group is responsible for discussing and understanding its assigned monster. Groups are encouraged to use the following discussion questions to spark conversation. Once the groups have convened, initiate a whole-class discussion on the three monsters, with each group sharing its expert insights. The discussion questions below are to be aimed at each of the three monsters.
- For discussion: How is the monster described? Which words and phrases convey its movements and actions? Which kennings and epithets characterize it? Find examples from the text.
- For discussion: Which needs and desires mobilize the monster? To what extent are these needs and desires recognizable to humans? How do the monster’s aims place it at odds with humans?
- For discussion: Does the text convey a sense of the monster’s interior experience? Are the thoughts and feelings of the monster made evident?
- For discussion: Does this supernatural being represent or correspond with anything in the real world? What symbolic or metaphorical roles might the monster play?
Unlocking the Word-Hoard: For all the intricacies of its stories and characters, Beowulf is at its core a work of poetry—and a beautiful one at that. As a class, focus on the poetics of Beowulf. An excellent place to begin is to examine its verse structure. The lines advance in a continuous flow, unbroken by stanzas, although there are occasional indents to mark turning points. Unlike modern verse, the lines are formally bounded by alliteration rather than rhyme. Each line typically contains anywhere from two to four alliterative words, most of which fall on stressed syllables. Two more key poetic devices to examine are kennings and epithets. Both devices combine two or three words into a phrase...
(The entire section is 1,962 words.)