Teaching Approaches

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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 that metaphorically points to a figure or object in the poem. Kennings replace nouns; examples include “word-hoard” (vocabulary), “heaven’s candle” (the sun), “bone-house” (skeleton), and “corpse-maker” (Grendel). Epithets serve as adjectives that emphasize a particular quality of an object or person; examples include “God-cursed brute,” “sky-borne foe,” “keen-edged sword,” and “high-born king.” Note: Beowulf’s kennings and epithets will differ across translations; each translator makes choices about which kennings and epithets to carry over into modern English and how to reconstruct them. 

  • For discussion: What are the purposes of alliteration? How does alliteration draw meaningful connections between words? How does alliteration make lines more memorable? Why might memorability matter? How does alliteration produce pleasure? 
  • For discussion: Write your own alliterative phrases. Start with a pair of words that start with the same letter. Then expand to a longer phrase with three alliterative words. Write a complete sentence with at least four alliterative words. Describe the process of composing through alliteration; did you notice anything new about the words you chose? 
  • For discussion: Open Beowulf and find two more kennings and two more epithets. What is the effect of these devices? What do they reveal about the objects and characters in question? What role do they serve in the poem? 
  • For discussion: Choose an object and write a kenning to describe it; then, write an epithet for it. Next, choose a person you know and do the same. For both the object and person, how did you choose particular details to represent the whole? What, if anything, did you learn from this exercise? 

Additional Discussion Questions: 

  • Before his battle with the dragon, Beowulf delivers a cliff-top oration in which he sums up his life and contemplates his fate (lines 2417–2515). Which stories does Beowulf choose to tell? Why? What is his personal relationship with fate (or “wyrd” in Anglo- Saxon)? 
  • Who is the narrator of Beowulf? Does the narrator have an identity in the world of the poem? Is the narrator reliable or unreliable? How does he or she know the events of the poem? Does the narrator ever use personal pronouns? (Hint: For insight into the last two questions, read the passage beginning at line 2163; look for the repeated phrase “Hyrde ic….”) 

Tricky Issues to Address While Teaching

The Style and Diction Are Unfamiliar: Beowulf is written in Old English, a predecessor of contemporary English so distant and distinct that it is generally only read by scholars. Thus, most readers encounter Beowulf in a translated version. Even translations carry over many of the unique stylistic touches and words from the original text, so many readers will find the poem formally daunting. 

  • What to do: Choose a translation well suited to your students’ needs. For advanced students interested in poetry, Seamus Heaney’s translation is straightforward and sonorous. Heaney constructs the translation almost entirely of words with Saxon roots, giving the text an authentic, tough tone. For students more interested in the poem’s story than its language, J.R.R. Tolkien’s translation may serve well. The translation is elegant but more prose-like, making it more accessible to students unused to reading verse in long stretches. For particularly adept students, working with multiple translations at once will yield the deepest study of the poem. 
  • What to do: Discuss the poem’s vocabulary. Each section of the poem is likely to contain a small word-hoard’s worth of new diction. Encourage students to make lists of unfamiliar words; in class, go over the definitions of the most difficult ones. 

The Poem Contains Vivid Violence: Beowulf is bloody, and there’s no way around that fact. While different translations render the gore in varying degrees of vividness, the violence is nonetheless great and pervasive. 

  • What to do: Choose a translation that handles the violence in language you deem suitable for your students. You may have to sample several before finding the right match. 
  • What to do: Discuss the violence from a critical perspective. Rather than unthinkingly experiencing the poem’s violence, encourage the class to ask questions about it. Some fruitful questions are: What do the poem’s depictions of violence say about the cultures from which the work emerged? To what extent is violence praised? To what extent is it lamented? 
  • What to do: Reserve the poem for more mature students. Beowulf is a grim, violent poem; if your students are not prepared to face its more disturbing elements, they would be better off refraining from reading it. 

The Poem Contains Troubling Depictions of Women: Your students may be alarmed to see the dynamics between men and women in Beowulf. The women of the Danish and Geatish courts tend to occupy the sidelines of the action, either spurring men on to dangerous deeds or bringing peace between male rivalries. Contemporary critics also examine how Grendel’s mother is portrayed through translation; often she is depicted in exceptionally ghastly terms. Students may be distressed to find that the female contingent of characters are sidelined or demonized. 

  • What to do: Examine the text critically, questioning the cultural values that gave rise to such depictions of women. Discuss, too, the class structures of the Scandinavian societies in the poem. How do those societies differ from contemporary societies in term of gender dynamics? 
  • What to do: Translate certain passages from the text as a class. In particular, try translating lines 1518 and 1519, which depict Grendel’s mother. Look at how those lines have been commonly translated in relation to the original words. You and your class may be surprised by what you find. 

Alternative Approaches to Teaching Beowulf

Discuss Whether Beowulf Is a Pagan or Christian Poem: Scholars have long debated about where the line between paganism and Christianity falls in Beowulf. To some, the poem is essentially a Christian narrative concerned with the characters’ relationship to the Christian God and to Christian values. By this reading, the pagan characters merely serve as convenient figures to express the central Christian themes. To other scholars, the poem is essentially a pagan story and most likely predates the arrival of Christianity to England. By this reading, the Christian elements of the story—particularly the references to God— represent extraneous flourishes, like illuminations on a monastic manuscript. As a class, investigate where the line falls between these two traditions. Using examples from the text, examine the moments in which pagan values come to the fore and those in which Christian ideals emerge. For context, it may help to refer to the Paganism and Early Christianity section of this guide (History of the Text). Some questions that may prove fruitful for discussion: 

  • Are some characters particularly Christian? Are some characters particularly pagan? 
  • Do the characters ever acknowledge a tension between spiritual traditions, or do those tensions exist outside their purview? 
  • Is the spiritual backdrop of the story centrally important to the poem? 
  • Are there spiritual or religious elements in the poem that are ambiguous with regards to the tradition they belong to? 

Look at Beowulf as an Elegy: Beowulf is often referred to as an “elegy,” or a poem of lamentation, mourning, and grief. The elegy is a widespread form in the canon of Anglo- Saxon poetry. Consider Beowulf as an elegy. The following questions may be useful in your discussion: 

  • In what ways does it fulfill the definition of the elegiac form? Are there ways in which it defies the form? 
  • Where do elegies appear within the story of Beowulf
  • At the end of the poem, is Beowulf elegized because he dies, or does he die because the poem is an elegy? 
  • Why do humans compose elegies? 
  • Can you think of other examples of elegies in literary and artistic history? 

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